Tag Archives: God’s Judgment

Matthew 18: 21-35 A Forgiving King and Community

By Domenico Fetti – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=150920

Matthew 18: 21-35

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This parable is unique to Matthew’s gospel but is well known as the parable of the unforgiving servant (or slave). In the individualistic culture of modernity it is natural that we focus primarily on this one slave who has an incredible debt forgiven, but the placement of this parable within a chapter that is focused on forgiveness and reconciliation within a community setting should alert us that something beyond an individualistic interpretation which neglects the surrounding community is insufficient. In Matthew individual actions and communal responsibility go together just like forgiveness of sins/trespasses and the forgiveness of economic debts. We have already seen Jesus model for the disciples in Matthew 6: 12-15 where in the Lord’s prayer the disciple asks for God to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtor.” And follows this with, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.” In response to Peter’s question about forgiveness these statements are given narrative form in the parable.

Peter’s question, narratively prompted by the practices of reconciliation with a member of the community of Christ who sins against another member, about the limits of forgiveness and Jesus’ response about the expansiveness of forgiveness provide the foundation for the world of the parable. Peter’s question of limits is a practical one in discerning when a fellow member of the community is beyond redemption, when a lost sheep should remain lost of a fellow member be perpetually condemned as a Gentile and tax collector. Jesus’ answer invokes the figure of Lamech and stands in direct opposition to Lamech’s way of retaliation:

Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech listen to what I say: I have killed a young man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4: 23-24)

Lamech, the descendant of Cain, responds to violence with greater violence, Jesus responds to sin and violence with the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation. As David Garland can state, “Under Lamech there was no limit to hatred and revenge; under Moses it was limited to an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life; under Jesus there is no limit to love, forgiveness, and mercy.” (Garland, 2001, p. 197)

Entering the parable, we have the kingdom of heaven placed alongside a king settling accounts with his slaves. Although the slavery imagined in this parable is different from slavery as it was practiced in the United States, the people ordered by the king are not merely servants who are bound by an economic arrangement that either party could terminate. The slave, their relationships and their property are ultimately the property of this king who has the power, as we will see in the parable, to dispose of as he sees fit. On the other hand, this king delegates incredible economic authority, and presumably power as well, to the first slave in particular. In settling accounts (literally settling words) with the slaves of the king only one debtor is significant enough to bear mention for the story. We can become fixated on how to communicate the value of 10,000 talents, but both the word for 10,000 is like seventy times seven, a number too high to account for and the unit of measure, a talent, is too large for most of Jesus’ hearers to ever possess. As M. Eugene Boring can state:

A talent is the largest monetary unit (20.4 kg of silver), equal to 6,000 drachmas, the wages of a manual laborer for fifteen years. “Ten thousand” (mupia,j myrias, “myriad”) is the largest possible number. Thus the combination is the largest figure that can be given. The annual tax income of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. Ten thousand talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria. The amount is fantastic, beyond all calculation. (NIB VIII: 382)

For Matthew debt and sin are closely related and so it is a short jump from a question of forgiveness of sin to a narrative where an unpayable debt is owed and forgiveness is granted on account of compassion and mercy. In the narrative the king is entitled to sell of the slave, his family, and his possessions to regain as much of the impossible amount that this slave is unable to pay back. The slave prostrates himself and asks for patience, the king responds with compassion and grants a release from the loan and from the impending punishment of himself and his family.

The first slave forgiven the impossible debt then encounters another slave who is indebted to him for a realistic and repayable amount (1/600,000 of the forgiven debt if one wants to be literal). The violence of the forgiven slave’s action towards the debtor where he grabs him and is choking him as he makes his demand for repayment stands in contrast to the king’s summoning. While in the world of court political intrigue where the forgiven slave is attempting to reassert power over his subordinates may make sense in a normal kingdom (Carter, 2005, p. 373) it is anathema to the kingdom of heaven. It is helpful to remember that a parable is a narrative world based upon but not dependent upon a concrete reality, a real king or an earthly kingdom. The forgiven slave claims a power the king did not use initially, the power of violence and threat, the power to imprison and demand. The still indebted and choked slave responds to the assaulting slave with the exact stance and words used before the king, asking not for forgiveness but time. Yet, this former debtor shows no patience or mercy to the current debtor. Instead he imprisons him, perhaps to demonstrate his own power or to sooth his own ego. Regardless of the reason it impacts the community of those who serve the king.

The community knows what has happened in its midst, it grieves exceedingly the violence and injustice done to one of their own. In their grief they report it to their lord, hoping that their lord will intervene. The slaves of the king are heard and noticed, and this type of activity within the king’s reign, especially in light of the previous forgiveness, is unacceptable. The king’s will is to show mercy and to have mercy shown (perhaps a strange king but what normal king is like the kingdom of heaven). It is necessary to forgive others as one has been forgiven in this community. The forgiven slave may have a claim on the slave indebted to him, but the king of both has the final claim. The king finally responds to the previously forgiven slave in the same manner he responded to his debtor.

