I’ve decided to take a short break from researching, writing and blogging for now. Back in undergrad I could get away with just studying the night before and get decent grades. Law school, however, is far different. I have a ton of studying to do and a huge paper to write. If I end up having time to post more within the next few weeks, I will but I don’t believe I will. Hopefully this break will be as short as possible; I have many more things I want to talk about and share with you and have no intention of stopping. Wish me luck.
Monthly Archives: April 2014
“Is it not common to say to a child, ‘Put your finger in that candle, can you bear it even for one minute?’ How then will you bear Hell-fire? Surely it would be torment enough to have the flesh burnt off from only one finger; what then will it be to have the whole body plunged into a lake of fire, burning with brimstone?” from John Wesley’s “Sermon 73”
As a kid, I was constantly warned about the fires of hell. In fact, the example used above by John Wesley is very close the kind of warnings I received about hell. The flames were always emphasized more than anything else, these were never-ending flames that will burn your flesh constantly. Hell and fire has pretty much become synonymous. However, I began to wonder if the fire imagery really is meant to be taken literally the more I studied the Bible. In this post, however, I will only focus on the descriptions used in Jesus’ teachings; I will not be talking about the descriptions in Revelation. I’ll leave that for my next post. Here we go.
When teaching about Hell, Jesus uses a lot of fire imagery. He describes hell as a place of unquenchable fire in Mark 9:43, 48. He also describes hell as a place of eternal fire (Matt. 18:8, 25:41). We can’t escape the fire imagery. Growing up, I was taught that this meant that there will be actual fire literally roasting everyone in hell for eternity. I see why we would think that, however, we also have to remember that Jesus was speaking to an audience immersed in Jewish history and culture. If Jesus ever uses an image, metaphor or figure of speech, he is very likely using one from the Old Testament, one that his audience would immediately understand. If we look through the Old Testament, we find many references to unquenchable fire, especially in the Old Testament prophets. Here are a few examples:
Isaiah talks about the powerful people of his nation burning up and “no one will be able to put out the fire” (Isaiah 1:31).
Isaiah also describes God’s anger as a destructive and unquenchable fire (Isaiah 33:14).
Jeremiah says that God’s “raging fury will be poured out on this land… and it will burn like a fire which cannot be extinguished” (Jeremiah 7:20).
Ezekial describes God’s judgment as a “flaming fire” that “will not be extinguished” (Ezekial 22:45-48).
Amos says God will break out like fire and consume everything and “no one will be able to quench it” (Amos 5:6)
In all of these passages, the speaker is warning the people of God’s coming judgment using the image of fire. When judgment actually comes on their nation, it comes in the form of an invading army. It does not come as a huge ball of fire that roasts everyone, nor does it continue to burn now. We have all these verses that speak about an unquenchable fire and they all use this phrase as a picture of God’s judgment. In fact, there are many more descriptions in the Old Testament that compare God’s wrath and anger to a consuming fire and are clearly meant to be metaphorical. From this, it seems clear that when Jesus uses fire imagery, especially the image of an unquenchable fire, he is referring to the Old Testament prophets who used the same language. Jesus uses these images as a picture of judgment, not actual flames that will roast the damned. There was no need for Jesus to explain what he meant when using the fire imagery because he knew his audience would already know what he was talking about.
When faced with these references to the prophets who spoke of fire as a metaphor for God’s judgment, I see no reason to interpret Jesus’ descriptions of unquenchable and eternal fires differently. His point seems to be that those who don’t follow his teachings will be subject to God’s judgment which will be eternal. What will that judgment actually look like? Well, we have explored the idea of hell as a place or state of shame here and here, but other than that… I guess it’s something we can explore in future posts 😉
In my last post about gehenna, I wrote that since Jesus’ audience had a particular history and culture, Jesus will speak to them using this history and culture. I want to write a little bit more about this before we continue our discussion about hell. Think of this post as an intermission.
Jesus was born into a certain culture that had its own practices and beliefs about the world. The people he taught had a certain language, a certain history, certain customs, etc. In order to teach these people, Jesus had to teach and speak on their terms; he used their history, their culture and their language to teach. Therefore, we have to dig into the history, culture and language to really understand what Jesus meant.
Now some might think that I’m just using this as an excuse to explain away things I don’t like about the Bible. But I want to point out that we all do the same thing. Let me explain. As a law student, I speak a certain way when discussing legal problems with other law students; I use a certain type of language and vocabulary. When I go home to my wife and start talking about what I learned in class, I have to change the way I speak and explain a lot of things in order for her to understand. This is not because she’s stupid and uneducated, but because lawyers have a certain vocabulary that only those trained in law will understand. If I were to explain to my wife why I think the Supreme Court should use the rational basis test instead of strict scrutiny when analyzing racial classifications, there’s a lot that I would need to explain. My wife would have no idea what I’m talking about unless I explained the basics of constitutional law to her. However, if I start talking with people in my class about racial classifications and the rational basis test, I won’t explain anything because I assume they will understand the basics of constitutional law.
The same goes for car mechanics, football players, doctors, video gamers, and pretty much any group of people. Any time there is a group of people, they will develop their own vocabulary and language. Inside jokes are a good example of this. If I start talking about how much I hate level-scaling in RPGs, only video gamers who play role-playing games will know what I’m talking about. Others will have no idea what I’m talking about even if they know the definition of the words scaling and level.
In the same way, Jesus teaches and speaks in a certain way because he is talking to a certain group people. Therefore, when teaching, Jesus uses words and images the people in the audience all know about because it comes from their history or their culture. Those who aren’t familiar with the culture and history of Jesus’ audience will not completely understand the language and images that Jesus uses. In some cases we risk actually misinterpreting the teachings of the Bible. In order for us to really understand what exactly Jesus is teaching, we have to dig deep into what audience knew about their history, their culture, their world, etc. Only when we do this can we really understand exactly what Jesus meant when using a certain image or figure of speech.
There is a lot more that can be said about this, but I’ll stop here. For now, I just wanted to talk a little about this because it will become more important as we start discussing the fiery imagery of hell in the Bible.