Sodom, Gomorrah and Hell

Sodom, Gomorrah and Hell March 3, 2016

Proclaiming his authority, Jesus told his critics that all they needed to do was search the Torah, for if they read it with care, they would see Moses was talking about him, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me” (John 5:46 RSV).[1] Prophecy about Jesus was not exclusive to the Hebrew Prophets. The whole of the Old Testament spoke of Jesus, and in and through him, the Scriptures were able to point the path to salvation. “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39 RSV). The Old Testament offered prophecies by Jesus, not only through simplistic predictions of what he would do, but by offering the “shadow of good things to come”( Heb. 10: 1 RSV), that is, by offering representational types which find themselves fulfilled in Jesus. Indeed, Scripture itself is written to show us our spiritual condition, the need for salvation, and how Jesus comes and saves us, so that, following Hugh of St. Victor, we can say, “The subject matter of all the Divine Scripture is the works of man’s restoration. For there are two works in which all that has been done is contained. The first is the work of foundation; the second is the work of restoration.”[2]

Much has been written of the various ways that the Old Testament is therefore properly explained by the work of Jesus, where the types and foreshadowing of his work contained in the Old Testament can be seen fulfilled by his historical ministry, and especially, by his death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection from the dead. The Old Testament gives a foundation by which we understand our need for salvation, while the New Testament shows its accomplishment, where Jesus’s work is shown to reconfigure the universe and make all things new (cf. Rev. 21:5). But there is always much more to find as we continue explore it and consider what is said and taught in it.

This is especially true about the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is another example of the way the Torah prefigured salvific work of Jesus, and with it, we are given some ideas about the work of Jesus in a way which helps solidify some (but not all) of the intuitions found in the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar. For Balthasar controversially believed that in his death, Jesus descended to the depths of the abyss, that is, through the full realm of the damned and not just to the realm of the “blessed dead.” There are many reasons why Balthasar came to this conclusion, two of which interest us here. The first is his belief that he had to explore and personally judge the full extent of sin in and of himself, in order to make the cross the true center of divine judgment. “Above all, the Cross is the full achievement of the divine judgment on ‘sin’ (II Corinthians 5, 21) summed up, dragged into the daylight and suffered through in the Son.”[3] The second is that as the mediator, Jesus had to go unto the dead and be with them in solidarity. “In the same way that, upon earth, he was in solidarity with the living, so in the tomb, he is in solidarity with the dead.”[4] Such solidarity is had when he is able to be with all of the dead, and not a part of them, less there are some who seem to be outside of the loving care of God.

Scene from The Last Judgment. Duomo, Florence. Photograph by Henry Karlson
Scene from The Last Judgment. Duomo, Florence. Photograph by Henry Karlson

Sodom and Gomorrah, and its destruction, is to be understood as the best prefiguration of the last judgment in the Torah, and with it, arises the possibility of eternal perdition, as the short epistle of Jude stated: “ just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7 RSV). Sodom, therefore, was able to be used as proof that we can believe in the possibility of hell, that hell is consistent with what we know of God:

If any one disbelieves hell, let him consider Sodom, let him reflect upon Gomorrah, the vengeance that has been inflicted, and which yet remains. This is a proof of the eternity of punishment. Are these things grievous? And is it not grievous, when you say that there is no hell, but that God has merely threatened it? [5]

Now, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah comes after the encounter of Abraham with God at Mamre: “And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day” (Gen. 18:1 RSV). This story, of Abraham’s compassionate hospitality, gave Abraham an experience of God in a special and unique way. Abraham was able to experience God in a Trinitarian fashion, with three “men” or “angels” coming to him, each representing one of the persons of the Trinity, who, when together, represented God to Abraham and in that unity the Lord, God, appeared to Abraham. Thus Abraham, in his piety, was shown to be great, in part because of his embrace of hospitality, an act of love;[6] but he was told that the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot resided, had risen up to God, and so God himself had come down to discern the truth and to render judgment:

Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know” (Gen. 18:20-21 RSV).

God, in and through the angels, came down to know all that was being said about Sodom and Gomorrah first hand, so he could judge their sin himself. Judgment, therefore, is shown to come to sin when it comes into the presence of God. The judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, and their surrounding cities, would lead to their perdition, because their sin will be shown to be as bad as had been represented by the cries which reached up to heaven.

