dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label eschatology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label eschatology. Show all posts

Sunday, 28 June 2020

The Rich Man and Lazarus, Reversals of Fortune, and the Eternal Banquet

100-Word Summary

The afterlife scene in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is much debated. Is it merely incidental to the story, or a description of what the afterlife is really like, or not like? To answer these questions, this article examines how the scene squares with the rest of the Gospel of Luke. The finding is that the parable's afterlife scene is very much at home in Luke, both in its use of a reversal of fortunes motif and in its implicit reference to an eschatological banquet. Thus the scene does form part of Luke's eschatological teaching.

A Much-Debated Afterlife Scene

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, found in Luke 16:19-31 (hover to read),1 is one of the most fascinating, but also most disputed, parables of Jesus in the canonical Gospels. The story depicts a scene from the afterlife, and there are three main views on what the story teaches about the afterlife. The first view is that the story conveys an accurate idea of what happens after death. The second view is that the story's message is entirely a moral one, about the use of money and obedience to God's Word; the afterlife scene is just a setting for this message. Thus, the parable teaches nothing about life after death, just as the Parable of the Sower teaches nothing about agriculture. The third view is that the parable parodies popular ideas about the afterlife from Jesus' day and is thus intended to subvert belief in the kind of afterlife depicted in the story. Observe that these three interpretations are as different as they could possibly be! Jesus is either telling us what the afterlife is like, or what it is not like, or is telling us nothing about the afterlife. We will refer to these three interpretations of the parable's afterlife scene as the face value view, the parody view, and the incidental view, respectively.

Before trying to decide between these three alternatives, a couple of preliminary observations. (i) The parody view must shoulder the heaviest burden of proof. Luke certainly does not say that the afterlife story is a parody, intended to subvert popular ideas. At least on the surface, the story makes sense when taken at face value. Occam's Razor dictates that this simplest solution is most likely the right one. The parody interpretation is the most complicated, requiring us to see a subtle irony in Luke's construction that has escaped most readers, ancient and modern. In my estimation, the evidence advanced in support of the parody view is very flimsy indeed.2 (ii) The parody view is antithetical to both of the other two views, whereas the first two views lie on a continuum. Obviously the face value view and the parody view contradict each other. The parody view also contradicts the incidental view, because it is implausible that the parable's primary purpose is to convey a moral message about the use of wealth and obedience to the law and prophets, and yet at the same time to use subtle irony to subvert certain ideas about the nature of the afterlife. By contrast, the face value view and the incidental view are not contradictory. If present moral obligations have eternal consequences, then there is a fundamental consistency between a moral message and an afterlife scene. The difference is mainly a matter of emphasis.3

How then are we to judge between the three interpretations? The answer lies in content and context. Historical context is important: an understanding of ancient Jewish ideas about the afterlife would enable us to receive the parable's afterlife imagery as its original hearers and readers would have received it. As I have written previously, Outi Lehtipuu has done a lot of this historical legwork for us in her book, The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. After a thorough survey of Second Temple Jewish literature, Lehtipuu concludes that Jesus' "description of the otherworldly conditions is believable according to the parameters of his cultural world."4 In this article, however, I want to consider another level of context: the Lukan literary context. If it can be shown that the afterlife scene in this parable is consistent with wider Lukan teaching, the logical conclusion will be that Luke wants his readers to take the parable's afterlife imagery seriously. There are two major themes or motifs from the Gospel of Luke that are reflected in the afterlife scene in this parable. One is the reversal of fortunes motif and the other is the eschatological5 banquet or eternal banquet motif.

Reversal of Fortunes in the Gospel of Luke

A major theme in Luke is that of reversal of fortunes.6 People's fates in this life will be reversed in the next. Perhaps the most succinct statements of this idea are in Luke 13:30 ("For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last") and Luke 17:33 ("Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it"; cf. 9:24). However, the classic Lukan statement of the reversal of fortunes is found in Luke 6:20-26, the Lukan version of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Plain:
20 And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. 21 Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way. 24 But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. 26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.
This passage differs from the more famous Matthaean Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) in three significant ways. First, and most obviously, Matthew's text has only beatitudes (blessings), whereas Luke's also has woes that are the exact opposite of the corresponding beatitudes. Second, Luke's criteria for blessedness are physical (e.g., poor, hungry), while Matthew overtly spiritualises the criteria (e.g., poor in spirit, hunger and thirst for righteousness). Third, in Luke's case the relationship between the present state and future result is primarily that of reversal: the hungry will be filled (and vice versa), the weeping will laugh (and vice versa); in Matthew the reversal pattern is less obvious.7 Thus, a distinctive feature of Luke's moral and eschatological teaching is that those who enjoy the good life now will later have their fortunes reversed, and vice versa.8 If you read through the Gospel of Luke you will find numerous examples of this motif;9 but nowhere is it put more vividly on display than in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

The rich man is the quintessential addressee of the Four Woes of Luke 6:24-26. He was rich, wore expensive clothing, and "dined sumptuously every day." This statement implies the other three attributes: the rich man is "filled," "laughs," and "all speak well of him." Here I would refer the reader to my previous article which gave background on dining in the Roman world. The Roman banquet was indeed an opulent affair, as firsthand accounts such as those of Horace and Plutarch illustrate. There was course after course of fine food, wine aplenty, laughter and entertainment. The host was honoured and flattered by his guests and could expect an invitation to the next fine banquet (cf. Luke 14:12). The parable implies that the rich man moved in a social circle where he hosted or was hosted at such banquets daily. In the afterlife, however, the reversal of his fortune is complete. He who had it all has lost it all. His sensual pleasure has been traded for fiery torment, and he who banqueted daily now pleads, unsuccessfully, for a single drop of water!

