Social Justice, Jesus and Hell

flames

Herb Montgomery | September 24, 2021


“I want to be clear: I reject the common Evangelical doctrine of eternal torment, including a belief in a literal, eternally burning hell. If we take all the descriptions of a post-mortem ‘hell’ that we find in the scriptures, they are filled with internal incongruencies and contradictions, let alone with each other. So I want to offer an alternative, especially for those attracted to the ethical teachings of Jesus but who rightly have no tolerance for the evangelical Christian belief in a literal, eternally burning hell.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark,

Teacher,” said John, we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Do not stop him,” Jesus said. For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, 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, where “ ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched. Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” (Mark 9:38-50)

There is a lot in this week’s reading to unpack.

First, this week’s passage is connected to the debate among Jesus scholars about whether or not the historical Jesus actually believed he was the Messiah and ways Christians have long used that title for Jesus in damaging and destructive ways toward the Jewish community.

Second, the passage references a curse against those who cause “little ones” to stumble. This title could apply to children, the most subjugated and marginalized population in many of our social systems. And yet limiting this phrase only to children enables those who benefit by oppressive systems to escape the scrutiny of this passage as well. In truth, children in 1st Century Mediterranean societies lived at the bottom of the political, economic, and social hierarchical system. We have to ask whether Jesus simply loved children and thus spoke in their defense, or whether he stood in solidarity with all who were at the bottom of their social structures and all those pushed to the edges or margins of his society, of which children were the foremost. If this second option is right, then this passage warns everyone who structures society to push some people to the bottom or edges, and those who make life even more difficult for those on the bottom or edges after they have been pushed there. Much to ponder here.

Third, the passage uses the deeply ableist language about entering into the kingdom “maimed,” “crippled,” or having “one eye.” This is more than a translation problem, and more than language that was once acceptable falling out of vogue. It has always been damaging to deem people with disabilities as less than abled people. Jesus’ overt argument is that righteous disabled people are better off than unrighteous abled people. Passages that provide a subtext of a hierarchy lead us into territory of interpretations that are ableist. We can do better than this today. We don’t have to repeat ableist language as we tell the Jesus story and we can also find better ways to tell the story than to imply anyone is inferior because of their differences.

Lastly there are the verses about being “thrown into” or “going to hell.”

I want to be clear: I reject the common Evangelical doctrine of eternal torment, including a belief in a literal, eternally burning hell. If we take all the descriptions of a post-mortem “hell” that we find in the scriptures, they are filled with internal incongruencies and contradictions, let alone with each other.

So I want to offer an alternative, especially for those attracted to the ethical teachings of Jesus but who rightly have no tolerance for the evangelical Christian belief in a literal, eternally burning hell.

First, the language that the gospels used here would not have conjured a vision of post-mortem, eternal torment for the original Jewish audience. The word translated into English as “hell” is the Greek word, gehenna. That word already had a history and association for Mark’s original Jewish audience. Gehenna is the Greek form of the Hebrew/Aramaic valley of Gehinnom, or Ge Ben (son of) Hinnom. It named a valley on the south and east of Jerusalem, which was so called from the cries of the little children who were thrown into the fiery arms of Moloch” (Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. American Book Company, 1889; read stories about Gehenna in 2 Chronicles 28:1-4, 2 Chronicles 33:1, and Jeremiah 7:31-32).

In the Hebrew scriptures, Gehenna evolves from the location of horrific atrocities to the symbol of the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem at the hands of foreign, Gentile powers. Consider these examples:

Thus said the LORD: Go and buy a potters earthenware jug. Take with you some of the elders of the people and some of the senior priests and go out to the valley of the son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter. And in this place, I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem and will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth.” (Jeremiah 19:1-7)

But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.’” (Jeremiah 17:27)

Edoms streams will be turned into pitch,

her dust into burning sulfur;

her land will become blazing pitch!

It will not be quenched night or day;

its smoke will rise forever.

