Thursday, July 22, 2010

Does Hell in the OT = national destruction?

One of my commenters, Allan, made this claim, so I thought it deserved it's own post.

The Claim
 In the OT, phrases like “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, “inextinguishable fire”, “worms that don't die”, “the fire of Gehenna”, are all used as metaphors for national destruction. (They're never used in the OT as metaphors for the eternal torment of individual immortal souls.)

A comment about evidence for Heaven and Hell in the Old Testament
I presume Allan is referring to Isaiah 66.  But before I examine the claim that these phrases describing eternal torment are *only* metaphors for national destruction, a word about Hell and Heaven in the Old Testament.  Regardless of the universalism debate, there isn't a great deal said in the Old Testament about life after death or eternity with God.  In one way this is because the Old Testament is generally concerned with "life under the Sun" and the actions of God in this world. Admittedly the New Testament shows similarly narrow focus by concentrating mainly on the Christian experience and only occasionally taking a cosmic viewpoint, although more often the the Old Testament. This shouldn't be alarming, the word Trinity isn't mentioned in the Bible but the evidence for that way of understanding God still exists there in the text.  So we have to carefully glean what we can from the Old Testament about what happens after death for both the wicked and the righteous.

For example: Daniel 12
There aren't many places where the Old Testament talks about the resurrection and interestingly in one of the few places it does, Daniel 12:1-3, eternal punishment is also mentioned. Again Daniel is a classic example of the prophetic style which describes both local and distant events, like a landscape depicting close valleys and distant vistas. 
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (12:2)

A warning about presuppositions 
Allan is uncomfortable with inerrancy and suggests we should be selective in our reading.  I on the other-hand affirm inerrancy because God is coherent and loving.  I also think given the sufficiency of Scripture, we should take a holistic approach to understanding the Bible.  Both Allan and I present our cases based on respective presuppositions, so you need to evaluate our arguments but also evaluate our presuppositions.

Isaiah 66
This section of Isaiah is about the future, not just the future of Israel but the future of the Cosmos.  You see this several times throughout Isaiah, a movement from prophecy about local events to prophecy about the distant future. Allan claimed that this section depicts "national destruction," the destruction of Israel.  However the viewpoint is clearly cosmic not tightly Middle Eastern:

          Thus says the Lord:
    “Heaven is my throne,
          and the earth is my footstool; (66:1)
Furthermore Isaiah only a few verses before had been describing the new heavens and the new earth.

      The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; (65:25)
So with this distant future in mind Isaiah then contrasts the righteous;
      he who is humble and contrite in spirit (66:2)
with the wicked;
      These have chosen their own ways, (66:3)
God therefore plans some-sort of retributive punishment for them:
      I also will choose harsh treatment for them (66:4)
It's only in verse 7 that Israel finally gets a mention.  Here Isaiah sets the rewarded Israel in comparison to the upcoming judgement of the wicked.  This isn't just the pathetic restoration at the end of the exile from Babylon but a glorious future restoration. 
      You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
         your bones shall flourish like the grass; (66:14)
But God goes on to warn the cosmos:
         gather all nations and tongues. (66:18)
and concludes the book of Isaiah with a description of how the wicked will be eternally tormented;
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.” (66:24)

Given the style of Isaiah and the context of this chapter, the introductory verses and the comparison of the wicked and the righteous right after Isaiah has described the new heavens and the new earth, it is right to draw the conclusion that Isaiah, nationality aside, is describing the eternal destruction of the wicked.  


Allan Smith said...

The scripture is inerrant when read by perfectly good people. Only the true of heart can read it truly. For the rest of us, our dark minds smear and blear its light. This lies at the heart of Jesus' conflict with the teachers of his time.

Having said that, we can only do our best and make our judgments. For me, I can see no truth in the traditional concept of hell. If Abraham was distressed by the quick death of a few in Sodom, imagine him contemplating the eternal torment of multitudes. Shall not the judge of all the earth do right? Far be it from you, Lord, to do this wicked thing!

So if push came to shove, yes. I would ignore passages that painted God as a monster. But the more I look into it, the less I find such drastic action is necessary. It's becoming clearer to me that the traditional view of hell is a particularly nasty fabrication.

For example, that verse from Daniel. Everyone translates it as "everlasting" or "forever", everyone except Young's Literal Version, which tells us what it *actually* says. "...some to life age-during, and some to reproaches -- to abhorrence age-during." But "everlasting" simply doesn't mean "age-during". And so the traditional myth is perpetuated by translators imposing their assumptions onto the text.

Again, how can we read the Isaiah passage? We're told that all mankind will gaze upon the dead bodies of the rebellious. But all mankind *is* rebellious. This is how I read it: when we are all safe in the kingdom, we will gaze at ourselves, or rather, at our old selves. We will see the evil things we once were, and be filled with loathing. The Fruit of the knowledge of good and evil will have completed its wise, gracious and necessary work. We will know good and evil from the inside, loathe the evil and forever embrace the good.

Bryan Hickey said...

Not really sure what Mr Young was up to when he was doing his literal translation but the fact that he stands alone in rendering it 'age -during' does not make him right.
The word he is translating is עלמ ('olam) found in the Hebrew sections of the book of Daniel (Aramaic is used in 2:4-728). This word is never translated with a view to a discrete period of time (e.g. a season, or an age, a rule [of a king or dynasty etc]). It is exclusively the word for an incomprehensible length of time (i.e. eternity, everlasting, forever).

Bryan Hickey said...

Having posted the above, I thought it might be helpful to give a good rule of thumb for any translation work: context, context, context.

It is far from clear that recipient of this vision has in mind the kind of afterlife that would be found in the writings of the Pharisees and Christians. It is not only national restoration that is in view here, though this is partly his concern) it has the ring of and apocalyptic scenario and eschoton of sorts. Those who have been subject to captivity and have even died, will be raised to life again. Those who have held Israel captive and have died will also be raised up; albiet for a different fate.

The writer has grouped those raised in two. There are some who will awake from the dust of the earth 'to life everlasting' (lechaye 'olam) and others 'to everlasting shame and to reproach' (lecharapot ledir'on 'olam).

Not all people will be awakened but 'many'. It is unclear exactly how Christians and Pharisees would have read this. It fits well with its apocalyptic setting in that the writer may have thought exclusively of those who had died in captivity. Some would have been clearly alive and not to be awakened . . .

Still one would imagine that if this spoke of the general resurrection, as Christians have historically understood it, the writer would have recorded that all those asleep in the dust of the earth would have been called forth? One may put such details down to the shadowy distance between Old and New but that just leaves the question begging, does it not? Why is it 'many' and not 'all'?

Allan Smith said...

Brian said: It is exclusively the word for an incomprehensible length of time (i.e. eternity, everlasting, forever).

I'm no theologian, so I'm happy to stand corrected. I'll respond by saying that apocalypses are notoriously poor sources of factual information, that the same chapter talks of times, times and half a time, and that you are somehow blessed if you reach the end of 1335 days.

If that's not a sufficient defense, I'll balance one verse from Daniel's apocalypse with one from John's, and call it square.

"Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!"

Allan Smith said...

Bryan said: Those who have held Israel captive and have died will also be raised up; albiet for a different fate.

That's interesting. Is Daniel simply saying, "Justice will be done. Don't think you'll escape our God by the simple expediency of dying!"

Perhaps Daniel's grasp of the grace of God is no better developed than the poor psalmist who dreamed of bashing Babylonian babies. Perhaps Daniel couldn't even conceive that God might forgive his enemies.