Lazarus is, by contrast, the quintessential addressee of the Four Beatitudes of Luke 6:20-23. He is poor, lying homeless at the rich man's door. He is hungry, longing to eat scraps from the rich man's table (like a dog; cf. Matt. 15:26-27). He is despised and excluded; the only attention he gets is from dogs (an unclean animal) that come and lick his sores. It goes without saying that he is miserable to the point of weeping. Yet, when he dies, he is carried by angels to Abraham's bosom (the meaning of this expression will be discussed below). Luke has Abraham explicitly justify the afterlife situation of the two men in terms of a reversal of fortunes: "My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented" (Luke 16:25). It is evident, then, that the afterlife scene in this parable is a vivid illustration of the reversal of fortunes principle described in Luke 6:20-26. The afterlife scene thus accurately reflects Lukan ideas about individual eschatology; consequently it cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the parable's meaning, much less viewed as an afterlife concept that Luke seeks to discredit.

The Eternal Banquet in the Gospel of Luke

All four canonical Gospels show interest in banquets and dining—both in the narratives and in the teachings of Jesus—but above all Luke. Jesus is a frequent guest at banquets in Luke. Levi the tax collector throws him a "great banquet" (Luke 5:29-30). He is invited to dine with a Pharisee named Simon (7:37-50), and later with another unnamed Pharisee (11:37-54), and still later with yet another (14:1-24). In the Roman world, as today, dining was not just about the food, but the socialising. To share table fellowship with someone was understood as accepting them socially; hence the offence Jesus caused by dining with tax collectors (Luke 5:29-32). As discussed in the previous article, the dining room setup was not of sitting in chairs around a large table, but reclining on three couches (a triclinium) around a small table.10 Strict rules of social hierarchy determined the reclining positions on the couches, with positions near the host being the most coveted. This social dynamic is often apparent in Luke. At the Sabbath-day banquet of Luke 14:1-24, Jesus notices how the other guests "were choosing the places of honour" and uses this as the occasion for a parable about humility (one that reflects the reversal of fortunes motif; Luke 14:7-11). Jesus' denunciation of the scribes mentions their love of places of honour at banquets (Luke 20:46). At the Passover meal (Last Supper) of Luke 22, an argument about social precedence breaks out among the apostles, which Jesus again uses as a teaching moment (Luke 22:24-27).

A banquet is one of the most prominent images used in Luke to describe the afterlife rewards of the blessed. The image comes up in parables, such as that of Luke 12:36-37 (which depicts a master waiting tables on his slaves—a stunning reversal of social custom), 14:16-23 (the Parable of the Great Feast), 15:1-31 (the Parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Lost Son).11 It is also present in more literal sayings, such as Luke 13:28-29,12 Luke 14:12-15,13 and Luke 22:16, 18, 30.14 Finally, anticipations of the eternal banquet can also be seen in Jesus' remarks about his eating and drinking as bridegroom (Luke 5:34; 7:34), in the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:11-17), in the Last Supper (particularly the institution of the Eucharist, Luke 22:14-20; cf. 24:30-35).

What does all of the above have to do with the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus? The answer is that we should probably see in the phrase "the bosom of Abraham" (to which Lazarus is carried by angels) an allusion to the place of honour at the eternal banquet. Because of the way diners reclined diagonally on the triclinium couches, the head of the person to one's right was adjacent to one's chest, and so that person could be said to be "in his bosom" (en tois kolpois autou).15 The same expression is used to describe the position of the Beloved Disciple relative to Jesus at the Last Supper in John 13:23-25. Notice also that Luke has earlier described the kingdom of God in terms of a banquet where people recline at table in the presence of Abraham, within sight of those who previously banqueted but are now excluded (13:28-29).16  Moreover, in view of the reversal of fortunes motif, Lazarus being escorted by angels to the place of honour at the eternal banquet is a fitting reversal of his earlier predicament of lying among dogs longing for table scraps.

