Monday, June 22, 2015

Rethinking Hell 2015: some thoughts

This past weekend I was in Pasadena, California at the Rethinking Hell 2015 Conference. It was quite fun to see Chris Date, Robin Parry, David Instone-Brewer, Oliver Crisp, Jerry Walls, and Jim Spiegel at the conference, each of them arguing for their respective views. The break-out sessions were a lot of fun as well. Especially interesting for me was Laura Robinson's paper during the fourth and final break-out session entitled "Hell is for Christians? Eternal Judgment as a Unique Theological Emphasis in the Gospel of Matthew."

It seemed to me that the majority of the attendees present were universalists. I may be mistaken about this, though. In any case, Robin Parry's presentation got the longest applause of any of the plenary speakers, for what it's worth.

The academic level of the conference (attendees, anyway) was not quite as high as I would have liked, but it wasn't bad by any means. My paper did receive praise, some of it quite enthusiastic, but no substantial commentary or critique from anybody who heard it. I guess I must have decisively proven my point. :-)

I think the presentation most interesting to me was David Instone-Brewer's. He tried to position Jesus's teachings on hell in the context of 2nd temple Jewish rabbinic debates about the salvation (or not) of all Jews. Some rabbis thought that righteous Jews would go to heaven, some middling Jews would go to Gehenna for a while and then leave, and wicked Jews and Gentiles would go to Gehenna forever. Jesus evidently rejects the second possibility of leaving Gehenna, affirming instead that some Jews will go to Gehenna forever if they fail to repent and believe in him, while possibly some Gentiles will be in heaven forever for their faith. The suggestion is that no person will be in Gehenna only for some time and afterwards leave.

I thought Instone-Brewer's presentation was fascinating but I don't think it settles the debate about universalism in quite the way he supposed. I made the suggestion in the post-presentation Q&A that Jesus is unique among Jewish rabbis: he offers himself to die as a propitiation for the sins of the whole world, and this may warrant a reinterpretation of Jesus's teachings on Gehenna away from the categories of the rabbis of the time. In other words, because Jesus dies for the sins of the world, it is open to us to think that a person with this sort of character might plausibly think of Gehenna differently than his contemporaries did, even if he used some of the same language.

Instone-Brewer's response was that Jesus would be lying if he were to talk about Gehenna in the terms his contemporaries used, yet secretly mean something else with the words than his contemporaries did. But this is not obvious at all. As I told Laura Robinson after the presentation (and she found my points plausible), matters are not so simple.

There are instances in the OT where God makes categorically false statements about a person or city's future destruction precisely so as to inspire the repentance that would prevent their destruction. Think, for example, of Jonah's message to Nineveh: 40 days and the city will be destroyed. He doesn't preach for more than a day, and the people all repent. Importantly, they are not certain that their repentance will accomplish anything -- this implies that forgiveness conditioned on repentance was not a part of Jonah's message to the people. Yet God sees their repentance and forgives them. Moreover, both Jonah and God knew that this would be what would happen. So God gives Jonah a message about the apparently inevitable destruction of the Ninevites for the purpose of provoking their repentance, so that God can forgive them. God has Jonah preach a falsehood for the sake of realizing the conditions which will falsify the message.

Or consider Ezekiel's message from God in Ezek 18. There God tells Ezekiel the following. If he tells a wicked person, You will surely die, and yet this wicked person repents, and no longer does this and that sin, then God will forget his wickedness and forgive him, and the person will not die. Now I am assuming that God can know that a wicked person will repent or not in response to his preaching. If this is true, then God can give a person an unambiguously phrased promise of future death, knowing that a person will repent in response to the message and thus will not be destroyed but forgiven. In other words, God can speak an unambiguous, certain sentence of judgment for the sake of realizing conditions by which the sentence will be annulled.

Granting for the moment that Jesus's initial hearers would have heard him saying that people will be in Gehenna forever or else be destroyed there -- which fact by itself does not tell us everything about how to interpret Jesus's words! -- it does not follow that therefore some people will spend an eternity in Gehenna or else be annihilated there. God can threaten judgment for the sake of ensuring that it doesn't happen by provoking repentance. I've shown that in two different cases from the OT.

Instone-Brewer had some unfriendly remarks to say about theologians who, as opposed to biblical scholars, try to go beyond the evidence they have and paint over the cracks in an incomplete picture. But there is no reason to think that the work of the biblical scholar solves all the problems or ends the discussion.

I tried to make the above point about Jonah and Ezekiel in a written question asked during the panel discussion. Instone-Brewer again insisted that he doesn't think Jesus would be lying to people about hell to inspire repentance when actually no one would go there. The problem with his response, of course, is that my question was given limited space to be formulated and so he didn't quite get what I was trying to say. Unfortunately, Robin Parry (who was sitting next to him) seemed to agree with what he was saying. I say that it's unfortunate because I think Robin Parry could make good use of this point in his own discussions and debates.

I give the following syllogism in defense my point:

1. God cannot lie (cf. Titus 1.2).
2. God makes false, unambiguous statements about future judgment for the sake of inspiring repentance, the very condition by which the statements are falsified (e.g., Jonah 3-4, Ezek 18).
3. Therefore, making such statements is not lying.

Instone-Brewer may respond that this is just sophism, but I don't think so. One of my premises has to be false; otherwise the argument goes through. Eric Reitan seemed to think that my point was a good one, and he also agreed with me that in spite of the very good evidence Instone-Brewer's presentation brought forth, an excursion into the analysis of divine judgment rhetoric was needed before we make any final statements about the doctrine of Gehenna. Moreover, Jerry Walls seemed to see and approve of my point as we were discussing it after Laura Robinson's paper.

This gives me an idea for another paper to write. So among the many benefits of having come to the Rethinking Hell conference, there is this further one.

In general, the conference was very fun. I had a great time, and I enjoyed meeting Oliver Crisp and Jerry Walls especially, but also the other plenary speakers and other guests besides.


Alex Smith said...

Thanks, just read this post after watching Laura's break-out session. For what it's worth, I think your question is a valid one. Also reminds me of "Conditional Futurism: New Perspective of End-Time Prophecy" by James Goetz. My hunch is that "destroy forever" is a rhetorical way of saying "Because I love you I will apply whatever correction is necessary until you realise your idols are false and your sins are damaging you".

Giles said...

I also thought Instone-Brewer (in his interview on Rethinking Hell) erred in asserting that Jesus clearly rejected the idea of an intermediate class who get out of Hell. By his own logic, since this was a widespread pharisaic doctrine, Jesus hearers would likely have taken the "you won't get out until you have paid the last penny" passages in precisely this way.