Michael Pahl on Jesus and Gehenna

Michael Pahl on Jesus and Gehenna October 13, 2017

In a recent blog post, Michael Pahl wrote the following about Jesus and “hell”- or rather, Gehenna, a reference to the Hinnom Valley. But what was the significance of that valley? The idea that it was a burning trash heap seems to come into existing literature only later. And so Pahl suggests looking at Jeremiah 7 instead. From that text, Pahl draws a number of conclusions:

1) The fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God.

In fact, 2) God abhorred the fires of Gehenna.

And why did God so despise the fires of Gehenna? Because 3) they were the epitome of senseless human violence, particularly violence against the most vulnerable…

4) Gehenna symbolizes God’s judgment, but this divine judgment is not an “angry God directly inflicting violence upon sinners for eternity” judgment.

It’s a 5) “reap what you sow” judgment—if we sow violence, injustice, and oppression, we will reap that violence, injustice, and oppression upon ourselves, in very human, very natural, ways, within human history and not beyond it.

It’s a 6) judgment specifically upon the powerful, those with social or economic or political or religious clout, for the ways in which they oppress and commit violence against the weak, those on the bottom rungs of our social and economic and political and religious hierarchies.

With this background on Gehenna in mind, we can now fully appreciate Jesus’ words on hell in the Gospels.

Jesus isn’t talking about a “literal hell” where unrepentant unbelievers go after they die to be tortured in God’s inferno for all eternity.

He’s talking about the violent consequences of our own violent actions, right here in our lived livesright here in human history.

He’s talking about such consequences especially for those who use their power to oppress the weakwho live in wealth in indifference to the poor, who have the means to care for the sick and clothe the naked and feed the hungry but refuse to do so, who rest secure in their status and privilege while committing grave injustices against the vulnerable and the marginalized.

And he’s talking in particular to the uber-religious, the people who think they’re on God’s side because they believe the right things or do the right rituals—but they burden others with moral demands while doing nothing to help them, they focus on minor moral issues while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy and allegiance to God above all other powers that be.

These are sobering words, serious warnings, for every age and certainly our own. But all this is right in line with the good news of Jesus and Jesus’ way of love.

After all, there’s nothing more loving, nothing more like Jesus, than standing in solidarity with the powerless, the stepped-upon, the pushed-to-the-side, and standing up to the oppressive powers that be—whatever the cost to ourselves.

And it is this hell of our own harmful actions and their destructive consequences—our sin and all its death—that Jesus has come to save us from. Jesus calls us to leave behind our damaging, violent ways and follow him in his path of compassionate, inclusive, forgiving, self-giving love. If we don’t do this the result will only be death for ourselves, for others, for the world. But if we do this we will find life, full and flourishing life for all.

It’s an amazing post, and so I encourage you to go to Michael Pahl’s blog and read it in its entirety. Then let me know what you think of it.

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  • Tim

    Great stuff James, thanks for this.

  • Michael Pahl

    James, thanks for linking to my post. I’ve had some pushback on it, as you might expect. The most substantive of that criticism has been that my explanation ignores or minimizes other possible backgrounds to “Gehenna.” Those who may be interested in this more scholarly discussion can check out my comment on my blog post where I sketch out the basis for my thoughts in the post, which was more intended for popular consumption: https://michaelpahl.com/2017/10/02/jesus-and-hell/#comment-301.

    • Thanks for your post, and for taking the time to engage and discuss the subject further!

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I’d say for the most part he’s dead on. The one thing I’d want to add is that this significance of Gehenna did take on further reaching imagery across early Judaism. Because it was such a strong symbol of God’s abhorrence, evil, and (temporal) judgement, it became a powerful image in Jewish writings. We have a rabbi claiming that the sun never sets on Gehenna, and another claiming it is the earthly gate to a fiery prison reserved for tyrants and evil angels.

    So, I always want to do justice to that when I think of the power of Gehenna imagery in the minds of Jesus’ listeners. But I’d also be quick to circle back around and link Jesus’ pronouncements about judgements in Gehenna to refer to temporal judgements – powerful and quasi-apocalyptic the image might be – and not to an actual spiritual location of eternal fiery torment.

    • Does this mean that you would translate the Greek word “aionion” in Matthew 25:46 in some way other than the word “eternal” that we find in most translations?

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        Yes. I would translate it “of/for ages” or “age of ages” in it’s longer form. The issue with that translation is that it probably wouldn’t communicate as well to Western readers. I think the early Semitic concept is that time is a succession of ages, an age being some indefinite period of time characterized by a definitive state of affairs, sort of the way we might refer to the Bronze Age or the Atomic Age. This as differentiated from a more Greco-Roman concept of a static period of time that is infinite.

        It’s an important distinction for a large number of passages. In some cases, the functional difference is minimal or even nonexistent, but in other cases, the distinction is key.

