If you’ve followed these blogs about hell, you’ll know that I got them going before I started reading The Last Word and the Word After That. And of the blogs I had planned had to do with the role historical judgment has played in how many speak of hell. My mind is slow after a day of chatting and drinking tea on the back porch with Kris and the kids (and their spouses). Luke and Annika are “fixin” to move soon to the Lake Chautauqua region in the southwestern tip of New York. So it was a source of deep pleasure for us to have them here for awhile.
Let me say again that this topic grieves me, not so much for what the Bible says, but for what we Christians are compelled to consider about the gravity of life and the destiny of those around us and our good world.
It will perhaps not be new if I say that the OT does not talk about hell (or heaven really) but, instead, sees the judgment of God played out in the real world of historical ups and downs. The Judges and the historical books, but especially the prophets, warn and threaten and toss down their hats and stomp on them and say, “Hey folks, if we don’t do some serious changing we are in for it.” And sometimes they were in for it — and the ones who did them in were the Assyrians, which creeps were used by God to discipline Israel, and the Babylonians, who did the same to Judah, and then before long the Romans. If you watch the Bible carefully, the word “wrath” is often used for this “historical downturn of events.” (Please, stick with me: I think that term is connected to God’s holiness, but that doesn’t mean God’s justice does not come in the form of political collapse.)
And Jesus, as I expounded in A New Vision for Israel, belongs to this very tradition: a prophet who announces political collapse for those who do not turn back to God (as John and Jesus declare the arrival of God’s kingdom).
So, for Jesus in some senses (but not all) “hell” and “judgment” can be used for political collapse. I am not afraid to say that plenty of the powerful threats of Jesus pertain to the collapse of Jerusalem in 70AD. So, while McLaren’s emphasis on “rhetorical purpose” is important, there is a genuine analog in much of Jesus’ teaching and that analog is 70AD. (In other words, this is not just “rhetoric” intended to get people to clean up their act.)
Not all agree with me here; many Christians, especially of an evangelical persuasion, think that Jesus wasn’t tied so tightly into 70AD but was instead speaking of the End Time and the rapture and all that. So, let me give you the verse that tipped me over the edge on this one: Matt 24:29 says that the “astral signs” will occur immediately after the previous events and, now we get to the real kicker here, in 24:34 he says that all these things (including the astral signs of 24:29-31) will take place before this generation passes away. I can’t shake these verses: Jesus states that within a generation these things will occur. That means by about 70 AD — and in 70AD the Romans came in and mopped up Jerusalem. 70AD was predicted by Jesus as judgment for systemic evil and covenantal unfaithfulness. Several scholars have made a case for this: read GB Caird’s NT Theology, or RT France’s commentary on Matthew, or NT Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God.
Which brings me back to what I’ll close with tonight: not all, but much of Jesus’ threat and warrant are at the historical/national and imminent level. Jesus knew Jerusalem was about to collapse and if God’s people didn’t repent it would be “hell.”
Now, I’ll blog on what Jesus does say about the traditional sense of “hell” soon, too, but this point about hell and the historical has to be kept in mind when we talk about Jesus and judgment.
This is going to be a busy two weeks for me: I’ve got to finish the ms for Embracing Grace and read the galleys for a big monograph for Baylor U Press on Jesus and His Death, and then we are off to Spoleto for some gelato as we roam Italy for the first time ever.