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What is hell, and is it biblical? Part 5: exegetical fumbles

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18 minutes to read A response to Jacob McMillen and Josiah Pemberton. In this installment, I show the blunders and gymnastics required to so comprehensively misunderstand the obvious “hell passages”.

I have laid down a significant amount of Second Temple context, and established pretty clear baselines for understanding both Gehenna and aionion. I don’t think there’s any serious doubt about the case for hell at this point.

But what about J&J’s exegesis of the Bible’s other “hell passages”? If they can show plausibly that they don’t mean what they have traditionally been taken to say, then certainly that would weaken the traditional position. So let’s take a look…

Dives and Lazarus

Here, I am happy to say, I am in substantial agreement with J&J. As they note, this parable is not about hell in the first place—it is about judgment after death but prior to the resurrection. They are also right to note that the point of the parable is not a geography of the netherworld, but correcting Jewish ideas about wealth and righteousness. Taking the parable as a depiction of what the afterlife is like would be akin to doing the same with a joke about Saint Peter and the Pearly Gates. So while I could quibble with some aspects of their analysis, I’m going to pass it by as irrelevant.

Weeping and gnashing of teeth

J&J offer no actual positive explanation of what these texts mean in Matthew 8; 13; 22; 24; 25 and Luke 13. What they do say is that they are directed specifically to the religious elites, and not to people generally. That’s fine as far as it goes, since these passages aren’t intended to give us an exhaustive list of who goes to hell; rather, they illustrate the kinds of people who go there. But even constricting them purely to the scribes and Pharisees, which is no skin off my nose given other passages like Matthew 5:30 and Revelation 20:15, what do J&J think they mean? They lamely observe that weeping and grinding of teeth don’t necessarily indicate physical torture (the canard that just keeps giving). But what do they indicate? What is the outer darkness that those outside the kingdom will be cast into?

J&J have no answer—or choose not to share it.

“If your right hand causes you to sin”

Here is J&J’s take on this passage; bolding theirs:

Matthew 5:30 “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Gehenna).”

Remember that dead bodies were literally thrown into this dump during the time of Isaiah and would be again just 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, when the Romans besieged and destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD. Rather than discussing the afterlife, Jesus is using a well-known landmark to illustrate how significant and pervasive the destruction of sin is.

Jesus is literally saying that cutting off your hand will be less damaging to your life than a lifestyle of sin.

According to J&J, Jesus is using Gehenna as a metaphor for a life that gets destroyed by sin. A life where all the good things you had are wrecked or obliterated by bad choices. A life that becomes like a stinking pit of refuse through self-inflicted judgment. How I read them, their explanation is specifically in terms of this life—though perhaps they think Jesus may be talking about the “correction for the length of an age” that I dealt with elsewhere. If they do, they give no indication; though as I’ve said, the most difficult part of interacting with their case is in how poorly they present any kind of coherent, positive theology of their own. One is left to guess and infer.

Now, I honestly can’t tell whether J&J just don’t know how to do an exegetical study of a passage, or whether they’re deliberately glossing over the reams of textual evidence that torpedoes their already-foundering thesis. I hope the former, though it isn’t a much better alternative than the latter; if you don’t know how to do this, why are you trying to teach?

Let’s compare other passages which parallel this discourse to see the problem. We’ll start with verse 29 of Matthew 5, which J&J strangely omitted:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into Gehenna. Matthew 5:29

The first problem with J&J’s interpretation here should be quite clear: Jesus is contrasting the throwing done by his listener with the throwing of them done by…who? The listener is not doing the throwing when it comes to entering hell; the grammar is quite clear that they are the object and not the subject of the throwing. It is something done to them, not by them; they are passive in the process.

There is only one option that seems to fit J&J’s case: the listener may be thrown into the garbage dump in the Valley of Hinnom by another citizen of Jerusalem, during the siege in 70 AD. This would take J&J’s exegesis to its logical extreme: since Jesus is talking about the here and now, he is emphasizing that unless his listeners turn from their sin, they will be liable to punishment via the fall of Jerusalem. Their life choices will end in suffering and death in the literal Valley of Hinnom.