Some modern interpreters and many modern Christians are troubled by a God who judges. We may either believe in the distant god of modernity which is an unmoved mover, or we may imagine a god whose love excludes punishment of any kind. Neither of these gods are the God we encounter in scripture. God does take sides and God does judge and this is a corollary of God’s love for God’s people and the creation not in opposition to it. A community committed to reconciliation and doing the hard work of advocating and including lost sheep, Gentiles and tax collectors and debtors is an alternative to the ways of power in the world. The kingdom of heaven is not like a regular king, but a forgiving one. At the same time, it is still better for a millstone to be hung around the neck of those who place barriers for the little ones of the kingdom for God judges what the community cannot. The community of Christ may have the hard work of binding and loosing on earth, and God values that work, but it is always directed towards a community of forgiveness and mercy. Just as Christ is present where two or three are gathered, so the community’s cries when an individual or group does not practice forgiveness are heard by their heavenly Father. There is an edge to God’s dwelling with the community that does not practice the life God calls them to. This is the edge in the prophets’ voices as they spoke to Israel when they did not live in accordance with God’s covenant for them and this is the edge of the parable when a community or individual does not forgive as they have been forgiven.

 

Matthew 18: 1-10 A Community of Little Ones

By Carl Bloch – The Athenaeum: Home – info – pic, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25991809

Matthew 18: 1-10

 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

6 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!

8 “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire. 10 “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.[1]

The fourth block of teaching in Matthew continues to explore what embodying the way of Jesus in community will look like. I view the contours of this block of teaching different than many who comment on this section both in its length and in what is being communicated. Most scholars end this block of teaching with the seam at the beginning of Chapter 19, “When Jesus had finished these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.” The scholars who end the block of teaching at 19:1 are paying attention to a pattern in Matthew’s gospel (see 7:28, 11:1, and 13:53) where it is announced that Jesus has finished his teaching or parables, and while there is a distinct ending and transition in the previous cases, thematically and structurally I believe Matthew wants us to hear Matthew 18:1-20:28 as a unit: It begins and ends with a question of greatness, it allows the normal pattern of three in parables to be joined together, and it centers around questions of how the community of Christ is to live in relations to one another.

Just as the people of Israel were to be an alternative to the community which was built upon the practices of slavery and the acquisition of power by the great ones in Egypt, Babylon and Rome, so the community of Jesus’ followers is a countercultural community where the leaders are like humble children. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven will be like the least and the very question of greatness is a danger to the unity of the community. The disciples are still learning the ways of the kingdom of heaven and unlearning the ways that the kingdoms of the world have taught them. Jesus continues to teach them the type of life they are to embody for this new community of the kingdom of heaven.

The use of a child as a visual illustration in this teaching is instructive in several manners. First, it indicates that there were already children present in close proximity to Jesus and that they felt welcome being in close proximity to him. Children in both the ancient world and the modern world are often excluded from the working world of men for fear they will be underfoot. In the ancient world children began to have value when they could be ‘little adults’ adding value to the work of the family. Being a child becomes a metaphor for being a part of the kingdom of heaven, but also for being a disciple and I do think the thematic use of ‘little one’ and the frequent reference to the disciples as ‘little faith ones’ is intentional. The child is welcomed not for the value that they can bring to the kingdom of heaven, they are not like the rich young man we will meet in the next chapter who has resources to bring into the community, but the welcoming of the humble child is an act of grace. The disciples are to learn the humility of the child who is placed in their midst not for the benefit of the adults in the circle, but purely as a witness to the type of community of hospitality that the kingdom of heaven is.

In a previous block of teaching Jesus linked showing hospitality to little ones when he stated, “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of the little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (10:42) The community of Jesus is to be a community of hospitality, and now the act of welcoming a little one is tied to welcoming Jesus. The same practice of welcoming a righteous person or a prophet is extended not only to disciples, but to the little ones who the disciples are to model themselves after. The opposite of the greatest (Greek meizon) is the little one (Greek micron) and the disciples instead of striving to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are to learn the logic of this kingdom where the first are last and the last are first. They are to be an alternative to the communities where power and authority is lorded over others, instead they are a community where humble little ones are valued and cherished and placed in the center of the community.

