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The Last Word and the Word After That

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
McLaren, B.D.
Publication date: 
Subject group: 
General theology

The Last Word and the Word After That is an examination of the idea of hell set against the background of the fictional story of a crisis in pastoral ministry. Pastor Dan Poole faces doctrinal investigation because a conservative faction at Potomac Community Church fears that he is on a twisting slippery slope that will lead by way of inclusivism and conditionalism to the cesspit of universalism. The following exchange between Dan and Neil Oliver mid-way through the book encapsulates the theological and moral dilemma that McLaren wishes to address. Jess is Dan’s daughter, whose own faith has been badly shaken by the thought that people she loves will burn in hell forever; Kincaid is her boyfriend.

I thought for a few seconds. “Of course, I need to talk this through - but I feel I especially need it to help her. Look, Neil, I’m a Christian. It really shakes me to think that I could have been so misguided or uninformed about so much, but even so, my roots go pretty deep. But for Jess and for Kincaid, if they don’t get this hell thing worked out, they’re never even going to send down roots. They’re going to become …”

Neil finished the sentence: “… like the millions of others, young and old, who have given up on Christianity because our way of talking about hell sounds absolutely wacky. ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,’ we say, ‘and he’ll fry your butt in hell forever unless you do or believe the right thing.’ ‘God is a loving father,’ we say, ‘but he’ll treat you with a cruelty that no human father has ever been guilty of - eternal conscious torture.’ No wonder Christianity - or at least that version of it””is a dying religion in so many places in the world.” (75)

Although it is rather contrary to the narrative, dialogical spirit of the book, I want to extract from the various conversations a number of points that relate especially to the exegetical basis for what is commonly understood as the ‘doctrine of hell’. This should not be taken as a repudiation of the novelistic approach - the value of McLaren’s books lies to a large extent in the fact that they model dialogue, they resist the closure of discussion, they demonstrate the practical and personal significance of theology, they keep us alert to the essential interplay of life and thought. But some sort of theological analysis is unavoidable. Although the conversational format makes it difficult to know how much of what is said reflects Brian McLaren’s own views on the subject (that is part of the point, it is an exploration of the experience of learning), a reasonably coherent line of thought takes shape as Dan Poole engages with various representatives of an emerging wisdom.

Jesus’ deconstruction of hell

The argument starts with the observation that the doctrine of ‘hell’, conventionally understood at least, is not found in the Old Testament. The ancient Jews were barely interested in an afterlife of any description: they were focused instead ‘on remaining part of God’s blessing or covenant on their land in this history’ (46). The failure of repeated attempts to overthrow Roman rule in Palestine, however, and the brutal killing of those who opposed YHWH’s enemies had led to a crisis of faith: ‘Why didn’t God give victory to these brave, heroic martyrs?’ (60). This gave rise to the new belief that the martyrs would be resurrected on the final day of victory, when the messiah would defeat Israel’s enemies. On that ‘day of the Lord’ they would be ‘raised from the grave, not to ascend to heaven but to share in the new post-Roman era of liberation and joy’. As the Jews developed these hopes for a life beyond death, they borrowed ideas of the afterlife from the religious systems of their neighbours - Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Zoroastrian, Greek.

The emergence of the distinctive rhetoric of ‘hell’ that we find in the New Testament is attributed further to the ‘scapegoat factor’. Who was to blame for the failure of the liberation movements? Different factions had different answers to that question, but the theologically creative Pharisees blamed the prostitutes, tax-collectors and sinners. They imported the idea of hell in order to frighten the wicked into repentance. What Jesus then does is turn this argument against them, deconstructing their doctrine of hell. The ‘perfection’ of God is expressed not in the condemnation of the weak but in compassion (62-63).

At this point in the conversation Neil and Dan take up the question of universalism:

“The problem with universalism is not just the answer it provides. True, its answer creates problems - but so do the alter­native answers. The problem is the question it seeks to answer. The question assumes that the purpose of the gospel is to get individual souls into heav­en after they die. No matter how good your answer is, it’s not good enough if you’re asking the wrong question.”

“And the right question would be … ?” I countered.

