Rethinking AD 70
Redemptive history is not only concerned with the arrival of a Saviour on the first century scene–one who would fully fill up with meaning all of his foreshadowed offices; no, redemptive-history also expected a cosmic adaptation as well. The interpretive keys for understanding the New Testament are manifold. There are so many facets of preparation laid out in the Hebrew Bible that to chose one would seem narrowly myopic. But choose one we must and the key interpretive for this exercise is the prophetic role of Jesus. John the Forerunner must be included in this as well since he prepared the way for Jesus’ coming as covenant Master; Jesus therefore, accomplishes and executes a covenant lawsuit against an unfaithful nation of brides.
As any cursory reading of Matthew will show, Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God not only inaugurated his ministry but also maintained it after his resurrection and ascension. What we see now in this stage of the kingdom is what I liked to refer to as the adjudication of Jesus the king. See Psalm 2 for further insight.
It is this proclamation of God’s kingdom and adherence to its covenantal stipulations that will shed light essentially on the doctrine of God’s judgement both in this life and the one to come. It will be the goal of this essay to present a case against the traditional (dare I say, historical) doctrine of the eternal punishment of the conscious wicked. If the case argued here is sound, all of the traditional texts used to teach an eternal, conscious judgement on the wicked by God will be seen rather to apply exclusively to Jesus’ first century audience. That is, when Jesus speaks of judgement coming upon the first century generation of listeners, he speaks of both cosmic, national and personal experiences due to rejection of his prophetic role. That is, the judgement of which Jesus speaks is a judgement rendered by God solely upon the nations of the first century.
Jesus’ role as prosecuting attorney for Yahweh against Israel is couched within the language of cosmic and national destruction and both are so closely related that the one cannot make sense without the other. Ironically, it is this language of national, cosmic upheaval that has led to millennia of misguided interpretations regarding the ministry of Jesus.
It is never a good idea to give a novice to Christianity anything from the New Testament to read precisely because that would be like giving someone Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew or Rowling’s The Goblet of Fire to read first. It will be an entertaining read to-be-sure, but much of the story will be lost due to ignorance of the foundations laid in the previous writings. And yet, sadly, that is what many have been directed to do: read the ending first. It seems Marcion is alive and well in Christendom after all.
Two 20th century examples should suffice to demonstrate that, at least, a better way must be forged if responsible treatment of the Greek Bible’s gospel story is to be had. It is absolute ignorance of the Bible’s symbolic language which led both Bertrand Russel and C.S. Lewis to renounce Jesus’ veracity as God’s prophet. Both men misunderstood Jesus to predict the end of the physical universe within the lifetime of his hearers in first century Israel and since this did not occur (as far as they interpreted Jesus’ words), Jesus was mistaken. For Russell, this was enough to reject Jesus altogether; somehow, Lewis maintained fidelity. However, the well-known (!) passage in Matthew 24 contains language that neither Russell nor Lewis grasped. To the chagrin of many, this essay will not seek to present a full exposition of all the texts chosen to prove its thesis and, so, many assertions simply will be made and left at that, so be prepared.
As Russell and Lewis misunderstood and therefore, misinterpreted Jesus regarding the cosmic language he utilized to describe the destruction of Israel in AD 70, so too, many have misunderstood Jesus’ hell-fire and brimstone preaching to be just that—all about hell. It is the thesis of this essay that Jesus’ words regarding the coming judgement concerning those who rejected his first century ministry were explicitly temporal rather than eternal in nature. That is, Jesus’ message was not to warn his listeners about the eternal dangers of punishment in hell for rejecting his ministry; rather, Jesus’ message was about the immediate dangers of rejecting his message by couching it in dramatic symbolism.
The bristle you might feel at the base of your neck might be due to the realization that there is therefore, no passage in the New Testament that teaches a future punishment of the wicked in a burning lake of fire. It might make you nervous, but as mentioned above, if the thesis is true, those shimmers will fade and a better understanding of the gospel will be had. It might very well be, the question you are asking now is this, If there is no eternal punishment in hell to fear, then what is the impetus for repentance and faith? How will I be able to persuade my friend he is in eternal jeopardy when you have just extinguished the eternal, unquenchable fire?
Take a lesson from the Psalmist and read Psalm 2. In a nut shell, the gospel message is this: God has made Jesus King and you must kiss him and in so doing find refuge or he’ll destroy you. In all its simplicity, that is the gospel message for all time and that was the message Jesus preached to his first century hearers. When Jesus spoke of judgement coming upon the wicked generation to whom he was preaching, he was speaking of the cosmic judgement coming upon the old world when the “world’s economy” fell under God’s judgement in AD 70 (Acts 17.6, 31).
Jesus presented himself as a newer and improved Moses as Matthew records it and Jesus challenged his hearers much the same as James: mere hearers of the word will not be justified, but those who are doers. In as much as Jesus used a parable of the wise and foolish builder to make his point he could have changed the language to hell-fire-and-brimstone to make the same point. That is, the foolish man who did not listen to Jesus’ words and whose house had a great fall is the same person who did not persevere to the end and is now outside the wedding feast weeping and gnashing his teeth in eternal punishment. They are metaphors for the same point: listen to Jesus and live; do not listen and die.
