Monday, December 19, 2011

Gehenna in Isaiah 66 (Unquenchable Fire, part 3)

(This post is the third installment in a five-part series arguing for a preterist interpretation of hellfire. To get links to the entire series, visit my post 'Rethinking Unquenchable Fire (complete series).'

When the final verse of Isaiah speaks of God’s enemies suffering a worm which does not die and a fire that is not quenched, this should not be taken as an isolated proof text establishing an endless hell, but should be read in the context of Isaiah’s entire narrative. That is why I spent time in the preceding posts establishing that narrative. Isaiah 65 and 66 are permeated with the rich panoply of theological themes we have already explored, in particularly

  • YHWH rules in the heavens above the gods of the other nations (66:1).
  • Through His servant, YHWH will one day bring His people back from exile and vindicate them (65:18-19; 66:5-13).
  • The theme of comfort is picked up again in 66:12-13– a theme which Isaiah always invests with eschatological significance.  God’s people are being comforted because Israel’s exile is over and the Lord is extending peace to her.
  • When this happens, the worship of God will abound throughout the entire earth (65:17-25), including the Gentiles (66:12 & 19-21).
  • In order for this to be achieved, YHWH must first defeat His enemies and judge the idols (66:3-6; 66:14-18). Those who purify themselves falsely by means of pagan rites (66:17, echoing 65:3) is contrasted with the purifying judgment that God brings.
  • YHWH will defeat His enemies. He does this by converting some (66:19-21) and bringing death to others (66:24).

The unquenchable fire of Isaiah 66:24 is an instance of the last point, and it is specifically connected with the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth.
“For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before Me,” says the LORD, “so shall your descendants and your name remain. And it shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says the LORD. And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (Isaiah 66:24)

Significantly, the valley of Hinnom (latter called Gehenna) where this occurs was associated with idol worship for much of Judah’s history. It was here that the people of God passed their children through the fire to Molech. It later became a garbage dump where the corpses of dead animals or those who were denied a ceremonial burial, were discarded. Maggots infested the rubbish, which was continually smoking. This is not a cosmological projection but a literal description of a specific place in the space-time universe. As worshipers bring their gifts to Zion they pass by the city dump, where the enemies of YHWH have been unceremoniously dumped as a testimony to YHWH’s vindication that would have resonated deeply with Ancient Near Easterners. To quote again from Daniel Block, “The image is also that of a pile of corpses, victims in battle, ignominiously dumped in a heap and torched.”  Arthur Pink gets it right in describing the history of this valley:
First, "Gehenna" is the Grecianized form of the Hebrew for "valley of Hinnom," which was a deep gorge on the east of Jerusalem. This valley of Hinnom was first used in connection with idolatrous rites (2 Chronicles 28:3). Later it became a burial ground (Jeremiah 7:31), or more probably a crematorium. Still later it became the place where the garbage of Jerusalem was thrown and burned (Josephus). Its fires were kept constantly alight so as to consume the filth and rubbish deposited therein.
Isaiah 66:24 thus speaks entirely of the type of judgment that the Servant brings to the earth in the process of redeeming it, the culmination of a process that has already been described in detail in such passages as chapter 34 and 42:13. I italicized the words ‘to the earth’ since many people have stripped this passage from its temporal-historic context to be made into a free-standing threat of eternal hellfire. Here I must depart company with our blessed brother John Calvin, who believed that the plain meaning of Isaiah 66:24 was “that the wicked shall have a bad conscience as an executioner, to torment them without end, and that torments awaits them greater than all other torments; and finally, that they shall tremble and be agitated in a dreadful and shocking manner, as if a worm were gnawing the heart of a man, or a fire were consuming it, and yet thus consume, he did not die” (Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Isaiah)
But whatever the postmortem fate of the wicked may be (and that question is far from being the slam dunk issue that so many conservative Bible scholars have assumed it to be), Isaiah 66:24 has nothing to do with it. The problem is that Christians often take a certain idea of hell derived from popular religious culture (and, as we shall see, from a misunderstanding of Christ’s words when he quotes Isaiah 66:24) and then import that idea back into this verse.  But remember what we have already seen: the work of God’s Servant is that of bringing restoration, healing and judgment to this space-time universe. This fulfills the promise made to Abraham that all the earth would be blessed through his descendants. It is highly anachronistic to assume that an Ancient Near Eastern audience would have interpreted these words in any other sense than about what happens in the here and now. After all, we have already seen that the narrative Isaiah is drawing on is one in which the God of Israel rules in the heavens above the gods of the other nations and then proves His supremacy through restoring His people, judging unrighteousness and making His worship abound from sea to sea. Only a feat of hermeneutical gymnastics can turn these themes into a charter for what happens in heaven and hell.
This is a point that even conservative Bible scholars have been obliged to point out in a book defending the doctrine of eternal punishment. In Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, Daniel I. Block, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton, has noted in his discussion of Isaiah 66:24 that

