Five Strategies for Explaining Away Passages in the Bible We Don’t Like

Five Strategies for Explaining Away Passages in the Bible We Don't Like

One of the things that I find very interesting is that when people find something in the Bible that they’re not very comfortable with, they usually won’t just come out and say, “I simply disagree with what the Bible has to say here.” Now for most people I think this has to do with their belief in the inspiration and authority of scripture. For others it has to do with cultural residue that, for some reason, still makes people want the Bible to be right on certain issues, especially when it comes to moral issues.

So when people encounter something in the Bible that they don’t like, they usually won’t say that the Bible is wrong; they will often try to come up with some very elaborate arguments to try to show that the Bible isn’t actually saying what people think it is saying.   Sometimes this is done for apologetic reasons (i.e. to defend the Bible from its critics), which, by the way, is no excuse.  At other times it’s because they have an agenda for something that they are trying to push for the church today.  But very often it is simply because we have a hard time accepting that the Bible might actually disagree with some of the beliefs or values that we have today.

In this post, I want to deal with five common strategies that people often use to try to explain away passages in the Bible they don’t like.  Now obviously I’m not recommending these strategies because I don’t think they usually lead to a credible readings of the biblical text.  But the more we are aware of these strategies, the easier it will be to spot them and the less likely we will be to use them.

So here are the strategies:

 Strategy #1 – Cast as much doubt as you possibly can on the meaning of key words in the text that you’re dealing with – even if the context or a little bit of research will make the meaning of the word clear.

Now it’s definitely true that there some cases in the Bible where we’re not entirely sure what a particular word or a particular phrase means. Usually it’s because the word or phrase only appears once or twice in the Bible and because it isn’t found in literature outside of the Bible.

And it’s definitely true that there have been some words that have been translated incorrectly in our English Bibles. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important for both biblical scholars and pastors to know the biblical languages and be familiar enough with linguistic theory to properly use them.

That being said, one of the main strategies that people use to undermine the traditional teaching of scripture is to cast serious doubt on the meaning of key words that are found in the passages they are dealing with. This is the case with תּוֹעֵבָה in Leviticus 18:22, ἀρσενοκοίτης in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and αὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2:12.  The idea is that if you can cast enough doubt on what those words have been traditionally understood to mean, even if the alternatives that you come up with aren’t very convincing, then you can proceed to say that these passages don’t really teach what they seem to teach on the surface.

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that there can’t be a legitimate debate about what these words mean. But when you’ve seen this strategy used enough times – and it always happens to be by people who have a vested interest in the passage not meaning what it has traditionally been understood to mean – it’s pretty easy to see this strategy for what it really is. If we can’t lay aside our desire to have the text say what we want it to say, it’s going to be very difficult for us to give a credible reading of that text.

Strategy#2: Do some “background” research, construct a narrative based on that “background” research, and use that narrative to what the text actually says.

The reason why I use the word “background” in quotation marks is because very often the background material that people bring to the text is either not real (i.e. based on false information or the  faulty interpretation of that information) or not very relevant to the text.

Let me just give two quick examples. First, it is sometimes said that Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12 should be read in light of the worship of Artemis in the city of Ephesus, where Timothy was ministering when this letter was written. The problem with this is that even though this background material is real, it doesn’t seem to be very relevant for understanding 1 Timothy 2:12. Regardless of how we think 1 Timothy 2:12 should be applied today, the way that Paul words his instructions in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and the instructions he gives about overseers in the following chapter make it seem as though this was his normal teaching regardless of what city he was referring to. An even more important consideration is this: Paul never mentions or even alludes to Artemis worship anywhere in this letter. When Paul mentions false teaching in Ephesus, his main concern seems to be with some form of proto-Gnosticism (1 Tim. 6:20-21), extreme asceticism (1 Tim. 4:1-8), and/or some kind of false teaching that had to do with Jewish law (1 Tim. 1:3-11). Regardless of what kind of false teaching lies in the background of 1 Timothy, which might not even be relevant for applying  1 Timothy 2:12, Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:12 doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the worship of Artemis.

Another example – and this one is really controversial today – has to do with what Paul has to say about same-sex sexual practice in Romans 1:26-27. This is often explained today in terms of the Greco-Roman practice of pederasty, temple prostitution, or the sexual exploitation of slaves. But what’s interesting about Romans 1:26-27 is that Paul’s concern doesn’t seem to be the age difference between the partners in the relationship; his concern doesn’t seem to be that this activity might be carried out in the context of idol worship, which doesn’t even seem to be on Paul’s radar despite the mention of idolatry in the previous verses; and his concern doesn’t seem to be with sexual exploitation, even though I’m sure he would say this is wrong as well. His problem seems to be that he doesn’t think that men should be having sexual relationships with other men, which makes sense given Paul’s Jewish background. What Paul has to say about lesbian sexual relationships in 1:26 would seem to confirm this but this can be left for another time.

The point is this: when we use “background” material to help us interpret the text, that background material needs to be both real and relevant. There needs to be very strong reasons in the text itself to show that this background material really is relevant. We also need to make sure that we don’t use “background” material to overrule what the text seems to be saying when taken on its own terms. We can disagree with what Paul had to say (obviously not if you believe in the inspiration and authority of scripture) – but we shouldn’t make him say something he never meant to say.

Strategy #3 – Blame the Greeks.