Being a disciple of Jesus is not merely about learning the right things. Throughout the gospel we have heard Jesus instruct those who listen that the practice of righteousness is critical. While I have argued against a type of moralistic perfectionism in reading Matthew, I do think we need to understand Jesus’ call for a community that authentically practices a merciful reading of the law. As we come to Jesus’ words about placing a ‘stumbling block’ it is important to address to two aspects of the Greek scandlise which stands behind this. This is the word that is at the root of the English word scandal, and there is a call for those within the community not to scandalize the ‘little ones.’ The type of community that Jesus teaching points towards is undercut by those who either use their authority for self-glorification, who misuse those who are vulnerable (women, children, those who are either politically or economically vulnerable), or whose actions do not embody the values of the kingdom of heaven. Many throughout history have been ‘scandalized’ by leaders or members of the church whose actions did not embody they vision of Christ. But the other aspect of scandalize is the placing of a barrier towards inclusion. There are many groups who have been excluded from participation in the church, and the history of the community of Christ is full of times where the boundaries of the community had to be removed to embody the vision Jesus handed on to the disciples who followed him.

Ironically, there may be times where a member’s actions towards others in the community necessitate their removal from the community. This will be a theme throughout chapter eighteen, but one’s actions in relation to the community do have implications both to one’s relationship to the community and to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus uses hyperbolic language here, and throughout the gospel, to underline the importance of practicing righteousness. When one’s actions scandalize or exclude a ‘little one’ it is a matter of life or death in the community and for one’s standing in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus does expect God to judge the world and those who exclude, the Jesus in Matthew’s gospel does take the side of the ‘little ones’ who are vulnerable to those who claim the status of greatness, who scandalize, exclude or practice hypocrisy. Even though the practice of hanging a millstone (literally the millstone of a donkey, a stone large enough that it needs a pack animal to turn) and casting a person into the sea to ‘sleep with the fishes’ would be understood in both ancient and modern contexts, I disagree with Warren Carter’s assertion that, “Again Jesus bullies disciples into obedience with a threat that imitates imperial practices.” (Carter, 2005, p. 364) Jesus does use graphic language to communicate with the disciples the importance of their embodiment of these teachings: a millstone around the neck, cutting off a hand or foot or tearing out an eye. As I stated when addressing this language in 5:29-30, this language is probably not intended individualistically or literally. Regardless the disciples are not the ones who will give the sentence of death by drowning or casting a person into Gehenna, but they will be the ones who have to teach and maintain the practices and, when necessary, the boundaries of the community. There may be times where the community, after attempting to correct a member, has to cast them away from the community but there is also the continual desire for reconciliation and forgiveness.

Anytime we talk about ‘eternal fire’ or the ‘Hell of fire’ we enter into a discussion that carries a lot of baggage for Christians. I engage this topic in a fuller way when I discussed Gehenna, Tartaros, Sheol, Hades and Hell and while it is impossible to completely free ourselves of the long history of thinking about the concepts of punishment beyond this life, I do think we need to be cautioned before we import these ideas into Matthew’s gospel. Jesus does believe that God does judge those who stand in opposition to the kingdom of heaven. Our conceptions about ‘eternal life’ and ‘eternal damnation’ while pulled from Jesus’ words about ‘the life of the new age’ or ‘entering into the age of fire’ or our conceptions of ‘hell’ based on Jesus’ use of the place ‘Gehenna’ have heaped upon the original concepts 2,000 years’ of poetic imagination, hellfire preaching, and fear. Jesus does present people with a choice, to choose the way of the kingdom of heaven which is life, or to choose the way opposed to the kingdom which means judgment, but the details of the judgment are only pointed to metaphorically. Yet, the way one treats the ‘little ones’ is critical for the community because the ‘little ones’ are critical to God. The plight of the ‘little ones’ is continually placed before God in heaven and the hope of the followers of Jesus, like the hope of the Jewish people, is that God would judge on behalf of the ‘little ones’ who are vulnerable with righteousness. Ultimately for the followers of Jesus the questions of God’s judgment are not in their control. They may have to bind or loose actions and individuals in the community, but any punishment beyond life is in God’s hands. In our individualistic way of reading scripture we have often reduced passages like this to compliance out of fear for the salvation of one’s soul, but my hope is that learning to read these passages in light of the community can open us for the joy of practicing the righteousness of God in a community which practices hospitality towards the ‘little ones,’  protects and honors them, has the courage to correct members who are not practicing righteousness and even to ‘cut them off’ when necessary for the life of the community. Yet, even when one is ‘cut off’ there is always the hope of repentance and reconciliation. The community of Jesus, the church, may find itself continually removing boundaries which keep the ‘little ones’ out of the community and struggling with scandals which endanger the ‘little ones’ as it awaits God’s judgment of the world in righteousness.

 

 

[1] Verse 11 is omitted in most modern translations and is probably a later insertion into the text. The text of verse 11 would be For the Son of Man came to save the lost.