“Not just how individual souls will be saved but instead how the world will be saved. When I say ‘saved,’ I mean not just from hell, and not just from God’s wrath either. After all, God’s wrath is a good thing, a saving thing. No, Daniel, the gospel is about how the world will be saved from human sin and all that goes with it - human greed, human lust, human pride, human oppression, human hypocrisy and dishonesty, human violence and racism, human chauvinism, human injustice. It’s answering the question, How will humanity be saved from humanity? How will earth be saved from evil that springs from within human individuals and human groups?” (69-70)

So the real issue is not how do people avoid going to hell but how do we get justice and freedom from oppression. If Jesus uses the language of hell, we have to ask, ‘for what purpose does he use the language? What’s his point in working with the construction?’ (71). Essentially, he can make use of it as a metaphor or model for God’s judgment on the oppressors without necessarily endorsing it as a ‘literal’ account of what happens to people when they die. This is an example of ‘rhetorical hermeneutics’ - ‘an approach to Scripture that among other things tells us that we normally pay too much attention to what the writers are saying and not enough to what they’re doing’ (81). As the intersexual poet Pat says of hell: ‘Its purpose, not its substance, is the point’ (26).

‘The Pharisees used hell to threaten sinners and other undesirables and mark them as the excluded out-group, hated by God. Their rhetorical use of hell made clear that God’s righteousness was severe and merciless toward the undeserving. Jesus turned their rhetoric upside down and inside out and used hell to threat­en those who excluded sinners and other undesirables, showing that God’s righteousness was compassionate and merciful, that God’s kingdom wel­comed the undeserving, that for God, there was no out-group.’ (74)

If Christians today use the language of hell to exclude others, they risk aligning themselves not with Jesus but with the Pharisees, and so they themselves are challenged by Jesus’ warning that the justice of God will come upon those who lack compassion. The process of deconstruction can then be taken a step further. Although at a certain level the language of hell can be used to maintain a sense of moral order, the vision of God that lies at the heart of Christianity must sooner or later replace fear with love, making hell a redundant construct (75). In the notes at the end of the book McLaren sums up his position in his own words:

The language of hell, in my view, like the language of biblical prophecy in general, is not intended to provide literal or detailed fortune-telling or prognostication about the hereafter, nor is it intended to satisfy intellectual curiosity, but rather it is intended to motivate us in the here and now to realize our ultimate accountability to a God of mercy and jus­tice and in that light to rethink everything and to seek first the kingdom and justice of God. (188-189)

Rhetoric and history

There are a number of ideas presented in the course of The Last Word and the Word After That with which I resonate strongly or which I think merit further investigation: for example, the questioning of the assumption that salvation consists merely of securing souls for heaven (69); the inclusion of issues of justice within the scope of mission (70-71); the understanding of ‘eternal life’ in more worldly, historical terms (77); the suggestion that while salvation is by grace, judgment is by works (138); the notion of a post-Protestant ‘deep ecclesiology’ (140-142); the argument that we need to explore the territory beyond ‘both Imperial Christianity and consumerist Christianity’ (155); the understanding of ‘election’ in terms of responsibility rather than privilege (169).

I would also argue that McLaren’s ‘rhetorical hermeneutics’ is entirely legitimate in principle: biblical interpretation has often failed to grasp the degree to which language is used indirectly for rhetorical or poetic purposes. The question is whether this is an adequate method for reading the passages in the Gospels about hell. I think there are weaknesses with the rhetorical analysis which need to be addressed. Despite Neil’s cryptic email recommending that Dan begin his search for a better understanding of hell with history rather than doctrine (19), the main shortcoming of the biblical analysis presented in this book is that it fails to take into account the historical context (and therefore reference) of Jesus’ ‘hell’ statements. Rather than ask simply, ‘What’s the rhetorical purpose of the passages about hell?’ (114), I think we need to ask, ‘What is the historical purpose?’ Having established that, we will then be in a position to consider how the rhetoric works.

