Ah, Gehenna: Rey Didn’t Start The Fire

In my post on Gehenna (part of my Hellish Week) I made a statement that I had read in several places and which needs to be retracted because it is historical dubious. Here is what I said:

What they forget to mention is that the site wasn’t merely for garbage; it was a place for burning. The place wasn’t only a dump, it was a crematorium. The bodies of dead criminals were thrown and consumed there.

And you’ll find this elsewhere. For example, Hagner (WBC) states (117):

The name Gehenna is from the Aramaic words גֵּי חִנָּם, gê ḥinnām, for the “valley of Hinnom” (cf. Josh 15:8; 18:16), a despised place to the southwest of Jerusalem where at one time human sacrifices were offered to the god Molech (cf. 2 Kgs 23:10; Jer 7:31) and where in later times the city’s refuse was burned. The constant burning there made the valley a particularly suitable metaphor for eternal punishment

Or in the NET it reads:

This was the valley along the south side of Jerusalem. In OT times it was used for human sacrifices to the pagan god Molech (cf. Jer 7:31; 19:5–6; 32:35), and it came to be used as a place where human excrement and rubbish were disposed of and burned.

And the Analytical Lexicon of the New Testament’s article on Gehenna states that it is

…literally valley of Hinnom, a ravine south of Jerusalem where fires were kept burning to consume the dead bodies of animals, criminals, and refuse; figuratively in the Gospels and James for hell, a fiery place of eternal punishment for the ungodly dead

The problem is that this seems to lack historical evidence. From a footnote (Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (Jan.-Mar. 1998) 324-37) conveniently found here:

The traditional explanation that a burning rubbish heap in the Valley of Hinnom
south of Jerusalem gave rise to the idea of a fiery Gehenna of judgment is attributed to
Rabbi David Kimhi’s commentary on Psalm 27:13 (ca. A.D. 1200). He maintained that
in this loathsome valley fires were kept burning perpetually to consume the filth and
cadavers thrown into it. However, Strack and Billerbeck state that there is neither
archeological nor literary evidence in support of this claim, in either the earlier intertestamental or the later rabbinic sources (Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud and Midrasch, 5 vols. [Munich: Beck,1922-56], 4:2:1030).

I quickly consulted more of my sources for example Davies & Allison (ICC, p515):

The standard view, namely, that the valley was where the city’s garbage was incinerated and that the constantly rising smoke and smell of corruption conjured up the fiery torments of the damned, is without ancient support, although it could be correct.

…but I could find only a few that committed to saying the same thing. They almost all say that it is a place of continually burning garbage, some (like the dictionary article above) add the cadavers.

Keith Keyser brought this all to my attention (via email) by linking to an article over at the Bible Places blog which went back to a post by McBride.

Now, this wasn’t a fundamental point to my post (that the place had burning garbage and corpses) since I based most of my conclusions based on what Christ was saying about Gehenna. So all my previous points, I think, still stand: Gehenna is a bad place that is to be shunned. If this corpse and garbage burning is non-historical then I actually think it makes Jesus’ usage all the harder to refute—but we don’t know, so I retract it for honesty’s sake. It sounds pretty good, it might very well be true, but as of right now, based on my scanning, we only have evidence from some twelve hundred years later.

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A Hellish Week

This will serve as the series home for my posts on Hell.

  1. Philosophical Responses to the Denial of Hell (Hell? Oh!)
  2. An examination of Sheol in the Old Testament (What the Sheol?)
  3. An examination of Gehenna, Hades (etc.) in the New Testament (Get the Gehenna Out of Here?)
  4. A theological response to Christian deniers of the doctrine of Hell (Hell?  No?)
  5. Several broad theological reasons we should hold to the doctrine of Hell (Hell? Yeah.)
  6. Unanswered questions that I don’t think should force us to lose this doctrine. (What About Hell I Don’t Know)

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Hell? Yeah.

