September 23, 2020

Hell, You Say?


If we are going to understand what Jesus and the authors of the New Testament meant when they spoke about the wrath of God or judgment or Gehenna, we have to come at the matter with an entirely different frame of mind. We have to read historically and contextually rather than theologically and abstractly. We have to keep at the front of our minds the question: How does the theological content of the New Testament work within its own narrative-historical setting?

– Andrew Perriman

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HellHeavenHell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective
by Andrew Perriman

Recently I was visiting a patient who told me a preacher came to visit him at the request of a family member. When the patient expressed doubts about whether he believed or not, the preacher told him immediately that he was going to hell. He asked me if I would come back and talk to his wife and him and give them a second opinion (!). About a week later we met, and I told him Jesus said he came into the world not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved.

If this had been a person who wanted to talk on a different level about what the Bible teaches about hell (and heaven), I might have had introduced Andrew Perriman into the discussion. Whether one ends up agreeing with him or not, his understanding of how the New Testament approaches the subject of eschatology should be taken seriously.

Perriman thinks the doctrine of hell (and heaven, for that matter) as traditionally formulated is unbiblical.

He is not a liberal or modernist who finds the idea of God’s wrath incompatible with faith in a loving God.

He is not a universalist. He believes God judges, and he maintains belief in an ultimate judgment.

Though his interpetation ends up having some surface familiarity with preterism, he is not a preterist. Preterism is a traditional theological position, whereas Perriman’s views grow out of a different interpretive framework — a “narrative-historical” approach that is kin to other “New Perspective” proponents who have delved more deeply into the Second Temple historical context of the New Testament.

Perriman believes that evangelical theology is in a season of transition in which we are shifting from a theological paradigm to another that prioritizes the historical context of the text and reading its narrative in that light. Representing this “New Perspective,” Andrew Perriman thinks the church has developed a bad habit of interpreting Scripture according to theological and dogmatic categories rather than understanding it in its historical and narrative context.

puffinWhen Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins came out, Perriman did a series of blog posts on hell and related eschatological subjects. He brought these together into an e-book that sets forth a case for his “narrative-historical” views.

In its first section Perriman discusses what he means by a “narrative-historical” approach to the NT.

Section two contains some general posts on “hell,” in which he interacts with several other authors who have weighed in on the recent debate regarding hell.

The third section discusses many specific passages according to the “narrative-historical” hermeneutic.

In section four he shifts his attention to the subject of “heaven.”

With regard to “eschatology,” Andrew Perriman’s conclusion is that “material that has usually been understood to describe end-of-the-world events actually refers to more immediate and more urgent realities.”

The word “eschatology” would normally mean something like “the study of last things”. Traditionally it has been treated as a heading either for the classification of such ultimate realities as death, judgment, heaven and hell, or for debates over competing millennialist timelines. I find both these approaches unhelpful. Within the frame of my preferred narrative-historical hermeneutic, I would use the word “eschatological” primarily with reference to prophecies of decisive, theologically significant historical events in a foreseeable future. From the perspective of the New Testament this means essentially the two horizons of the Jewish War and the victory of the persecuted church over Roman pagan imperialism.

So then, for example with respect to “the wrath of God” in Scripture, he asserts that it:

“…always — I repeat, always — refers to some historical event or process by with a people or a nation or a civilization is “judged.” It is how the creator God puts matters to right amongst the nations.”

Therefore, when Perriman reads what Jesus said about judgment to come, he asserts: “Jesus does not teach ‘hell’ if by that we mean a place of unending torment after death.”

What about the scene in Matthew 25 where God divides the sheep and the goats? It does not portray a judgment of the dead (that’s an assumption we have made). Instead it describes a judgment of the nations that occurs after the vindication of the Son of Man and the early martyr church. Like N.T. Wright and other New Perspective interpreters, Perriman thinks that many of Jesus’ eschatological teachings are sourced in the book of Daniel, which describes a “coming” of the Son of Man to judge the nations.

