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May 21, 2012


In context, Jesus and Paul were apocalyptic in their eschatology. That is, they expected a soon (within their generation) "end," which happened in 70 A.D. in the form of the end of the Old Covenant age. Temples, animal sacrifices, physical Israel, and representations of New Covenant concepts are of no use, and no longer serve any purpose.

The American Protestant Evangelical Fundamentalist church takes its eschatology more from Darby and Lindsay than Jesus and Paul.

A new, critical look at eschatology is needed in our churches today. We need to realize that when pronouns such as "you" are used in the New Testament books (ref. Matt. 24 and Luke 21), they had an immediate audience, and we today (or any person other than those listeners at the time) are not the "you." This is simple textual analysis.

It will be interesting to see how Calvary Chapel and other churches for whom "End Times" is their bread and butter make peace with the fact that the "1948" train has left the station. It is a paradigm shift, indeed, to realize that the land in the Middle East called Israel, while fully having a right to exist, is of no prophetic significance whatsoever.

Time for the ascendance of solid literary criticism in our study of the Bible, and let's leave the 1970s behind.

I agree with Perry on this. Folks like N.T. Wright have made a good case for reading much of the Synoptic Gospels in light of the theme of divine judgment in the form of imminent national catastrophe that was accomplished in A.D. 70. One thing that might recommend this approach is that it may provide ways of saving Jesus from mistakenly predicting the "second coming" as occurring in the lifetime of his audience (that would not appeal to me at all, by the way, since I have no sympathy with hard-nosed historical inquiry being greatly influenced by such pieties).

What many will not like about that approach, however, is that once you take it, you start saying that many of the sayings of Jesus that conservative evangelicals have tended to think are about hell are actually not about hell at all, but about the destruction of the Temple. It starts to look like Jesus was a lot more like Jonah in proclaiming imminent national disaster (and a way of avoiding it, i.e. "repentance") and a lot less like Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards waxing eloquent about the post-mortem fate of humanity. But for the conservative evangelical, the idea that Jesus never (or rarely and only in the vaguest of terms) spoke about hell is far too scandalous, offensive, and paradigm-changing (if it is pointed out that for many non-conservatives a Jesus who taught hell is far too offensive, the reply is just that this in no way undercuts or even engages the present hypothesis, which is that a Wright-type view will not win acceptance among conservative evangelicals because of their inability to make anything of a hell-less or nearly hell-less Jesus). Most conservative evangelicals, after all, have taught each other that Jesus spoke about hell more than anything else! Who would be surprised, therefore, if they cast suspicious eyes on the following remark, found in Wright's "Surprised by Hope":

Jesus simply didn’t say very much about the future life...We cannot therefore look to Jesus’ teaching for any fresh detail on whether there really are some who finally reject God and, as it were, have that rejection ratified. (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, pg. 177)

So, I doubt very seriously that such an interpretation will catch on, even if the case for it were quite strong and it could provide a neat way of saving Jesus from mistaken predictions. For many, going that way would be frightening in just the way it is frightening to let the historical Jesus wander off the beaten path our neat systems and interpretive traditions have provided for him. So, though I agree with Perry on his insistence that the Church needs to rethink these issues, I'm quite confident that the conservative wing of the Church will learn about Wright's views (if it even does that!) only in order to reassert their traditions against Wright in a more intelligent and effective manner. Change is not on the horizon. What is on the horizon is either continued ignorance of Wright-type views or else works of conservative apologetics designed to save the hell-preaching Jesus from threats coming from Wright's corner.

(For those interested in hearing Wright's case, check out chapters 11 and 8 of his "Jesus and the Victory of God")

I agree with Perry on this.
So do staunchly conservative and reformed teachers R.C. Sproul and Douglas Wilson, for examples.