We find, however, it was not all three of the “angels” who met with Abraham who went to the cities; only two left Abraham and journeyed toward Sodom. The two are best seen as types of the Son and the Spirit, the two “revealing hands” of the Father, the two who are always at work in the world – for in and through them the Father is revealed to the pure at heart, but also in and through them, the world is judged as its sin is tried. God enters the world in the Son. The Spirit is always with the Son in his journey, so that the two go together to come to know the world and its sin. Thus, we see that the two, represented by the two “angels,” went not just to the pure, like Abraham, but to the depths of perversion, to Sodom, the representation of hell on earth. They did not stop at the gates of hell, at its outskirts, but they were taken into the heart of the city.[7] Lot, who stood guard at the gates of the city, took the two representatives of God with him to the depths of the city, showing them hospitality, and in that good, he and his family were to be saved.[8] Indeed, while Lot and his family lingered in the city, even as it was about to be judged and destroyed, the angels took them and saved them despite themselves:

When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Arise, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be consumed in the punishment of the city.” But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the LORD being merciful to him, and they brought him forth and set him outside the city (Gen. 19:15-16 RSV).

Scene from The Last Judgment. Duomo, Florence. Photograph by Henry Karlson
Scene from The Last Judgment. Duomo, Florence. Photograph by Henry Karlson

Their salvation, therefore, was in part the result of Lot’s hospitality, that is, Lot’s charity. Indeed, his hospitality saved not just his family, but also one of the nearby cities, where Lot wanted to hold up and rest during his journey out of the region, so that it was able to be said that Lot, a good man, in his virtue, mediated God’s grace to many people:

As the good man through his own virtue saved his daughters as well as averted the catastrophe from that city, likewise the others through the excess of their own evil were not only completely destroyed themselves but were also responsible for the land being without fruit in the future.[9]

This is, of course, similar to the way Jesus said he would judge at the Last Judgment (Matt. 25:31-45). Jesus said many will be saved because of their hospitality and charity to the poor and needy, because by showing it, they were showing it to him and so open to him and welcoming of him.[10] The salvific work was done by Jesus, whose judgment rendered those who are saved, to be saved, just as the salvific work done for Lot was done by the angels representing God. Salvation is done in and through judgment, and the judgment is accomplished by Jesus in and through the cross, of coming down to see the full extent of sin and where it leads, even as in the Torah, the judgment of God is rendered by the angels coming to see the full extent of the sin found in Sodom. And that sin, we are told, was found in the prideful inhospitality of the people of Sodom who, in their lack of charity, sought any and all ways to follow their passions as a way to experience pleasures for themselves without any consideration of the harm they did to themselves or to others in the process.[11]

Thus, the destruction of Sodom prefigured the way Jesus accomplished his judgement of sin on the cross. In Jesus, God made a personal judgment of sin, discerning sin in its entirety. He judged not only the lack of love in the world which leads to such sin, but the condition in which sin places us in, into the personal hell which sin encases us in. Only by following the example of Lot, who took God in through charity, can the shell of sin be overcome, and we find ourselves brought up by such love to salvation in God.


 

[1] Whether or not we believe that the Torah had but one author, we can easily use Moses as the conventional name to represent all the authors and editors who worked together to produce the final version of the Torah.

[2] Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith. trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Cambridge, MA: The Medieval Academy of America, 1951),3.

[3] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale. trans. Aidan Nichols, O.P. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 119.

[4] Ibid., 148-9.

[5] St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on First Thessalonians in NPNF1(13): 358.

[6] Since God is love, one of the great ways of understanding the Trinity is in and through an analysis of love, as is seen in the work of Richard of Saint Victor’s On the Trinity.

[7] Is that not a good foreshadowing of what Balthasar hints at?

[8] “The two angels came to Sodom in the evening; and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed himself with his face to the earth, and said, “My lords, turn aside, I pray you, to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you may rise up early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the street.” But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate” (Gen. 19:1-3 RSV).

[9] St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 18 – 45. trans. Robert C. Hill (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1990), 452-3.

[10] “And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’” (Matt. 25:40 RSV).

[11] “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them, when I saw it” (Ez. 16:49-50 RSV). Strangely enough, Sodom, the representation of the fires of hell, is given a kind of possible reprise in Scripture, something rarely noticed or discussed: “As for your sisters, Sodom and her daughters shall return to their former estate, and Samaria and her daughters shall return to their former estate; and you and your daughters shall return to your former estate” (Ezek. 16:55 RSV). Since in and through the work of Jesus all things find themselves restored, is this not a hint of what Jesus does in and through his journey into hell? This is not to say that in the restoration predicted here, it will be for the salvation of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, but on the other hand, it is not clear that such a possibility is being denied either. We are left hanging on this side of the judgment as to what this prophecy means for Sodom.

 

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