        • John MacDonald

          So, for instance, it can be translated into a temporal sense as it is in Rom. 16:25: “Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages (aionios) past.”

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            I would say “can” and “should.” I would argue that the Greco-Roman concept of aionion is “eternal,” but I doubt that’s the best frame of reference for understanding Jesus.

        • Whether Gehenna is a punishment that is everlasting or finite, doesn’t the following passage indicate that it is beyond this life?

          Matthew 10:28 – “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna).” (NIV)

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            First, a quick point of clarification. The issue for me isn’t about infinite or finite per se, it’s about whether the thing is a static, transtemporal affair or whether it occurs as part of the normal flow of history. There may not appear to be much difference between “eternity” and “an indefinite succession of ages,” but at least one difference of the latter category is that it is describing the flow of history as we normally experience it just extended out indefinitely as opposed to an immutable, unchanging event that is no longer bound by time.

            So, as I see it, words like aionion can -functionally- mean forever, depending on context. If someone said that Donald Trump’s consciousness was uploaded into Amazon’s cloud, and now he can be president for years and years stretching on as far as we can see, that is basically the same as saying forever, but we’re still talking about the normal flow of history just continuing on for a really long time.

            Sorry, scared myself for a minute, there.

            Anyway, it seems to me that an understanding that Matthew 10:28 is talking about the concept of Hell as we understand it has some serious problems that make it unlikely. First, Jesus says that God destroys -both- the body and the soul in Hell, but if Jesus is talking about a spiritual place of eternal torment, that doesn’t make sense. Your body isn’t destroyed in Hell. If you think Hell is for spirits, then your body doesn’t even enter into the picture, and if you think Hell is populated with bodily resurrected folks, their bodies aren’t destroyed.

            Second, we are prone to think of “soul” as “immaterial, immortal consciousness,” (once again, this our Greco-Roman philosophical influences) but that’s not what “psyche” means. “Psyche” just means “your life” or “you as a living thing.” It’s the same word that is used later in Matthew 10:39:

            “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake shall find it.” This is just 11 verses later, and what Jesus is talking about is people who are martyred in his name, not people whose immortal consciousness’ get lost.

            And what Jesus has in mind in 10:39 is resurrection. If you die because of faithfulness to Jesus, you’ll actually -save- your life because God will take care of it.

            What I think is most likely Jesus is saying in Matthew 10:28 is not to be afraid of the persecutors who will kill them, because they can only kill the body. But if you fall in the judgement of God, you’ll lose your life forever as well. You will not be rewarded, resurrected, stewarded until the final judgement, etc. Your psyche will not be preserved; it’ll be destroyed, gone, lost. Considering this is pretty much exactly what Jesus says 11 verses later, I think this is the most probable reading of the passage. If you die as a faithful martyr, God will still save your life. If you die because you were unfaithful and fell in the destruction God is bringing, you will lose your life.

          • That’s one valid reading of Matthew, though not all scholars agree that soul/body dualism is absent from Jewish thought in the first century, even in Matthew:


            But a use Gehenna to refer to annihilation and the loss of resurrection is not exactly the same as a use of Gehenna to mean the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            No, but what other annihilation would Jesus mean? He expects an upcoming destruction of Jerusalem. What would be our textual indicator that he meant his audience being destroyed in some other event?

            As for my own views, I’m just trying to understand what the likely narrative understanding of the gospels are. When people heard Jesus and/or read these gospels decades later, what would Jews in Jerusalem have heard? What would Greco-Roman Gentiles have heard? What were their concerns and how does that backdrop influence their likely understanding? I think it’s most probable and explains most of the passages that Jesus was warning of an upcoming judgement from God against Israel, and the only way to survive it either presently or in the age to come would be to repent and return to being faithful Israel, as John the Baptist did immediately before him. I think his scope during his ministry was very narrow, very Israel-focused, and very what-will-happen-to-us-as-a-people focused, which would put him in line with the other Israelite prophets who came before him.

            We might decide that way of understanding what happened to Jerusalem isn’t correct, or we might think those words were ascribed to Jesus by authors who had the benefit of seeing what actually happened, or we might look at Paul and the apostles and and the early church and see how their horizons might have been different as we get further away in both time and geography. Certainly narrative understandings change even in the course of the biblical writings themselves, much more the evolution of church history. But whatever -we- might make of that, that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus and his early circles of followers had their own understanding of the situation, and if the gospels are reliable indicators of that understanding, then it isn’t very honest of me to project my theology back onto them. Although no doubt this happens.

          • I only referred to “annihilation” as one theological view that the lost are snuffed out completely at death. I don’t know that the destruction of both soul and body in Gehenna mentioned in this verse means that. Mark’s view of Gehenna as a place “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched” (an echo of Targum Isaiah) perhaps indicates that this destruction can go on for some time.