I’ve touched on lots of Scripture (in both Testaments) but I needed to bring up some broad theological points. I didn’t want to make this a book, I just wanted to put up a few posts that pointed out that the Scriptures are fraught with the doctrine of hell and Christians should believe it. This second to last post is to affirm that the answer to the question “Do you seriously believe in hell?” should not be no, but yes (for all the reasons I’ve already stated but also) because:

God really is saving people from Something. It’s strange to posit that God’s salvation is merely a matter of everyone Going to be with Him. If annihilation was true, then one can still argue that God is saving people from Something but with the preponderance of texts, and some of the further reasons I give in this post, that solution is just as wrong as universalism.

God is love. Yes God is sovereign. Yes, he’s not willing that any should perish. But people are still going there because they have rejected God. This isn’t merely the ruin of poor choices. This is people in active rebellion against a loving God.  Like CS Lewis, I like to think that Hell is barred from the inside.

God is consistent. Folk might also want to say is that this doctrine is inconsistent with a loving God who has been revealed by Christ. I encourage these folk to read the Gospel accounts again to see Christ on his own terms. Clearing a temple with a whip. Calling people white-washed tombs and vipers. I encourage reading of the Revelation of Christ to see a Christ who is stamping his enemies down. As CS Lewis said in the Chronicles of Narnia about the gentle, loving, and kind Aslan: he is not a tame lion. He is powerful. He acts how he wants. You take him on his own terms. And one must be careful with telling him he must act a certain way.

Justice Demands It. Folk might raise a charge that we wouldn’t punish our own children forever—why would God do worse? Look, the concept that is more predominant throughout the entire book of Psalms is the idea of justice. The righting of scales. The setting things back in order. The fact is that God stands ultimately against all sin. If you get rid of hell, and the eternality of judgment, you wind up with disbarred justice.

God is right. The people who haven’t heard of Christ have already rejected God. They don’t only reject him upon hearing the Gospel. They reject the very revelation of God wherever they are. Romans 1 gives a long explanation of people who have been exposed to God’s illumination and who reject it forthwith experiencing God’s wrath in the present. This is why Christ can say that the folk who don’t believe him are condemned already (John 3:18).

Scripture is fraught with the Seriousness. Scripture is fraught with the fact that there is a condemnation in the now and the hereafter. Saying things like Heaven and Hell are here on earth reaching outwards is fine, but that shouldn’t blur the line that there is in fact a Heaven and a Hell—even if this series didn’t bother drawing out what we hear about Heaven. The book of Proverbs goes as far as having a person beat a fool with a rod so as to save him from Sheol and that wasn’t even with all the information that Christ decided to reveal.

Jesus took it seriously. Jesus  took the place seriously and painted some graphic images of people sawing off their arms to ensure that they don’t head there.  If he thought it was this serious, so should those who follow him.

God Knows what He’s talking About. Folk might want to say is that Scripture and Christ are both wrong on this point. I don’t know how someone would go about proving that since we don’t have many hell-travelers coming back and letting us know that “it was all a mess of bunk. Not even there.”

We take God on His terms. I didn’t go over the numerous texts that establish that God is both holy and loving but they’re there. How we put those things together in our mind can raise some questions, but the fact is that Scripture presents it as fact. We shouldn’t shy away from that. The same God that was concerned with how the Egyptians were treating Hebrew children is the God who wound up pouring plague after plague on the Egyptians. We can’t just throw out the Biblical Concept of God into the purifying flames of reason and pull out whatever is right in our own eyes and call it “The God that Saved Us.”

So when asked “Do you seriously believe a loving God, the Christian God, the God of the Bible, will send people to Hell? The answer will have to be: unabashedly Yes.

In the next (and last) post, I’ll post some questions and misgivings that I think are justified but shouldn’t detract from preaching the doctrine of hell.

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Hell? No?

At this point, naysayers are quick to say that I’m building a theology off a metaphor. He was using the term Gehenna—which is the burning the trash heap outside of Jerusalem; he was not using the term Sheol. To which the response is, obviously longer in the last post that Christ added details that had nothing to do with Gehenna and usually with the point that this was something to be avoided because of where it resided and its duration. Plus, Christ was using a metaphor that was already being used by Isaiah 30:33. And one must be careful. The word Hades winds up being used in the New Testament (for example, in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man) and the word Sheol in the LXX is translated to that word. Does that mean that Abraham’s Bosom is in Hades? Like I said in the post on Sheol, the word has a semantic range but it definitely has a negative part and a positive part. The fact that Christ gives further details helps us understand what is going on, even if the details are sparse.