Matthew 10: 24-33 Hope in the Midst of Resistance

James Tissot, The Exhortation to the Apostles (between 1886 and 1894)

Matthew 10: 24-34

Parallels Mark 13: 9-13; Luke 21: 12-19, Luke 12: 2-9

24 “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

­The relation of the disciple to Jesus can’t be captured in a single image. There is the element where they are like the disciple/student who learns from the teacher: listening to what the teacher says, imitating what the teacher does, practicing what the teacher preaches, living like the teacher invites their students to live. But there is also the slave (and this is better than softening the term to servant) and lord relationship (the word translated master is the word often translated lord in relation to Jesus) where the relationship is not one of equals but of master and subordinate. Modern people who tend to think of themselves as free willed individuals may chafe at the lord/slave dynamic and it also has the additional baggage, particularly in the United States, of our standing in the continuing long shadow of centuries of brutal slavery in the new world. As uncomfortable as the term slave may be to our ears, I do think we need to accept that for Matthew this was an appropriate metaphor to understand the relationship of the disciple to Jesus. The yoke that Jesus may offer is lighter than the yoke offered by others, but it still involves submission to the way of the Christ. But finally, the image is also the image of a member of the household, a child of father and one whose identity is bound to this new household of God. One’s identity as a disciple involves learning, serving, submission, but also inclusion as a part of a family which imputes a new identity to the household of Christ.

Becoming a herald of the kingdom of heaven and being identified with Jesus will also bring on conflict with those who have set themselves up in opposition to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus mentions that they will call the lord of the house Beelzebul (which we encounter later in Matthew 12: 22-32) they will also encounter those who label them (mistakenly) as those serving demonic forces rather than divine. Much of the resistance will come from those who occupy some type of religious authority, whether Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, and eventually the priests in Jerusalem. Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of heaven, his teaching, his practices and those he draws into his household will not fit within their understanding of what it means to be faithful. For Jesus, their judgment and punishment are not what ultimately matters. They may revile and persecute and they may even be able to order death of the followers of Jesus, but the followers of Jesus who hear these words after the resurrection trust that the one who speaks these words is stronger than the ones who can threaten death. I’ve written about the concept of Gehenna/Hell in the New Testament earlier when we first encountered Jesus using this language in chapter five. Matthew uses this language more than the other gospels and does have a concept of punishment beyond this life, but never dwells upon it. Gehenna is the place where those opposed to the kingdom of heaven find themselves. In a choice where the foolish end up in Gehenna and the wise in the kingdom of heaven the followers of Jesus are expected to know the wise path.

These followers of Jesus are never alone in this confrontation. One of the bookend themes of Matthew’s gospel is the presence of God (in Jesus) with us. Even sparrows, which can be acquired cheaply, are highlighted as being seen and valued by God. Earlier in the Matthew 6: 25-34 the birds of the air where used as an illustration of God’s providence for these humble creatures and now the theme is reinforced again by encouraging disciples not to be afraid for not only is every hair on their head known, but again that they are more valuable than many sparrows.

What the disciples have heard, they are now to bear witness to. What was spoken in secret they are to make known. Those being sent out are to be those who reveal the truth that has been unseen. While Matthew may not use Mark’s secrecy motif where what was covered up was covered up in order to be revealed, Matthew does see the necessity for the hearers of the words to Jesus’ followers being proclaimed. They were not formed to be merely private practitioners of Jesus’ ideas, but the process of discipleship is connected to the necessity of proclamation. They are the heralds sent forth to acknowledge their Lord. There is a need for these workers to go out into the mission field, to risk the danger of those who will oppose them and to confess faithfully before others what they have learned. There is a need for the message to go forth so that people may align themselves with the approaching kingdom of heaven, so that they may be ready to receive the Son of Man as he comes. For those who have been disciples, slaves and members of the household of God the wise choice is to turn towards the kingdom of the Father of their Lord. To deny this would be to risk finding oneself, with the others who opposed the kingdom of heaven dwelling in Gehenna.

These passages may sound stark to our modern ears and that speaks to our distance from the early hearers of this message. This is intended as a message of comfort and just as the blessings at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount speak to people who most individuals would not consider blessed, so these warnings of persecution reinforce that the resistance they encounter are signs of their faithfulness. These passages speak to people who may be experiencing persecution by those with religious or political authorities and it reminds them that the persecution they are experiencing does not negate the reality of their inclusion in the household of God. Their experience of scarcity and rejection is like what the prophets received, and yet they serve a God who provides for the sparrows and knows each hair on their heads and will provide them what they need. It speaks of judgment for those who are judging them currently, much like the language of the prophets or the psalms, and that may sound harsh to modern followers of Jesus who are not judged, excluded, persecuted or killed but would have been essential for those persecuted by an unjust world and crying out for God’s intervention. As the following passage will highlight, the approach of the kingdom of heaven is an unsettling thing for the established order. Aligning one’s faith and one’s life with the community of disciples sent out at Jesus’ command doesn’t promise an easy life, it promises that one will take up one’s own cross and follow their crucified Lord and yet in that call and in that community there is grace even in the midst of persecution, hope in the midst of rejection and God’s provision of enough in the experience of scarcity.