            I don’t know that one has to come up with a consistent understanding of the eschatology(ies) of the gospels, given that the gospels clearly have different agendas and conflicting stories. It’s quite possible that the original Jesus made apocalyptic statements that were later adapted/altered to take the destruction of Jerusalem into account. We can see this sort of statement adjustment just by comparing the gospels. Obviously, Jesus and his early followers “had their own understanding”, but the gospels are clearly not “reliable indicators of that understanding.”

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Well, a similar passage in Isaiah is 34:9-10, referring to the destruction of Edom:

            And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch,
            and her soil into sulfur;
            her land shall become burning pitch.
            Night and day it shall not be quenched;
            its smoke shall go up forever (aiona chronon in the LXX).
            From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
            no one shall pass through it forever and ever.

            Obviously it’s smoke is not going up forever (and her streams did not become pitch nor her soil sulfur). I also don’t think it’s accurate to assume a basically literal fulfillment of this was the author’s expectation and he was eschatologically disappointed when it didn’t happen. It’s an apocalyptic image to communicate the totality of Edom’s destruction. Absent a background in Jewish apocalyptic literature, I think we’re prone to take such imagery more literally than the authors intended, even if we don’t understand them strictly literally.

            As to the gospels, I agree with you about the consistencies; not sure I agree about reliability. I think they are reliable indicators of what the early church believed when they were written – at least as reliable as any ancient documents in that regard.

          • Since you seem to have a grasp of the development of historical Judaism, I would assume you understand that all three source periods in the writing of Isaiah, while showing some early apocalyptic themes, still predate the development of a full Jewish eschatology of an afterlife beyond Sheol involving a final judgement and a resurrection of the dead (during the time of the Maccabean revolt around 165 BCE).

            There’s really no question among scholars that apocalyptic literature dating from this period, while still involving supposed prophecies of events (usually backdated, as in Daniel) in actual history, also involved supernatural elements such as a general resurrection of the dead. Francois’s source text for this understanding of prophecy was not Isaiah (as you intimate), but Targum Isaiah, a rabbinical expansion of the text developed around the first century BC.

            So, obviously, if you quote prophetic literature predating the Maccabean Revolt, the vast majority of the writing will reference historical defeats (rather than supernatural end times) in apocalyptic language. But you will have failed to take into account the developments of Judaic eschatology in the much later years of the Second Temple period.

            To be precise, yes, the gospels may be “reliable indicators of what the early church believed WHEN THEY WERE WRITTEN” (or at least the agendas of the editors); but that is not the reliability we were discussing. We were discussing their reliability as indicators of the understanding of “Jesus and his early circles of followers”. For that purpose they are clearly not reliable, given that conflicting agendas and story embellishments are embedded throughout the gospels.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Well, it’s certainly debatable how much of what you mention as an afterlife eschatology didn’t exist when the various portions of Isaiah were written, but my point is that authors use apocalytpic, cosmological, hyperbolic imagery regularly to talk about events that were nothing of the sort. It was indicative of the big changes and extent of the effects of the event. I seriously doubt that the idea of resurrection becoming more popular in the days of Trito-Isaiah all of a sudden changed the conventions of apocalyptic imagery to, “We’re now only going to use this when we really really mean it as a literal thing.” While it is possible that language, that formerly was used to describe significant political events in history, could then also adopt actual cosmological events in their scope, I’d need to see some kind of reason to assume that was case.

            The fact that more supernatural ideas developed more fully over time does not impact the point that such language is well-established in the Old Testament to describe events that are far more mundane than the language lets on, so the language itself is not a justification for assuming the author is referring to a reasonably literal understanding of such language. If someone wants to argue that the language -later- also began to be used to describe actual world-ending, eternal spiritual torment kinds of events, that’s fine, but that’ll be an uphill climb to prove since we have no world-ending events to compare it to.

            Targum Isaiah is not strictly rabbinical commentary on Isaiah. It is an Aramaic translation of Isaiah that rabbis (presumably) would add in helpful phrases as part of the translation, not entirely unlike many modern English translations. Targum Isaiah and Isaiah are not independent documents and objecting that Isaiah’s use of language has no bearing on Targum Isaiah seems unwarranted to me. It would be like saying the Hebrew version of Isa. 66:24 has no bearing on the Septuagint version of Isa. 66:24.

            I apologize if I’m harping on something you already know, but previously you referred to Francois’ citation of Targum Isaiah as an appeal to extrabiblical apocalyptic literature, so that combined with this just wanted me to make sure and double check that we were talking about the same thing.

            In that vein, here is the ESV of Isa. 66:24

            “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men 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.”