A possible objection is that the rich man sees Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom; how could he see inside a dining room from a great distance? A plausible answer is that the eternal banquet takes place outdoors. Dunbabin notes that first-century stone triclinia and tables are preserved in Pompeii in gardens and in half-enclosed rooms.17 In this respect it is noteworthy that Luke elsewhere describes the setting of the eschatological kingdom as "Paradise," a word meaning garden (Luke 23:43).18 Biblical scholars have probably been correct, therefore, in regarding the phrase "in the bosom of Abraham" in Luke 16:22, 24 as a reference to a place of honour at the eternal banquet.19


In this article, we have sought to situate the afterlife scene in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in relation to wider Lukan ideas about people's ultimate destiny. We have seen that in two important respects, the parable's afterlife scene exemplifies Luke's eschatology. First, this scene is the Gospel's most vivid depiction of the prominent reversal of fortunes principle described in Luke 6:20-26. Second, the scene depicts Lazarus' reward in terms of a place of honour at a banquet hosted by Abraham, which the excluded rich man watches from afar. This places the scene in continuity with the banquet image that dominates this Gospel's concept of what the consummated kingdom of God will be like. The parallel between Luke 16:22-24 and 13:24-30 is particularly striking.

Given the cohesion between the parable's afterlife scene and wider Lukan eschatology, it is implausible to regard the afterlife scene as irrelevant to the meaning of the parable as intended by Luke. Yes, the parable's primary purpose is to warn of the dangers of wealth and the culpability of those who have the law and the prophets, but the afterlife consequences are an essential part of that warning. It is still less plausible to regard Luke as trying to subvert the afterlife concept used in the story. Is the parable providing us with a literal snapshot of exactly what the afterlife will be like? No. All biblical language about the transcendent only gestures toward what is admittedly beyond our ability to comprehend.20 However, the afterlife scene in the parable, including its indication that personal existence continues after death,21 is an indispensable part of divine revelation concerning "the last things." It is not an outlier that can be set aside.

  • 1 19 “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. 20 And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. 22 When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’ 25 Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. 26 Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’ 27 He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’” (NABRE)
  • 2 The most common argument concerns the rich man's request that Lazarus be sent to dip his finger in water and cool his tongue due to his fiery torment. This detail is said to be absurd, since the amount of water that can be borne on a fingertip could never cool the tongue of one who is tormented by fire. However, the description is not intended to render the story ridiculous; it is hyperbole, emphasising the extent of the rich man's predicament in that even such a meagre request is denied. This ties in with the Lukan reversal of fortunes motif to be discussed below.
  • 3 Hence, in my previous article on this parable, I referred to four views, the fourth being essentially a compromise between the face value and incidental views: the parable does teach about the fate of the wicked, but its afterlife scene cannot be pressed too far as a precise, literal description of that fate.
  • 4 The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 299. My previous article on this parable refers to other academic literature representing various viewpoints on the parable's interpretation.
  • 5 The word "eschatology" comes from the Greek word eschatos, meaning "last," and is a technical term for Christian doctrine pertaining to the last things, including the afterlife.
  • 6 This theme also occurs in Matthew and Mark, too, but our focus here is on Luke since it is only Luke who gives us the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
  • 7 Matthew does have some reversal, e.g., those that mourn will be comforted.
  • 8 Luke's negative view of wealth is, it must be noted, more nuanced than simply condemning the rich per se. For instance, the message of the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21) is "to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions," and that a bad end awaits "the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God." Similarly, after recounting the story of the rich young man who declined to sell his possessions and follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-23), Luke records Jesus' saying, "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:25). This elicits the audience's question, "Then who can be saved?" to which Jesus responds, "What is impossible for humans is possible for God." Thus, Luke does not write off the rich, but he does make it clear that their standing before God is precarious.
  • 9 The earliest instance in the Gospel occurs in Mary's Magnificat prayer in Luke 1:53: "The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty."
  • 10 Luke never explicitly mentions triclinia or dining couches (Mark probably does, in 7:4), but this dining setting and style is implied by the use of verbs meaning "to recline," such as anakeimai (Luke 22:27), katakeimai (Luke 5:29; 7:37), anapiptō (Luke 11:37; 14:10; 17:7; 22:14), anaklinō (Luke 12:37; 13:29), and kataklinō (Luke 7:36; 9:14-15; 14:8; 24:30). The last two words verbalise the word klinē, meaning "couch" or "bed."
  • 11 The first two parables end with the finder calling together friends and neighbours to rejoice with her/him, a probable reference to a banquet; the third explicitly results in the father declaring, "Let us celebrate with a feast".
  • 12 "And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God."
  • 13 "Then he said to the host who invited him, “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”" The implication here is that you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous by being invited into the eternal banquet. One of the guests correctly makes this inference and says, "Blessed is the one who will dine in the kingdom of God" (v. 15).
  • 14 "for, I tell you, I shall not eat it [again] until there is fulfillment in the kingdom of God... for I tell you [that] from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes... I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom; and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel."
  • 15 This expression is used in the Septuagint more generically of any intimate embrace, such as that between a husband and wife (Gen. 16:5; Deut. 13:7(13:6), 28:54, 28:56, 2 Kgdms 12:8, Sir. 9:1), or between a parent and child (Ruth 4:16; 3 Kgdms 3:20, 17:19; cf. 2 Kgdms 12:3). The expression is used in this latter sense to describe the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in John 1:18. Since Abraham is a patriarchal figure and is explicitly addressed as "Father Abraham" by the rich man in the parable (Luke 16:24, 27, 30), it is possible that "in Abraham's bosom" has this sense of parent/child intimacy. However, this does not conflict with the notion that Lazarus is in this intimate position next to Abraham at the eternal banquet.
  • 16 This passage is itself a good example of the reversal of fortunes motif, since it envisions people who have previously dined with the Lord (and thus consider themselves entitled to a place at the eternal banquet) thrown out into a place of "wailing" while others enter into the banquet. The pericope ends with the reversal saying par excellence, "For, behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."
  • 17 Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 38.
  • 18 We should probably see in this an allusion to the Garden of Eden; cf. Rev. 2:7.
  • 19 "Lazarus, who hungered in earthly life, now rests on 'Abraham's bosom' in the afterlife. Clearly this is a reference to a banquet scene in which the banqueters recline and thus rest on the bosom of the diner to their left. Lazarus is said to be on the bosom of Abraham in order to indicate that he is to the right of the host, Abraham, and therefore in a position of honor. The image is that of a sumptuous banquet, a potent image for the joys of heaven. The rich man, meanwhile, in a true reversal of situations, begs for a single drop of water" (Dennis E. Smith, "Table Fellowship as a Literary Motif in the Gospel of Luke," Journal of Biblical Literature 106 [1987]: 625-26). Similarly, "[B]eing in Abraham’s bosom should be taken as a metaphor that plays a key role in the composition of Luke 16:19-31. In this parable an opposition is evident between two banquets: the earthly banquet, at which the inhospitable rich man feasts and there is no place for Lazarus, and the heavenly banquet hosted by Abraham, who is known from the Genesis narrative for his hospitality, where Lazarus is granted the most honored position. The metaphor being in Abraham’s bosom includes both the components 'place of honor' and 'banquet.' This makes the structure of the parable symmetrical and the reversal of the fates of the rich man and Lazarus more noticeable." (Alexey Somov and Vitaly Voinov, "'Abraham's Bosom' (Luke 16:22-23) as a Key Metaphor in the Overall Composition of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 79 [2017]: 633).
  • 20 Paul stresses that no eye has seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9) and that "At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror" (1 Cor. 13:12).
  • 21 This idea is also implicit elsewhere in Luke-Acts, such as in Luke 23:43 and Acts 7:59 (of reward after death) and Luke 12:4-5 and Acts 1:25 (of punishment after death).