Gehenna, Tartaros, Sheol, Hades and Hell

Mauricio Garcia Vega “Visita al infierno’ shared by artist under Creative Commons 3.0

 

For many Christians the concept of hell has a lot of baggage associated with it. In the New Testament Gehenna, Sheol, or Tartaros which are translated Hades (Sheol) or Hell (Gehenna or Tartaros) did not carry the same level of imagined meaning to its hearers. The New Testament is not primarily concerned with heaven and hell as locations for the afterlife reward and punishment, which is how most people hear these terms today.

The Afterlife in the Hebrew Scriptures

For most of ancient Judaism heaven was the place that God reigned from, but it was not a place where humans (except for a select few like Elijah and Enoch) were brought to be with God. The Hebrew Scriptures are primarily concerned with the relationship between God and the people of God in this life. The blessings of covenant faithfulness were to be experienced in the provision of God for the people and the curse of covenant unfaithfulness was experienced in the struggle and strife that occurred through invasion, famine and illness. There is a long history of lament when the blessings of covenant faithfulness seem to be denied by God unfairly, but this faithful protest to God still expected God’s action within the lifetime of the prophet or poet calling for God’s action. There is a concept of Sheol, a place where the dead rest, but it is not a place of punishment or reward but simply a place where the dead are. Two quick examples of the concept of Sheol in the Hebrew Scriptures: it occurs frequently in Psalms and Proverbs as a place where the dead go and where the faithful one will end up if God does not intervene. In Psalm 6:5 the author attempts to bargain with God to deliver them because, “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” Additionally, there was an understanding that, even though it was prohibited magic for the Jewish people, a medium was summoning the shade of a dead one from somewhere which we see in the story of Saul consulting the medium at Endor. (1 Samuel 28)

Belief about death would evolve near the end of the time where the Hebrew Scriptures were written because the experience of the people appeared to be in tension with the promise of covenant faithfulness. As Samuel Ballentine, quoting Peter Berger, can state:

“All socially constructed worlds are inherently precarious,” P. Berger observes. They are precarious because the socially managed consensus concerning right and wrong, good and evil, actions and abilities that are acceptable and those that exceed tolerable limits, is constantly threatened by chaos. (Ballentine, 1993, p. 139)

At the end of Isaiah, we see the first idea of an everlasting punishment for those who have rebelled against God. This is set within the larger context of an ingathering of the nations where all flesh worships before God but there is articulated a judgment for those who rebel against God that goes beyond this life:

And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (Isaiah 66:24)

In the Jewish writings like 2 Maccabees, Enoch and 2 Esdras, which are written between the time of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we see the evolution of the resurrection of the dead but at the time of Jesus this is not a universal belief (the Pharisees and Jesus accept it but the Sadducees do not.)

In the New Testament

Tartaros occurs only in 2 Peter 2:4 and refers to a place where the rebellious angels are sent. This is combined in later theology to make hell the domain of the devil and the fallen angels, but this evolution has not occurred at the time when the New Testament is written. Satan has fallen from heaven, but his place seems to be on the earth at the time of the gospels. There is the concept of the Abyss in Revelation as well as angels and demonic forces which are unleashed from the sea and the earth as well as punishment in the lake of fire in Revelation 20: 11-15 where the devil and those who align themselves with him end up.

Sheol in the New Testament is translated Hades and is often in parallel with death. It seems to serve a similar function to the use of Sheol in the Hebrew Scriptures as a place where people are brought down to at death, but it also becomes personified as an entity (along with death) that is resisting God’s reign. In Matthew it is used twice, once in reference to Capernaum which has had ample opportunities to hear Jesus’ message and repent but since there has not been repentance will be brought down to Hades (Matthew 11:23) and most famously after the declaration of Peter:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16: 18)

Gehenna is used more in Matthew than in any other book of the New Testament (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30 [parallel Mark 9:43, 45,47] 10:28 [Parallel Luke 12: 5]; 18:9; 23: 15 and 33). The only uses outside of Matthew and Mark and Luke is James 3:6 (speaking about the tongues ability to set on fire being itself set on fire by Gehenna). To further explore Matthew’s concept, I’ve listed each place Matthew uses the idea of Gehenna.

22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire… 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. Matthew 5: 22, 29, 30 [parallel Mark 9:43, 45,47]

28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28 [Parallel Luke 12: 5]

8If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands and two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire (Matthew 18: 8-9)

15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. Matthew 23: 15

33 You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? Matthew 23: 33

Additionally Matthew does have a concept of the age of punishment in contrast to the age of life in Matthew 18:8, 19: 16, 29 and 25: 41 and 46. (I am intentionally not using the NRSV and most modern translations’ usage of eternal punishment and eternal life because these also have a lot of baggage in the Christian tradition).