            And Francois’ own translation of Targum Isaiah 66:24:

            “And they will go out and see the corpses of the guilty men who rebelled against my word because their soul will not die and their fire will not be extinguished and the wicked will be judged in Gehenna until the righteous say concerning them, “It is enough!””

            So, as you can see, they are very similar, because one is a translation of the other.

            Now, you had pointed out earlier that Francois brings up the Targum because the word “Gehinnom” appears in it, and connecting it with the worms and the fires shows that the fires are fires of God’s judgement, not man made fires. Well and good.

            However, my citation of Isaiah was to point out the -eternality- of the language is clearly established in OT literature, including the scroll of Isaiah itself, to designate quite temporary conditions. The language is used to refer to gravity, totality, and scope, not that it will literally last forever. You might recall showed you a Judith passage where the worms and fires are brought back up again as God’s judgement in her song about beating down Assyria.

            While Francois’ point may argue that the fires of Gehenna are from God, and well enough, I said that was a fair point, his argument actually supports -MY- interpretation of Jesus’ words by connecting the word Gehenna to what has up till now been entirely temporal imagery used of military destruction. If you want to argue that such language -later- in Jewish theology was used to describe eternal, spiritual events, that’s fine, but you’ll need to establish that weight of evidence over and against a rather large body of evidence of the same language being used to describe temporal political events.

            In my view, the only reason later passages appear to us to be talking about Heaven and Hell the way we understand them is because we don’t come to those passages cold. We have that story in our heads and, when we read the Bible, there it is! Most of Francois’ points come down to the same question-begging, “Well, obviously this other stuff is eternal, right? So, there you go,” that most articles do. That works as long as we agree that “other stuff” is also meant to be spiritual and eternal. But I don’t, and nobody has shown me to date reasons I should other than conformity to the heaven/hell narrative. I’m sure better reasons exist, but I’ve not seen them and, unlike the existence of God, I am unwilling to take that on as a faith commitment.

            Finally, per your point about reliability, I’m still not sure how your conclusion follows. There are several ancient histories about Roman emperors that differ somewhat in their contents and perspectives and usually had an agenda, but I doubt you’d say those biographies were unreliable sources of information about Roman emperors. We just can’t read them uncritically. Do you believe that the passages where the Gospels are in complete agreement are reliable indicators of what Jesus did and taught?

          • No, it’s really not debatable at all that Jewish biblical and apocryphal literature dating from the Maccabean revolt reveal an advanced end-times eschatology including a final resurrection of the dead, that is simply unknown to the sources of Isaiah, despite a few small hints of resurrection notions such as that in Isaiah 26:19.

            As I already pointed out without your help, Francois uses Targum Isaiah to connect the concept of Gehenna to Jesus’ use of Gehenna very specifically to argue against Pahl’s assertion that “the fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God” and that “God abhorred the fires of Gehenna”. This reference to Gehenna was not in the original Isaiah passage. He most certainly did not, as you claimed, “take Isaiah 66 and essentially make the argument that it’s obvious that Isaiah 66 is about a final judgement at the end of time”.

            I never called Targum Isaiah a “rabbinical commentary”, so I wonder why you take the time to deny that it is. But it is far more than just translation. The paraphrases, expansions, and explanations added to the original text show the interpretative biases of the rabbinical authors at the time the targum was composed. And it was just such an expansion that Francois uses to demonstrate whose fire Jesus attributes to Gehenna. Francois also references Bruce Chilton’s study of other Gehenna references in Targum Isaiah, and I might add Harry Sysling’s study of the resurrection of the dead as it appears in the Palestinian Targums in ways that don’t exist in the original Hebrew Bible sources.

            Clearly, Isaiah’s original language uses hyperbolic apocalyptic language to describe historical events that had already occurred; but I certainly wouldn’t use your adjective “mundane” to describe such historical events as military defeats and the enslavement of Israel to a succession of foreign powers. And of course apocalyptic language can be used in any period to refer to actual historical events, as, for example, the references to Rome and Nero in the Book of Revelation. But it’s not clear where you draw the line between supernatural apocalyptic interpretations and historical apocalyptic interpretations, since you seem to readily accept Jesus’ references to the resurrection of the dead in Matthew 10:39.

            I’m by no means arguing that the 1st century views of the afterlife are particularly similar to those of many modern Christians. Much of the NT seems to describe a resurrection of the dead into an actual physical body – different, more perfect, than the original body – but not the ephemeral, substance-less body imagined in ghost stories today.

            On the reliability of gospels you ask “do you believe that the passages where the Gospels are in complete agreement are reliable indicators”. My answer is no –
            especially not in those passages! Those passages in the synoptic gospels which are verbatim renditions of exactly the same story in exactly the same words actually serve to show where one gospel has clearly used the other gospel as it’s narrative copy source. Far from being an indicator of reliability, that’s an indicator of a lack of independence.