The Naysayers would point out that Isaiah was using a metaphor too: for a funeral pyre. The wicked king was dead and was about to be burned. But the point of that passage is not only that the king is dead but that the pyre is prepared by the Lord. Each time that fire comes out from the Lord in Scripture it is to consume. Sometimes it’s to consume an offering. But the rest of the times it is a sign of divine judgment (1 Kgs 18:38). The Lord is deciding something. So why is the Lord setting fire to a lifeless corpse? If the man is dead, hasn’t the point been made? Why is this pyre long prepared? Why does the Lord’s breath come out to ignite it? Simply saying it’s a degrading death doesn’t do justice to what’s going on: God is doing something that he prepared before to a wicked person who deserved it—after they are dead.

Skipping from that the naysayer would point out that my use of Revelation 20 ignores the fact that death, hell and Satan were all thrown into the lake of fire: the second death. This indicates that hell isn’t eternal but that it ends when consumed by the Lake of Fire and the second death. I can’t make that claim. The preponderance of passages point to hell being eternal, the smoke of the judgment of God going up before him as an eternal testimonial, as the duration being unending (Rev 14:11)—then we get a picture of something else happening. There’s no indication that this is an ending to hell. For all we know it’s a change of location pushing things further away so that they don’t see the saints in glory. We don’t know. But what we can’t say is because it happens it automatically means hell is destroyed.

The Nay-Hellsayers would point out that God is not willing that any will perish and that he offers a chance to repent after death. Here they might cite 1 Peter 3:18-20 or 1 Peter 4:6 where Christ preaches to the dead spirits who are imprisoned.

But we hear in the book of Hebrews that it is appointed for men once to die and then comes judgment (Heb 9:27). The judging of the living and the dead is of works that they have done in the past—not what they have done now that they’ve been dead (Matt 25:31-46). It seems like death is the end-line for division. Plus we also have the problem of Jesus’ own understanding. When He spoke the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man he explained that it was impossible for those on one side of the chasm to cross to the other side (Luke 16:24-26). Sure, it’s a parable (maybe…it’s debatable) but even so it affirmed certain things that couldn’t happen within the story. What was the point of that?

We also forget that Christ also had a very hard line as to what constituted condemnation. He says he didn’t come into the world to condemn it but to save it but people are condemned already because they don’t believe (John 3:18). So although they haven’t arrived at the final judgment, unbelievers stand in a state of having—in Old Testament language—Sheol under their feet already gripping them.

Other folk say that the fires of hell are purifying fires.  But the image is never solely fire. It is also a place  of darkness, undying worms, a place to be rejected, a place that has no ending, a place reserved for the Devil, his angels and the wicked. Merely corrective purification?

Lastly, some Christians are just embarrassed by this doctrine. Here we have the world’s greatest message: God, condescension to save fallen humans—and then we have this bit of eternal separation and sorrow that sounds strange to the modern mind. Angels? Demons? Spirits? Possessions? All of it can be very strange to us but Scripture steps forward believing it no problem.

But we have to be careful with cultural bigotry. Just because they were back then and we are now, in the Age of Computers, doesn’t make what they believed less real. It might just mean that what is real is less believable to us who try to explain things away. We need to be careful with this.

The amount of Scripture, the explanation by the prophets, the revelation of the Incarnate God just point out with no doubt that there is a hell to be avoided and that it’s condemnation there is permanent. The naysayers really have to reach around to try to make passages say something else, but the evidence is just too weighty.

Hell is serious, found in both Testaments (with further details in the New) and we should be careful about giving folk a false sense of hope when we don’t have any reason to encourage it.

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Get The Gehenna Out of Here?