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Review of 'Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife' by Bart D. Ehrman

I learned recently through social media of Bart Ehrman's essay in Time Magazine entitled What Jesus Really Said About Heaven and Hell. The provocative headline and claims within had the intended effect: they induced me to buy Ehrman's new book (on which the Time essay is based), Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. For readers unfamiliar with Ehrman, he is one of the world's leading New Testament scholars, specialising in textual criticism (efforts to reconstruct the original Greek text using analytical methods). He is also a former Evangelical Christian who is now an agnostic, and through his many popular-level books (and some public debates with leading Christian scholars), has emerged as a leading spokesperson for contemporary post-Christian critics of the historical and theological claims of classical Christianity.

Ehrman has had several previous bestsellers, such as Misquoting Jesus and How Jesus Became God, and in all likelihood Heaven and Hell will follow suit. The book follows a template similar to his previous works: it makes a few provocative and controversial claims, but in fact about 80% of the content represents an introduction some area of biblical and historical scholarship. That is, Ehrman expends most of his ink not defending his headline-grabbing theses, but describing uncontroversial findings of modern scholarship. Thus, Misquoting Jesus is an introduction to textual criticism, How Jesus Became God to historical Christology, and Heaven and Hell to historical 'individual eschatology'—beliefs about the afterlife. Ehrman's writing style is accessible, engaging, and cheeky. He manages simultaneously to entertain and inform the reader, which is probably what has made him so successful in writing popular books.

With that said, I can recommend at least 80% of the content of Heaven and Hell, apart from a few attempts at humour that overstep my threshold of good taste. My opinion of the other 20%, in which Ehrman defends his own controversial interpretations of the biblical and historical record, requires more nuance.

Overview of the Book

Heaven and Hell's most distinctive thesis is that belief in a literal heaven and hell—places of reward and punishment to which people go after death—does 'not go back to the earliest stages of Christianity'; 'cannot be found in the Old Testament and they are not what Jesus himself taught' (p. 14). These ideas, so central to classical and contemporary Christian theology, are post-Jesus innovations.

The book consists of fourteen chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the reader to some of the more fanciful descriptions of the afterlife in early non-canonical Christian literature. Having seen in these works the seeds of 'belief in a literal heaven and hell' as espoused by most contemporary Christians, Ehrman proposes to go back and see where these ideas came from. He thus embarks on a journey through the ancient history of ideas about death and afterlife. Chapter 2 takes us all the way back to the Ancient Near East (the Epic of Gilgamesh). Chapters 3 and 4 look at Greek thought from Homer down into the Christian era. Chapters 5 and 6 consider the Hebrew Bible. Chapter 7 summarises developments in Jewish thought between the Hebrew Bible and the time of Jesus. Chapter 8 looks at the beliefs of historical Jesus, insofar as they can be reconstructed (primarily from Mark and Matthew). Chapter 9 looks at Paul the Apostle, and chapter 10 delves into the later Gospels (Luke, John, and certain noncanonical gospels), which he regards as preserving post-Jesus Christian developments. Chapter 11 analyses the Book of Revelation, and chapters 12 to 14 study Christian beliefs about the afterlife in the patristic period, up to the time of Augustine (early fifth century C.E.) My appraisal below will focus largely on the biblical literature, i.e. on chapters 5 to 10.