            All ancient sources have agendas and varying degrees of reliability. But most of the better known Roman biographies at the very least name their authors and name quite a large number of their sources, a practice not found in the gospels (which seem to copy and adapt from each other freely without attribution). Matthew Ferguson does an excellent job of contrasting the comparative reliability of Graeco-Roman biography with that of the gospels on his blog:


          • Phil Ledgerwood

            What I said was that is was debatable how much of that afterlife conception you mentioned was present when Isaiah was written. That the full fledged ideas of a final judgement, bodily resurrection, national vindication and restoration, etc. as an eschatological complex the way we see it in, say, the Pharisees is a progressive development is clear. But what isn’t clear is what elements of these ideas existed when and what form. Surely you don’t think the idea of a resurrection, for example, was completely unheard of prior to the second century BCE.

            I enjoyed the “hint” you pointed out in Isaiah 26. “Your dead shall live! Your corpses shall rise!” That’s not very coy. And you’ll already be aware of the reference in Job, and the ambiguities in dating are such that you could probably put that where you wanted it. Even so, if you believe the sources for the earlier chapters in Isaiah had no concept of a resurrection or a final judgement because such concepts were not even available to them in any form, that’s fine, I guess, it just seems hard to argue. How much of OT eschatology was present when is a debated issue; I’m not sure why you think it isn’t.

            I took the time to explain the Targum is not rabbinical commentary because initially you said Francois’ use of it was a an interaction with extrabiblical literature. You said this because I had noted that extrabiblical literature contains much stronger data for Francois’ case, but he doesn’t appeal to it (he links to an article in the Jewish Encyclopedia to cover that base). You countered my objection by pointing to Francois’ use of the Targum. I suppose, in a very strict sense, the Targum is extrabiblical literature, but in that same sense, so is the Vulgate, the Septuagint, and the King James. But I let this go because I didn’t think it was a big deal. It really didn’t affect either of our points either way and I try not to just take potshots for the sake of being right about something.

            But you came back to it when I compared the imagery in Isaiah 66 to other passages with the objection that Francois’ citation was from the -Targum- Isaiah 66, as if somehow this invalidated my use of Isaiah 66. Like it was some completely separate document and what you say about one has no bearing on the other. It is true, the choices the translator(s) make reveal their interpretive biases. It also, like the Septuagint, may reveal they had access to different texts than the Masoretic. But whatever the case is, it does not change the fact that both the Masoretic Isaiah 66 and the Targum Isaiah 66 use imagery that is clearly demonstrable elsewhere to describe “mundane” (i.e. earthly as opposed to spiritual) events. This does not in any respect affect the validity of Francois’ points that the judgement comes from God and not man, and I agreed with that when you first brought it up. It does, however, impact the crux of our discussion, which is whether or not such imagery / Gehenna is more likely to be understood as a transhistorical, eternal, spiritual outcome or a concrete historical one.

            I believe Jesus is referring to some kind of resurrection or afterlife in Matthew 10:39 because I don’t know how else he could plausibly claim that people who lost their lives would find them later. There is no apocalyptic imagery in 10:39. If there is an explanation for Jesus’ saying in 10:39 that, for example, shows similar language describing a mundane phenomenon, I would be more inclined to accept that explanation.

            Well, I feel a little sorry for the Gospels in your evaluation, because their similarity speaks against their reliability, and their differences speak against their reliability. So, they’re pretty much screwed no matter what by your lights.

            But you raise a good reminder, because I don’t want us equivocating on “reliability.” In our discussion, the “reliability” of the Gospels refers to, “How accurate a picture do they give us of what the historical Jesus said / believed?” There’s nothing supernatural about a first century apocalyptic prophet going around preaching and warning people of an impending judgement. I don’t find anything the Gospels claim Jesus taught that stretches my sense of credulity, and they tend to be in basic agreement on the main themes even when they differ on exact wording. It is possible, of course, that everything in them is something the authors put directly in Jesus’ mouth that he, himself, never would have said. But then I have to throw myself on the cruel mercies of historiography, because those and the non-canonical writings are the only such records I have available to me. My only alternative would be just to proclaim that nobody knows anything about what the actual Jesus taught, and there are certainly people who proclaim that. I just don’t see what’s inherently unbelievable about the Gospels’ accounts of his teaching.

          • I have no particular disagreement with your first two paragraphs, noting both the “full-fledged.” “eschatological complex” seen in the Pharisees and earlier resurrection ideas seen in (for example) the verse I pointed out in Isaiah 26. I’m not sure why you think I do. I didn’t use the word “hint” to mean “coy”, I used “hint” to simply mean that our understanding of resurrection beliefs in Isaiah isn’t nearly as complete as that of much later writings.