People love talking about the love of Jesus. Man, that Old Testament was brutal—the God there equally so: ordering death of people, constantly warning of impending judgment, horrid stuff. But the Jesus of the New Testament is fundamentally different: loving, warm, drawing all men to himself, eating with sinners and judging no one! Not like that nasty Pharisee Paul.

But these folk forget that the person who spoke about hell most was not Paul or James or even good old Peter: it was Jesus. Metaphor after metaphor, story after story, constantly making the point of a judgment to come and a punishment to follow. This same Jesus who would sit with sinners is the one who would tell sinners that it was better that they rip their eye out of their socket and throw it into hell than their whole body gets thrown into the fiery hell (Matt 18:19).

Of course, the word there isn’t technically hell: it’s Gehenna.  Nay-Hellsayers are quick to point out that it’s a Greek transliteration of a Hebrew term which is Hinnom Valley. This valley was a deep ravine near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where trash was thrown.  The stuff there was cut off from the life of the people and sent over there. Jesus, the master of metaphor, knew the place well and had no problem using it.

What they forget to mention is that the site wasn’t merely for garbage; it was a place for burning. The place wasn’t only a dump, it was a crematorium. The bodies of dead criminals were thrown and consumed there. And it was that same location where children were sacrificed to Molech the God of the Fire (2 Ki 23:10; Je 7:31): Topheth which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom. If you recall in the last post, Isaiah actually uses this same place to connote a place for punishing a certain wicked King and he speaks about it as a place prepared long before (Isaiah 30:33).

Christ would often mention that place but adds details that have nothing to do with the actual Gehenna. He’d say that there is one who has authority to throw people into that place ( Luke 12:5). Well, that’s weird since almost anyone could throw junk into the fire, but here’s one who does have the authority to throw people. Whereas the real Gehenna could kill a person just fine, and burn up corpses equally fine, Jesus ups the ante with the use of Gehenna saying it is a place where also the very living soul is destroyed along with the body (Matthew 10:28). Or in Mark 9:43 where Christ points out that one is either entering into life one way or entering into Gehenna another way but the latter is completely undesirable. The place, he says, was prepared for the angels (Matt 25:41-56) but the actual Gehenna wasn’t prepared for angels at all. While it was a very deep ravine, he calls it an abyss (Lu 8:31). He recalls imagery from Isaiah (Isa 14:11; 66:24) and calls it a place of the worm (Mk 9:48) but unlike the real Gehenna, the worms don’t die in the flames. He calls the place the outer darkness and a place of weeping and gritting ones teeth (Mt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) but who was weeping for garbage and criminals beside fellow criminals?

These are all important differentiations Christ is making with the actual Gehenna near the Temple Mount.  This isn’t nice imagery. It’s horrifying. It indicates separation, punishment, lack of joy and something to be repulsed. I know that modern Christians don’t like to hear that—especially the ones who say “Hell is not what you learned in Sunday School” but there it is: Christ is just adding all these awful details that stand beyond the actual place.

And in so doing, he echoes concepts from the Old Testament as well. It is the ultimate destination of the wicked (Matt 13:41-42). The place is eternal (Mt 25:41). It’s below, somewhere (Mt 11:23; 12:40; Lu 10:15) The place is hot (Mt 13:50). The place is to be shunned ( Mt 5:22). Christ is ultimately master over it (Mt 16:18). Indeed, with the revelation of the Son of God the revelation of Hell seems much more crystalline: the term Gehenna doesn’t have the same semantic range as Sheol, for instance. The pictures for Hades and the Abyss and the Pit are almost exclusively eschatological in nature.  Christ seems to indicate that only the wicked are there (Lu 16:23).

The New Testament has other important details. For example, in the apocalypse, John sees the Lake of Fire being the ultimate destination for the devil, his cohorts, hell itself and the wicked (Re 19:20; 20:14; 21:8). Echoing the repeated Scriptural theme of separation from life he calls this the second death.  Peter might call the place a prison for certain spirits (1 Pe 3:19) waiting the day of judgment (2 Pe 2:4) and though he doesn’t use the Hebrew term, he uses the Greek term of Tartarus. Jude calls it a place of punishment and eternal fire (Jud 7) and somehow ties Sodom and Gomorrah to it but he only does that after saying that angels who left their place are bound there with eternal chains under darkness (Jud 6).