This is something that happens quite a bit. Simply blame the Greeks. The idea here is that there are certain elements of traditional Christian theology that can’t be found in the Bible but are actually based on the influence of Greek philosophy, which seeped into Christian theology in the formative centuries of early Christianity.

Let me just give one example. People who believe in conditional immortality will often argue that the idea of an eternal hell is based on the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul rather than on categories that can actually be found in the Bible. If we want to understand what the Bible has to say on this issue, according to them, we need to get rid of any influence from Greek philosophy and read the Bible on its own terms.

While this sounds very good in principle, in many cases it simply doesn’t work. Now, of course, we do need to accept the possibility that some of the things we believe as Christians or the way we formulate things theologically are due more to the categories of Greek philosophy than the Bible, but saying so doesn’t always make it the case. Going back to the example of conditional immortality, if the Bible actually does teach something similar to the immortality of the soul, which I think is a priori likely given both Egyptian and Mesopotamian beliefs about the afterlife (I also think it is found in the Bible too!), then it doesn’t matter if some of the early theologians of the church were influenced by the ideas or language of Greek philosophy that fell along the same lines. When early theologians went too far in this regard, like Origen’s beliefs about the eternality of the soul and the descent of souls, it was very often filtered out by the tradition, which itself was ruled and guided by the categories of scriptures.

So if we’re going to blame the Greeks for something we see in scripture, we need to make sure that it isn’t simply the case that the Greeks sometimes agreed with scripture.

Strategy #4 – Find another passage that, in reality, could easily be harmonized with the teaching you are trying to undermine but use it to overthrow the clear teaching of passages you don’t like.

 One of the best examples of this is when people use 1 John 4:8, which says that God is love, to cancel out any passage that, for them, seems incompatible with saying that God is love.

Another example is when people use Galatians 3:28, which says, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” (NIV) to overthrow everything else that Paul has to say about gender. Sticking with this last example, it is interesting to note that the same Paul who said that there is neither slave nor free in Galatians 3:28 also told Christian slaves to obey their masters and never told Christian masters to set their slaves free: clearly he didn’t think that being “one in Christ” erased these distinctions.  We can deal with the issue of Paul’s attitude toward slavery in another post.

I even heard one theologian say on a program on the BBC that Matthew 7:21 teaches that people will be judged exclusively by the good they do in this world and that what they believe about Jesus will have zero relevance on the Day of Judgment. Now that clearly doesn’t match up with the overall teaching of scripture and, I would argue, doesn’t match up with the theology of Matthew either.

I could give many more examples. The problem in each of these cases is that the interpreter is drawing conclusions from these verses that the authors themselves would not have drawn and, in some cases, that go against what the author explicitly teaches elsewhere. We can’t simply pick and choose the passages that we like, draw whatever conclusions we want from them, and then use them to overthrow what the Bible teaches in other passages of scripture.

Strategy #5 – Find as many reasons as you possibly can for why the text doesn’t mean what people usually think it means – even if those reasons aren’t compatible with each other.

I’ve seen this one quite a bit. Simply list as many arguments as you possibly can, even if these arguments are mutually incompatible, and try to overwhelm people with the amount of arguments you can find. Chances are most people won’t even realize that these arguments are mutually incompatible anyway – but who cares because the whole point is to win the argument, right?

Let me just give one example. In one blog post I reviewed awhile back, they said that in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul was only giving a temporary injunction against women teaching and having authority over men in the church. But in that same post they also said that the word that is normally translated as “have authority” or something along those lines really means “to domineer” with violent overtones. So which one is it? Is Paul only giving a temporary injunction against women domineering men in a violent way? Will that somehow be acceptable in the future? Both arguments can’t be right and it is very misleading to present these arguments as though they can actually work together.

Well, our main goal when it comes to interpreting a text shouldn’t be to win an argument. The main point should be to be honest with the text and to be honest with the evidence. We should be honest enough to point out when the arguments we are using are incompatible with each other so that we won’t give the false impression that there are ten cumulative arguments in favour of our position rather than maybe one or two. Pick the argument you think is right and then stick with it. But don’t present arguments that are incompatible with each other and make it seem like they help your case.

Conclusion

In the end, regardless of what theological position we come from and regardless of where we might want to come out on certain issues, we need to be honest with what the text says. If we have to do some kind of crazy interpretive gymnastics to get out of what the text seems to be saying, we might need to consider the possibility that the text is actually saying exactly what we think it is saying.  And if at the end of the day we don’t agree with what the text says, we should have the courage to say that we don’t agree with it, rather than trying to make the text say something that it doesn’t.

But if we do believe in the inspiration and authority of scripture, we need to have the kind of attitude that is reflected in Isaiah 66:2b.  In Isaiah 66:2b, God says:

Isaiah 66:2b – This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (NIV)

This is the kind of attitude we need to have when it comes to scripture, especially if we find something in it that we might naturally want to disagree with. We shouldn’t be trying to find loopholes or use whatever strategy we can find to try to get out of what the Bible is saying.  When we’ve done all of our hard work in interpreting the text and we’re convinced that we understand the Bible’s final teaching on a subject, we need to make sure that we listen to what it says.  And that begins with being honest with the text.

Mark Steven Francois

 

 

Advertisements

Chapter 2 of My Classical Syriac Grammar

Classical Syriac Grammar

I have just posted chapter 2 of my free online grammar of Classical Syriac in the Estrangela Script (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/).  This chapter covers vowels in East Syriac, BeGaDKePhaT Letters, Consonant Clusters, Diphthongs, and when to pronounce Waw and Yodh as consonants.  The most difficult part of learning classical Syriac is mastering how to pronounce and write words in Syriac.  Make sure that you learn the material in this chapter well – it will pay dividends in the future.