            So you decided to “let this go” when I referred to Targum Isaiah as extrabiblical literature? There is nothing to let go. Targum Isaiah IS extrabiblical literature. Targum writings are routinely cited as extrabiblical literature in scholarship. Here’s an example from Peter Enns: https://www.ibr-bbr.org/files/bbr/BBR_1996_03_Enns_Well_1Cor10_4.pdf

            Targum Isaiah dates from exactly the period of time relevant to the end-times eschatology known to the Pharisees. That’s why Francois referenced Chilton’s study of the Targum. Chilton is not the only scholar to identify late Second Temple eschatologies within Targum literature. Francois did not say that “Isaiah 66 is about a final judgement at the end of time”, but he did suggest that this interpretative lens was a part of Targum Isaiah. There is an obvious difference.

            I agree with you about Matthew 10:28-39, except that such a view of the resurrection is also apocalyptic in nature and utilizes the same reference to Gehenna that we have been discussing. You have been discussing “whether or not such imagery / Gehenna is more likely to be understood as a transhistorical, eternal, spiritual outcome or a concrete historical one.” And here is a passage on Gehenna, which you agree involves a resurrection of the dead. Do you consider resurrections of the dead “concrete historical”?

            The gospels aren’t completely “screwed” in my view; I think there is an actual religious figure at the core of them named Jesus, who lived and preached some of the tenets you find in the gospels (though scholars are deeply divided on what sayings can be traced as original). My point about the verbatim copying in the synoptics is hardly radical; it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill observation in biblical scholarship. And while I dismiss the historicity of supernatural elements in the gospels, I’m not picking on the gospels in particular. I dismiss the historicity of supernatural elements in any ancient writings. I would agree that some of Jesus’ preaching doesn’t “stretch credulity”, but at the same time there are elements of his preaching that many critical scholars see as more indicative of the editors’ differing agendas, so that “credulity” is not the only factor in evaluating historicity. There are instances in which one synoptic author clearly copies another, but with a change in wording that affects emphasis and theology. The Jesus of the gospel of John clearly has a different agenda than the Jesus of the synoptics, declaring his miracles as proof of divinity, rather than telling the recipients of miracles not spread the word as he does in the synoptics. Such observations are a part of basic critical scholarship.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Fair enough on the Targum thing. I still think it’s a stretch to take what is predominantly a translation and put it in the same category as 4 Maccabees, but if genuine scholars disagree with me on that, I’m not in a good position to argue with them. I do recognize that the Aramaic translations include additions that go beyond a simple “conversion” of the text, and the example Pete shows is a good example, but I would argue that the additions we find in the Targum are used by the translator to increase the clarity of the text, similar to what we observe in the early scribal traditions copying the texts, although perhaps a bit more aggressive. And we also know from the Septuagint that there are different source texts to be had than the Masoretic had access to, and these can produce some reasonably different translations. So, in my view, “Pseudo-Philo” and “the Targum” are not in the same category of literature. But, I’m neither a professional nor a scholar, so I’ll just admit I’m rowing against the tide, apparently.

            With regard to Matthew 10:39, I want to make sure we’re clear, because Matthew 10:39 contains no apocalyptic imagery, nor does Jesus claim that anyone will rise from the dead. I believe that theological idea is what allows him to make the claim he does in 10:39. As I said, if someone could demonstrate a use of that same language elsewhere to describe something more mundane, I’d be inclined to go with that.

            10:28, on the other hand, does use such imagery. The reason I compared it with 10:39 is because of the use of the word “psyche” in both places – usually translated “soul” in 28 and “life” in 39. My interpretive bias, since much of this chapter constitutes a single speech revolving around the upcoming persecution of Jesus’ followers, is that Jesus basically means the same thing by “psyche” in both places. So, in both cases, he’s talking about losing your life as opposed to an immortal component of your being, either being “destroyed” (which it isn’t in the normal understanding of Hell) in 28 or lost in 39. It appears to me that he’s talking about physical death.

            The theological idea that allows Jesus to make these claims is the idea of a resurrection from the dead of the faithful. That idea is not taught in either passage, but that idea is back of them. Otherwise, I’d need to see a cogent explanation of how someone can find their psyche again if they lose it for Jesus’ sake, or lose it if they actually save it by being unfaithful. It makes sense to me that Jesus is relying on a hope in the resurrection in these cases, although the passages themselves do not teach a resurrection. If this is the case, then that gives us an explanation both for how someone could die at the hands of the Pharisees or the Empire and still be better off than someone who died in the coming judgement against Jerusalem because they refused to follow Jesus and how someone could lose their life for Jesus’ sake and find it, while someone who saved their life through unfaithfulness would lose it.

            I may have just spent a lot of effort reemphasizing what was already clear to you, but I just wanted to make sure I was not communicating that 10:29 and 39 teach a future resurrection of the dead. Interpretively, I believe they depend on that idea, much in the same way that Paul’s claim that “all things work together for the good of those who are called” depends on a certain theological complex about God and events.

