How context contextualizes the language of hell
The thread on the jealousy of God has again raised a number of important questions about how we construct the context within which we endeavour to interpret the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. It is not enough simply to acknowledge that the texts we tend to cite in order to support our arguments come with literary contexts. There is also the question of how we interpret that context. It is at this level, it seems to me, that the fundamental misunderstandings arise.
Consider, for example, danutz’s antithesis between the ‘Jesus that taught an inclusive message which directed all attention toward loving God and our neighbors’ and the ‘Jesus of exclusive institutionalized Christianity that has become the object of twisted idolization’. Apart from the evident prejudice against institutionalized Christianity, I would suggest that this is indicative of a failure to read Jesus within the narrative of first century Judaism. The interpretive framework is instead a more abstract and frankly ‘liberal’ moral opposition between inclusion and exclusion, between personal freedom and institutional repression, etc.
On the other hand, we have kingJames1’s more traditional and ‘orthodox’ projection of Jesus’ apocalyptic language on to a universal screen:
I would ask two questions here. First, What is this ‘proper context’? And secondly, How does this context contextualize the teaching?
The argument put forward by kingjames1 is that Jesus not only taught a doctrine of hell but also transmitted that doctrine to his disciples and the apostles of the early church. In other words, the thought of hell gets passed on from the particular context of Jesus’ mission to Israel to the universal context of ‘the narrative of God’s plan for the world’.
This involves cutting a rather long story short, but I would argue strongly that the language of destruction, gehenna, exclusion, etc., in the Gospels refers to the horrifying ‘judgment’ of the Jewish War in AD 66-70. (There’s a recent podcast interview with Brian McLaren that touches on these themes on Bleeding Purple Podcast.) This narrative framework takes Jesus’ language of devastation and exclusion very seriously - we cannot take danutz’s route of simply filtering it out in the interests of a theology of grace. But the narrative also in some respect must be allowed to confine it, restrict the scope of application - he is speaking about a particular state of affairs; and we must think much more carefully about whether and how we extrapolate from this language to a universal doctrine of ‘hell’.
The enemy by which Israel is judged will not itself escape judgment. The historical-eschatological narrative takes us beyond the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple: the New Testament also envisages the overthrow of Rome insofar as it constituted an implacable enemy of YHWH and his anointed one. This accounts for another part of what is traditionally understood as the doctrine of ‘hell’, but it still operates within narrative constraints that cannot simply be ignored by a dogmatic theology.
This is not to say that we do not find the language of universal judgment in the New Testament. But I do think that in this matter both Reformed theology and Liberal theology need to pay much closer attention to how context contextualizes statements that are made.
There is then a further question to consider. If the New Testament language of judgment is contextualized by the narrative about the experience of the people of God in the first centuries, how is it contextualized by the narrative about the experience of the people of God in a postmodern, post-Christendom society? The answer to this very complex question must take account of the particular and actual state of the church in the West today, which is not the same as the church in the New Testament period, as it engages missionally with the world, which is not the same as the world of the New Testament period.