The plan is to complete chapter 3 of the grammar in the Estrangela script and then go back and do chapters 1, 2, and 3 in the Serto script and then the East Syriac script.

Practice sheets for chapter 2 will be posted as they become available.  Once again, feel free to download and print as many copies as you would like.  However, please do not alter any of the material, post it to another website, or publish it in any other form.  Thanks!

 

 

Yes…The Word Gehenna Really Does Refer to Hell in the New Testament

Yes...The Word Gehenna Really Does Refer to Hell

For some time now I’ve been wanting to write a post on the meaning of the word Gehenna (Gr. γέεννα) in the New Testament. Gehenna is the Greek word that normally stands behind the word “hell” in modern translations of the New Testament. The reason why I wanted to write on this topic is because there are several writers who suggest that the word Gehenna doesn’t actually refer to a place of punishment for the wicked after death (i.e. hell) but refers to some type of judgment that would be experienced during this lifetime.

Now most of the time writers who say that the word Gehenna doesn’t actually refer to a place of punishment for the wicked after death say that the word Gehenna should be understood in light of Jesus’ teaching about the destruction of the temple and the destruction of Jerusalem in passages like Matthew 24. The argument goes something like this: The word Gehenna ultimately derives from the Hebrew term גֵּיא הִנֹּם (gê’ hinnōm), which refers to a literal valley that lies just outside of the wall of Jerusalem – the Valley of Hinnom or, as the Old Testament refers to it, the Valley of Ben Hinnom. So when Jesus was referring to Gehenna in the Gospels, he was literally referring to this valley, not a place of punishment for the wicked after death. Jesus warned the people that if they didn’t give up their revolutionary and rebellious ways and accept God’s way for ushering in his kingdom, their bodies would be literally thrown into the Valley of Hinnom when the Romans attacked Jerusalem and conquered the city.

Recently, however, I came across a blog post that was shared by a friend on Facebook that, on first glance, seemed to be making the exact same argument (https://michaelpaul.com/2017/10/02/jesus-and-hell). So I decided that this might be a good opportunity to finally get around to writing on this topic and show why this particular understanding of the term of Gehenna is completely mistaken and doesn’t actually work when you try to apply it to the New Testament’s use of Gehenna. However, when I finally read the full post, the argument that the author was  making was quite a bit different from what I was expecting. The post did come to the conclusion that the term Gehenna doesn’t actually refer to a place of punishment for the wicked after death but he argued for a metaphorical meaning for the term Gehenna that was quite different from the view that relates it to the destruction of Jerusalem.

There were six main points that that the author wanted to make about Gehenna based on the background material he found in the Old Testament (note that these are direct quotes):

  1. The fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God.
  2. God abhorred the fires of Gehenna.
  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.
  5. It’s a “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, natural, ways, within human history and not beyond it.
  6. It’s a 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 hierarches.

In this post, I want to show why this author’s understanding of Gehenna is completely mistaken and that there are some very serious problems with how he came to his conclusions. So this post is really about two things: it is about the meaning of the word Gehenna in the New Testament and it is about the dangers of misusing background material to interpret passages of Scripture.

There are at least four main problems with the conclusions that the author comes to and with the way that he came to these conclusions:

1. First, while the imagery of fire associated Gehenna can certainly be traced back to the fire that was used in child sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom, this does not seem to be the immediate background for the association of Gehenna with fire in the New Testament.

The author points to Jeremiah 7:31 as the immediate background for the imagery of fire associated with Gehenna in the New Testament:

Jeremiah 7:31 – They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire – something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. (NIV)

The author concludes that “the fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God” and that “God abhorred the fires of Gehenna”. The problem, though, is that the fire of child sacrifice in passages like Jeremiah 7:31 are not the immediate background for the association of Gehenna with fire in the New Testament.

In the Old Testament, the Valley of Ben Hinnom became associated with God’s judgment on Jerusalem and the unleashing of the covenantal curses that are found in Deuteronomy 28 (see Jer. 7:32 and 19:6-9). This association was then extended to include God’s eschatological judgment on the wicked (i.e. the judgment that would take place at the final judgment). As Bruce Chilton points out, the Targum of Isaiah associates Gehenna with the place of final judgment on the wicked in several places (26:15, 19; 30:33; 33:14, 17; 53:9; 65:5).[1] The most important reference, however, is Isaiah 66:22-24, which describes a scene of judgment that will take place in the eschaton (i.e. after the final judgment) during the same time period as the new heavens and the new earth (cf. Isa. 65:17):

Isaiah 66:22-24 – “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD. “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” (NIV)

While the term Gehenna does not appear in the Hebrew of Isaiah 66:22-24, it does appear in the Targum of Isaiah:

וְיִפְקוּן וְיִחזוֹן בְפִגרֵי גֻברַיָא חַייָבַיָא דִמרַדוּ בְמֵימְרִי אְרֵי נִשמָתְהוֹן לָא יְמוּתֻן וְאִשָתְהוֹן לָא תִטפֵי וִיהוֹן מִידְדָנִין רַשִיעַיָא בְגֵיהִנָם עַד דְיֵימְרוּן עְלֵיהוֹן צַדִיקַיָא מִיסָת חְזֵינָא׃

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!” (Translation mine)

This example is particularly important because the language of the worm not dying and the fire not being quenched in the Hebrew version of Isaiah 66:24 is picked up by Jesus in Mark 9:47-48 in connection with Gehenna:

Mark 9:47-48 – And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell (Gehenna), where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”

This should make it clear that the immediate background for the fire associated with Gehenna in the New Testament is not the fire of child sacrifice in passages like Jeremiah 7:31 but the fire of God’s judgment in Isaiah 66:24.