Deror Avi, Picture of the Valley of Hinnom (2007) Shared by photographer under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2

Jesus, especially in Matthew and the synoptic tradition, does include punishment for those who choose the path of the wicked. The gospels use the term Gehenna a term that originates withthe valley of Hinnom, which was considered a cursed place and a place where trash from Jerusalem was burned but it also is used as the opposite of the kingdom of heaven. Choose the kingdom of heaven or choose Gehenna, it is a choice between wisdom and foolishness. I think it is difficult to argue that Jesus does not have some conception of a judgment that goes beyond this life that parallels the resurrection that also transcends this life. Yet, rather than giving us terrifying descriptions to fuel the imaginations, Jesus uses the term in a way that the people of his time would understand and that we can only approach through the accumulated tradition and imagination of the church and artists. Jesus doesn’t focus on Gehenna or heaven as a destination, instead he is focused on the kingdom of heaven’s approach to earth. Gehenna is the place that those who oppose the kingdom of heaven find themselves.

How do we as Christians almost two thousand years after Jesus death and resurrection approach this concept of judgement and hell? Here is some wisdom I can share that I’ve learned from other wise thinkers on our tradition. The first comes from Miroslav Volf in his work Exclusion and Embrace where in the final chapter he makes the point:

Most people who insist on God’s “nonviolence” cannot resist using violence themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others). They deem the talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges! That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1: 51-52) seems responsible; the God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary Virgin explicitly states, seems crude. And so violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a God who refuses to wield the sword.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover it takes the quiet suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. (Volf, 1996, pp. 303-304)

Additionally, I would add the way we often use the concept of eternal damnation and salvation incorrectly, something I learned from Lesslie Newbingin:

In the debate about Christianity and the world’s religions it is fair to say that there has been an almost unquestioned assumption that the only question is, “What happens to the non-Christian after death?” I want to affirm that this is the wrong question and that as long as it remains the central question we shall never come to the truth. And this for three reasons:

    1. First, and simply, it is the wrong question because it is a question to which God alone has the right to give the answer….
    2. The second reason for rejecting this way of putting the question is that it is based on an abstraction. By concentrating on the fate of the individual soul after death, it abstracts the soul from the full reality of the human person as an actor and sufferer in the ongoing history of the world…
    3. The third reason for rejecting this way of putting the question is the most fundamental: it is that the question starts with the individual and his or her need to be assured of ultimate happiness, and not with God and his glory.(Newbingin, 1989, pp. 177-179)

Ultimately questions of heaven and hell, salvation and damnation are not in my control, and that is something I am thankful for. I do trust that God is wiser than I am in judgment and that ultimately the injustice in this world will not outlast God’s justice. The world’s violence will not ultimately thwart God’s kingdom of peace. Beyond this I can accept that there is an opposite to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus announces to those who hear him, but instead of focusing on Gehenna and the path of foolishness I attempt to follow the path of the kingdom and share it with those who have ears to hear. Beyond this part which I can live and proclaim I leave the rest in God’s capable hands.

Revelation 8 God’s Action Unsealed

Image from https://pixabay.com/en/angel-wing-blowers-golden-trumpet-4928/ image free for public use through Creative Commons CC0

Revelation 8: 1-5 The Final Seal

1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2 And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.

3 Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. 4 And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. 5 Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.

The seventh seal is open, and the content of the scroll can now be revealed. We enter a period of silence. With the sixth seal the inhabitants of the earth realize that God is about to act and now even in heaven the praise of the countless multitude is interrupted. The silence may reflect a type of silent reverence toward God or the message that has just been unsealed, or it may provide a space where the prayers of the saints can come before God so that God may hear the oppression of God’s people as God did in Exodus. Speech and song may stop but action continues as the seven angels before the throne are handed trumpets and a different angel offers up incense and prayers.

The seven angels may be the seven archangels listed in 1 Enoch 20: 1, a part of the Jewish Pseudepigrapha (a collection of works that were not included in the canon of scripture). Yet, while many are fascinated by attempting to catalogue the ranks of the angels of heaven only Michael will be named in Revelation and while these angels have a role to play within Revelation as those called to blow the trumpets which enact judgment we have no further information on their identity or role beyond this action.

While the seven angels and the trumpets given to them will form the progression of the next cycle of Revelation, the angel with the censer occupies the central role in this pivotal scene. When the fifth seal was opened in Revelation 6: 9-11 the ones slaughtered for their testimony called out to their God for judgment and for their blood to be avenged. Now as this angel occupying a priestly role by offering incense offered up with the prayers of the saints. This action echoes the poetic language of Psalm 141:

Let my prayers be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. (Psalm 141:2)

Incense in the tabernacle or temple was burned to honor God and to protect the priest from being harmed by the divine presence of God. John sees the angel’s offering of incense and prayer rise up before God. The scene ends with the prayers going up and fire coming down. The fire which is taken from the altar is thrown to earth and it is received as thunder, lightning and an earthquake, all signs of divine judgment in the ancient world.