“the sight that greets the worshipers coming out of Jerusalem is not a netherworldly scene. On the contrary, the image is realistic and earthly.” Daniel I. Block, “The Old Testament on Hell” in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson  (Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan), p. 60.

The point is worth making since years of subtle Gnosticism have oriented Christians to put a spiritualized gloss over the Old Testament’s prophetic literature – a gloss which leads many commentators to assume that all the judgment passages find fulfillment in an eternal hell while all the restoration passages find fulfillment in heaven. Then when we come to the New Testament it is assumed that the resurrection of believers must be an approximation for the immortality of the soul. But Isaiah’s proclamations of judgment do not function as some hidden code to be deciphered by later generations who had a concept of postmortem torment; rather, they should be read through the lens of their Ancient Near Eastern backdrop and taken to be a description (whether literal or figurative) for what happens in this world that God has made and is redeeming.

This puts me at odds with some of the interpretations offered by my universalist friends and relations who take Isaiah’s promises of earthly restoration and apply them to the postmortem salvation of the wicked. I have a number of universalist books and tracts in my office which offer a narrative that runs something like this: Isaiah speaks of everyone coming to be redeemed after the fires of judgment have done their work; because “everyone” includes those who are presently wicked, it must therefore follow that the wicked (those who die and go to hell) are one day redeemed. Ergo, hell must be a temporary place of purifying suffering.” Again the problem with such a reading is that it becomes plausible only if we first disengage the text from its immediate context, as well as the largely narrative-structures of Biblical theology. One of these narrative structures, as I pointed out in my open letter to a Christian universalist, is that God entrusted Israel with a special vocation in order that through them the means for reconciling all the nations would come. Whenever scripture describes this process of reconciliation it is a process that occurs here on the earth. But moreover, it is a process that has to occur on the earth by the very nature of the case.

This last point may require some further elucidation.