This means that the observation that “the fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God” and that “God abhorred the fires of Gehenna” cannot be sustained because they are reflections on the wrong background material. The context of Jeremiah 7 cannot be used to say that the fires of Gehenna that Jesus spoke about were not made by God and that God abhorred the fires of this Gehenna: it is talking about a different kind of fire.

2. Second, even if passages like Jeremiah 7:31 were the immediate background for the New Testament’s use of the word Gehenna, it is illegitimate to import the entire context of Jeremiah 7:31 into Jesus’ use of the term unless there are strong indicators in the text to point in that direction.

Is it really true that Jesus is talking about consequences “for those who use their power to oppress the weak, who 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 grace injustices against the vulnerable and the marginalized”?

The problem, though, is that when you actually read what Jesus has to say about Gehenna within the context of the Gospels themselves, it doesn’t sound a thing like the way the author described Gehenna in his post. All we have to do is take a look at one example to make it clear that his definition simply does not fit.  So let’s take a quick look at Matthew 5:27-30:

Matthew 5:27-30 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Gehenna). And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Gehenna). (NIV)

When you take a look at how the word Gehenna is used in this passage, it is clear that it has nothing to do with powerful people oppressing the weak; it has to do with the consequences of committing adultery in one’s heart. And, as we’ll see in our next point, it’s clear that Jesus isn’t simply speaking about the natural consequences for committing adultery in your heart; he’s speaking about the consequences that a person will have to experience on the Day of Judgment.

But this example should be sufficient to show that the definition given by the author for the meaning of the word Gehenna simply does not work. Whenever we’re dealing with potential background material for a particular passage of scripture (or any piece of literature for that matter), privilege needs to be given to the context of the passage of scripture we are trying to interpret. Background material should not be used to overthrow the plain-sense meaning of the passage we are interpreting.

3. Third, the New Testament’s use of the term Gehenna makes it clear that it does not refer to punishment that happens in this lifetime but refers to a place of punishment for the wicked in the eschaton (i.e. after the final judgment).

The reason why the author of this post said that the punishment in Gehenna was punishment that would be experienced in this lifetime rather than in the eschaton is because the punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7 is punishment that would happen in human history (i.e. the Babylonian army would come and destroy Jerusalem).

However, there are at least four strong reasons for believing that when the New Testament uses the term Gehenna that it refers to a place of punishment for the wicked in the eschaton rather than punishment in this lifetime:

First, Matthew 18:8-9 equates the punishment that the wicked experience in Gehenna with eternal fire (τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον):

Matthew 18:8-9 – If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell (Gehenna). (NIV)

Now, of course, there definitely is some debate about what the word “eternal” means in the phrase “eternal fire” but it should be clear that whatever the precise meaning of the word “eternal” in this phrase, it is referring to eschatological judgment, not judgment in this lifetime.

Second, Matthew 18:8-9 makes it clear that the punishment that the wicked experience in Gehenna takes place at the same time that the righteous enter into eternal life. In verse 8 and verse 9 Jesus contrasts the fate of the wicked being thrown into eternal fire or Gehenna with the righteous entering life. Life, in this case, clearly refers to resurrection life in the kingdom of God (see Dan. 12:2), not something that takes place during this lifetime. Since entering life takes place during the eschaton, it is difficult to argue that being thrown into eternal fire or the fire of Gehenna takes place during this lifetime: it is clearly a punishment that takes place in the eschaton.

Third, Matthew 10:28 clearly places the punishment that the wicked experience in Gehenna in the eschaton rather than during this lifetime:

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)

In this passage, Gehenna is clearly a place that a person should fear even after they die. Human beings might be able to kill the body but they cannot kill the soul. God, on the other hand, is able to extend punishment beyond the death of the body, which clearly places the punishment in Gehenna beyond this lifetime.  We can discuss the reasons why “the One who can destroy both soul and body” is God rather than Satan in another post.

Fourth, Jewish literature outside of the New Testament, including the Targums, Rabbinic literature, and books like 1 Enoch make it clear that Gehenna was understood by many Jews to be a place of eschatological judgment for the wicked. In other words, the term Gehenna is used quite frequently in Jewish literature outside of the New Testament to refer to what we would call hell.  See the discussion, for example, in Chaim Milikowsky, “Which Gehenna? Retribution and Eschatology in the Syoptic Gospels and in Early Jewish Texts,” New Testament Studies 34 (1988): 238-249 or the discussion of Gehenna in the Jewish Encyclopedia available online here: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6558-gehenna. The use of the term Gehenna in the New Testament clearly comes from this same tradition.

Once again, the author of this post is using background material to overrule the plain-sense meaning of the text. The New Testament makes it clear that punishment in Gehenna takes place during the eschaton and this is confirmed by the similar usage in other Jewish texts.