From generation to generation it will lie desolate;

no one will ever pass through it again.” (Isaiah 34:9-10)

The voice of the LORD will shatter Assyria;

with his rod he will strike them down.

Every stroke the LORD lays on them

with his punishing club

will be to the music of timbrels and harps,

as he fights them in battle with the blows of his arm.

His Topheth [the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna] has long been prepared;

it has been made ready for the king.

Its fire pit has been made deep and wide,

with an abundance of fire and wood;

the breath of the LORD,

like a stream of burning sulfur,

sets it ablaze.” (Isaiah 30:31-33)

“‘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 on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.’” (Isaiah 66:22-24)

Jeremiah uses the phrase unquenchable fire” to refer to destruction by an outside empire. In Isaiah, the language of Assyrias Topheth” focuses on events happening in this life. In light of this, both Jeremiah’s language of eternally burning fire and Isaiah’s language of worms not dying (quoted in this week’s reading from Mark’s gospel) are highly metaphorical and to be taken seriously, not literally.

These prophetic warnings about Gehenna pointed to Gentile empires destroying people in this life, not after death. This destruction was consistently threatened as punishment for systemic injustice, oppression and violence done to the vulnerable and marginalized.

No wonder it was to be taken seriously.

It makes sense that Jesus would use this language taken from his Hebrew scriptures to speak to those who cause “little ones” to stumble. It is also quite possible that the author of Mark used this language to be connected to the destruction of Judea and Jerusalem by the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. Again, Jerusalem was being destroyed by a foreign, Gentile power.

I’ll end this week with some thoughts on Jesus’ command not to forbid people outside of his own disciples and followers from doing things in his name. Just because they were not part of the community of Jesus’ disciples didn’t mean they were to be stopped. I want to go a step further, though.

Within the Jesus story we find universal values that have proven life-giving. These values and ethics are in many more cultures and religions than mere Christianity—including those with no connection to the historical Jesus whatsoever. I encourage Christians to honor those traditions and values because of their intrinsic, life-giving quality. I’m reminded of a statement we at RHM shared as a meme a few weeks ago now:

“There was an ancient prophetic tradition in which God insisted not on justice and worship, but on justice over worship. God had repeatedly said, “I reject your worship because of your lack of justice,” but never, ever, ever, “I reject your justice because of your lack of worship.” (Borg and Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, Kindle Location 767) (cf. Amos 5:21-24; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Isaiah 1:11-17)

For me, it’s not about making sure that we attach “Jesus” as a label to things, but that I value those things the Jesus of the Jesus story has taught me in my life. These things are valuable to me, and not merely because Jesus taught them but because I’ve experienced their intrinsic fruit for myself. Again, I don’t believe these things are valuable simply because Jesus taught them. Instead, I believe Jesus taught them because they were intrinsically valuable. We can honor these values when we see them in others without trying to make them somehow “Christian” and so worthy of our approval. We can simply honor the good they do in our world.

Something is good, remember, based on the kind of fruit it produces, whether it is life-giving or death-dealing. And that fruit is either enough of an argument in its favor, or a sign of something it’s time for us to leave behind.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. However one interprets Jesus’ words on Gehenna, how does Jesus’ teachings on social justice impact your own Jesus following? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.



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Mislabelling Social Justice as Foolishness

by Herb Montgomery | July 17, 2020

church steeple and social justice


“I find it alarming that there are Christian pastors or leaders who call fellow Jesus followers seeking social justice ‘fools.’ It is past time for those who bear the name of Jesus to see in the gospel stories Jesus’ calls for social change.”


In Matthew’s gospel, we read,

“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.” (Matthew 5:22)

Context is always important, and with this week’s passage, it’s vital. Jesus is warning his followers about mislabelling those who call for social justice “fools” or foolish.

He is not prohibiting the term “fool.”

