Hell as (at times) the Historical

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.

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  • Good stuff, Scott.I wrote a disseratation a few years back on Preterist eschatology (with special reference to JS Russell’s The Parousia) and it was difficult to get much decent scholarly stuff on this.Imagine my joy to find NT Wright! (I found France a little inconsistent with the whole switching of time-frames during Mt. 24.) And then Tim Kin (from Presence Ministries) let me know that your book had just come out and I felt sane again! :-)I think that topics like this can be scary for some evangelicals. I know I felt like I was virtually losing my faith. I think the fear stems from the idea that we are gonna completely lose any idea of the future. (E.g. follow the full preterists into reading Paul as if he was Jesus.) To make matters worse, I came to believe that Revelation is pretty historical also.

  • Consistent preterism scares me, too. I am not that type: I think there is plenty of futuristic eschatology in the NT, and I think it shaky exegesis to base our study of Revelation on pre-70AD dating. And 1-2 Thess is harder to fit with 70AD, and 1 Cor 15 has nothing to do with it.

  • That being the case, I used to wonder how rattled you and Tom Wright would be if you knew just how much the full Preterists were revelling in the idea that any day you’d be converting. You were just on the brink, after all! ;-)(Presumably, you sensed some of this when you spoke at the conference that I believe Presence Ministries sponsored a few years back?)

  • Anonymous

    I think we should be careful using the OT as the measure for how we view eschatological judgement. If we do that with judgement, we should equally apply it to salvation in the OT. Heaven in the NT then would be reduced to gaining land and having good crops, but these are mere physical images for what was to come. I would see judgement the same way. Physical judgement in the OT (as physical redemption in the OT) is spiritual judgement and redemption in the NT, and that seems to be the difference between the two. The OT as image and the NT as reality of that image. What is temporal is used to display and teach what is eternal.As for Matt 24, I think most would agree that that is mainly speaking about the Fall of Jerusalem, but is it in an OT way? Does that temporal, physical thing represent and point to something far worse and spiritual/eternal?-tooaugust

  • Tooaugust,This is the problem, isn’t it? How do we know that the OT is earthy/national and the NT, which expresses things the same way, spiritual? Is it fair to typologize the OT judgment motif?

  • Anonymous

    Scot, we know because Israel in the NT is made up of both physical Jews and those who are not physically Jews. Physical Israel of the OT has become spiritual Israel of the NT. Physical temple has become spiritual temple. Physical land (Eden/Israel) has become spiritual communion with God. Physical prosperity of riches has become spiritual prosperity and riches. Pretty much everything I can think of in the OT is taken by the NT as cryptically signifying a more spiritual eternal reality. Would you not agree?-tooaugust