Saturday, June 8, 2013

Andrew Perriman and Hell: Another Expedition Beyond Orthodoxy

Rule #5 Historical narratives have (mostly) historical horizons

The narrative-historical approach identifies and works within the plausible historical horizons of the texts, on the assumption that Jesus and his followers spoke and wrote about what evidently and urgently mattered to them as (mostly) Jews engaged with the overarching story of Israel. I think that nearly everything that Jesus said and did had in view the horizon of the war against Rome, and that nearly everything that Paul and others said and did had in view a second horizon of the conversion of the empire. So, for example, I argue that when Jesus speaks of the judgment of Gehenna, he means not a post mortem “hell” but the terrible judgment that would come upon Jerusalem within a generation. That is what the language points to, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was clearly of paramount concern for him.
 It really is quite fascinating to observe these new trailblazers arise within evangelical circles, portend to somehow have gained amazing new insights into the world of the text of Scripture so much so that they can, within a few short years turn the most basic, fundamental doctrines of orthodoxy on their head. We mistake the market for such phenomena as validity and this quickly translates into credibility somehow. That there are a number of false Christians even within evangelical churches is nothing new. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that new ideas which seek to fundamentally renovate even the most basic Christian dogma are met by these young, restless, Christians so-called, with great enthusiasm and acceptance. They are, after all, eager to replace historic Christianity with a modern version that meets their own desires for what they want God and Jesus to be like. I suspect that this element within visible Christianity is the element that finds Perriman's new ideas (which are not really that new) so very attractive. To be fair, this fact alone does nothing to disprove Perriman's theology. For that, we must turn to Scripture to see if in fact his hypotheses stand the test of biblical norms.

When Jesus speaks about Gehenna (γέεννα), is He in fact referring to Titus' sacking of the city in 70? Lets ask Jesus and see if this is the case. In Matt. 5:22 Jesus said that anyone who called his brother a fool is guilty enough to enter "the fiery hell." In verses 29-30 of that same chapter, Jesus said that is better for us to enter heaven maimed than for our whole body to be cast into hell. Is there any way we could look at these verses and understand Jesus to be referring to the coming fiery judgment of Jerusalem in 70? These are general statements about a universal judgment that will address individual behavior, not behavior as a nation. It seems nearly impossible to this theologian that Jesus was thinking of the fall of Jerusalem in these verses. Such an interpretation seems to be unnatural and hoisted upon the text.

In Matt. 10:28, Jesus tells his disciples not to fear men who can destroy the body, but fear God who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Once more, there is no hint in this pericope of the impending judgment of the nation of Israel. The only way one could draw such a conclusion would be due to a previous theological commitment. And this is something that Andrew supposedly loathes and claims to avoid. However, as I have pointed out repeatedly, not only does Andrew fail here, such a task is impossible. Andrew's theological commitments appear from the inception of this program and are easily recognized throughout his entire project.

The truth is that there is not a single place in Scripture where Jesus linked Gehenna to the coming fall of Jerusalem. The Greek term γέεννα is derived from a Hebrew phrase meaning ‘Valley of Hinnom,’ a ravine running along the south side of Jerusalem and a place where the rubbish from the city was constantly being burned. According to late Jewish popular belief, the last judgment was to take place in this valley, and hence the figurative extension of meaning from ‘Valley of Hinnom’ to ‘hell.’ In most languages γέεννα is rendered as ‘place of punishment’ or ‘place where the dead suffer’ or ‘place where the dead suffer because of their sins.’ [Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, vol. 1, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 5.]

The Talmud unequivocally states: “He who maintains that resurrection [of the dead] is not a biblical doctrine [i.e., intimated in the Torah]” (Sanh. 90a) has no portion in the world to come. Indeed, the concepts of an afterlife and eventual divine justice became pillars of the Pharisees and their rabbinic descendants and one of the chief points of difference between them and the Sadducees, who asserted that the soul died together with the body. To paraphrase the Talmud, if those who never lived before can live, then why cannot God make those who have already lived live again (Sanh. 91a)? [Ronald L. Eisenberg, The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, 1st ed. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2004), 117-18.]

Andrew continues to infer that our understanding of the NT Scripture and the teachings of Jesus must be understood in light of second-temple Judaism. He claims that his approach is atheological. He makes radical statements, even within what he calls rules, and fails to provide anything more than additional statements to make his case. In other words, Perriman confuses statements for arguments. The truth is that Perriman makes very few arguments to support his not-so-new ideas. The sources I have referred are only two from many that refute Andrew's claim about Jesus' intended meaning of Gehenna. On the one hand, no link is ever made between Gehenna and the fall of Jerusalem. On the other hand, it is clear that there was no Jewish consensus regarding the afterlife and judgment. The truth is that Andrew would need a LOT more evidence for his rule in this case to even qualify as flimsy.

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