What about Jesus’ warnings about the “fires of Gehenna”? These refer not to a universal hell but to a coming judgment upon Israel in history. The imagery of corpses (note: “corpses”) being consumed by undying worms and unquenchable fire foretell the horrific destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies. The dead bodies are not souls being tormented endlessly in hell but graphic evidence of a brutal invasion.

What about the image of “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”? This describes the exclusion of faithless Israel from the people of God.

What about Paul’s descriptions of judgment in passages such as 2Thessalonians 1:5-12? Perriman argues that these words apply specifically to the persecutors of the early church. Using apocalyptic language, Paul echoes the “woes” of the O.T. prophets, who proclaimed that God ultimately protects his people and destroys their enemies within history, and not beyond.

To summarize Perriman’s position: There are three horizons of eschatology in the New Testament:

(1) The coming destruction of Israel by the Romans,

(2) The victory of the persecuted church over Roman pagan imperialism,

(3) The final renewal of heaven and earth which involves a final judgment.

(4) By far, most of what the N.T. envisages relates to the first two categories. “In my view the supposed heaven and “hell” passages in the New Testament relate to impending historical crises: the martyrs will be rewarded with an interim stay in heaven, where they will reign with Christ thoughout the coming ages; the enemies of the emerging people of God in Christ, whether Jewish or pagan, will suffer decisive judgment.”

(5) When it comes to the final judgment — “The New Testament does not have a doctrine of ‘hell,’ but neither does it teach that everyone goes to heaven when they die. The fundamental antithesis is not between heaven and hell but between new creation life and irrevocable death, represented symbolically in Revelation 20:14-15 by the ‘lake of fire.'”

The final state of those judged by God is death — destruction — and not eternal torment.

By the way, Perriman also does not believe the NT teaches an “intermediate state,” a paradisiacal place where believers go when they die (as well as a corresponding place of torment for the wicked). The NT hope is resurrection: “People die in Adam; they are raised to life at the coming of Jesus.”

A lot to chew on here. Have at it.

* * *

Andrew Perriman blogs at P.OST – An Evangelical Theology for the Age to Come. You can search the site for the posts that make up his e-book, or purchase the e-book by clicking on the link at the top of the page ($6.99 as of this post) and have all the articles in one volume.

A good place to start to get his own overview on this subject is Perriman’s post, “Hell, the unbiblical doctrine of.”


  1. Didn’t Christ tell of a story about a rich guy who would not give a water or a loaf of bread to the poor guy who lived outside his home, but in the afterlife, poor guy was in heaven, and Christ said the rich guy was in hell, but poor guy was not permitted to cross over into hell to give rich guy a sip of water?

    And is it that story or another where Jesus talks of a guy in Hell who looks over into Heaven and asks (Jesus I think, or someone in Heaven), ‘let me go back to tell my brothers of this awful place so they will not come here too’?

    In Revelation, doesn’t Jesus say he holds the keys to death and hell?

    If there is no terrible place of punishment in the afterlife, why bother accepting Christ as savior? If it does not impact where one goes in the after life, what difference does Jesus make in that regard? If there is no place of torment in the afterlife for the un-saved, why does Jesus keep cautioning people to believe in Him, and that He is the only way to the Father?

    • Daisy –

      I think we get confused because the Greek word hades used to regularly get translated as ‘hell’. But hades, like sheol in the Hebrew, was the place of the dead/the grave. It wasn’t a place for ‘eternal conscious punishment’. It referred to the realm of the dead. And it is Christ who holds the keys to death and hades. It is Christ that will build his church and not let hades, the grave, overtake it.

      And this is different than gehenna, which is usually now translated as ‘hell’. But within the historical narrative of Scripture, gehenna was not a place of ‘eternal conscious torment’. It referred to the place just outside Jerusalem, the burning rubbish dump, where Jesus is told that unfaithful Israel would be punished under the judgment that would come, most likely referring to the ransacking of Jerusalem by the Romans under Titus.