            Having boxed that away, I want to return to your question of whether or not a resurrection is a concrete historical outcome and what relationship that might have to apocalyptic language, since we both agree that Jesus’ idea of a resurrection was one of an actual resurrection and not a more mundane event like the reinstitution of the nation of Israel (although I am open to that line of argument).

            As you know probably better than I, Jewish thought goes through iterations on the idea of resurrection ranging from a vague idea of the persistence of the spirit all the way to bodies come up out of the graves and are fine. I think Jesus as the gospels portray him and generally first century Jews who believed in a resurrection leaned more toward the latter end of that. The resurrection stories we see in the gospels themselves, for instance, are not spiritual persistence but are actually dead bodies coming to life again, and this seems to be sort of a prefiguring or intrusion of the idea that the dead rise at the judgement.

            If this is the case, then resurrection for Jesus would not be some eternal, spiritual affair in heaven, but a historical event on earth where life would continue more or less like life does, granted with the huge changes of death being eliminated (in the final resurrection) and our marital behavior being more “like the angels.” In that sense, I would categorize the resurrection as a hoped for concrete historical outcome that the gospels portray occurring in a minor, precursory way during the ministry of Jesus (and later, his apostles).

            You and I would probably consider that far more supernatural than a nation being destroyed by another nation, but I don’t know that ancient Judaism would share that view. It appears from the OT at any rate that Israel’s victories despite her smaller size were chalked up to God’s intervention and the wars of the great nations were actually God’s work and, in some cases, described as God Himself acting in them and being the primary warrior figure.

          • Well, as long as you realize that you are rowing against the tide if you don’t recognize Targums as extra biblical literature with interpretive biases and assumptions derived from the period in which they were written. A few more examples of scholars examining Targums from this standpoint:


            I don’t really disagree with the middle section of your comment. The resurrection of the dead is certainly assumed in Matthew 10, if not overtly taught. And, obviously, I agree with you that resurrections to first century Jews were primarily bodies coming up out of the grave rather than a vague persistence of the spirit. That’s why I said, two comments ago:

            “Much of the NT seems to describe a resurrection of the dead into an actual physical body – different, more perfect, than the original body – but not the ephemeral, substance-less body imagined in ghost stories today.”

            But, even though this is not the sort of resurrection that came to be understood by some later Christians – ephemeral, taking place on another plane of existence – a bodily resurrection of the dead and the elimination of death is by no means a mundane, concrete, historical event akin to wars, enslavements, and other prophetic references. How could the resurrection of physical bodies and elimination of death be mundane? How could it be concrete if we have no evidence of it ever happening. And I don’t know what the descriptor “historical” adds of any value. Spiritual, other-worldly resurrections might just as easily be “historical” as bodily ones.

            As for how the ancient Jews viewed resurrection, we have evidence that they disagreed about whether a resurrection was to be expected. And I doubt any ancient Jew would see a resurrection as mundane.

          • arcseconds

            Specifically, a Platonic influence . Aristotle’s psyche is much more along the lines of what you suggest — the animating principle.

    • John MacDonald

      Here is a short article from apologists arguing that the Universalist interpretation of aionion ignores the context: https://carm.org/look-word-aionion

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        I would say that their choice to translate 1 Tim. 6:16 as “eternal” is also incorrect. It would be better translated as “dominion for the ages” or, to help out English readers a bit, “dominion that will last from age to age.” Likewise their following lists of texts.

        Their argument seems to boil down to, “Well, we’d all agree THESE texts should be translated as ‘eternal,’ right?” But I don’t. Their argument is basically question begging.

  • Mark Steven Francois makes an excellent argument that Pahl is ignoring many other uses of Gehenna in the old Testament and Targum literature, as well as the “immediate context of the passage” (in the NT) and the “plain-sense meaning of the text”. Pahl’s counter-argument reveals that his notions are based on a very specific theological construct of “inaugurated eschatology”, which requires it’s own defense.


    • Phil Ledgerwood

      I think Mark’s reasoning is equally biased. For example, he takes Isaiah 66 and essentially makes the argument that it’s obvious that Isaiah 66 is about a final judgement at the end of time, and therefore we know Gehenna can be associated with that. But that begs the question. If Isaiah 66 is actually about a temporal judgement that occurs in the course of Israel’s history and does not terminate it, then that usage of Gehenna would actually support the idea that Jesus’ usage refers to an upcoming destruction of Jerusalem.

      For instance, we might look at Judith 16:17 who borrows the imagery in a song she composes about her victory over Assyria.

      Woe to the nations that rise up against my people!
      The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment;
      he will send fire and worms into their flesh;
      they shall weep in pain forever.