If you're interested in N.T. Wright and whether Malebranche is following him on his view of Hell:

Oh yeah, that reminds me. Wright is not a universalist (he doesn't appear to be much of a traditionalist either). What that means is that he doesn't think the idea of hell is morally atrocious. So, here's something we can reject: "Wright is just trying to find clever ways of saying Jesus never taught about hell because Wright himself finds hell morally objectionable."

So, here's something we can reject: "Wright is just trying to find clever ways of saying Jesus never taught about hell because Wright himself finds hell morally objectionable."
Here's something else we can reject:
"Wright is saying that Jesus never taught about Hell."

For instance:

The point is that when Jesus was warning His hearers abuot Gehenna, He was not , in general, telling that that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one.
All the signs, of course, are that He went along with the normal first century Jewish perceptions: there would indeed be such people [who finally reject God and, as it were, have that rejection ratified], with the only surprise being the surprise experienced, by sheep and goats alike, at their fate and at the evidence upon which it is based. And the early Christian writers go along with this. hell, and final judgment, is not a major topic in the letters (though when it comes it is very important, as for instance in Romans 2:1-16) ...
I find it quite impossible, reading the New Testament ... to suppose that there will be no ultimate condemnation, no final loss, no human beings to whom, as C.S. Lewis put it, God will eventually say "Thy will be done."

N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope

I’ll provide the larger context of the passage I quoted, and leave it to the reader to judge whether or not Wright thinks that Jesus frequently and clearly spoke about hell, or whether he thinks Jesus rarely if ever discussed the matter. The impression I get from Wright’s prose is that he thinks Jesus probably believed in hell (eternal conscious torment? annihilation after finite punishment? finite punishment followed by final redemption? Wright doesn’t say, in the slick, furtive, and slippery style that is so typical of his popular works), but taught on it rarely or not at all, and certainly did not deliver any teaching that would settle the question of whether or not some will have their rejection of God ratified into all eternity (apparently Jesus wasn’t nearly as concerned to be clear and precise about the nature of hell as the typical conservative evangelical is; one wonders how he managed to spread the “good news” if he never or rarely spoke of hell. hmmm). In the last sentence I provide, Wright seems to say that all the signs suggest that Jesus held the typical Jewish belief, but it is of course crucial to see that Wright can say both (a) Jesus never or rarely discussed hell, and (b) the signs suggest Jesus believed in hell, precisely because signs that Jesus believed in hell needn’t come in the form of his explicit teaching on the matter (the use of imagery in order to teach on something wholly unrelated to hell might provide such signs, and perhaps this is Wright’s point concerning Lazarus and the Rich Man; not sure). Unfortunately, Wright tells us precious little about what those signs are, and the reader is naturally left wondering, since any competent reader of English can see that the bulk of the passage provided below is dedicated to emphasizing how little Jesus taught about the afterlife.

Anyway, as you can see, Wright’s view is that Jesus either rarely or never taught about the horrors of hell, and certainly did not do so with the frequency, enthusiasm, and concern for defending the fort of traditional orthodoxy that so many conservative evangelicals exhibit. And it is also clear from reading his other work that he thinks a lot of the way conservative evangelicals (and even their leaders) read the Synoptics is, well, thoroughly feckless. If you're looking for a Jesus that's going around warning his interlocutors of eternal conscious postmortem torment awaiting those who reject the gospel, then you hardly have a friend in N.T. Wright.

Here’s the long quote from Wright:

The most common New Testament word sometimes translated by hell is Gehenna. Gehenna was a place, not just an idea: it was the rubbish heap outside the southwest corner of the old city of Jerusalem. There is to this day a valley at that point that bears the name Ge Hinnom. When I was in Jerusalem a few years ago, I was taken to a class restaurant on the western slope of this famous valley, and we witnessed a spectacular fireworks display, organized no doubt without deliberate irony, on the site to which Jesus was referring to when he spoke about the smoldering fires of Gehenna. But, as with his language about heaven, so with his talk of Gehenna: once Christian readers had been sufficiently distanced from the original meaning of the words, alternative images would come to mind, generated not by Jesus or the New Testament but by the stock images, some of them extremely lurid, supplied by ancient and medieval folklore and imagination.