After all, Jesus himself calls others “fools” in Matthew’s gospel:

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’ You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold?” (Matthew 23:16, emphasis added)

Luke’s Jesus has God referring to someone emphatically as a “fool”:

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’” (Luke 12:20, emphasis added)

So the passage in Matthew isn’t about using the term “fool,” but about mislabelling as fools those who call for justice, inclusion, and systemic change as Jesus and Jesus’ followers did within their own society.

Consider what Jesus warned his followers about: a “Gehenna of fire.”

Contrary to many modern translations, Gehenna is not what modern Christians understand as hell. It is rather a deeply Jewish concept with a rich history.

Here is every passage where Jesus speaks of Gehenna (except for the two that we will look at in just a moment). To avoid misleading us, I have taken the time to “untranslate” each reference to hell where the original word is simply Gehenna:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into 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 of your members than for your whole body to go into Gehenna. (Matthew 5:29-30)

And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the Gehenna of fire. (Matthew 18:9)

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of Gehenna as yourselves. (Matthew 23:15)

You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to Gehenna? (Matthew 23:33)

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Gehenna. (Mark 9:43-47)

In order to understand what Jesus is referring to in each of these passages, we must look at three things.

The Jewish history around Gehenna
The political climate of Jesus’ day
How Jesus uses Gehenna in the context of both

Let’s dive in!

First, Gehenna was a literal place in Jewish history as far back as the time of Joshua:

“Then the boundary goes up by THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM (Gehenna) at the southern slope of the Jebusites (that is, Jerusalem); and the boundary goes up to the top of the mountain that lies over against THE VALLEY OF HINNOM, on the west, at the northern end of the valley of Rephaim.” (Joshua 15:8)

This place became the site of Judah’s terrible history of child sacrifice.

“And [Ahaz, King of Judah] made offerings in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.” (2 Chronicles 28:3)

“He made his son pass through fire in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” (2 Chronicles 33:6)

Gehenna, the valley of the son of Hinnom, was the cultic location where the Canaanites offered children as sacrifices to the god Moloch. At some point it became known as Topheth for the hearth where the child was placed: the Hebrew term has parallels in both Ugaritic and Aramaic that mean “furnace, fireplace.” Scholars believe Topheth was at the edge of the valley of the son of Hinnom, next to the Kidron Valley, and likely southwest of Jerusalem. An 8th Century BCE Phoenician inscription describes sacrifices made to Moloch before the Cilicians battled their enemies.

But its history does not end with those histories. It also resurfaces in the message of the prophet Jeremiah:

“And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7:31–32)

Jeremiah is saying that Babylon is coming with such devastation on Jerusalem that the valley of the son of Hinnom (Gehenna) will become a burying place overflowing with corpses, not of children this time, but of the population Babylon devastates. Notice that Jeremiah is warning not of a postmortem experience, but of a distinct this-life and this-world experience that would truly be “hell” for anyone caught in it: the literal destruction of Jerusalem by a Gentile kingdom—Babylon:

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Stand in the gate of the LORD’S house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 7.1–11)

This passage in Jeremiah 7 is also the very passage Jesus quoted as he demonstrated against his own temple state’s exploitation of the poor. Jesus stood in Jeremiah’s prophetic lineage and quoted him directly:

“And he said, ‘It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer”; but you have made it a den of robbers.’” (Luke 19:46)

Jeremiah used Gehenna in specific ways:

“And go out to the VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM(Gehenna) at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, OR THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER.” (Jeremiah 19:2–6)

For Jeremiah, Gehenna had an end. It was not the equivalent of being eternally forsaken by God and the fact that Jeremiah thought of it as temporary suggests a restorative hope rather than a retributive one.

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when the city shall be rebuilt for the LORD from the tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. And the measuring line shall go out farther, straight to the hill Gareb, and shall then turn to Goah. The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes (Gehenna), and all the fields as far as the Wadi Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be sacred to the LORD. It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.” (Jeremiah 31:38-40)

“See, I am going to gather them from all the lands to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation; I will bring them back to this place, and I will settle them in safety. They shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for all time, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn from me.” (Jeremiah 32:37)

“For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart. I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:10-14)

Now let’s address the political climate of Jesus’ day very briefly. Jesus repeatedly called for wealth redistribution, for the community to prioritize economic equity and justice, and for the centering of marginalized people. He repeatedly warned that if the people did not embrace a more distributively just society, no matter how much the elite named it foolish, they would all face Gehenna.