      One could look at that and say, “Well, obviously Judith is talking about the final judgement at the end of time,” but that’s question begging. The fact is this is a song she wrote about the victory over Assyria she just had. While it is possible that, at the very end of the song, she suddenly shifts topics to a final judgement at the end of time, that doesn’t seem probable to me. At the very least, it’s far from obvious that’s what’s happening.

      This methodology is pretty common to the “Gehenna means Hell as we understand it” camp. None of their arguments hold up if it turns out the passages they’re using don’t mean what they “obviously” mean to make the argument work.

      Much stronger arguments could be had by mining extrabiblical Jewish literature, because it is there we actually see Gehenna taking on a mythological character, Francois gives a very brief nod to this, which I find puzzling because that material is -far- stronger for his case than the Old Testament is.

      • Francois numbers his responses to Pahl. His use of Isaiah 66 is in response #1, very specifically to argue against Pahl’s assertion that “the fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God” and that “God abhorred the fires of Gehenna”.

        Because the extrabiblical Targum of Isaiah (which he translates himself – far more than a “brief nod” to the material) seems to inform the parallel passage in Mark 9, it is a more likely source for the Mark reference than Pahl’s use of Jeremiah. The fire in this passage is the fire of God’s judgement, not fires “made by humans”.

        Francois’s primary arguments for a final judgement understanding of Jesus’ use of Gehenna is not based on Isaiah, but on Matthew, in which, for example, the writer states:

        Matthew 10:28 – “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna).” (NIV)

        • Phil Ledgerwood

          Fair point. I do agree that the “fires made by man” contention is something I don’t see as impacting the passage. I disagree about the Matt. 10:28 exegesis, though, but you asked specifically about this passage in another comment, and I’ll hit that up there.

        • Herro

          I think the Lukan version of that saying (in Lk 12:4-5) is even more useful. There Jesus contrasts people who can kill you and then do nothing, and
          god who can kill you and then throw you into Gehenna. Fits perfectly with Gehenna being some kind of hell, but doesn’t fit at all with Pahl’s
          claims of it being related to a valley outside Jerusalem or something that people do to themselves in this life (or something like that). But that doesn’t matter since Jeremiah 7 is clear on the matter 😉

          • On the one hand, Gehenna simply is the name of a valley outside of Jerusalem. The question is what people in the first century meant by using it as a reference to future consequences of present actions.

    • Herro

      Yeah, it’s amazing that McGrath thinks that this post is “amazing”. This guy ignores all the things you mentioned (and more!) and just looks at a passage in Jeremiah. Then he just assumes that Jesus must mean exactly the same thing as this author who lived half a millenium earlier. If a conservative Christian did something similar, McGrath would probably (and rightly) call it proof-texting, harmonizing and so on.

      And this guy is clearly doing this to soften the views of Jesus to make them fit his own liberal Christian views.

      • Well, in a way, I agree that Pahl’s arguments are given way to much credit here.

        On the other hand, as long as we have to live and work beside Christians, I would much rather live and work beside the ones that don’t believe hell. I may not subscribe to James’s particular Christianity, but I certainly agree with his liberal views.

      • This seems to miss the point that the term “Gehenna” clearly does have a geographical reference as its root, and so the question is why the term was used as it was in the first century, and what the term called to mind for those who heard it.

  • John Thomas

    I agree. It seems to be saying that if you do certain wrong actions, you will bring on the punishment for it on to yourselves. There seems no connotation for a suffering after death from the text itself unless one want read that on to it.

    • John MacDonald

      ” ‘I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine’.”

      – Charles Darwin on the subject of Eternal Hell, taken from The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (revised version)

  • Martha Anne Underwood

    Read Michael Pahl’s blog. I am in total agreement with what he and you say.

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  • Michael Wilson

    Others here have pointed out that Pahl’s idea of Gehenna being for this world isn’t shared by many early Jewish sources, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6558-gehenna

    I also wonder about his identification of the Pharisees and Scribes as privileged oppressors of the marginalized. These aren’t even Sadducee collaborators with Rome. Wouldn’t the Pharisees and scribes have been oppressed by the Romans? Does it not seem like a privileged group, a modern Christian, attacking a marginalized group, victims of Roman imperialism?

    I think this is probalamitic to many people’s views of social injustice, though I think that is perfectly possible for some subset of an “oppressed”* group to also be an oppressor.

    * the groups are a bit arbitrary. If a Celtic noble sold Celtic peasants into slavery to Romans, are they really part of the oppressed group because Romans oppressed Celts generally?

    • Neko

      I have a vague recollection of Morton Smith arguing that the Pharisees were contemporary foes of the gospel writers, and that Jesus was more likely harassed by “scribes,” mid-level administrators and self-styled guardians of orthodoxy. (I could be totally wrong in my recollection, however.)

  • D. Martinez
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