God Images and His Plan for the Earth

Consider, ever since the Garden of Eden, God’s plan has been to fill the world with the worship of Him. This was implicit in the very first commands that God gave Adam and Eve. In the Garden, God gave His images the obligation to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) and “fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). God’s plan for the world was to fill it with His images. Now images and worship are closely linked. The original Hebrew says that mankind was made ‘into’ God’s image. In other words, men and women are not made in the image of God; they actually are the image of God. In the ancient world, people would have understood the importance of this better than we do because of the role images played in the surrounding culture. The Ancient Near Eastern god-kings set up images of themselves all over their territory, as a way of establishing their dominion and fostering the worship of themselves and the god that they represented. The king’s dominion was established by the numerical and geographical extent of his images, and it was in that region– the region marked by his images – that he was worshiped. Similarly, the way God establishes His dominion is through the expansion and dominion of His images: mankind. In commanding His images to populate the earth and take dominion as His representatives, God is acting like a king who is concerned with the increase of his kingdom (the region where he is worshiped). Thus, another way of saying that God’s plan for the world is to fill it with His images, is to say that God’s plan for the world is to establish a kingdom, a kingdom marked out by His images.
With that in mind, look again at the commands God gives to mankind:
  • “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). This command establishes that God’s images are supposed to expand numerically.
  • “Fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). This command establishes that God’s images are supposed to expand geographically.
  • “Subdue [the earth]; have dominion” (Gen. 1:28). This command, known as the dominion mandate, shows that God has delegated some of His authority to man, giving us the job of taming and ruling over the earth as well as naming and defining it. The earth is full of raw materials that have to be developed by man.
  • “Tend and guard it” (Gen. 2:15) This command, often referred to as ‘the cultural mandate’, establishes our responsibility both to develop and to guard the earth’s resources.
These purposes are clearly rooted in what happens in the earth, not in heaven. When Moses wrote or compiled the Genesis narrative, it would have resonated deeply with an Ancient Near Eastern audience since God is showing the type of concern for His glory that was a typical feature of Ancient Near Eastern kings and the gods they represented. We should avoid the type of spiritualized interpretations offered by universalists which strip these realities from their earthly, historic-temporal setting and bracket them within the context of a postmortem restoration of disembodied souls.
A key narrative of Biblical theology is the question of how the purposes of Genesis (the multiplication and dominion of God’s images) can be fulfilled now that the image of God has become defaced through sin. God’s defaced images take dominion, but they take dominion through sin in a way that dishonors YHWH rather than bringing Him glory. Isaiah helps to answer this question. We have seen that Isaiah shows that the earth will be reconciled to God, and fully populated with those who glorify YHWH, and that this will be achieved through the figure of the Servant and the judgment He brings. It is a finite judgment leading to a very specific end within the space-time continuum. In keeping with the preoccupations of the Israelites in Isaiah’s day, it is a description of what happens in the here and now.
A corollary of this is that when we read the Old Testament and come across the concept of “salvation”, we mustn’t assume that salvation meant the same thing that it has come to mean within Christian theology. As I pointed out in my letter to a universalist, quite a lot of the time Old Testament authors use the word “salvation” they have in mind the rescuing of corporate Israel rather than something that happens to us when we die. Quite often in the Psalms “salvation” just means personal deliverance from one’s enemies. To quote again from Block:
“Modern readers often wish that Old Testament prophets and authors had been more forthright and explicit in their comments concerning the afterlife in general, and the netherworld in particular. The fact remains that biblical writers and ancient Israelite characters tended to be preoccupied with the here and now. Their goal was to enjoy a long full life, secure in the knowledge of God’s presence and rich in the blessings that attend a life of covenant faithfulness. Furthermore, eternal life was often viewed in terms of living on in one’s children. Accordingly, a man “with a full quiver” (Ps. 127:3-5) was considered most blessed; a person who was childless was deemed under the curse.” Daniel I. Block ‘The Old Testament on Hell’ in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment)
New Creation

Most critical scholars believe that verse 24 is a later addition. But even if this is true, it is in keeping with the themes of the book, as Brevard S. Childs has shown in his commentary. He argues that it is entirely appropriate for the final antithesis of the righteous and the wicked to be maintained into the eschaton. In his commentary on Isaiah, Child rightly recognizes that one finds in 66:18-23 a succinct summary of eschatological themes that occur throughout the entire book of Isaiah, themes which are not inconsistent with the antithesis in 24. Actually what one finds in this passage,” Childs notes,The She
“is a succinct summary of eschatological themes that occur throughout the entire book of Isaiah. The gathering of all the nations from the ends of the world, the seeing of God’s glory (41:5), the survivors sent to the nations as a witness, the return of the diaspora to God’s holy mountain, and the choosing of foreigners for priests of Yahweh (56:6ff.), are all themes that appear in differing forms. What is new in the passage is the joining of them together in one concluding oracle. The radical formulation of 65:17-18 is repeated, but now in such a way as to provide an interpretation of the earlier promises as a part of the one eschatological goal: the creation of a new heavens and a new earth. This purpose does not emerge as a cosmological projection, but as the context for God’s descendants, his own people, whose name will remain forever and whose life consists in the eternal worship of God from new moon to new moon and from Sabbath to Sabbath.”
There are two final and related points worth making with regard to this New Creation. The first is that New Creation comes in gradations and the second is that New Creation co-exists with old creation. Child rightly points out on page 546 of his book on Isaiah that the sense of gradualism is essential to make sense of Isaiah and the way the description of the new age is set over against the continuing opposition to the old. But how do these realities play out in practice? This question is one which is before us as throughout the entire prophetic corpus. Throughout the eschatological writings of the prophets we find the overlapping interplay between new creation, on the one hand, and judgment of the old creation, on the other. This interplay is often interpreted as describing geographically or dimensionally distinct realms, such as heaven and hell. But we have already seen that such a reading can only be maintained by completely dispensing with authorial intent: the prophets, at least, believed they were writing about what happens on the earth.
We get a sense of how this gradualism plays out by seeing how Jesus fulfills these realities. By exploring Christ’s fulfillment of these themes, the stage will finally be set for understanding Mark 9. But that will be the subject of the next post in this series.

Further Reading

Complete Unquenchable Fire Series

The Sheep and the Goats

Hell, Universalism and Some Remaining Questions


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