Looking back at their history we can see this beginning with the poor people’s revolt that grew into the Roman Jewish war of 66-69 and ultimately resulted in Rome’s violent destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Jesus picked up Jeremiah’s warning about Jerusalem being destroyed by a foreign oppressor, and the gospel authors connected Jeremiah’s passages, Jesus overthrowing the Temple tables, and Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Jeremiah shattered a vessel on the Temple floor, symbolizing how Babylon would shatter Jerusalem, and said they had turned the Temple into a “den of robbers.” Jesus overturned tables and scattered livestock in the Temple, and the gospel authors use this to foreshadow the result of their turning the Temple into a “den of robbers.”

Jesus adopted Jeremiah’s Gehenna meaning as well as his language. Jesus was not warning about the postmortem experience described by Dante or Jonathan Edwards. He was speaking of Gehenna as a horrific devastation that would be wrought on Jerusalem by a foreign power. It would not be Babylon this time but Rome.

Luke’s Jesus quotes the battle cry of the militaristic Maccabean revolt, which the religious leaders of Jesus’ day romanticized. But Jesus subversively turned it on its head. Here is the original passage Jesus used as recorded in the Apocrypha:

“Each of them and all of them together looking at one another, cheerful and undaunted, said, ‘Let us with all our hearts consecrate ourselves to God, who gave us our lives, and let us use our bodies as a bulwark for the law. Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.’” (4 Maccabees 13:14-15)

Note two things from this passage. First, the Hellenistic idea of postmortem, eternal torment had already crept into Jewish thinking at this stage. Scholars agree this was a product of the Jewish dispersion around the Greek empire and was not a part of the pre-diaspora Jewish worldview. Second, Jesus quotes the passage from 4 Maccabees with a twist and transitions into the words of Jeremiah:

“But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:5)

The him here is not God, but a violent messiah leading the poor people’s uprising sure to come if the elite power brokers continued to refuse a path away from societal inequity.

Matthew’s version (Matthew 10:28) is even more telling:

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul”
Jesus began with the words of 4 Maccabees, which were very familiar to the Jewish leaders of his day, and then transitioned into Jeremiah.

“rather fear him”
He is the person or people who will lead a poor people’s revolt if things did not change

“who will destroy both soul and body”
Soul and body suggests not eternal torment after death, but complete annihilation in this life

“in Gehenna“
Jeremiah’s term referred to destruction by a foreign power.

Jesus’ warning was of an even worse fate than what Jeremiah warned about. For Jeremiah, destruction by Babylon would be temporary. But for Jesus, destruction from Rome would be absolute.

What does this have to do with us today?

We are faced with the same choices today. Our present system is not sustainable. Tensions are building, and our path is trending toward social eruption. People are suffering as a result of the systemic inequities of our society, and today we also have those calling for social justice, both among Jesus followers and those who do not claim him. I find it alarming that there are Christian pastors or leaders who call fellow Jesus followers seeking social justice “fools.”

It is past time for those who bear the name of Jesus to see in the gospel stories Jesus’ calls for social change. We should not focus solely on his work on changing individuals. Both kinds of change are needed. And those who call for social change, seeking a more just, safer, compassionate, inclusive society, are not fools. Whether they claim his name or not, they are traveling in the footsteps of Jesus and all those who have gone before them.

To Christians today who would label social justice work as foolishness, Jesus offers these words, “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.”

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How do you wish your own faith tradition, local faith community, or your denomination if applicable, would support and work alongside societal justice movements? Discuss with your group and list any social justice movements you believe would be worth supporting and why.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Not Fearing the Body’s Death

protest crowd

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.” (Q 12:4-5)

Companion Texts:

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 Gehenna.”