And just like in our last post, we’re left only scratching the surface of the intermediate and eternal states. We have more information, surely, but not all. I didn’t touch on the intermediate state of the righteous or of the ultimate destination. I didn’t touch on how one can be in one and not the other. I didn’t mention the passages that speak of eternal damnation without using either Gehenna, Tartarus or Hades. I didn’t even really offer an apologetic for or against theses readings: I wanted to just list the passages as they stand.

They accord with what the Old Testament says but, as expected since it is usually Christ who does most of the explaining, they expand on it. There are still many core elements there but there are enough other details to still justify that the place is to be shunned. Just like in the Old Testament, the sorrow is not so much the worm—whatever that is—or the darkness or the fire: it is the separation from life. One of the most horrifying pictures that Christ attaches the imagery of wailing and gnashing of teeth is the one of outer darkness.

To understand that you have to envision what it’s like in an pre-industrial agrarian culture. If these guys had a party with their lamps and lights at night, you would be able to see the light from all around—but no one would see you. If you were out in that pitch black night you would see the laughing and the joy but you’d be out there, staring, angry, jealous and separated.  Christ tells a similar story of a rich man who is looking across a chasm, after death, at someone he had mistreated. The man he mistreated never seems to even notice him but he, oh he sees Lazarus drinking while he sits parched and afraid. But the man doesn’t ask freedom from his situation, he asks for the Lord to send a ghost to his brothers to warn them.

It’s a horrid place, says the Lord—and it should be shunned. The horror is that people will still head in that direction even if someone came back from the dead and warned them.

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Quotables: Irenaeus On The Real Heaven and Hell

quotables

Every now and then I like posting something incisive that was written in the past because it speaks so well into the present. The sweet thing about this is that these guys, who are often waved away today, have dealt with a lot of the same issues while remaining simultaneously (by the modern mind) ignored. This one comes from the Early Church Father Irenaeus:

Now all these things being such as they are, cannot be understood in reference to super-celestial matters; “for God,” it is said, “will show to the whole earth that is under heaven thy glory.”

But in the times of the kingdom, the earth has been called again by Christ [to its pristine condition], and Jerusalem rebuilt after the pattern of the Jerusalem above, of which the prophet Isaiah says, “Behold, I have depicted thy walls upon my hands, and thou art always in my sight,” And the apostle, too, writing to the Galatians, says in like manner, “But the Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.”

He does not say this with any thought of an erratic Aeon, or of any other power which departed from the Pleroma, or of Prunicus, but of the Jerusalem which has been delineated on [God’s] hands. And in the Apocalypse John saw this new [Jerusalem] descending upon the new earth. For after the times of the kingdom, he says, “I saw a great white throne, and Him who sat upon it, from whose face the earth fled away, and the heavens; and there was no more place for them.”

And he sets forth, too, the things connected with the general resurrection and the judgment, mentioning “the dead, great and small.” “The sea,” he says, “gave up the dead which it had in it, and death and hell delivered up the dead that they contained; and the books were opened. Moreover,” he says, “the book of life was opened, and the dead were judged out of those things that were written in the books, according to their works; and death and hell were sent into the lake of fire, the second death.”

Now this is what is called Gehenna, which the Lord styled eternal fire. “And if any one,” it is said, “was not found written in the book of life, he was sent into the lake of fire.” And after this, he says, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth have passed away; also there was no more sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven, as a bride adorned for her husband.” “And I heard,” it is said, “a great voice from the throne, saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them; and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them as their God. And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and death shall be no more, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, because the former things have passed away.”

Isaiah also declares the very same: “For there shall be a new heaven and a new earth; and there shall be no remembrance of the former, neither shall the heart think about them, but they shall find in it joy and exultation.” Now this is what has been said by the apostle: “For the fashion of this world passeth away.” To the same purpose did the Lord also declare, “Heaven and earth shall pass away.” When these things, therefore, pass away above the earth, John, the Lord’s disciple, says that the new Jerusalem above shall [then] descend, as a bride adorned for her husband; and that this is the tabernacle of God, in which God will dwell with men. Of this Jerusalem the former one is an image—that Jerusalem of the former earth in which the righteous are disciplined beforehand for incorruption and prepared for salvation.