The argument about the importation of foreign ideas in order to develop a theology of martyrdom in the intertestamental period may have some validity, but the narrative is not carried through properly into the Gospels. Instead we jump from the particular story of Israel’s oppression to an argument about injustice as a general and universal phenomenon. What has made this possible is a rhetorical hermeneutic that is content with abstract, existential answers to the question, ‘What’s the point of this metaphor?’ So, for example, Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13:47-50 about the bad fish being sorted from the good at the end of the age is reduced to the bland assertion, ‘Rightly understand the message!’ (117). This is not an altogether unreasonable inference, but can it really be regarded as an interpretation of the parable, which is not about ‘understanding’ but about judgment and destruction?

It seems to me that we have to recognize that Jesus’ ‘rhetoric’ is not so easily disconnected from its historical context. His language of hell, as we have come to term it, presupposes, on the one hand, the historical prospect of judgment and devastation, and on the other, analogous Old Testament accounts of divine judgment on Israel. I would suggest, in fact, that Jesus is much more dependent on the Old Testament than McLaren’s argument about the influence of foreign beliefs about the afterlife suggests.

Jesus’ ‘hell’, in my view, is the suffering that Israel as a nation would undergo if the people did not repent. The burning of the bad fish (and similar parables) is a ‘metaphor’ for the destruction of an unrepentant nation. It is not simply telling us that ‘deception and false appearances will go up in smoke’ (78). Jesus’ metaphor of two roads, one leading to destruction, the other to life, is found in Jeremiah 21:8 with reference to the Babylonian invasion and should be understood in the same way:

Thus says the Lord: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war. For I have set my face against this city for harm and not for good, declares the Lord: it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. (Jer.21:8-10)

This reading is hinted at (77) but not followed through. Gehenna is not an image of eternal, post-mortem punishment, but neither does it merely represent a wasted life, as Neil suggests (78). Again, in Jeremiah the valley of Hinnom is a symbol for the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter of its inhabitants:

Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away. And I will silence in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, for the land shall become a waste. (Jer.7:32-34)

Neil informs us that Gehenna was a ‘garbage dump with a terrible reputation where carcasses were cremated’, and then asks, ‘Does that mean that people will very literally be deposited in that trash dump outside Jerusalem?’ He clearly expects the answer no, but I think Jesus would have said yes. What Jesus foresees is the same appalling destruction that Jeremiah foresaw - the dead literally dumped in the valley of Hinnom. That would be Israel’s ‘hell’.

Towards the end of the book one of the members of the small ‘emergent’, ecclesiologically deep community into which Dan is initiated offers him some advice:

‘You can’t leave a sinking ship until you begin to construct a sea­worthy one. Hell is one of the leaks in your sinking ship. You’re trying to patch the hole. During your days here, I’d recommend you try to imagine a new ship, a seaworthy one. Put your energy there. You may find that the hell problem sinks with the old ship, then, and you won’t solve it, but you’ll leave it behind.’ (143)

This is right, and I think that what Brian McLaren has done, in this book and others, is present us with a startling and imaginative sketch of what this new ship might look like. But there is still some work to be done before we have a workable design that we can be confident will support the weight of community and mission in our post-this-that-and-the-other future.


Fantastic comments. I tend

Fantastic comments.

I tend to agree with you about the language of judgment and hell and your criticisms of McLaren’s interpretations. In an otherwise fantastic book, these were weaknesses.

McLaren could have strengthened his book by underscoring the historical judgements on Israel in AD 70 and early in the second century. The violence (i.e.: hell) that Israel endured would have served the interpretation you provide and would have helped to “maintain a sense of moral order” by providing concrete examples of God’s judgment in history on those whom Jesus was accusing.

Take into consideration that Jesus’ sayings on hell come in gospels that were likely written post-AD 70 and there is a case to be made that the gospel authors, themselves, were interpreting Jesus’ language of hell as historical judgment post defacto to their audiences (i.e.: “see, fellow Christians, what happened to Israel is a judgment from God because of the sin of lack of compassion, justice, etc.” – this accomplished by putting the specific hell language into Jesus’ kerygma).

Thanks for the brilliant analysis.

Is the ship really sinking?

I haven’t read the book, only the excerpt and your analysis. However, I do have a question I’d like to ask.

Is it possible that the problem is more with the way Christians explain God’s wrath than with the concept itself?