      Now, the eternality of something described like what we see at the end of Revelation, it is eternal in that it is forever. But this seems to more describe the burning up of things, not continually tormenting. The wages of sin is death and death will be final/eternal in the judgement to come.

      You could also do some searches on Perriman’s blog in regards to articles on the rich man & Lazarus (Luke 16), as well as some of the other passages we usually run to in regards to highlighting eternal conscious torment. Or the little book that Chaplain Mike has reviewed here would engage a lot of questions that arise.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        But within the historical narrative of Scripture, gehenna was not a place of ‘eternal conscious torment’. It referred to the place just outside Jerusalem, the burning rubbish dump…

        More the image of a Discard Pile than Uncle Zeke’s Neverending Torture Party.

    • It seems Perriman’s view is simply a reminder to us who are 2,000 yrs beyond that historical time when Jesus walked here, that He was of that time & place & was fully Jewish in his perspective. In fact, I think he was so immersed in the true meaning of all that the Jews had been given, that he became something “other” & was viewed as being new & different.
      Many Jewish scholars I’ve read teach about the here & now. If you live well today, tomorrow will take care of itself. It IS important to accept Christ as savior no matter what the afterlife is all about because it’s a declaration that Christ is THE model of being fully human, fully alive… & now. To be a blessing to others here & now. And being fully human & fully alive is the way we are the image of God…here & now.

    • Daisy, along with what Fran wrote, I think what is even stronger motivation to be united to Christ is that in his Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection he has delivered us from death, and the slavery of sin that our fear of death engenders (Heb 2.14-15). Read the sermons given in the book of Acts. The point is never that we need to accept Christ to avoid “hell”, but always the Fact of the Resurrection, the pinnacle of everything else that Christ has done. The Crucifixion without the Resurrection would have been another senseless death of a good – even prophetic – man. The issue is that death has to be overthrown. Since death has been overthrown by Christ, the door is open for us to enter into Life, beginning right now.


  2. Wherever it is…and whatever it is like, I don’t want to go there with the goats. But rather I want to be with His sheep and they are gathered by Him for eternal bliss.

  3. This is a fascinating approach tough I doubt one can interpret all hellish passages as referring to future historical events.
    I give my view on salvation: whoever truly desires God will be with God.

    I utterly reject this widesprad idea of eternal suffering in hell which cannot serves any redemptive purpose at all.

    Friendly greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  4. For the love of Pete, when even a lifetime Catholic can tell you that Christ came to have relationships with individual persons and NOT to rehash and dissect Israeli history, it is clear that this author has missed the entire point of being a Christian.

    • Huh? Pattie I’m not sure what you mean by “rehash and dissect Israeli history,” but I think you’re missing the point badly. Jesus came as a Jew, to his Jewish people, in a time of impending crisis for the Jewish nation. Less than a generation after his death and resurrection, the temple and city of Jerusalem was leveled, amid horrific suffering. Perriman is saying that most of Jesus’ warnings about destruction fit into that historical context, just like the OT prophets spoke to their own context primarily.

      We start there, then understand the broader implications.

      • So is it wrong then to interpret Jewish history to apply it to us today? If so, doesn’t the Bible just become another historical document? If not, what rules to we use for our interpretation, according to Perriman?

        • Good question and not just applicable here. How do we read vast swaths of Scripture that record historical stories, events, and prophecies?

        • Damaris –

          Actually, that’s a big point for Perriman. He sees Scripture as more historical than systematic theology. It teaches theology, but as an historical document. The theology flows out of a particular historical framework (though that wouldn’t necessarily mean every bit of Scripture is journalistic history).