Appraisal of Ehrman's Historical Claims

Hebrew Bible

I found Ehrman's treatment of the Hebrew Bible to be both satisfactory and uncontroversial. With most modern scholars, he maintains that the Hebrew Bible does not, for the most part—on a purely historical reading as opposed to Christian theological interpretation—witness to any belief in an afterlife. He thinks that Sheol in the Hebrew Bible is largely synonymous with the grave, denoting 'a complete diminution of life, to the point of virtual nonexistence' (p. 80). Death marks the end of all that can be called life, with a few curious exceptions such as Samuel (recalled by the witch of Endor), Enoch, and Elijah. The Hebrew prophets, in oracles such as Isaiah 26 and Ezekiel 37, use language of resurrection to metaphorically predict a restoration of Israel's national fortunes. Such language eventually inspired the notion of individual resurrection to eternal life, an idea attested in the Hebrew Bible only in the Book of Daniel (the last book of the Hebrew Bible in terms of date of composition).

Subsequent Jewish Literature

Ehrman describes subsequent developments in early Jewish thought as attested in other literature from the Second Temple period. He notes that some texts witness to belief in rewards and punishment immediately after death, others witness to belief in resurrection at the end of time, and sometimes both ideas occur together in the same text. He correctly notes the diversity of Second Temple Jewish ideas, though of course he cannot do justice to the topic in a short chapter.1

What is odd about Ehrman's description of these texts is that it contradicts his own central thesis that belief in a literal heaven and hell does 'not go back to the earliest stages of Christianity.' For instance, writing about 1 Enoch 22 (from the Book of the Watchers), Ehrman describes how 'the souls of those who have died are held until the Day of Judgment' in different hollows within a high mountain (p. 102). One hollow holds the righteous as they await the resurrection. A second 'holds the souls of sinners who did not receive their punishments on earth; these are being tormented in their temporary dwelling place in anticipation of the Day of Judgment, when they will be assigned to eternal torment.' This sounds a lot like later Christian ideas, as Ehrman acknowledges: 'In comparison with later texts such as the Christian Apocalypse of Peter, these destinies are rather vague and lacking in graphic specificity. But the basic ideas are here' (p. 103, emphasis mine). If Ehrman recognises that the Book of the Watchers—which predates Christianity by two centuries or more—contains the basic ideas of postmortem rewards and punishments and eternal torment that the terms 'heaven' and 'hell' convey, how can he maintain the thesis that these ideas do not 'go back to' earliest Christianity?2

The Historical Jesus 

As is fitting for a historical study, Ehrman is interested in the historical Jesus as opposed to the canonical Jesus. He reconstructs the beliefs of Jesus from that subset of Gospel sayings that, by standard critical methods, he considers to be historically reliable. For him, this largely entails using sayings from Mark and Matthew, and not from Luke and John. There are relatively few sayings that he discusses even from Mark and Matthew,3 but from those he does discuss, he paints the following picture:
Jesus did not teach that when a person died they would go to heaven or hell. He taught that the Day of Judgment was soon to come, when God would destroy all that is evil and raise the dead, to punish the wicked and reward the faithful by bringing them into his eternal, utopian kingdom. (p. 130)
a close reading of Jesus's words shows that in fact he had no idea of eternal torment for sinners after death. Death, for them, is irreversible, the end of the story. Their punishment is that they will be annihilated, never allowed to exist again, unlike the saved, who will live forever in God's glorious kingdom. (p. 132)
I will comment on three of Ehrman's key arguments. First, in Matthew 8:11-12 Jesus declares that
I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (NRSV)
Ehrman observes that the passages says nothing about torment, and asks, 'What will happen to [those on the outside]?' His answer: 'Jesus doesn't say. Do they simply end up dying, and that is the end of their story?' (p. 131) This question and answer presuppose that being thrown into the outer darkness is a prelude to punishment and not the punishment itself. However, the passage in no way suggests this. A more natural reading is that being thrown into the outer darkness is the punishment. Note the antithetical parallelism: some are rewarded by being welcomed into the kingdom; others are punished by being thrown out of the kingdom, into another 'place' characterised by darkness and weeping.4 Ehrman emphasises that this passage makes no mention of eternal fire, but other Matthaean texts about the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth do make this connection.5

