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39RE: [Allison-Seminar] Definition of hell in the first century

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  • Dale Allison
    Apr 2, 2003
      Dear Bob:
      Hell, despite its apparent demise, has evidently not been forgotten entirely; you, like so many I run into, seem to be very interested in it. Speaking for myself, it fascinates me--where it came from, what it became, how it declined, etc. I think my interest arises in part because I know how important it once was and how unimportant it now is, and I think this change has altered the entire character of modern Christianity in the West. When did I last hear about hell in a sermon? Certainly not once in the last ten years. The only sermon on hell in my memory is one I heard in 8th grade, and its purpose was to explain why there is no hell! Look at the liturgical passages that come round every year; the committees are doing a good job of excising most the texts about hell and judgment. Look at the change in the Anglican marriage ceremony--giving account to God on the dread day of judgment has been replaced by some statement about living in joy and peace! Anyway, to be short and brutally honest, I think Bob that your reading of hell is a purely modern one; I don't see it in the ancient texts. I think you're reading the texts as you do because you're a modern person who can't believe in hell, yet you're traditional in that you want to find truth in Jesus and the Bible, so you've found a modern view in the ancients. My approach is rather to acknowledge the distance between the ancients and ourselves and then to build bridges. But let's pass from the generalizations to the particulars:
      i. The hell of Jesus and the NT is the hell of their contemporaries, pure and simple. I can't see that they contributed much if anything to the traditonal ideas in their environment. They >>used<< an idea that they found to hand. I can't see that they gave it much thought--which is one justification for not pushing the details, as the later church did.
      ii. You write: >>I may be guilty of premature 'realized' synthesis and a missing of the obvious 'beliefs' of the intertestamental period of Judaism in the time of Jesus<<. I think this hits the nail on the head. I spend more time in ancient Jewish sources than in the NT, and that colors how I read the NT; and I don't see a non-literal, metaphorical hell outside the NT, which makes me very hestitant to see one in the NT. And certainly, until you get to the reflections of Origen on hell (which I greatly adminre and find legitimate), the church isn't adding to conventional Jewish or Greek ideas of post-mortem or eschatological punishment.
      iii. >>Nor does it seem to be necessary to assume that they all thought linearly about time.<< Well, it's not a question of what's necessary, it's just a question of what the texts really say. Speaking for myself, I see a lot of so-called linear thinking in the NT, even in John. In fact, I don't know that I see non-linear thinking, whatever precisely that might mean, anywhere. The early Christians know what the three tenses are; and the past started with Genesis, and the future will end with the parousia.
      iv. You write: >>The early Christians used 'hell' (gehenna) in the synoptics and James (re the tongue set on fire from hell); 'hades' in Matthew, Luke-Acts, and Revelation; no use of either word in Paul or the deutero-Pauline tradition
      ('the wrath to come' is used in both - perhaps reflecting the teaching of John the Baptist - or vice versa); and 'Tartarus' in 2 Peter.<< One comment: I think Paul has a different idea than the synoptics. He seems to me to imply either annihilation of the wicked or unviersal redemption. So I don't think the NT is consistent here--again justification for us to have some freedom in reinterpreting hell.
      v. You wonder about a possible difference between hell and gehenna. I don't see it. See Boyd's article on gehenna in E. A. Livingstone, Studia Biblica 1978. Jeremias found a difference, but it is very artificial.
      vi. You wonder if the NT writers could think about degrees of fire. Again, they just don't reflect on this issue. If they don't ask the question, it's hard to know how to answer it. You can find some evidence that some Jews and Christians did not think of punishment as undifferentiated--the worst people get the worst punishment, that sort of thing. But this isn't connected with fire or its varying temperatures in the NT.
      vii. Is the NT's doctrine of hell consistesnt with Isaiah? Well, probably not; Isaiah is teaching something different. Beliefs about the afterlife, including post-mortem punishment, evolved over time, and the NT reflects where things were in the first century, not when Isaiah was completed.
      viii. You write, Bob: >>I think the texts so far are open to an interpretation of timeless love rather than a narrow concept of sequential vengeance.<< All I can say is: I wish you were right, but I think you are wrong; this is an ahistorical reading. This doesn't, to reiterate what I've said before, mean it's illegitimate--it's just that it's a mdoern reinterpretation, which is all we can do anyway. The end of Mark 9, however, doesn't sound like timeless love. Nor does the end of Matthew 25, nor the end of Revelation. Where do they speak about timeless love?
      ix. Your apparent notion--which I could do something with homiletically but not historicall--that took up into himself the pains of hell reminds me of Schweitzer's view that Jesus sought to take upon himself the eschatological tribution. I think Schweitzer was right to this extent: Jesus probably did interpret his own time and fate in terms of the eschatological woes. We will soon have a dissertation dedicated to this topic from Notre Dame and a very good student there, Brant Pitre. But I can't see that this has anything to do with hell.
      x. I don't think Hebrews is alone in teaching >>eternal<< judgment. Matthew and Mark, e.g., do also. But in the essay I state that we'd be foolish to insist that any NT writer had some sophisticated, philosophical concept of eternity. I refer you to that discussion.
      xi. I don't know how to answer your question about Rev 10:36 because, in my Bible, Revelation 10 has only 11 verses. You must have a typo. But if you're thinking of 10:6--chronos will be no more--, this may just mean that there won't be any more delay; see the commentaries.
      Thanks again for all your questions.
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