4. Finally, the author of this post is simply mistaken when he says that the punishment in Jeremiah 7 and the punishment in Gehenna in the New Testament are simply the natural consequences of human sin rather than something that God actively inflicts on the wicked.

While it is true that the punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7 ultimately came about through the Babylonians conquering Jerusalem, there can be no doubt that the Old Testament views God as the one who was behind this punishment, so much so that some text ignore the secondary agent and attribute the violence directly to God himself (e.g. Lam. 2:1-8). In fact, the punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7:33 echoes the curse found in Deuteronomy 28:26 – and Deuteronomy 28 attributes the execution of this curse to God himself. The punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7 is not simply the natural consequence that comes about for people who act violently: it is punishment that comes from God because the people violated the terms of the covenant in Deuteronomy.

It is even more difficult to see the punishment in Gehenna in the New Testament as simply the natural consequence for human violence and oppression. Gehenna is a place of eschatological judgment. The person who gives the orders for the eschatological judgment to be carried out is Jesus himself (e.g. Matt. 13:36-43). The language of angels throwing people into a fiery furnace in Matthew 13:42 is parallel to the wicked being thrown into the eternal fire in Matthew 18:8 and into Gehenna in Matthew 18:9. Clearly God is active in the punishment in Gehenna: these are not simply earthly punishments that come about as a natural consequence for sin.

Conclusion

The main lesson that we can learn from this post is this: the immediate context of the passage we are looking at trumps any background material we bring to the text that does violence to the plain-sense meaning of the text. If the background material we bring to text clashes with the plain-sense meaning of the text, chances are we are wrong about the relevance of the background material.

This was clearly the case in this blog post. Gehenna does refer to a place of punishment for the wicked in the eschaton (i.e. hell) and the context of Jeremiah 7 is clearly the wrong lens through which to view the New Testament’s use of Gehenna.

Mark Steven Francois

[1] Bruce D. Chilton, A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible: Jesus’ Use of the Interpreted Scriptures of His Time (Eugene, Oregon, Wipf & Stock, 1984) , 102.

 

 

 

Did Jesus Experience God’s Wrath When He Died on the Cross?

Human Wrath vs. Divine Wrath

In a recent panel discussion, a fairly well-known Canadian pastor made an interesting comment about the way that we as Christians should understand the death of Jesus. He said that when Jesus died on the cross, it wasn’t the wrath of God that he was experiencing.  He said that when Jesus died on the cross he was only experiencing human wrath: the wrath of God had nothing to do with it.

As I’m sure that many people are aware, there is an increasing number of people who have grown uncomfortable with speaking about the death of Jesus in terms of Jesus experiencing the wrath of God. I’m sure that a big part of this has to do with different theological understandings of what Jesus accomplished when he died on the cross. And I’m sure that, for many, an even bigger part of this has to do with a different understanding of who God is and what he is like (i.e. Does God actually get angry at sin? Does sin need to be punished for God to be able to forgive sin? etc.).

But in this post I simply want to focus on one main issue, namely, that human wrath vs. divine wrath is a false dichotomy: saying that Jesus experienced human wrath does not mean that Jesus wasn’t experiencing divine wrath at the same time.[1]

1. What is Wrath?

But before we get into why human wrath vs. divine wrath is a false dichotomy, it is important for us to define what the term wrath actually means. The word wrath (Heb. חֲרוֹן אַף, חָרָה לְ, or חֵמָה) simply means burning or intense anger.  And when the Bible speaks about God pouring out (שָׁפַךְ) his wrath it refers to God giving expression to his anger in some sort of concrete way.

But when the Bible speaks about God pouring out his wrath, we need to be careful: the focus isn’t so much on the emotions that God is experiencing but on the intensity of the punishment that the person or group is experiencing because of their sin. In other words, when the Old Testament speaks about God pouring out his wrath, it is simply another way of saying that God is punishing people in a severe way because of their sin.[2]

2.  Divine Wrath vs. Human Wrath

So the question we need to ask is whether or not the experience of human wrath and the experience of divine wrath are mutually exclusive. In other words, if a person or group is experiencing human wrath, does this automatically exclude the possibility that they are experiencing God’s wrath at the same time? I think the answer to this one is fairly clear: experiencing human wrath does not exclude the possibility that the person or group is also experiencing the wrath of God.

Let’s take a look at a few examples from the book of Lamentations to show why this is the case:

Lamentations 2:2 – Without pity the Lord has swallowed up all the dwellings of Jacob; in his wrath he has torn down the strongholds of the Daughter of Judah. He has brought her kingdom and its princes down to the ground in dishonor. (NIV)

Lamentations 2:3 – In fierce anger he has cut off every horn of Israel. He has withdrawn his right hand at the approach of the enemy. He has burned in Jacob like a flaming fire that consumes everything around it. (NIV)

Lamentations 2:4 – Like an enemy he has strung his bow; his right hand is ready. Like a foe he has slain all who were pleasing to the eye; he has poured out his wrath like fire on the tent of the Daughter of Zion. (NIV)

Lamentations 3:1 – I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. (NIV)

Lamentations 4:11 – The LORD has given full vent to his wrath; he has poured out his fierce anger. He kindled a fire in Zion that consumed her foundations. (NIV)

There are two important things to notice in these passages:

(a) First of all, notice that each of these passages speak about the wrath of God being poured out on Judah/Jerusalem. In other words, each of these passages speak about God giving concrete expression to his anger because of their sin, keeping in mind that the focus here is not so much on God’s emotional state but on the intensity of the punishment he is giving out.