Second, Ehrman quotes several passages that use the Greek verb apollumi or noun apoleia (particularly Matt. 7:13-14 and 10:28) and infers from them the notion of 'annihilation,' reduction to non-existence. He translates Matthew 10:28b as, 'fear the one who can annihilate both the soul and body in Gehenna', adding, 'It is important to note that Jesus here does not merely say that God will 'kill' a person's soul: he will "annihilate" (or "exterminate") it. After that it will not exist' (p. 135). Now, in Ehrman's 2003 translation of the Apostolic Fathers,6 when the verb apollumi is used in the active voice of the ultimate fate of humans, he consistently translates it 'destroy.'7 Why now has Ehrman departed from his own precedents, and from the practice of most English translations and lexical authorities, by translating apollumi by 'annihilate' rather than 'destroy'? One searches in vain for a lexical argument, or even (since this is a popular-level book) a footnote referencing an argument he has made elsewhere. He simply asserts without argument that apollumi and apoleia convey the specific idea of annihilation, of reduction to non-existence, rather than the more general idea of destruction.8

Third, Ehrman discusses at some length the 'sheep and goats' saying of Matthew 25:31-46. He argues that the 'eternal punishment' spoken of there is simply death, since it is contrasted with 'eternal life.' As for 'eternal fire,' he reasons that 'it is the fire that is eternal, not the sinner in the fire. The fires never go out' (p. 140). Yet, in a footnote, he acknowledges that the text says the fire was prepared for the devil and demons 'who, since they cannot die, will indeed burn forever.' On what basis does he make this sharp distinction between the nature of 'eternal fire' punishment for humans vs. superhumans, when the text makes no such distinction?

Finally, it is worth noting that, despite generally finding Matthew to be a reliable source of historical Jesus sayings, Ehrman says nothing about the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35), which ends with the protagonist being 'handed...over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt' (NRSV), followed immediately by Jesus' warning, 'So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.' Thus, Jesus here appears to depict eschatological punishment in terms of torture of indefinite duration. A noteworthy omission, to say the least! For further commentary on eschatological punishment in the Synoptic Gospels, see here.

The Apostle Paul

I find little to disagree with in Ehrman's treatment of Paul. He offers a good overview of Paul's teaching on resurrection, and also rightly acknowledges Paul's belief in a disembodied intermediate state, as attested in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 and Philippians 1:20-24. He thinks Paul understood the fate of the wicked to be annihilation, and there is little—at least in those letters of Paul that are universally accepted as authentic—that would suggest otherwise.9

The Later Gospels

Ehrman finds the view of the afterlife presented in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts (widely assigned to the same author) to be strikingly different from that of Jesus himself. In particular, 'unlike the historical Jesus himself, Luke maintains that eternity begins immediately at a person's death. Like Paul, but even more emphatically, Luke thinks that when believers in Jesus die, they go straight to heaven' (p. 160). He bases this on such texts as Luke 23:43 and Acts 7:59, and I think his interpretation is sound.

Ehrman spends a couple of pages on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, which he considers to be 'the only place' in the Bible where the notion of eternal punishment for the wicked is suggested (p. 167). He does not think this story is attributable to the historical Jesus (I find his argument unconvincing),10 and he thinks the message of the parable is more about how people should live in the present than what will happen after death. I agree that this is the parable's emphasis, but I think it's a both/and, not an either/or. Outi Lehtipuu's monograph on the parable has shown convincingly that the story was believable within the parameters of its cultural world, and so there is no reason to think the afterlife imagery was not meant to be taken seriously.11 The clincher is the striking similarity between the afterlife imagery in this parable and that in Luke 13:27-30.12

Ehrman argues that the 'realised eschatology' of the Gospel of John, in which eternal life is already attainable in this life, and the wrath of God already abides on the disobedient in this life, represents a de-apocalypticising development of the message of the historical Jesus. I think this claim is basically accurate, though it is important to acknowledge—as Ehrman does—that references to eschatological resurrection are still present.

Other Early Christian Literature

For the sake of brevity, I won't discuss Ehrman's treatment of the Book of Revelation or of early patristic literature. He maintains that Revelation teaches a heavenly intermediate state only for a few martyrs, and teaches the annihilation of the wicked; I think he has overlooked the important evidence of Revelation 22:15.13

Ehrman spends his final three chapters on early patristic literature, and the various theological ideas that emerged concerning the nature of resurrection (resurrection of the flesh vs. of the spirit), the possibility of purgatory, universal salvation, etc. Attempts to systematise what would become established as orthodox Christian eschatology can be found in Tertullian in the early third century and in Augustine two centuries later. The fundamental teaching here is of immediate postmortem rewards and punishments, followed eventually by the resurrection, which ushers in embodied eternal life for some and eternal torment for others. After describing what became the orthodox view, Ehrman states, 'Some observers might consider the views to be a kind of natural development of what the "founders of Christianity" thought, or even as inevitable' (p. 201). He then insists that they were not inevitable, since other competing views existed that did not finally carry the day. However, he does not address the question of whether the orthodox view is a natural development from ideas of Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament writers. This is the Catholic Church's claim (made most famously by Cardinal Newman in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine): that the systematisation of doctrine in the patristic era is but the natural growth and development of the seeds contained in divine revelation.