The driving force of McLaren’s analysis seems to be that because God’s love is primary in his self-definition, therefore the thought of his extreme, unmitigated judgement is problematic:

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,’ we say, ‘and he’ll fry your butt in hell forever unless you do or believe the right thing.’ ‘God is a loving father,’ we say, ‘but he’ll treat you with a cruelty that no human father has ever been guilty of – eternal conscious torture.’

I realise this is intended as a caricature of what people say, not an exact representation (and that by a fictional character, not McLaren himself). Even so, it seems to claim a fundamental tension between God as extremely loving and God as extremely punishing which I can’t see.

McLaren (through the character of Neil) points out that ‘no human father has ever been guilty’ of the extreme, unmitigated punishment that God is claimed to enforce. But then no human father has been sinned against as God has. It stretches the ‘Father’ analogy too far to imagine that it extends to how God has been sinned against and how he should respond in judgement. No human father has ever created a universe and given a particular race the privilege and responsibility of leadership within that universe, only to have that race reject him outright and wreak violence against their fellow creatures as a result. The response in judgement is radically different between God and human fathers because the crimes which are committed by children against their human fathers are not deserving of anything like the punishment which humanity truly deserves for rejecting our creator.

In fact, God’s love can’t be understood without first understanding that we deserve extreme, unmitigated punishment. Only then do we realise the enormity of the claim that ‘God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom 5.8). There is no tension between the claim ‘God is the most loving of all beings’ and ‘God is most just, extreme punisher of evil there is’. The love is shown in the fact that, even though we deserve extreme, unmitigated punishment, God was prepared to take that punishment himself in Jesus’ death on the cross. For those who accept Jesus’ death on their behalf there is no more punishment, but for those who do not, the punishment which is theirs for rejecting God still awaits them (John 3.36).

I don’t think there’s a problem with telling people that God is both extremely loving and extremely wrathful. We just need to explain to people why he is wrathful instead of just telling them that he is. Then we can truly explain how God is loving, instead of just telling people that he is. I think the Two Ways to Live gospel outline aims at doing this.

There might be some room for movement regarding whether the punishment will be eternal or not. Some passages are ambiguous as to whether people who are not in Christ will be raised to face ‘ongoing torment’ or to face ‘complete destruction’ (e.g. what does 2 Thes 1.9 mean by ‘everlasting destruction’?). But either way, the teaching of Jesus and his apostles was clear: everyone who has not accepted Jesus will be raised in order to be actively punished by God for their rebellion against him.

I don’t accept this teaching lightly. It concerns the fate of my closest friends and relatives. But I can see why it’s just. And, in combination with the fact that God’s love is so great, it’s God’s terrifying justice that spurs me on, pushing me out of my comfort zone, to gradually let people know more about Jesus (2 Cor 5.11,14).

Does this response misunderstand what McLaren is trying to do? Perhaps I should actually read his book :-)

Judgment and death

Jeremy, I wouldn’t disagree with the premise that human sin justifies the wrath of God. But I would question on biblical grounds the next stage in the argument - that the judgment of God on human sin must take the form of ‘extreme, unmitigated punishment’, if by that you mean (you seem to hesitate at this point) unending conscious torment after death. The universal judgment on humankind as a consequence of Adam’s sin was death. Paul reiterates the point: the wages of sin is death - not suffering in hell. If we weren’t fundamentally sinful, we would still be living without suffering and shame in the presence of God. Jesus died for our sins, and that’s all he did - he did not (contrary to some Word of Faith teaching) suffer punishment in hell for our sins.

But I would argue that in the Bible you see the judgment of God manifested in two other respects. You see, especially in the Gospels, judgment on the covenant people because they have sinned as a nation - immorality, injustice, idolatry. And you see, especially in Paul, judgment on the enemies of Israel because the prospect of judgment on Israel is always accompanied by the assurance that God will in the end overthrow the destroyer and persecutor of his people. These judgments are generally described in extreme, apocalyptic terms because they entailed immense suffering and political and social upheaval (we certainly should not play down the literal horrors of the war against Rome), but they are historical in character, not metaphysical. The outcome is still not endless torment but destruction. The choice that we are offered is between life and death, between life and destruction. Isn’t that sufficient motivation to talk to people about Jesus?