Revelation 8: 6-13 The First Four Trumpets

6 Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets made ready to blow them.

7 The first angel blew his trumpet, and there came hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were hurled to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.

8 The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea. 9 A third of the sea became blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

10 The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. 11 The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter.

12 The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light was darkened; a third of the day was kept from shining, and likewise the night.

13 Then I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with a loud voice as it flew in midheaven, “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”

The trumpets begin a new cycle of visions of destruction and judgment. While I view the seals as a prelude illuminating the world that the content of the scroll, which is revealed symbolically through the rest of the book, will address. With the trumpets we see God’s action in response to the prayers that have been lifted up and the cries of those whose blood has been shed. Like in Exodus 3: 7, the LORD has observed the misery of God’s people and God’s response is a combination of action and sending Moses as a witness.

In the cycle of the trumpets and cycle of the bowls in Revelation 16 there are similarities with the plagues in Exodus 7-12. While the similarities are closer with Revelation 16 they are worth noting here in addition to Psalm 78 and 105 which also echo the plagues on Egypt:

Exodus 7-12 Psalm 78 Psalm 105 Revelation 8-9 (Trumpets) Revelation 16 (bowls)
River Changes to blood (7: 14-25)  78:44 105: 29 Rivers become bitter, seas turn to blood (8: 8-11) Sea changes to blood (16:3)
Frogs (8: 1-15) 78:45 105:30   Froglike Spirits (16: 12-16)
Gnats (8:16-19)   105:31    
Flies (8: 23-32) 78:45 105:31    
Cattle, disease (9: 1-7) Cattle are given to hail (combining 5 &7) 78:48      
Sores (9: 8-12)       Painful sores (16:2)
Hail, fire, thunder (9: 13-35) 78:48 105:32 Hail and Fire mixed with blood (8:7) Huge hailstones (16: 21)
Locusts (10: 1-20) 78:46 105: 34-35 ‘Demonic Locusts’ (9:1-11)  
Darkness (10:21-29)   105:28 1/3 of lights in sky darkened (8: 12) Darkness over kingdom of beast (16: 10-11)
Death, Destroying angel (12: 29-32) 78:51 105:36 1/3 of humankind killed (9: 13-19)  

See similar chart in Craig Koester’s Revelation. (Koester, 2014, p. 446)

These cycles of judgment have been both fascinating and terrifying to Christians. Some early Christians, like Marcion, a second century church leader who was later declared to be a heretic, couldn’t reconcile the God of love that Jesus testified to with this God who judges.  Yet, Christians throughout history have been troubled by the violent language of Revelation. Many traditions, including my own, rarely use this book and I know in discussions with people who have been a part of my walking through the book with them that many had been afraid to read Revelation. Even well-meaning scholars may shy away or attempt to reframe the language of Revelation in a less harsh way. For example: Richard B. Hays, a scholar I respect greatly, attempting to interpret Revelation in light of the rest of the New Testament can state:

One of the major hermeneutical implications of reading Revelation within the canonical framework of the New Testament is to serve as a check and corrective on interpretations that seek to read the violent militaristic imagery of the Apocalypse literalistically. If Jesus wins his victory over the world through his faithful death on a cross (as all the rest of the New Testament documents insist), and if Revelation’s figurative depictions are to be read in intertextual concert with these other texts, then the triumphant rider who is “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (Rev 19: 13) must be wearing a garment drenched with his own blood, and the “sharp sword” that comes “from his mouth…to strike down the nations” (Rev 19: 15) must be the proclaimed word of the gospel (as in Eph 6:17), not a literal sword of iron that kills enemies. (Richard B. Hays and Stefan Alikier, 2015) (Richard B. Hays and Stefan Alikier, 2015, p. 81)

While I would agree that the violent militaristic imagery of Revelation is not to be read literalistically, it is far too easy to attempt to create an image of God that fits nicely with a life of privilege and therefore does not respond to the saints calls for justice or for their blood to be avenged. In 2004, during my final semester of seminary, I had the opportunity to read for the first of many times Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace which helped me understand the need for God’s judgment or wrath in a way I hadn’t before. Perhaps it was some of the connections between Dr. Volf’s stories and influences in my own story that made his poignant reflection so powerful since the unit I served with in the military had just returned from a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and I heard many reflections on the way that Croatians had been targeted for ethnic cleansing, perhaps it was the vulnerable blending of personal experience and academics but the book resonated with me. This book became one of the works I have returned to again and again as I reflect on what an embodied Christian faith looks like. The final chapter of Exclusion and Embrace, ‘Violence and Peace’, may not be exclusively about Revelation but it dances with the imagery of Revelation multiple times as he argues for the necessity of divine judgment for Christians to practice reconciliation and non-violence. It is worth quoting here at length:

Most people who insist on God’s “nonviolence” cannot resist using violence themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others). They deem the talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges! That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1: 51-52) seems responsible; the God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary Virgin explicitly states, seems crude. And so violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a God who refuses to wield the sword.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover it takes the quiet suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. (Volf, 1996, pp. 303-304)

To Christians who live in easy accommodation with the ways of power, like those in the churches in Sardis and Laodicea we met in chapter three, the language of judgment may be uncomfortable or unwanted. As a person who serves in a privileged and predominantly affluent suburb in the United States it may be easier to deal with a God who allows things to remain as they are or to rely upon my own power for action and to take judgment into my own hands. But if vengeance is mine, then perhaps I too have fallen prey to the temptation the serpent put before Eve in the garden of Eden: to be like God. On the other hand, those who dwell on the violent portions of Revelation often miss the restraint that is a part of this and other places where divine judgment is involved. From the story of Noah onward we see that wrath or violence does not change the inclination of the human heart and punishment alone does not bring about repentance.

Another reflection from my time in the military that may also be a part of the costly patience of God has to do with the impact of these actions upon the people and the earth. Conflict that involves military force is always destructive and while modern military action often is restrained in its use of force there are always innocent casualties and damage to environment where the action occurs. While there is restraint in God’s actions as the trumpets sound here in Revelation the damage to the earth is dramatic. Like in Exodus 7-12, where God’s actions until the very last sign and wonder attempt to limit the death of the people of Egypt, the predominant ‘victim’ of the divine action is the earth. In Genesis 3:17, when God is judging Adam and Eve after they eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the earth bears the curse for humanity and likewise here in Revelation it will be the plants, the waters and even the sun and stars that will suffer prior to the sixth seal where death is unleashed and 1/3 of humankind is killed.

The first trumpet is hail mixed with fire and blood. Fire mixed with hail was one of the signs and wonders used against the Egyptians while the Israelites were slaves (Exodus 9: 13-35) and later in the book of Ezekiel it was prophesied against Gog and its allies (Ezekiel 38:22). Blood falling with rain is also a portent of war in Greco-Roman writings. (Koester, 2014, p. 448) As mentioned above it is the earth that feels the impact of this hail, fire and blood. That doesn’t mean people would be unaffected. The grass was used for feeding the flocks and the wood was used for everything from shelter to furniture to fuel for heat and cooking. One third of the earth being consumed by fires would be both an ecological and a financial disaster for the people and yet it allows for survival so that there remains an opportunity for continued witness and the hope of repentance.

The second trumpet impacts the seas and the creatures that live within it. While there are ships that are destroyed, the earth again bears the primary impact of this trumpet of judgment.  The loss of sea life would impact the diet of the people throughout the Roman empire who ate seafood and the loss of shipping would be an economic disaster for those who lost ships, cargo and crews. Yet, life continues to remain possible.

Artemisia Absinthium, also called ‘wormwood’

The third trumpet impacts the fresh waters by making them undrinkable. The naming of the star ‘wormwood’ references artemisia abisinthium which is bitter and whose oil would make food and water unpalatable. Even though this plant is now used for medicinal purposes, the reference here is to water that is no longer potable. While many died from undrinkable water there much of the waters that are not impacted so that life can continue and there remains the opportunity for change.

Finally, the fourth trumpet eliminates a third of the light of the sun, moon and stars. Even the heavens are altered by the narrative of Revelation. Combined the first four trumpets bring about an ecological disaster impacting the skies, the seas and the land. When I was growing up in the 1980s at the height of the Cold War the popular interpretations of passages like this were based on a nuclear war. While I don’t think John was witnessing a nuclear war being unveiled to him I do think it is important to realize that many of these images are portents of a devastating war and the ecological disaster it can bring. When I was growing up there were individuals who hoped for this war because they believed it would signal the beginning of the ‘apocalypse’ and would bring about God’s return. I wonder now how anyone could hope for the type of ecological and humanitarian disaster that a nuclear war would bring. There will always be a temptation to link concrete events with the language of Revelation, and at times of crisis like World War II, Revelation was viewed by some as a promise that the terror would have a limited span and that the horror would end. Revelation may prove a beacon of hope for those dealing with disasters and terrors across history but I prefer to allow the images to retain their plasticity and their ability to speak to multiple times and experiences.

The chapter ends with an eagle crying out “Woe, woe, woe” for the remaining trumpet blasts. This dire statement brings us into the expectation that the final trumpet blasts will be more severe than the four that came before. Yet, even these woes that are coming have limits placed upon them to allow for continued witnessing and calling for repentance.