But aside from how comically this wrests Jesus’ language from its natural Second Temple context, there are any number of other reasons this makes no sense:

  1. The average life expectancy of Jesus’ day was about 40 years. Thus, his warning would come too late for the majority of his audience, who would have already died of natural causes by the time Jerusalem was judged. Not only does this make his words irrelevant to most of his audience, but it puts great tension on J&J’s own thesis of sin as self-inflicted judgment. Shouldn’t those who sin tend to have shorter lives than those who don’t? Shouldn’t they often come to more abrupt ends as a natural consequence of their actions? So why are they living long enough to even see the siege of Jerusalem?
  2. J&J seem committed to saying that Jesus is warning his listeners to flee sin, so as to flee the impending judgment on Jerusalem. This means he would have to be speaking at least primarily to people from Jerusalem. But the setting of the two discourses is most likely Galilee, as indicated by Matthew 4:18, 23; Matthew 17:22, 24. There is no hint in the text that he is preaching in Jerusalem; he appears to be preaching far to the north.
  3. This in turn raises the question of how plausible it is to take Jesus as providing instructions for avoiding the fall of Jerusalem. Comparing his words here to other such instructions recorded in Matthew’s gospel shows how far J&J’s interpretation misses the mark:

    So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Matthew 24:15-19

    You notice how Jesus includes specific time and location markers (the abomination of desolation in the holy place). He specifically calls out the people who must take heed (those in Judea). The discourse takes place in Jerusalem. He gives practical detail on how to avoid the judgment to come—all the kinds of concrete information his audience would need to spot the signs and take action. Matthew even includes the comment that the reader should understand, since he wrote before 70 AD. All this is exactly what you would expect from instructions on avoiding being tossed into the Valley of Hinnom during a siege; and it is nothing at all like the obviously figurative and eschatological comments Jesus makes in Matthew 5 and 18 about cutting off your bits to avoid judgment.

Getting back to the central issue of being “thrown” into Gehenna, and who is doing the throwing, and where, let’s examine the parallel passage in Matthew 18:

And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the Gehenna of fire. Matthew 18:8-9

What is the context of Matthew 18:8-9? It is found in Matthew 18:3: Jesus is giving a discourse on how to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is an eschatological discourse. He is not talking about the present-life effects of sin, and this is completely obvious from the use of the word “eternal”, and the fact that he speaks of entering life lame or blind. Obviously someone alive who is old enough to cut off one of their own body parts can hardly be described as entering this life; the clear implication, even if the context did not dictate it, is that Jesus is speaking of the next life. Eternal life.

This eschatological context is fatal to J&J’s view. Doubly so because entering life is contrasted with being thrown into the Gehenna of fire. If entering life is something that happens after the resurrection, on the new earth, then the comparison demands that entering the Gehenna of fire must be something that happens at the same time. This is explicitly confirmed in Mark 9, which J&J simply gloss over on the basis that they’ve already “dealt” with the parallel in Matthew 5:30:

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to Gehenna to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” Mark 9:43-48

You see that entering the kingdom of God is explicitly contrasted with being thrown into Gehenna. A person enters the kingdom—a dignified ingress—but is thrown into Gehenna—an undignified one. If the kingdom is eternal, then by parity of symbolism, Gehenna is eternal. So it simply beggars all belief to think Jesus is speaking of this present life, or of one-time physical death.

Moreover, notice the odd grammar around Gehenna—it is almost as if he is trying to signal that he is not referring to the Valley of Hinnom, for the more literal-minded and linguistically-challenged members of his audience, who might otherwise be confused despite how commonplace an idiom this was. One does not speak of places in this way; of the “Gehenna of fire”; “the Valley of Hinnom of fire”. One does not continually emphasize Jewish eschatological typology, viz “unquenchable”, “eternal”, “where the worm does not die”, if one is speaking of a literal valley. One would do this precisely to emphasize that one was not speaking of the literal valley!