          But what we can do, moving forward, is to look at the historical narrative of Scripture, and follow the history since then (2nd century & forward), and we can find important pointers in helping us move forward in our own context. Now, having said that, I don’t believe Perriman would say we cannot form theology from reading Scripture. But that theology must come first from the historical trajectory of Scripture, rather than from a protesting monk in 15th century Germany or from modern evangelicalism. And as we understand Scripture in its own historical framework, we shall build a more robust & healthy theology today.

      • Well said, CM.

        To broaden the statement a bit, we need to be aware always that the Old Testament prophets and Jesus each addressed their contemporaries directly, Jesus taking on the religious establishment in Jerusalem directly and attacking many of the cultural norms of the day directly (i.e., the Beatitudes). We read his words in Scripture and want to discern some meaning for ourselves so badly that we often lose sight of that fact to our disadvantage.

        Historic and cultural context is a starting point and then, as you state, we can look for those “broader implications” …and applications, too.

      • @CM….Don’t think I missed the mark in the way that you think I missed the mark! Totally “get” and agree with the message Jesus brought to His chosen Nation, and the history, both temporal and spiritual, that followed. What I take issue with [in Perriman] is his focus on parsing the historical and earthly part of the story of salvation that seems to end in 70 AD.. He seems to overlook the outreach to EACH HUMAN PERSON that Christ brought, by only reviewing the corporate Hebrew viewpoint…..groups don’t have relationships, or go to hell or heaven…..only people do.

        • Ah, but in the Jewish mind, groups do. In a sense.

          And in the Catholic mind: the Church is a corporate identity.

          The idea that individuals are autonomous and have true selves separate from the group is exceedingly contemporary.

  5. If one take the Martyrdom of Polycarp as accurate, it is hard to believe that he got the whole concept of heaven and hell wrong, even though he was associated with the Apostles:

    “Polycarp said: “The fire you threaten burns but an hour and is quenched after a little; for you do not know the fire of the coming judgment and everlasting punishment that is laid up for the impious. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.”

    • 2 things:

      -The fire in this quote refers to the judgment. In scripture, fire is usually connected to, and is a picture of, judgment, and also purification. Polycarp contrasts the “literal” fire that will be the means of his execution with something that may not be so “literal”.

      -The word translated “everlasting” or “eternal” also can mean “of (or unto) the age” – which age depends on where you’re “standing”. There is some discussion going on as to whether that word means “unceasing” or “appropriate to a particular time”.


  6. The Orthodox Church doesn’t have time to retrofit all of her hymnography to accomodate this Latest New Thing from the highly reactive Prot-sphere.

    Something tells me we don’t do reboots. There is a lot to be said for preterism, but the Orthodox Church sees the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD as an icon of the Final Day. Like Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.

    • I’d be careful not to dismiss New Perspective scholarship as faddish. It is gaining a lot of respect in all traditions. Some of the best RC commentaries I have reflect a narrative-historical perspective.

      • True about the RC commentaries, Chaplain Mike, but the Catholic church has an ancient tradition of interpretation that includes not just the literal, historical level — although that is foundational — but also the allegorical or typological. (Some ancient Jewish scholars, like Philo, also interpreted allegorically.) I’d be surprised to find a Catholic scholar who said you couldn’t interpret “according to theological or dogmatic categories” — but perhaps Perriman isn’t saying this either? There’s value in making sure your historical understanding is correct before making theological points. Still, I see a problem in Perriman’s exegetical technique — if I’m understanding correctly: as I said above, the Bible becomes a dead historical artifact and has little that applies to us today.

        As far as his points about heaven and hell, I think he has some insight. It’s more his exegetical method I wonder about.

    • Eastern Orthodoxy : Christianity = the Tea Party : the Republican Party

      (Pushing the boundary between reactionary conservatism and pure, unadulterated looniness)

      What’s the difference between Perriman’s “narrative-historical” approach and Spong’s “midrashic” one?

      • “Eastern Orthodoxy : Christianity = the Tea Party : the Republican Party”

        That’s about the rudest and most hateful statement I have read in a very long time.