(b) Second, when God pours out his wrath in these passages, he is not pouring out his anger in a direct way. He isn’t pouring down sulphur from heaven and he isn’t sending some kind of plague to wipe out the people. When God pours out his anger he is doing through the Babylonian army: according to the book of Lamentations, God sent the Babylonian army to punish Judah/Jerusalem because of their sin and, when they came, he did not do anything to stop them.  Using the language of the Canadian pastor I mentioned earlier on in the post, from a human point of view we could say that Judah/Jerusalem was destroyed because of human wrath. But, using the language and theology of the book of Lamentations, Judah/Jerusalem was also destroyed because of divine wrath. There is no false dichotomy between human wrath and divine wrath: in these passages God poured out his wrath precisely through human wrath.

The Death of Jesus and the Wrath of God

The question we need to ask now is whether or not it is theologically appropriate to say that Jesus experienced the wrath of God when he died on the cross. I use the term theologically appropriate here because, as far as I am aware, there are no passages in the New Testament that explicitly refer to Jesus experiencing God’s wrath when he died on the cross, though there are a number of reasons for believing that it is strongly implied. When I ask whether or not it is theologically appropriate to speak about Jesus experiencing the wrath of God when he died on the cross, I am asking: “Based on everything that we know from the Bible that touches on this issue, is it appropriate to speak of Jesus experiencing the wrath of God when he died on the cross, even though that language is not explicitly used?” I believe that the answer to this question is “yes”.

Remember, what does it mean to experience the wrath of God? When a person experiences the wrath of God it means that they are experiencing severe punishment because of their sin. Sometimes that punishment is given out by God in a direct way; at other times that punishment is given out through what seems to be independent human action (i.e. human wrath). Sometimes the focus is on God sending those human agents to perform that judgment; at other times the focus is simply on God not rescuing his people from their hands: either way, these independent human actions are seen as God pouring out his wrath on his people.

So the question that needs to be asked is this: Does the Bible ever see the death of Jesus as punishment for sin? Again, I would say that the answer to this question is “yes” – but not for his own sin, but for the sins of others.  There are many places we could go to show this, but one of the best places to go is Isaiah 53:

Isaiah 53:4 – Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. (NIV)

In other words, they thought that God was punishing this person for his own sin.  But the passage doesn’t end there:

Isaiah 53:5-6 – But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (NIV)

This part of the passage clarifies what was meant in verse 4: Christ wasn’t experiencing punishment for his own sin; he was experiencing punishment for the sin of other people.

This is precisely what it means to experience the wrath of God: to experience severe punishment from God because of sin. By ordaining the death of Jesus (Acts 4:28) as punishment for sin (Isa. 53:6) and by not rescuing Jesus when he was dying on the cross (Matthew 26:46), God was effectively pouring out his wrath on Jesus so that we could be forgiven for our sins. The wrath/punishment that we deserve to receive fell on Jesus so that we could be forgiven for our sins (Rom. 3:25-26).[3].  If we believe that Jesus died in our place and experienced the punishment that we deserve to receive, it is appropriate to say that Jesus experienced the wrath of God, even if that precise terminology is not used in the New Testament.

Conclusion

Saying that Jesus experienced human wrath does not settle the issue of whether or not Jesus also experienced the wrath of God when he died on the cross. When the Bible speaks about God pouring out his wrath, it is not limited to fire coming down from heaven or to plagues coming down on people: very often it refers to what, on the surface, looks like independent human action but, in reality, is actually ordained by God. This is exactly what happened in the death of Jesus: Jesus experienced human wrath, something that, on the surface, looked like independent human action. But the reality is that this was ultimately ordained by God: Jesus was experiencing the wrath of God through human wrath so that we could be forgiven.

[1] Throughout this post I will be using the language of human wrath simply because this was the language used by the pastor mentioned at the beginning of the post. The reason why he used this language was clearly to contrast it with divine wrath. That being said, I don’t think that the term human wrath is the best way to describe the human actions we will be talking about in this post.

[2] A good example of this in the New Testament is John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” (NIV) In this case the focus is not so much on the intensity of God’s anger remaining on people but on the intensity of the punishment that awaits people who don’t believed in Jesus.

[3] I realize that substitutionary atonement, especially penal substitutionary atonement, is an extremely contentious issue. I’m sure that I will address this in other posts in the future.

 

Is All Sin Really Equal in God’s Sight?

Are All Sins Equal in God's Sight

One of the most common misconceptions that evangelicals have about what the Bible teaches about sin is that all sin is equal in God’s sight. So you will often hear evangelicals say that there is no such thing as a “big sin” or a “small sin” because, in the end, sin is sin and all sin is equal in God’s sight.

Now where does this idea come from?  This idea comes from, what I believe, is a serious misunderstanding of James 2:10-11:

James 2:10-11 – For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.” (NIV)

In this post we’re going be asking the question, “Is all sin really equal in the sight of God?”  We’ll answer this question by looking, firstly, at evidence that we find in the Bible that some sins are worse than others and , second, at why James 2:10-11 doesn’t teach that all sin is equal in God’s sight.

1. Some Sins are More Serious Than Others

So let’s start off by taking a look at some biblical evidence for why some sin is actually worse than others:

a) First, we can see that some sins actually are worse than others because in the Old Testament there were different degrees of punishment for different types of sin.