The tongue set on fire by hell

J&J deal with James 3:6 thusly:

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell (Gehenna).

Evil from one body part corrupts the whole body. Sound familiar?

That’s their entire analysis. And no, it doesn’t sound familiar—it doesn’t sound familiar at all! James is not talking about physical corruption—he is talking about one’s being, as quite clearly indicated by the parallelism with “whole course of one’s life.” The whole course of one’s life is decided by who one is in their being, which in turn is directed by their tongue. Speaking of the body as the whole person is just standard Semitic Totality thinking, which James is saturated with. If I had to guess, I’d suppose J&J aren’t familiar with Semitic Totality, despite their willingness to instruct us in “Jewish thought”.

What James is doing here is drawing on Gehenna as a place closely associated with Satan and the wicked sons of God—the powers and principalities at work in this present darkness (cf Ephesians 2:2; 6:12; 2 Corinthians 4:4; John 14:30; 1 John 5:19). The irony of their missing this is too thick to cut, because James is actually doing the exact thing with Gehenna qua hell that Second Temple Judaism originally did with Gehenna qua valley: turning it into a metonym! He is using Gehenna to refer to the beings associated with it: namely, the devil and his angels. J&J’s inability to spot basic rhetorical techniques blinds them to the Bible’s plain teaching on eternal punishment. Those with a tin ear ought not opine on the music.

Children of Gehenna

First I’ll quote the passage we’re exegeting, since J&J didn’t even do that basic legwork to put it in context. Then I’ll quote their response to it:

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of Gehenna as yourselves… 29 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to Gehenna? Matthew 23:13-15, 29-33

Now the response:

In Matthew 23:15 we see Jesus refer to the Pharisees as “Children of Gehenna” and later in verse 33, queries, “how will you escape being condemned to Gehenna?”

This is telling on multiple levels and serves to handily solidify the argument for Jesus referencing literal Gehenna as a meaningful symbol.

For one, the Pharisees were all about perceived righteousness. They obsessively followed every directive of the Law and made a continuous presentation of their cleanliness and piousness.

And here comes Jesus calling them children of the sewer – telling them that for all their pomp and circumstance, their own “righteousness” won’t be enough to save them from the dung heap. It’s even chronologically possible that some of those listening would have their own dead bodies dumped over the city walls and into Gehenna during the Roman siege to come.

To add a second level of insult, remember that in John 8, the Pharisees responded to Jesus’ teaching by boasting that they were sons of Abraham. They took pride in their lineage, and here is Jesus calling them children of the dung heap.

Again there is a palpable irony to J&J’s interpretation here. They are so fixated on their literal view of Gehenna as a sewer that they miss the clear evidence in the text itself as to what “children of Gehenna” actually means. Jesus is hardly subtle about this: he calls the Pharisees serpents and vipers. In Jewish thinking this is just exactly like calling someone a devil or a demon. That’s the point of language like Luke 10:17-20—the disciples are not physically stepping on physical snakes, but figuratively stepping on figurative snakes.

This being the case, Jesus is linking the Pharisees with Satan, and Satan with Gehenna, in just the way James does above. (One might even be bold enough to surmise that James learned this from Jesus himself!) The pieces all fit together. The entire trajectory of redemption history takes place in the context of the children of the serpent at war with the children of God, starting in Genesis 3:15. The children of God, of course, are descended from Abraham—but “not all Israel is Israel.” The Pharisees identify themselves as being the good guys in this narrative, but Jesus is telling them that in fact they are the bad guys—they are the seed of the serpent, which is exactly what he also says in John 8:42-44. This in turn links in to Matthew 25:41, and Revelation 20:10, along with all the Second Temple ideas about judgment we’ve already canvassed.