Ehrman's Theological Message

In the preface, Ehrman insists that he has no theological axe to grind: 'In this book I will not be urging you either to believe or to disbelieve in the existence of heaven and hell' (p. 14). However, he still arrives at the existential inference that 'even if we do have something to hope for after we have passed from the realm of temporary consciousness, we have absolutely nothing to fear' (p. 18). He elaborates in the afterword at the end: we may have something to hope for because a beatific afterlife is at least possible (though he is inclined to think death is the end of existence). We have absolutely nothing to fear because hell can be ruled out on rational grounds; eternal torment would imply that God is 'some kind of transcendent sadist' (p. 235). It would be disproportionate to subject people to 'indescribable torments, not for the length of time they committed their "offenses," but for trillions of years—and that only as the beginning'.

I would make three brief points in reply to Ehrman's rationalistic critique of the doctrine of hell. First, as with transcendent rewards, no one alive knows exactly what transcendent punishment will be like. The biblical language of light, gardens, food and drink, banqueting, peace, life is all analogical, as is that of darkness, fire, banishment, torment, destruction, death. All such language is attempting to describe, 'in a glass, darkly,' the unknown quantities beyond our world in terms of the known quantities within our world. Without knowing exactly what eschatological punishment might be like, we are not well positioned to rule on whether it is just or disproportionate. Second, our lack of knowledge extends not only to the nature of the punishment but to its duration. The expression 'trillions of years' assumes that, for those in the transcendent realms, time passes and is experienced just as now on earth. Why should that be true? Heaven and hell are not material objects making trips around the sun. Many philosophers regard eternity as somehow beyond time rather than simply an unending, linear interval of time. Third, I have always found it curious that people simply assume that annihilation is a merciful and moderate alternative to eternal punishment. Ehrman describes annihilation in almost pleasant terms, like a very deep sleep. Non-existence is in some ways a more horrifying prospect than unending punishment. Besides, if annihilation is the eschatological equivalent of capital punishment, then hell is the eschatological equivalent of life imprisonment without parole. In the human domain, which of those is considered the more severe penalty? To be sure, hell is not a pleasant idea. Those who affirm this doctrine do so with sorrow but with firmness because they have received it from the Church, which (they maintain) received it from the apostles, who (they maintain) received it from the Lord.

Pros and Cons

As stated in the beginning, one great pro of Ehrman's book is that he succeeds in telling the history of ideas about the afterlife in a way that is concise and accessible yet informative and engaging. A second major positive, specifically for a Christian audience, is that he has called out the modern Church for having lost sight of the resurrection and placed all the emphasis on what is really only the interim state: going to heaven after death. For instance, Ehrman quotes from Justin Martyr (died c. 165 C.E.), who wrote that those should not be considered real Christians who assert 'that there is no resurrection of the dead, but that their souls are taken up to heaven at the moment of their death' (Dialogue with Trypho 80.4).14 Ehrman 'wonders how many twenty-first century Christians would escape this charge' (p. 197). Hopefully, those who recite the Creed thoughtfully do escape it, since they 'look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.' However, how many either conflate resurrection with what happens to the soul at death, or are ignorant of resurrection altogether? Ehrman's critique is a welcome and much-needed one.

The cons, for me, lie in questionable exegesis at certain points (particularly the Matthaean texts about eschatological punishment), as well as a tendency to overstate the significance of differences between Jesus and the New Testament writers, among the New Testament writers, and between the New Testament writers and subsequent proto-orthodox theologians. Yes, there is diversity, but it follows a natural developmental trajectory that converges on orthodoxy.

  • 1 For my own discussion of eschatological punishment in the Hebrew Bible and other Second Temple Jewish literature, focusing mainly on 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, see Part 1 of my review of Edward Fudge's book, The Fire That Consumes.
  • 2 Perhaps Ehrman would justify his thesis by noting that 1 Enoch's geography of the afterlife—various hollows in the same high mountain—is very different from the cosmic picture of heaven above and hell beneath that later emerged in Christianity. However, the fundamental issue is not the precise 'where' of transcendent abodes, but the 'that' of righteous and wicked going to separate abodes after death.
  • 3 Those he does discuss are Matt. 3:10; 5:22, 29-30; 7:13-14; 8:10-12; 13:36-43, 47-50; 25:31-46; Mark 9:42, 47-48; 12:18-27
  • 4 No noun meaning 'place' occurs in the Greek, but the adverb ekei ('there'; 'in that place') implies a specific location.
  • 5 The formula, 'In that place (ekei) there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth' occurs in Matthew six times. In three of them, the place is called 'the outer darkness,' in one, 'with the hypocrites,' and in two, 'the fiery furnace' (Matt. 13:42, 50). The fiery furnace, for Matthew, is obviously synonymous 'fiery Gehenna' (5:22; 18:9), which in turn is synonymous with 'the eternal fire' (18:8; 25:41).
  • 6 Bart D. Ehrman, ed. and trans., The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
  • 7 e.g., in 1 Clement 57.7,  Barnabas 12.5; 20.2, Hermas, Mandates 2.1, 12.6.3, Similitudes 8.6.6, 8.8.5, 9.23.4, 9.26.3.
  • 8 I have not myself undertaken a close lexical study of apollumi. However, it appears that when used in the active voice, it can take meanings akin to 'lose,' 'kill,' 'destroy,' 'ruin.' It certainly does not intrinsically convey the cessation of all existence, just as 'destroy' does not in English. For instance, if we say that Hiroshima was destroyed by the atomic bomb in 1945, we are not suggesting that Hiroshima ceased to exist, but that it was devastated, ruined.
  • 9 Ehrman considers only those letters that are universally accepted as authentically Pauline, so we do not get to hear his views on 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, which is the most detailed passage about eschatological punishment in the Pauline corpus. For my own brief discussion of Paul's views, see here.
  • 10 Ehrman thinks that the ending of the story is a 'dead giveaway' that it was not told by Jesus (p. 165). He reasons that Abraham telling the rich man that his brothers would not believe even if someone were raised from the dead alludes to Jesus' own resurrection, and thus postdates it. However, this argument only demonstrates that the ending of the story has been edited or shaped in light of Jesus' resurrection. It is possible that the original story ended with v. 26, or that the whole story dates back to Jesus but that the language of 'rising from the dead' in v. 31 reflects post-Easter editing.
  • 11 Outi Lehtipuu, The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Leiden: Brill, 2007). I have discussed the matter previously here and here.
  • 12 The afterlife scene in the parable has the rich man in a place of torment where he can see Abraham attending a banquet. That Lazarus was 'in Abraham's bosom' refers to reclining with his head on Abraham's breast, 'a position dictated by ancient banqueting practice' (BDAG 556-57). In Luke 13:27-30, a place is described (using the adverb ekei) of weeping and gnashing of teeth, from which people will see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God, where they will 'recline at table.'
  • 13 For my take on eschatological punishment in Revelation, see here, in Part 2 of my review of Edward W. Fudge's book, The Fire That Consumes.
  • 14 For my comments on this text and Justin's individual eschatology more widely, see here and here.