The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna, he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else. His message to his contemporaries was start and (as we would say today) political. Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy, and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries (not least in the Middle East) whose resources they covet or whose strategic location they are anxious to guard. Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” that is the primary meaning he had in mind.

It is therefore only by extension, and with difficulty, that we can extrapolate from the many gospel sayings that articulate this urgent, immediate warning to the deeper question of warning about what may happen after death itself. The two parables that appear to address this question directly are, we should remember, parables, not actual descriptions of the afterlife. They use stock imagery from ancient Judaism, such as “Abraham’s bosom,” not to teach about what happens after death but to insist on justice and mercy within the present life. This is not to say that jesus would have dissented from their implied picture of postmortem realities. It is, rather, to point out that to take the scene of Abraham, the Rich Man, and Lazarus literally is about as sensible as trying to find out the name of the Prodigal Son. Jesus simply didn’t say very much about the future life; he was, after all, primarily concerned to announce that God’s kingdom was coming “on earth as in heaven.” He gave (as we have seen) no fresh teaching on the question of the resurrection apart from dark hints that it was going to happen, and happen soon, to one person ahead of everyone else; for the rest, he was content to reinforce the normal Jewish picture. In the same way, he was not concerned to give any fresh instruction on postmortem judgment apart from the strange hints that it was going to be dramatically and horribly anticipated in one particular way, in space-time history, within a generation.

We cannot therefore look to Jesus’ teaching for any fresh detail on whether there really are some who finally reject God and, as it were, have that rejection ratified. All the signs, of course, are that he went along with the normal first-century Jewish perception: there would indeed be such people, with the only surprise being the surprise experienced, by sheep and goats alike, at their fate and at the evidence on which it was based. (Wright, “Surprised by Hope,” pp. 175-177)

If you're looking for a Jesus that's going around warning his interlocutors of eternal conscious postmortem torment awaiting those who reject the gospel, then you hardly have a friend in N.T. Wright.
And if you brag about N.T. Wright and his view of eschatology remember that you have no friend of universalism in him, and that he says it is impossible to read the New Testament and not realize that it is teaching final condemnation of the sinful.

Also, it might be interesting to recall that on many of the threads where Malebranche was referring to believers in Hell as heretics and blasphemers, he was also calling N.T. Wright a first rate Bible scholar.

Another point is that "imminence" loses its meaning if it does not mean "imminent." The "immanence" language throughout the NT books is so pervasive, that to take it out of that context and make those passages apply to some date thousands of years in the future is to render the text meaningless.

R.C. Sproul's The Last Days According to Jesus is the book that turned my thinking around on eschatology.


I've not read that book. Does Sproul agree with Wright that Jesus either rarely or never spoke in great detail about the afterlife?

Have you noticed that those are two different subjects, Malebranche?
Or that the subject of Hell is not, actually, every other subject?

Let's put N.T. Wright's statements with Malebranche's.

N.T. Wright says Jesus never gave us any fresh details on Hell.
He says all signs point to Jesus sharing the common view of Hell at the time and that there are those who rebel against God who will end there.
Malebranche says Jesus never spoke in great detail of the afterlife.

Why would He speak in great detail if, as this first-rate Biblical scholar and historian contends, He held to the common view? If He had little to add why would He add anything? Or, more to the point, if everyone already had an understanding of Hell that comported with His teachings and admonitions why would the Gospel writers report further affirmations.
Jesus did presuppose and include Hell in many of His teachings and parables. Doing so did not require that He give fresh details or great insights about it - but it does presuppose Hell.

Malebranche - the subject of Sproul's book was eschatology. It's been over ten years since I read it, but I don't recall much (if any) emphasis on the afterlife.

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