Sin, death, judgement, wrath and hell

Continuing the line of thinking in the comments on Brian McLaren’s new book (which I also haven’t read) - I appreciate the rhetorical interpretation of hell in the gospels provided by McLaren and the historical interpretation provided by Andrew. But is there any evidence for McLaren’s interpretation? And what do puzzling texts like Isaiah 66:24 mean? And the ‘lake of fire’ texts in Revelation - where the beast and false prophet are despatched: also Satan; also death and Hades; also “anyone (whose) name was not found in the book of life”; also “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practise magic arts, the idolaters and all liars”. Twice this consignment to the lake of fire is called ‘the second death’.

I don’t suppose we are looking at literal lakes and burning sulphur here - rather a picture of overwhelming destruction (as in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah - the imagery being taken from the burning sulphur flats in the Dead Sea area).

But the sense is of a destructive punishment - and judgement. This could be taken either as eternal punishment - or annihilation.

The subject of hell relates closely to the issues of sin, and the wrath of God in judgement on sin. Andrew provides a historically relative interpretation - but Revelation seems to take us beyond this - unless you continue the historically relativising treatment into Revelation - whereby Revelation describes events mainly leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D.70. I think this is perfectly possible - but it doesn’t account for everything in Revelation. The events foreshadowed in A.D.70 seem to foreshadow greater events still to come at the end of time. Sin didn’t terminate in A.D.70 - and still needs to be dealt with, hence a final judgement. A judgement of rewards for Christians, and judgement of sin on those who rejected God’s means of deliverance. A judgement on what we did with the light God gave our consciences for those who were neither Christians nor knew about Christ.

My inclination is towards the annihilationist position for those who reject God, the light he gives, and the deliverance he provides in Christ - but only after a final judgement, in which punishment is related to the horror of destruction, the eternal removal from God’s presence, which is life itself. We already instinctively feel something of this horror in the way we recoil from physical death as an end to life.

But I’m still drawn to exploring the issue of sin further. Is it a condition, and therefore a misfortune? Or wilful rebellion, and therefore culpable? And I’m also struck by the kind of terms in which the discussion of God’s wrath and punishment are being couched in McLaren’s book. There is a sentimental kind of connection which can be made between ideas of loving fatherhood and God’s fatherhood - and a sentimental logic which flows from this, that God would never punish or get angry with his children. The biblical testimony shows this not to be the case; wrath is both on-going against sin and future in a final ‘day of the Lord’. But neither is God shown as capricious or vengeful, in my opinion, in his anger. Neither do I find any evidence that God ‘poured out his wrath’ on Christ on the cross. But I do concur with the hymn, that on the cross ‘the (future) wrath of God was satisfied’ - for those who believe in Christ through the crucifixion.

Worms and fire

What’s so puzzling about Isaiah 66:24? Isn’t it simply an image of judgment on the enemies of YHWH. Jerusalem is renewed, but those who rebelled against God will be slain (66:16) and their corpses will be an abhorrence to all flesh. The image is quite naturally reapplied to first century Israel (Mark 9:47-48).

And the ‘lake of fire’ texts in Revelation - where the beast and false prophet are despatched: also Satan; also death and Hades; also "anyone (whose) name was not found in the book of life"; also "the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practise magic arts, the idolaters and all liars". Twice this consignment to the lake of fire is called ‘the second death’.

It seems to me fairly obvious that if you throw something into a lake of fire, it is destroyed. It’s not going to come back to bother you. It’s not going to be part of a pristine new creation. But how can it be understood as ‘eternal punishment’? Destroyed is destroyed. The dead bodies of those who rebel against YHWH are consumed by worm and fire, but they are dead bodies, corpses. You can’t ‘punish’ a corpse. The point of the worm and fire language is to draw out the horror of the judgment upon them - an abhorrence to all flesh.

A judgement of rewards for Christians, and judgement of sin on those who rejected God’s means of deliverance.

Where do you find this in Revelation? I agree with you that Revelation describes a final judgment of all the dead, but what are the terms of that judgment?