None of it comports with a literal valley. The entire force of Jesus’ statement trades on existing Jewish motifs about spiritual descent, spiritual enemies, spiritual warfare, and eschatological judgment.

The fiery Gehenna

Matthew 5:22 says,

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, “You good-for-nothing,” shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, “You fool,” shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery Gehenna.

J&J explain this as follows:

Yet again, this passage seems to corroborate the idea of a literal Gehenna without suggesting eternal torture. There’s nothing unusual to this other than Jesus raising the standard of what constitutes a punishable offense. Whoever heard of going to court for being angry?

If anything, this points back to our original discussion of Gehenna. Jesus is demonstrating how little it takes for sin to work it’s destruction. Just a bit of unresolved anger, then a deepening of the relational divide, then you are at the point of actually despising your brother and the destruction is already upon you.

Is that a little bit of a stretch? Perhaps.

But certainly not as much of a stretch as looking at these 13 passages and somehow coming away with a God who tortures people mercilessly for all eternity.

What is striking here is that J&J admit that their interpretation is a stretch. It is going beyond what the text can reasonably be taken to say. Unfortunately, simply owning up to this doesn’t actually reduce its force! This isn’t like a movie making a nod to a plot hole as a tongue-in-cheek way of begging indulgence. This is God’s word we’re dealing with here.

J&J’s consolation is apparently that a God who tortures people mercilessly for all eternity is even more of a stretch than their own view. Which is true. But offering a bad explanation that is better than an even worse one is a rather Pyrrhic victory, even if the worse explanation isn’t a strawman. Unfortunately for them, the traditional view, of a God who punishes people for eternity rather than torturing them, is directly, clearly and undoubtedly taught in the text, given what we’ve already seen about Gehenna.

Eternal destruction

Here is 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9:

This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power…

J&J opine:

This is a fascinating verse, because at face value, it pretty much throws a monkey wrench in every possible view of the afterlife.

If you believe in the mainstream concept of Hell, the word “destruction” is not helping you out. If you believe in Christian Universalism, the word “destruction” is not helping you out. If you believe in the annihilation of the wicked, or are simply reading this verse as a rational human being, the combination of “eternal” and “destruction” simply doesn’t make sense…

According to Dr. Peter Bluer, this dilemma is solved by a more in depth look at this word for “destruction” – ολεθρος or olethros. In Dr. Bluer’s 38 page exposition of this phrase, he demonstrates that olethros is most accurately translated here as the state of being lost….

“These will suffer the age of loss from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His strength.”

Once again it is obvious that J&J have neither done their homework, nor even thought this through at a basic linguistic level. Destruction is not identical to annihilation. I once destroyed my motorbike by riding it into a truck head first. From what I heard—or certainly what I paid—the front of the truck was destroyed also. Do you think I had no motorbike afterwards? Did the truck have no front end? Obviously that is absurd; the point is that they were wrecked, not annihilated. I even spoke this way earlier, when I talked about a life that gets destroyed by sin, where the good things are wrecked or obliterated by bad choices. Did you mistake me for meaning a life that was annihilated? I didn’t think so. Yet this is the level of wooden interpretation we’re dealing with from J&J. They have such a tin ear that they can’t even grok basic rhetorical techniques that we use in everyday English.

It doesn’t exactly tax the imagination to see how the traditional view of hell can be aptly described in terms of people being wrecked forever—especially given that the Bible implicitly cashes out hell in terms of losing the image of God, as I’ve discussed. The human condition is genuinely wrecked in hell, because everything we were created for is taken away or lost. It is an ongoing wreckage because unlike inanimate things that, once they’re destroyed they’re destroyed, human beings continue to live in this state, never improving, but continually sinning and making their condition even worse. So contrary to J&J’s protestations, there is utterly nothing mysterious about this destruction language on the traditional view of hell. It is only other views that find this passage perplexing, and end up having to “retranslate” it in ham-fisted ways.