And of this tabernacle Moses received the pattern in the mount; and nothing is capable of being allegorized, but all things are steadfast, and true, and substantial, having been made by God for righteous men’s enjoyment. For as it is God truly who raises up man, so also does man truly rise from the dead, and not allegorically, as I have shown repeatedly. And as he rises actually, so also shall he be actually disciplined beforehand for incorruption, and shall go forwards and flourish in the times of the kingdom, in order that he may be capable of receiving the glory of the Father.

Then, when all things are made new, he shall truly dwell in the city of God. For it is said, “He that sitteth on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And the Lord says, Write all this; for these words are faithful and true. And He said to me, They are done.”

And this is the truth of the matter.

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Philosophy Fridays: Hell? Oh!

Folk who know me might remember that the reason I became a believer was, in the first case, a fear of hell. Well, a roundabout fear anyway: I had just seen the Exorcist and hell became a reality to my young brain. Some atheists like to say hell is an abusive scare tactic and that my initial belief is unsubstantiated but this is predicated on four arguments which I will respond to in under 700 words (perfect for a Philosophy Friday): (1) that there is, in fact, no hell; (2) that hell is merely a boogeyman to scare people into believing Christianity (3) that the teaching of hell is incompatible with the teaching of an all-loving God;(4) and that the way we come to believe something matters to its veracity.

Christians have embraced the same sort of rhetoric. Hell, like Heaven, is not somewhere out there: it’s right here; now (1). Hell is presented as something scary with red-tailed devils with pitchforks which are completely antithetical to the reality of the Gospel (2). Hell is not compatible with the revealed God by Christ (3). Since what we’ve learned in Sunday School is wrong, and that’s where we learned about hell, then what we know about Hel is wrong (4).  Fellow PB’er Keith Keyser makes a point that this is just old teaching being brought up today and though I agree, I want to respond first on purely philosophical grounds.

These main arguments can be addressed in a few quick points:

Contra (4) the way we come to a belief doesn’t matter to its truth value. If I was colorblind and discovered that the grass was green by watching a cartoon, it doesn’t mean that the grass is in fact purple. Likewise, if I learned about hell in Sunday School or watching the Exorcist doesn’t make what I learned untrue—it might be true just because it’s true.

Contra (3) there are more options than the false dilemma of God is either loving or hell exists. It might be that God refuses to save people from hell because he loves them too much to force them to do otherwise. It might be that it would be worse for them not to be in hell. It might be that we don’t have all the information on how hell works. The point is that there are enough possibilities available that to settle on a false dichotomy is wrongheaded.

Contra (2) just because something is fear-inducing, doesn’t mean that it is in fact wrong. It might just mean that it needs to be dealt with. The sign saying the bridge is out up ahead might be scary but knowing the warning allows you to avoid catastrophe. That biohazard symbol warns about scary things but it also reminds one to be careful.

Contra (1) we have testimony that is being rejected. If hell is a place that was created by God we would expect that he would be the only one to really know about it and talk about it but other than that we’re left with quite a blank roster of witnesses. That’s not an argument for silence. It just means that if we learn about a hell it would have to be by someone who knows about it. Those who believe in Hell think God spoke about it so denying its existence is merely assuming that God didn’t speak it.

Even so, you have to wonder if believing the negative (There is No Hell) is the wise thing to do. I mean, the worst that can happen from affirming that there is a hell is to discover that there isn’t one and nothing—no harm beyond misrepresenting God. Now that’s pretty serious but at least there’s no hell. The worst that can happen from affirming there is no hell is that people die and get there by surprise.

Yeah (Calvinists) I know there’s a whole mess of theology being assumed there but let that lie for the sake of the argument. The point is that this would be a dangerous doctrine to deny if it turns out true.

Well, that’s just some introductory salvos before the deeper work coming next week.

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