        And no, I am not Eastern Orthodox (perhaps I should add “yet” — statements like yours drive me in that direction)

        How about:

        Eastern Orthodoxy : Christianity = the Founding Fathers : America

        Chew on that for a while, Wexel.

  7. Perhaps not fully in line with Perriman’s thesis, but this movie – available on Netflix Watch Instantly – is worth an hour and a half of your – or your church’s – viewing time: HELLBOUND?

    It’s somewhat in tune with Rob Bell’s LOVE WINS (and Bell is mentioned/featured).

  8. David Cornwell says

    Some quick thoughts, or maybe they’ve been rolling around for a while:

    I understand his perspective and the way he is approaching it, but it leaves a very uncomfortable feeling. Sort of like someone tells you an old trusted friend is a thief. He will inspire a host of foot-stomping preachers and give them new material!

    However I do like the narrative-historical approach– in general. Because it turns us back to the real story and away from the assumptions we have put together in propositional theology. Starting with the Story is a good idea, and we in our century need a new look it.

    But questions come to mind simply because of our context in history and in that story. How do we fit into it? How does God bring about judgement today, in history? I doubt that it is according to the gospel of Pat Robertson, unless he is, after all, a great prophet. In the United States we think the world revolves around us. If so, how will we be judged? Saved? Is it all personal, one by one, or is there a corporate side to it? Can we continue to ignore the “principalities and powers” of our own time? Will be ever be able to see through and the culture of fear and death we now project out into the world?

  9. Jesus spoke of hell, on more than one occasion, so that’s why we must not sugarcoat it…although it is NOT our message (Jesus is )…we must not fall prey to the temptation to ignore or water down the severity of being separated from God through our sin and unbelief.

    • Jesus spoke of hell, on more than one occasion, so that’s why we must not sugarcoat it…although it is NOT our message (Jesus is )…we must not fall prey to the temptation to ignore or water down the severity of being separated from God through our sin and unbelief.

      Jesus spoke of gehenna several times, and hades a couple times. “Hell” is not a Greek or Hebrew word:

      We must not overlook or ignore the Germanic or Norse associations with the word, nor the Zoroastrian influences upon intertestamental Judaism, which continue to affect popular and traditional Christian understandings of “hell.”

      • Thank you for saying this. I’m bored of having people tell me, Jesus spoke more about Hell than he did about Heaven, when He never ‘spoke of Hell,’ since the word Hell wasn’t invented until several long centuries later… (PLUS there’s more than one word that’s translated into English as hell…)

    • No sugarcoating or watering down. He believes in final judgment. And the temporal judgments were horrific.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Problem is, for some if it’s not “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” being THUNDERED from the pulpit with pointing finger, it’s “sugarcoated and watered-down”.

        Makes you wonder what some of these “Gospels” would do if they had to do without Eternal Hellfire and Damnation.

  10. While I am not convinced (at least at this point) by Perriman’s arguments concerning final judgment or hell, I do agree strongly that ‘the church has developed a bad habit of interpreting Scripture according to theological and dogmatic categories rather than understanding it in its historical and narrative context’. Having recently spent some time in a strongly Calvinist church I was troubled to no end (and finally moved on) by their insistence that Scripture was correctly interpretted by the Reformers (and their current heirs) and nothing new is to be learned from that troublesome historical context stuff (essentially the argument John Piper made against NT Wright in ‘The Future of Justification’ – reminded me of the ‘KJV only folks’, an ‘inspired and inerrant interpretation’). Any attempt to suggest that a better understanding of the first-century world might cause us to ‘refine’ (let alone, change) our traditional understanding of a passage was met with derision (well, almost) and an appeal to the Reformers, or Piper or Keller or Sproul or a host of (mostly) non-specialists in the area of biblical studies. I told a friend that this group places more emphasis on tradition than our Catholic friends (no offense to our Catholic friends, but the Reformed folks were certainly offended!).