Luke 12:4-5: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

4 Maccabees 13:14-15: “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.”

This week’s saying is rooted in a Jewish text that precedes the gospels. 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees tell the story of the martyrdom of seven Jewish brothers, their mother, and their teacher. During the time of the Maccabee family, the Seleucid Empire through Antiochus Epiphanies was threatening fundamentalist Hebrew people with death if they refused to become Hellenized.

In 4 Maccabees 13:14-15, one of the Jewish brothers says, “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.” This was the rallying cry they used to strengthen Jewish resolve to resist their Hellenistic oppressors.

Fast forward two centuries to the time of Jesus. In Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, we know that there were continual efforts to spark revolution by following violent messiahs rising up against Rome. Rome also had a brutal history of lashing back against all violent uprisings. Josephus tells us how Varus responded to one of these attempts in Galilee:

“Upon this, Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand.” (Antiquities 17: Book 10) [1]

It was in this same region, in the wake of memories like these, that Jesus grew up.

Jesus rephrases the Maccabean saying, and warns the people not to follow violent messiahs because complete annihilation from Rome would result. Let see how.

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.”

In order to see what Jesus was saying, we have to step away from the Christian myth of hell and step back into a Jewish understanding of the term Gehenna.

Gehenna is a term that the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah uses regarding the deeds of Judean king Ahaz.

“And he [Ahaz, King of Judah] made offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. [Since his legitimate son by the daughter of the High Priest Hezekiah succeeded him as king, this is assumed to mean children by unrecorded pagan wives or concubines.]” (2 Chronicles 28:3)

“He [Manasseh, Ahaz’ grandson] made his son pass through fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” (2 Chronicles 33:6)

“And they go on building the high place of TOPHETH, which is in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called TOPHETH, or THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER: for they will bury in TOPHETH until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7:31-32)

“And go out to THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER. [Emphasis Added.] (Jeremiah 19:2-6; see also Jeremiah 19:11-15)

Jeremiah repurposed a literal landmark, the valley of the son of Hinnom (Gehenna), as a symbol of Hebrew annihilation at the hands of foreign powers. In Jeremiah’s day, the foreign power would have been Babylon; in the time of Jesus, it was Rome. Jesus takes the same language Jeremiah used, and he makes it a metaphor for Roman destruction of Judea if the Jews follow a violent messiah.

In the original Maccabean phrase, a faithful Jewish worshiper risked losing his life for remaining faithful but was warned of a worse post mortem fate (eternal punishment) if he did not stay faithful. Jesus repurposes this warning but removes the post-mortem warning. Instead he adds a very this-world, this life, concrete warning: Gehenna, destruction by a foreign power.

Remember that Jesus has just been teaching nonviolent forms of resistance. In this week’s saying, he is saying do not allow fear of the violent Romans to push you to abandon nonviolent forms of resistance as futile, naive, or ineffective. He warns his followers not to fear him who can “destroy the body,” but to fear instead the one who will end up destroying both “body and soul.” “Body and soul” is a phrase that means complete annihilation in the worldview of Hellenized, Galilean, Jewish listeners, and physical violence like the violence of the Romans was a very real fear for those worried about nonviolent forms of resistance.

How would a violent messiah destroy both body and soul? The same way they had in the past. If Galilean impoverished followers took over Jerusalem’s temple (as they did in the Jewish Roman war) and lashed out violently against Rome, they would not only lose their lives (“destroy the body”), but also Jerusalem, the Temple itself, and the surrounding areas would be totally obliterated (“Gehenna”). Jesus isn’t saying that nonviolence revolution won’t fail. He saying that even if it does fail, it won’t fail to the same catastrophic degree that violent revolution will.

The Maccabees didn’t worry about what could happen to their bodies if they remained faithful. They worried about what would happen to their souls if they didn’t. Unlike the Maccabees, Jesus told his followers to fear the complete annihilation of their entire world, obliterated by Rome if they took up violent resistance in Jerusalem.