Revelation, the lake of fire and A.D.70

Peter’s response has been moved to a new thread.

Then why the judgement after death?

I agree that Jesus did not suffer in hell, but neither did he simply die. The gospels emphasise both his suffering (the complex of abandonments, beatings and humiliations) and his death. Even Jesus’ own short predictions do not focus only on his death but on his suffering as well (Mark 8.31-32, 9.31, 10.33-34). Some of the summary statements in the letters simplify it to just his death (eg 1 Pet 3.18), but others include both (eg 1 Pet 2.23-24).

Why do I mention what I’m sure you already agree with? :-) Because my point is that Jesus did not take only the death we deserve but also the suffering we deserve.  Death is not all we deserve.

Now, it could easily be argued that we suffer enough during our lifetimes now not to deserve any future suffering. But my reading is that we have not yet suffered ‘according to what each has done’. This will be come on the final day of God’s wrath (Rom 2.5-6, 2 Cor 5.10). Humanity as a whole suffers unevenly as a warning to all us that we should repent before the day of wrath (Luke 13.1-9, even if this originally had Israel in mind I think it has a message for wider humanity as well). But the day of wrath will give people the suffering they deserve ‘according to what each has done’… unless ‘what you have done’ is accept Jesus as Lord, with his suffering and death in your place, in way which is evident in your life.

Whether this suffering has an end or not, it seems clear that death is not the end for those who have rejected Jesus, anymore than it is the end for those who have accepted him.

On the practical side, I agree that the thought of people ‘missing out’ on God’s love would be enough to motivate telling them about him. My point though was that the thought of them suffering on the day of judgement (after their death) adds to this. I think Paul describes both motivations in 2 Cor 5.10-11 and 5.14.


I agree that Jesus did not suffer in hell, but neither did he simply die. The gospels emphasise both his suffering (the complex of abandonments, beatings and humiliations) and his death.

This is a good point, but it can be addressed from a historical point of view. It is, of course, a suffering that precedes death, not a torment that follows death, so I’m not sure it has much relevance for traditional ideas of hell. It is also a suffering that anticipates Israel’s suffering at the hands of her enemies. Jesus tells his followers: ‘the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified’ (Matt.20:18-19). If Jesus is drawing here on Daniel’s vision of a Son of man figure (Dan.7), he is clearly identifying himself with the ‘saints of the Most High’ against whom the little horn on the head of the fourth beast makes war. I think you can say, then, that he suffered from the Romans what Israel itself would suffer 40 years later on a massive scale. He was scourged and crucified just as thousands would later be scourged and crucified during the seige of Jerusalem - the day of God’s wrath against an unrepentant nation (cf. Luke 13:1-9). In other words, he took upon himself the wrath of God against Israel so that those ‘in him’, who trusted in him, who took the narrow path, would not be destroyed but would have the life of the age to come.

Luke 13:1-9

I agree with Andrew’s application of Luke 13:1-9. Contextually (both the immediate context: “read the signs of the times” [cf. end of chapter 12] and the larger context of the book of Luke) it is clear that Jesus does not here – nor even in the famouse Matthew 24 passage – emphasize more than the coming destruction of an unrepentant Israel at the hands of the Romans.

Again, please consider that Luke and the other synoptics were likely written after AD 70. The churches using these texts, the authors would most certainly know, would interpret these sayings of Jesus as pointing to the immediate destruction that had, indeed, befallen Israel. The destruction was so bloody and complete the entire nation was nearly wiped out. This was seered on the consciences of the early church, no doubt, and they most certainly did not – nor, perhaps, could not in the face of the Roman Empire and the challenges therein – have interpreted most of these passages in non-historically grounded fashion.

Post AD 70 interpretation?

That’s an interesting point about the timing of the writing of the Gospels. I wasn’t sure though what you meant when you suggested that the writers were ‘interpreting’ Jesus’ hell language for their churches.