The lake of fire

According to J&J:

Since Revelation is an extreme display of symbolism, the lake of fire could represent multiple concepts.

In Revelation 20:14, we see Death and Hades thrown into the lake of fire. This could very well mean that the lake of fire represents God’s eternal triumph over evil, sin, and death…

These symbols could be pointing to God as the proverbial hero who will ultimately prevail.

In an alternative view, it should be noted that the word for “torment” in Revelation 14:10 is the Greek “basanizo” which has a primary meaning of testing with a touchstone. This suggests that the lake of fire might not be for torment or destruction, but rather, for “testing”. The language used here creates an analogy to the testing metal with a touchstone in order to make sure it is pure…

At the end of the day, it’s difficult to make absolute conclusions about symbolic stories, which is why every Christian you’ve ever met has a different view of eschatology.

But what we don’t see here is the conclusive idea that people will be tortured for eternity.

This is the closest thing we get to an outright admission that teaching the Bible is above their pay-grade. I’m going to leave without comment their gross exaggeration of the number of eschatological views you’ll find on the street. I’m also going to ignore the claim that “torment” should be translated “testing”, since I would be beating a dead horse if I took them to task any longer for linguistic incompetence—suffice to say that if you can find me a major translation that renders “torment” as “testing,” I’ll reconsider. Rather, I want to focus purely on what we can actually infer about the lake of fire using some simple deduction, and not wrapping ourselves in knots over near-Eastern mythology.

  • Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire. What we can infer from this is that it’s not a literal lake of literal fire—because even if you could throw the underworld into such a lake, you can’t do that to death itself, which is an abstract concept. J&J speak as if this is all new ground; like traditionalists don’t know this stuff. But here’s the problem:
  • The devil, the beast, the false prophet, and anyone whose name is not written in the book of life, are also thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10, 15). What we can infer from this is that the lake of fire represents something which happens to persons as well as to abstracta. Nothing could be more obvious, and presumably even J&J agree about this.
  • The lake of fire involves continual torment (Revelation 20:10). What we can infer from this is that, while John clearly uses the lake of fire as a flexible metaphor (death and Hades cannot be tormented), for the persons thrown into it, the result is some kind of continual anguish.
  • The lake of fire is explicitly called the “second death” (Revelation 20:14). This, if nothing else, puts the lie to J&J’s whimsical retranslation of John 3:16 as God giving Jesus, “that whoever believes in Him shall not be lost.” John’s use of language is consistent—to perish is to die, and Revelation shows us that it is to die a second time; an experience which involves continual torment. This is only puzzling if you forget that death, in the Bible, need not refer to the cessation of bodily function, but primarily to separation from life—that is, God (John 1:4). Did Adam and Eve die on the day they ate the fruit (Genesis 2:17)? Yes, they did—they were separated from life by losing their unity with God. When you go from being under God’s favor to being under his judgment, you go from being connected to life to being disconnected from it. Their death was tolerable because God did not go straight to the full version—Death 2.0, eternal conscious punishment. He could have, but he had a bigger plan, and so he graciously withheld that permanent judgment in order to give them, and us, another chance at life. That is why there is a next life, and that is why the second death is the second death.

So whatever the lake of fire is, it represents a state experienced by persons, in which they are eternally tormented by separation from life, which is to say by being under God’s judgment instead of his favor.

That’s all straightforwardly inferred from the text without any need to speculate as to the precise nature of the lake of fire itself, and without any need to concoct a cosmic torture chamber. You notice this isn’t very complicated or difficult. I just let the text say what it actually says, and referred back to previous biblical concepts which it alludes to. Since I don’t have a problem with what it says, and don’t feel the need to censor it, I don’t have to feign piety and scratch my head and make out like it’s hard to know what it’s trying to say, but whatever it is, it can’t be that.

This brings us, blessedly, to the end of having to witness J&J butchering God’s word on the altar of sentiment. But there are still two more arguments they make which we shall have to mop up by way of closing…

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