Jesus was concerned for the survival and liberation of his people. And, keeping survival and liberation in tension, he called his society to embrace nonviolent forms of resistance that allowed oppressors to be overcome through the transformation of society, and which also provided the best possible probabilities of them living to enjoy that liberation once it was achieved. Nonviolence offers no guarantees, but even when it fails it produces fewer losses.

This is a rather long passage from Walter Wink’s work, Jesus and Nonviolence. Yet I believe it is extremely relevant to this week’s saying.

“Once we determine that Jesus’ Third Way is not a perfectionistic avoidance of violence but a creative struggle to restore the humanity of all parties in a dispute, the legalism that has surrounded this issue becomes unnecessary. We cannot sit in judgment over the responses of others to their oppression. Gandhi continually reiterated that if a person could not act nonviolently in a situation, violence was preferable to submission. ‘Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.’ But Gandhi believed that a third way can always be found, if one is deeply committed to nonviolence.

Jesus’ way, which is the way of the cross, means voluntarily taking on the violence of the Powers That Be, and that will mean casualties. But they will be nowhere near the scale that would result from violent revolution.

Britain’s Indian colony of three hundred million people was liberated nonviolently at a cost of about eight thousand lives. The British apparently suffered not a single casualty, dead or wounded. It took twenty-seven years (1919-46). France’s Algerian colony of about ten million was liberated in seven years (1955-1961) by violence, but it cost almost one million lives.

The staggering differential in lives lost certainly cannot be ascribed to the French being more barbaric or determined to keep their colony than the British. And most of the French were fighting merely to keep a colony, not their native soil.

Solidarity in Poland nonviolently stood up to the ruthless power of a Communist government and lost about three hundred lives over a period of ten years. About the same time Argentina, in a violent but fruitless effort to take the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, lost approximately one thousand lives in two weeks against the British.

The armed revolt in Hungary was crushed by the Soviets at the cost of five to six thousand Hungarian lives; forty thousand were imprisoned, tortured or detained. In Czechoslovakia, where a spontaneous nonviolent resistance was mounted, seventy died, and political prisoners were released.

In the Unites States civil rights struggle, about fifty thousand demonstrators were jailed, but fewer than one hundred of those engaged in campaigns were killed. By contrast, armed revolution in Cuba and Nicaragua cost twenty thousand lives each. In El Salvador, sixty thousand civilians died, quite apart from military casualties. Over the past thirty years one hundred thousand Guatemalans have lost their lives, out of a population of only 7.8 million. We cannot ignore the implications of these statistics, for the comparative degree of carnage is a moral issue.

We need to be very clear that this is in the interest of the Powers to make people believe that nonviolence doesn’t work. To that end they create a double standard. If a single case can be shown where nonviolence doesn’t work, nonviolence as a whole can then be discredited. No such rigorous standard is applied to violence, however, which regularly fails to achieve its goals. Close to two-thirds of all governments that assume power by means of coups d etat are ousted by the same means; only 1 in 20 post-coup governments give way to a civil government.

The issue, however, is not just which works better, but also which fails, better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of present goals—though in another sense it always “works”—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe.” (Chapter 4)

I disagree with Wink’s statement that the way of the cross is synonymous with nonviolence: we must be careful not to glorify the cross or promote the myth of redemptive suffering, and we’ll discuss both at length when we get to Jesus’ saying on taking up a cross. For now, it’s worth considering that both violent resistance and nonviolent resistance come with a price tag. I believe that Jesus was seeking to help his fellow Jewish, oppressed people stand up to violent Rome in a way that allowed them to survive the encounter rather than being annihilated by it whether it succeeded or failed.

Wink states in the same volume, “Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than the anti-Roman Roman resistance fighters. The only difference was over the means to be used: how one should fight evil. There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and 3) the third way of militant non-violence articulated by Jesus.”