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Kingdom of God is both Now and Not Yet

Virtually any person who has read the New Testament would agree that the kingdom of God was at the center of the message preached by Jesus and the apostles. In Matthew, Jesus' sayings refer to the kingdom no less than 45 times, and all four Gospels contain important mentions of this notion of the kingdom of God.

Both Mark and Matthew summarize Jesus' message along the lines, "The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe" (Mark 1:15; Matthew 4:17). In Luke 4:43, Jesus declares that the purpose for which he was sent was to "preach the good news of the kingdom of God". Acts records the kingdom of God as the primary focus of Jesus' discussions with the apostles after his resurrection and prior to his ascension (Acts 1:3). The kingdom of God also features prominently in summary statements about apostolic preaching in Acts (e.g. 8:12; 28:31). It is also mentioned over 20 times in the rest of the New Testament.

While most are agreed on the centrality of the kingdom of God in Jesus' and the apostles' teaching, there is no such agreement on what the kingdom of God actually means. Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology mentions four different interpretations. These are (1) the Political Kingdom (in which Jesus made a failed attempt to establish a political kingdom in rebellion against Rome), (2) the Spiritual Kingdom (in which the kingdom refers to God's rule in the individual's heart), (3) the Consistent or Future Kingdom (in which a supernatural kingdom which does not yet exist will be established after the Second Coming of Christ), and (4) the Realized or Present Kingdom (in which Jesus brought the kingdom at his first coming and fully established it through the church).

While interpretations (1) and (2) no longer have a following among any but the most liberal of Bible scholars, today's Evangelical Christianity is, in some instances, polarized between (3) and (4). Christadelphians (if I may be permitted to lump them in with Evangelical Christianity) have traditionally been firmly at the (3) end of the pole. The kingdom of God is yet future, and any insinuation that it may exist presently is taken as false doctrine, full stop. For instance, the 1877 Christadelphian Statement of Faith contained eight clauses describing the kingdom of God, all of which referred strictly to the future (although it is stated that this future kingdom will be a recapitulation of the past Davidic kingdom). Meanwhile, among the Doctrines to be Rejected is the idea that the kingdom of God is the church.

At the other extreme, in some Evangelical churches, there is an extreme at the (4) end. One could attend such churches for months and only hear references to the kingdom as a present reality. Talk of a future kingdom, for such believers, suggests a detachment from the Lord's powerful present work among his people. Besides, if such a kingdom was going to come, surely it would have come by now!

As is often the case, both extremes are wrong. A comprehensive biblical doctrine of the kingdom of God must incorporate both (3) and (4). There are passages which refer to the kingdom of God as a future reality only to be accomplished at the end of the age (Matt. 8:11; Matt. 25:34; Luke 19:11ff; Luke 22:18; Gal. 5:21; 2 Tim. 4:1; 2 Pet. 1:11), and there are passages which refer to the kingdom of God as having already arrived in the first century (Matt. 4:17; Matt. 13:41; Matt. 21:43; Luke 10:9-11; Luke 17:20-21Col. 1:13; Rev. 1:9).

This balanced approach, in which the kingdom has been inaugurated but not consummated, is sometimes referred to as inaugurated eschatology. It is necessary to hold in tension the paradox that the kingdom of God is both now and not yet. Only then can we avoid the extremes of the one whose anticipation of future events distracts him from the Lord's presence and power in the church today, and the one whose focus on present spiritual realities has left him with no sense of the approaching conclusion of history.