David Bosch

I guess it is on my mind lately because I read McLaren’s book while going through (again) David Bosch’s magnum opus, Transforming Mission

As he makes clear, the differences between, say, Luke and Matthew in certain retellings of the sayings of Jesus are not just incidental but are likely the result of a kind of “interpretation” of Jesus’ words for the context of their churches. These differences are demonstrable and fairly consistent within the logic Bosch provides. Keeping in mind these audiences allows one to read the gospels as, I think, they were intended: writings that were not addressed to contemporary readers but to real churches in real times in real historical situations. Once we understand those contingencies we are better prepared to understand what “the Spirit might be saying” to us, the contemporary readers.

How would have readers who within, say 10-15 years of the “nuclear” destruction of Jerusalem have understand Jesus’ predictions of “repent and believe; judgment is coming”? Would they (and by extension and with full knowledge, the authors) not have understood the meaning fulfilled in their immediate context? They, then, of course, would have to interpret Jesus words for their own (new, post AD 70) context, just as we would.

Granted, one has to have a specific approach to scripture (and be comfortable with it) to share this view. I don’t hesitate in it for a moment, myself.

I hope that clarifies.

Does ALL "future judgement" refer to Jerusalem AD 70?

OK, it could be the case that Luke 13.1-9 refers exclusively to Israel and not to anyone else. However, does all the talk of judgement in the New Testament refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and to nothing else? What about “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” from 2 Cor 5.10?

My point is that there is a future judgement according to “what each one has done” and when Paul speaks of it again in Rom 2 he adds “to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness – indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek” in verses 8-9. There will be a future judgement (presumably not to be identified with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70) in which those who are “self-seeking and do not obey the truth” will receive not merely consignment to unconscious non-existence but “tribulation and anguish”.

I’m still content to maintain the Bible’s own tension between a) suffering followed by destruction and b) simply everlasting suffering. I don’t need to resolve the tension because it’s not up to me anyway. The picture I certainly am resisting is that people will be raised for judgement and then punished, not with any on-going suffering at all, but simply with non-existence. It’s not that I find the idea on-going suffering in any way appealing, as I said before. But I can see that at least some on-going suffering after death, or “tribulation and anguish”, is what Jesus and his apostles taught is the just result of rejecting God.

Regarding your interpretation of Jesus’ suffering and death, and whose suffering and death he took away, that probably needs a seperate thread. Is there a live thread discussing these issues that I could join? Or even an old thread where it’s been hashed out already? I’m posting away and I don’t even know my way around the site properly yet :-)

Judgment in the New Testament (very briefly)

Jeremy, here’s how I see judgment in the NT. Point 3 in particular needs detailed defence, which can’t be done here. I have a book coming out later in the year (The Coming of the Son of Man, Paternoster) which makes the case for reading NT eschatology for the most part within the frame of the NT’s own foreseeable future.

1. There is a judgment of rebellious Israel, which is realized concretely in the destruction of Jerusalem and the termination of the religious system of second temple Judaism.

2. There is a judgment on the ancient pagan world and in particular on Rome (Babylon the great) as a political-religious regime implacably opposed to the people of the covenant.

Romans 2:9-10 has both these ‘judgments’ in view.

3. There is a judgment (in a rather different sense) of the early confessing community of Christ’s followers, the church that is called to suffer as he suffered and be exalted as he was exalted, at the vindication of the Son of man - that is, at the parousia. I regard this as something that has, in effect, happened within history, and I suspect that it is what Paul is referring to in 2 Cor.5:10.

4. There will be a final judgment of all the dead on the grounds of what they (we?) have done, which will precede the destruction of everything that is unworthy of the new creation - not least death itself.

I still don’t see the need to posit an open-ended suffering of the unjust (or unjustified) after death - rather than as part of the process of destruction (to put it rather clinically). If you want to make a case for this, why not start a new thread?

These are all possible but...

These are all possible forms of judgement to which the NT may at various points refer, but can Romans 2 really be seen as referring to anything other than a final judgement of “everyone” by Christ? That is, not just Israel of AD 70 and the Roman empire of the late second century to late fifth century but “everyone” as verses 6, 9, 10 and 16 make clear. It is not the “day” when Christ will judge Jerusalem with a terrible siege and the Roman empire with a gradual decline and fall but “the day when God will judge the secrets of men (i.e. people in general will have all their thoughts and actions judged) by Jesus Christ” as verse 16 puts it.