Let’s take a look at what the penalty for stealing was in the Covenant Law Code found in the book of Exodus:

Exodus 22:1 – If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. (NIV)

In this case, the penalty for stealing livestock was that the thief would have to pay the owner four to five times the amount that was stolen.  In other words, the thief would have to a pay punitive/restorative fine to the owner.

Now compare that penalty to the penalty for murder:[1]

Exodus 21:12 – Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. (NIV)

When you take a look at these two examples, it is clear that in God’s eyes murder is much more serious than theft: the penalty for theft was simply a restorative/punitive fine while the penalty for murder was death. The fact that there were different degrees of penalties for different types of sin shows that not all sin is equal in God’s sight.

b) Second, the fact that some sins are treated with a greater degree of horror in the Bible than other sins shows that sins are not actually equal in God’s sight.

Let me give two quick examples – and we’ll begin with the less controversial one first. The first example comes from 1 Corinthians 5:1-2:

1 Corinthians 5:1-2 – It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? (NIV)

So in this passage, the Apostle Paul is talking about a person in the church in Corinth who was having an ongoing sexual relationship with his own stepmother, which, according to biblical law, is incest (Lev. 18:8). Paul is shocked that this kind of sin is happening in the church because this is a type of sin that was not even committed among the pagans (lit. Gentiles = non-Jewish, non-Christian).  Paul tells them that, rather than rejoicing with him, they should have kicked him out of the church and treated him like an unbeliever until he repented of that sin and gave up that relationship.

But when you read this passage you can tell that Paul is horrified by this particular sin.  This clearly means that for Paul, sin wasn’t all equal in God’s eyes.  And, if we believe in the inspiration of scripture, this also means that God doesn’t see all sin as being equal in his sight.

The second example comes from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 – this is the controversial one. It is clear that the city of Sodom and the other cities on the plain were guilty of committing all sorts of different sin. This sin was so bad that God told Abraham that he would go down (i.e. send two angels) to see if things were really as bad as he had been told. Did God not know how bad these people really were? Did he really have to send down two angels to find out if they were really as bad as he had heard? Clearly God was condescending to Abraham’s (and our) level to show that when he judges that is based on a thorough investigation of the facts and that any judgment that he gives is perfectly fair.

But even though Sodom and the cities on the plain were guilty of all sorts of different sin, “Exhibit A” in the case that God made against them was their treatment of the angels who came to visit. The men of the city welcomed the angels by telling their host to bring “the men” out so that they could rape them. Clearly rape is wrong. In the culture that produced Genesis 19, same-sex rape was even worse.  That point can be debated in a different post.

What was the result? Sodom and the rest of the cities on the plain were destroyed by burning sulfur that came down from heaven. But the question needs to be asked: Did God do this to every city that had sinful people in it? If the men of Sodom were simply guilty of gossip, would he have sent down burning sulfur from heaven to rain down on them and destroy them? The answer is clearly “no” – otherwise God would have had to destroy every city that was in existence back then.

So the fact that some sins are treated with more horror than other sins shows that God does not consider every sin to be on the same level.

c) Third, the fact that the Bible refers to some sin as “great sin” shows that not all sin is equal in God’s eyes.

All we have to do is take a look at the following examples (and many more could be given):

Exodus 32:30 – The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” (NIV)

1 Samuel 2:17 – This sin of the young men was very great in the LORD’s sight, for they were treating the LORD’s offering with contempt. (NIV)

2 Kings 17:21 – When he tore Israel away from the house of David, they made Jeroboam son of Nebat their king. Jeroboam enticed Israel away from following the LORD and caused them to commit a great sin. (NIV)

John 19:11 – Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin. (NIV)

The fact that some sins are referred to as “great” sins clearly shows that not all sin is equal in God’s eyes. In fact, these verses serve as clear evidence that there is a distinction between “big sins” and “small sins,” despite what many evangelicals say.

d) Fourth, the fact that Jesus said that there is one sin that can never be forgiven clearly shows that some sin is more serious than other sin.

Let’s take a look at what Jesus says in Matthew 12:32:

Matthew 12:32 – Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (NIV)

This isn’t the place to discuss what blasphemy of the Holy Spirit means and whether or not that sin can still be committed today. The point is that speaking a word against the Holy Spirit is worse than speaking a word against Jesus (whatever that means) and that speaking a word against the Holy Spirit has to be more serious (in some sense) than other sins since this sin can never be forgiven.  And if this sin is more serious than other sins, then clearly not all sin is equal in God’s eyes.

2. So what do we do with James 2:9-11?  Let’s look at the passage again:

James 2:10-11 – For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.” (NIV)

Is James really saying that all sin is equal in God’s sight? I don’t think he is at all. So what is James saying? James is saying that there are basically two types of people in this world: people who break God’s law and people who keep God’s law. This can be seen by the fact that he uses the term “lawbreaker” in verse 9 and verse 11 (ὑπὸ τοῦ νόμου ὡς παραβάται and παραβάτης νόμου respectively):

James 2:9 – But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (NIV)

James 2:11 – For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.” (NIV)

James’ point is that if you treat rich people in the church better than poor people (2:1-9), you are guilty of being a lawbreaker. You shouldn’t think that you are good in God’s eyes because you haven’t committed murder or you haven’t committed adultery because there are only two types of people: lawbreakers or lawkeepers.  If you are showing favouritism in the church you are still a lawbreaker because you have broken a portion of God’s law.