It is this militant nonviolence that we see Jesus encouraging his followers to embrace. What we also see in this week’s saying is Jesus warning the people not to go down the path that they ultimately chose.

I wonder how far we can apply this militant nonviolence in our time.

The LGBTQ community has made great strides without great violence. Though I respect that many LGBTQ people no longer wish to be associated with Jesus because Jesus has been used to do much damage to them, they have nonetheless demonstrated how much society can be transformed positively by raising collective consciousness. Changing society from the inside out has borne positive fruit. Through relationships, marketing, lobbying, television media, and other nonviolent methods, this community has changed society not with a sword but by influence.

I remember being told by a friend when we were working for LGBTQ nondiscrimination here in my local town that here in Appalachia, once a person who was prejudiced against the LGBTQ community has five friends who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, they can see common stereotypes as the destructive falsifications that they are. When they’ve released those stereotypes, people become allies and change how they vote for the protection of their friends’ rights. The discussion ceases to be about “issues” and rather becomes about human beings they know, are in community with, and actually care about. As someone who is always looking for modern examples of Jesus’ teachings on militant nonviolence, I believe this community’s experiences offer rich lessons.

This week, let’s consider the warning in Jesus’ saying. What might Gehenna—total destruction—look like in our society? We are to oppose injustice and resist oppression. But let’s do it together in a way that isn’t suicidal but could allow us to survive to enjoy liberation. There are no guarantees, and remaining passive is not an acceptable option.

And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.” (Q 12:4-5)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you as a group to spend some time together considering the statements above from Wink. Wink ends his first chapter with some tough questions and I think they are appropriate for HeartGroups, too.

  1. What objections do you have to non-violence? What objections do you have to violence?
  2. Do you think you could be nonviolent during a specific demonstration or vigil, if not consistently across your life?
  3. What reasons can you find for choosing to be nonviolent?

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, a love manifested through solidarity in the work of survival, liberation, resistance, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


 

[1] Josephus writes of revolutionary prophets leading large groups of people into the desert around 50 C.E. These prophets told the people that once they were in the desert, God would show them signs of coming freedom. The Roman procurator, Felix, regarded these gatherings as the first stage of revolt, and sent cavalry and heavy infantry into the desert to cut the crowds into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147). The most infamous of these prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a violent messiah known as “the Egyptian” and mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”

Josephus describes the event as follows:

“Arriving in the country, this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison, and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard.” (Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147)

In a parallel account of this event, Josephus includes the “sign” that this “Egyptian” had claimed would be shown to the people in the course of their liberating Jerusalem. It would be a sign like Joshua’s sign at the Battle of Jericho. At the “Egyptian’s” command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before any such a sign could be attempted, the Roman cavalry and infantry slew and captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the violent messiah, the Egyptian (Josephus, Antiquities, 170-172).

These were not lunatic leaders, but hopeful violent messiahs, action prophets who contemporary scholars see as attempting to lead movements of Jewish peasants in active engagements of specifically violent human effort that would be accompanied by divine acts of empowerment and deliverance. The logic went something like, “Success is dependent on combining human effort with divine power. If they wanted divine deliverance, they must first present the violent human effort for Yahweh to bless. God would meet their efforts if they acted.”  The necessity of our action is the truth to be found the above logic. That our action has to be violent is short sighted. The rhetoric of these violent messiahs was steeped in the symbols of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan.

Josephus also describes another event where Romans massacred a thousand Jewish women and children who were acting in obedience to another Jewish violent messiah “prophet.” This violent messiah had declared to the people in Jerusalem that God had commanded them to go up to the Temple to receive the signs of deliverance (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 360). Elsewhere, Josephus describes a “Samaritan prophet” who was a contemporary “messiah” of Jesus during the time of Pontius Pilate. This prophet’s “sign” was to lead the people up the sacred Mount Gerizim to find holy vessels left there by Moses. Instead, the armed crowd was attacked and overwhelmed by Pilate’s troops at the foot of the mountain (Josephus, Antiquities, 85-87).