I wonder if you have found (via N. T. Wright) a new reference point for talk of judgement (i.e. judgement within near NT history) which makes better sense of some passages in the NT than their previously understood reference point (i.e. the final judgement) and now you are trying to see how far this new reference point can go in explaining as many NT judgement passages as possible? I would say that this is worth exploring but that we mustn’t distort any of the passages just to make them fit the new reference point. I would also say that Romans 2 (at least) cannot be explained by anything other than the old reference point (as I’ve said just above) and that it is a distortion of the passage to make it refer to anything else.

However, even if this does refer to the final judgement (as I am sure it does) it may be that the “tribulation and anguish” of verse 9 refers to “the process of destruction” as you put it. But it cannot mean that people die into non-existence and the result of the final judgement is merely continuation of that non-existence. The final judgement seems worse than that for those not in Christ.

Rather than settle on the theory that the suffering coming to those not in Christ will end with complete destruction into non-existence, I prefer to leave this as a possibility along with the possibility of eternal judgement. Why? Because the teaching of Jesus and his apostles sometimes seems to indicate the latter. We can use interpretative sophistication to mitigate these indications (a la McLaren: it is only a rhetorical device) but why not take these indications literally and re-interpret the indications of destruction as merely rhetorical? For instance, it could be argued that the NT authors use images of death and destruction which are familiar to us now only as analogies to a judgement that is so terrible we can’t possibly comprehend it now. I would prefer that this was not the case because at the moment it would apply to some of the people I love the most. But I learnt long ago the folly of resolving perceived tensions in God’s word simply by picking the side I personally prefer (which N. T. Wright himself cautions against in his How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?). I’m not saying you are doing this, I’m just explaining my reluctance to pick one theory or the other.

That's also possible but...

Paul has certainly generalized the argument about judgment Romans, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to understand ‘tribulation and distress’ for the Jews in terms of AD 70, in which case there is some reason to construe judgment on the ‘Greek’ in similar fashion. We may still imagine that there is an implicit historical horizon to his view of the future. We also have to take into account the more apocalyptic narrative of 2 Thess.1-2, which I think makes much better sense as an account of judgment on an idolatrous paganism that persecuted the early church. It may be, though, that the more universal rhetoric of Romans is meant to encompass (or has the effect of encompassing) both the immediate judgment and the final judgment.

…you are trying to see how far this new reference point can go in explaining as many NT judgement passages as possible.

Very astute.

But it cannot mean that people die into non-existence and the result of the final judgement is merely continuation of that non-existence. The final judgement seems worse than that for those not in Christ.

You have made this point a couple of times without actually providing the textual evidence. You say: ‘it could be argued that the NT authors use images of death and destruction which are familiar to us now only as analogies to a judgement that is so terrible we can’t possibly comprehend it now’. Take a concrete example and show how this might be the case. Why would these authors use images of death and destruction for a torment after death. Was the ancient world unfamiliar with torture? Could they not have come up with images of conscious enduring pain? In the stories of the Maccabean martyrs who suffered excruciating pain because they refused to deny their ancestral faith, death is seen as an end to torment - though not, significantly, for Antiochus, who would suffer eternal torment comparable to the suffering that he had afflicted. It seems illogical to me that death and destruction would be used as analogies for the experience of pain.

2 Thess. 2

Or - the Jewish rebellion against Rome might have been something that Paul was foreseeing in his description of ‘the man of lawlessness’; Josephus in his ‘Wars of the Jews’ describes how the Zealots ‘laughed at the laws of God’, that ‘the city should be taken and the sanctuary burnt, by right of war, when a sedition should invade the Jews, and their own hand should pollute the temple of God.’ There is more on this in www.preteristarchive.org

Just a thought - something to ponder.

Re: 2 Thess. 2

I guess the problem with ‘mere’ destruction is that a person who treats the people around them decently but doesnt search for God (I know many like that) will get the same punishment as say Hitler.

That creates a bit of a problem - just doesn’t seem fair.

God is supreme of course so its not for us to say what He should do - it would just kinda haunt you thru eternity I think.

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