When James says that the person who stumbles at one point is guilty of breaking all of it, he is saying that God’s law is a unified whole and that any sin, regardless of how big or small it is, makes a person a lawbreaker. James is clearly not saying that when a person shows favouritism that God will also hold them accountable for murder and adultery as well. He is simply saying that when people show favouritism in the church, they are breaking God’s law and that they should be put in the category of lawbreaker, which means that this is a sin that they need to deal with.

Good Intentions and Bad Intentions

When evangelicals say that all sin is equal in God’s sight, it is usually done with good intentions. Evangelicals want to dispel the myth that only “big sins” will keep people from being able to enter the kingdom of God. In many ways, the idea that only “big sins” will keep a person from being able to enter the kingdom of God is even more serious than thinking that all sins are equal in God’s sight. We have to remember that the standard for entering the kingdom of God is absolute perfection: if you perfectly keep God’s law, you will be allowed to enter God’s kingdom; if you are a lawbreaker, you will be excluded from God’s kingdom. And that means that the only hope for being able to enter God’s kingdom is to be forgiven through Christ and the sacrifice that he made for us on the cross. He is the only way that the stain of our sin can be washed away and that we can be qualified to enter into God’s presence in his kingdom.  So, whether we have “big sin” or “small sin” on our record, we need to be forgiven through Christ, otherwise we won’t have any hope of being able to enter God’s kingdom.

So most people definitely do have good intentions when they say that all sin is equal in God’s sight. But many people use this idea as an excuse for not addressing certain types of sin or to tell other people not to address certain types of sin: all sin is equal in God’s eyes so we shouldn’t be focusing on these types of sin. Now, if the person who said this were consistent, they would say that the solution would be to focus equally on all sin and show that it is all displeasing to God. More often than not, however, it is used as an excuse to shut down the debate about certain types of sin: all sin is equal in God’s eyes, which for some reason means that all sin is not that big of a deal in God’s eyes and people have freedom to do whatever they want.  So it can be seen that a teaching that is often used with good intentions can also be twisted to be used to downplay the seriousness of sin.

Conclusion

In the end, what matters is not whether our intentions are good or bad: what matters is whether or not what we are saying matches up with what Scripture has to say. In this case the conclusion is clear: it is wrong to say that all sin is equal in God’s eyes. Rape is clearly worse than theft; sexual abuse is clearly worse than speeding on a highway; and murder is clearly worse than telling an inappropriate joke.

Does that mean that these other things don’t matter? Of course they do! As Christians, we should want to be lawkeepers, not lawbreakers, not because keeping God’s laws will earn us a place in his kingdom but because when we became Christians we committed ourselves to obeying and serving Christ –  out of gratefulness for what he has done for us, because our hearts have been changed and we have a different attitude toward sin, and because it is simply the right thing to do.

So let’s make sure that we recognize “big sins” for what they are. Let’s make sure that we deal with them appropriately when they happen in our churches. Let’s make sure that we treat both “big sins” and “small sins” seriously when they happen in our lives and repent of them.  But let’s especially be thankful that Christ came to pay the penalty for all sin, both big and small, so that we could have a place in his kingdom.

Mark Steven Francois

[1] It is important to keep in mind that the definition for murder in biblical law is much broader than the definition for murder in American, Canadian, or British law.  In biblical law, murder takes place when a person intends to seriously harm another person and the harm that they intend results in that person’s death.  For murder to take place in biblical law, it is only necessary to show that the person intended to harm the other person, not that the person intended to kill the other person.  See especially Numbers 35:16-25.

Quick Correction – A Syriac Grammar by Michael Sokoloff

Syriac Lexicon - Sokoloff

*Note: From time to time on this site I will be posting corrections or helpful additions to reference works that I regularly use.  If you own these works, simply pencil in the addition or correction if you feel that it is helpful.

On page 384 of Michael Sokoloff’s A Syriac Lexicon (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns; Piscataway, New Jersey, 2009), the term ܙܠܵܡܵܐ is defined as the West Syriac vowel e with a note in brackets that the East Syrian version of the vowel is called ܪܒܵܨܵܐ.  The opposite, however, is the case.  The West Syriac vowel e is called ܪܒܵܨܵܐ while the two vowels that correspond to it in East Syriac are called ܙܠܵܡܵܐ.  The ܙܠܵܡܵܐ in East Syriac can be either short or long.  The long and short version of ܙܠܵܡܵܐ and are written with separate vowel signs and are considered to be separate vowels.

Mark Steven Francois

Sermon Prep Sheets – Narrative

Sermon Preparation Sheets - Narrative

I have just posted a sermon prep sheet for preparing sermons/studies on biblical narrative (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/exegesis-study-sheets/).  This is an example of the kind of sermon prep sheet that I use pretty much every week when I’m preparing a message.  These sheets help you to slow down, pay attention to the original meaning of the text, think carefully about how you apply the text, and help you plan out how you are going to present the message.  Eventually I will post sheets for each major genre in the Bible.

The sheets are designed primarily for sermon preparation.  However, they are also very useful for personal Bible Study.  Each sheet has three parts: (1) The original meaning of the text; (2) Applying the text; and (3) Putting the message together.  If you are using these sheets for personal study, simply ignore the “Putting the message together” section and simply print the first two sections.

In the future (if I have time!) I’ll make some videos explaining how to use these sheets and I’ll give some practical tips about how to interpret and apply the Bible in a responsible way.

Mark Steven Francois