As was alluded to above, the prophetic word from John the Forerunner fundamentally was one of judgement. Matthew records
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
To begin with, what is the wrath to come of which John speaks? As it happens so often with Bible reading, there is never much help with catching the reader up on concepts discussed because the author expects his readers to know enough OT. What would John’s hearers have thought he meant by “wrath to come”? Figuratively speaking, “trees” are metaphors for people; the axe is God’s wrath; and being thrown into the fire simply following the picture of destroying worthless members of God’s people. Continuing his metaphor of harvesting the wheat and chaff, John gives another representation of people both good and bad. Again, the end result of worthlessness is destruction by fire. That’s the picture drawn.
It is this picture of judgement that facilitates how the rest of the entire New Testament’s message is understood. The future eschatological expectation is fundamentally expressed here in words of judgement. What this means is this. All future allusions to a future judgement must be read in this light. There is no reason to interpret subsequent references to judgement as adjudications in the after life unless there is obvious reason to.
So, what is this wrath to come? Since Matthew begins the New Testament, whatever has come before his record must have laid the groundwork for John’s and Jesus’ message. It is not within the scope of this writing to produce an argument for such an endeavor, so suffice it to say, the end of the world as Daniel painted it has come. Basically this judgement would be based upon the “kingdom” to which Jesus is referring when he says the “kingdom of God is at hand.” Daniel’s prophecy expected a time when the kingdoms of the world would be overwhelmed by an eternal one and in John’s message the gauntlet is thrown and a decision must be made. Jesus’ ministry was one of demarcation: not to be with him is to be against him and to be with him is to love obey him.
The wrath from which John’s audience is fleeing is referred to here with regard to the Pharisees and Sadduccees. Jesus’ words are clear: do not claim heritage in Abraham without a life reflecting such a claim for if you do, you will be cut down and destroyed. One cannot yet read into this text that which reflects an unending torment by a lake of fire. To do so would be to put too many words into Jesus’ mouth. Simply understood, Jesus says, If you are not with me, I will kill you. (Note that when Jesus tells his disciples of the coming destruction due the temple that they inquire when he will be coming to carry out said destruction. One can see history repeating as Israel’s false prophets seethe against her true as not only John, but Jesus, Stephen, James and others are slain for the word of God and prosecution of the Lamb.)
Leaving the inaugurated ministry of Jesus, let us refer to its conclusion in Matthew 23 wherein we read of Jesus’ judgement against the scribes and Pharisees. Echoing his cousins words from the beginning Jesus says, Woe to you…you serpents and brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of gehenna. Let us spend a small portion of time here.
Notice the identical terms used by both prophets: snakes/ brood of vipers. For John, these “vipers” are fleeing the wrath to come; for Jesus, the wrath that is due the religious leaders is coming precisely because God is about to exact vengeance for the prophetic blood shed since righteous Abel. All of this, Jesus says, is coming upon this generation. Again, this is the eschatological scenario for the whole of the NT. Everything after Matthew 24 is all about Matthew 24…everything.
It is in the Sermon on the Mount when we read the next references to punishment by fire. Jesus is vying for the position of new Moses when he declares that it is his words over those of the ancients to which one must submit. This is what it looks like:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you…
First of all, the heaven and earth to which Jesus is referring is not the physical order but spiritual as represented in Israel. In the theology of the torah, the tabernacle (and later temple) was not merely a portable tent but a physical duplication of heaven on earth (see Leviticus and Hebrews). It was in fact this heavens and earth to which Jesus refers here. The wrath of which John speaks is the wrath which Jesus depicts throughout his ministry against his enemies caricatured in the religious elite. Jesus’ attitude culminates in chapter 23-25 when he lays out the last days scenario of the nation of Israel.
When Jesus says until heaven and earth pass away he is referring to Israel’s demise under God’s judgement. The Law was in force until Israel was surpassed by Christ whose new words are the new law which must not be annulled as he clearly states here. Again, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, he alludes to the dissolution of heaven and earth as metaphor for Israel when he turns Matt 5 on its head: heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not. Jesus’ words are the new law which are replacements for the former world that is passing away (see Psalm 102:25,26; Heb 1: 10,11; and Rev 21).
The passage that follows is one wherein the challenge of translation comes to the fore. It is here, too, that one must tread lightly because there is always the fault of translating based upon presuppositions. What this means is a certain word or concept is chosen based upon a previously believed paradigm rather than as mere translation and so I have coined the phrase: All translation is interpretation.
It is in the next section wherein Jesus contrasts the past and present attitudes toward the torah that references to “fiery hell” and “hell” are used. Already the reader is being told what the passage means based on the selection of that term to translate the Greek. What connotation does “hell” bring up in anyone’s mind? More than likely it is the stuff of hell-fire-and-brimstone-suffering for all eternity. But is that what Jesus is talking about?
Hell might not be the best word to use when translating gehenna from the Greek. In fact, it might best be left transliterated so that the reader must determine the meaning based upon the text alone. This passage under discussion is the first to mention gehenna of fire and as was noted before there is no editorial comment by the author because he trusts his audience to know the terms. In short, mightn’t gehenna be the place to which John referred by metaphor earlier in Matthew 3. It is the place where uprooted trees and chaff are thrown to be burned. There is no need to read into this any more than the judicial rendering of judgement for the crimes Jesus is discussing.
It might be sufficient to allow the above to stand on its own and refer now only briefly to key passages in light of this new paradigm. To reiterate: the entirety of the NT is concerned with God’s judgment against his whoring bride throughout the oikumene. This is the wrath which is coming; it is not the threat of eternity in hell, but the threat of covenant cursing. The language employed in subsequent passages reflects and enforces this.