  11. Patrick Kyle says

    I am always deeply suspicious when someone comes along and says “Though this appears to plainly say ‘ X ‘ it really means ‘ Y’. ( Especially when ‘Y ‘ means the opposite or substantially other than ‘ X ‘) I get that ‘I am being scammed by a used car salesman feeling.’

    Let’s see where this goes when other theologians and exegetes get a hold of it.

    • This is the constant struggle when it comes to tradition vs. newer readings. Perriman however is not trying to construct a new reading based on things having changed today, but because we have learned more about the past. I think if you look at his blog you will find a serious student, not anything like a used car salesman.

      • Patrick Kyle says

        These texts from thousands of years ago already have a couple thousand years of study and careful debate resulting in what we call the traditional interpretation. (or several traditional views depending on the passage) Color me unimpressed when some ‘new’ interpretation arrives on the scene claiming to upend the previous 2000 years of interpretation. To quote the post-modern philosopher Vincent Vega, “That’s a bold claim.” And it better have some dynamite proof and be able to soundly refute all challengers.

        You speak as though the traditional interpretation was recently pulled from our posteriors and ignorantly waved about. You assume the original cultural contexts have never been studied and addressed. Two more bold claims.

      • Patrick Kyle says

        CM, I read some of his blog and he is a ‘New Perspective’ guy all the way. He also REALLY dislikes justification by faith as rediscovered in the Reformation and Imputation. Another guy in an increasingly long line who tell us that more and more parts of the Scriptures ‘weren’t written to us’ and have application and value in a strictly ancillary or derivative way. So we can do away with Paul’s requirement that all Pastors must be men, and the Scriptural condemnation of various sins because these were cultural concessions on the part of the Apostles (and God too) Or worse, these were mistakes or ignorance on the part of the writers. These arguments are made even more problematic by their convenient embrace of and alignment with our modern cultural sensibilities. They might carry a little more weight if they went against the opinions of prevailing pop culture and media.

        CM, I really respect you and I still read the blog every day. However, I rarely comment anymore because I don’t think it is a good use of my time to debate an increasing number of commenters who pit the Scriptures against themselves, explain away ‘problematic’ passages that don’t conform to their cultural views, or worse yet, do away with the parts they don’t like.

        My conscience is bound by the entire Book, and by every word in it, whether I like them or not and it often appears that I am a member of a shrinking minority, at least in the comment threads here.

    • Let’s see where this goes when other theologians and exegetes get a hold of it.

      The book is nearly 2 years old (December 4, 2011) and is a collection of various posts from Andrew’s blog, so his claims/statements have likely already been commented on.

      From Amazon:

      Publication Date: December 4, 2011
      The debate about “hell” is always going to be a difficult one. A number of recent books, notably Rob Bell’s Love Wins, have added fuel to the flames. This collection of essays from addresses important aspects of the current debate, arguing for a radical revision of the evangelical understanding not only of hell but also of heaven on the basis of a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament. Punishment and reward are part of the story of what was happening to the people of God as it passed through a long and painful transition from national Israel under the Law to a cosmopolitan, empire-wide community under Jesus. This approach forces us to rethink some traditional assumptions about who we are and where we are going. Through his blogging and books Andrew Perriman is pushing for a renewal of evangelical thought and practice after modernity.

      • I think people like James Dunn, NT Wright, and others (Douglas Campbell at Duke?) are already offering thoughts quite similar to Perriman. That’s just a few more known names. I think Perriman takes things a bit further in his desire for a true historical-narrative reading of Scripture. So other theologians & exegetes are already engaging this way.

        Wait til you read his book on Romans (The Future of the People of God). Not your average reformed, evangelical commentary! I put up a book review here and I share many quotes from the book to give a taste.

      • Did that review just say that Rob Bell’s book “added fuel to the flames” of the debate on hell? Ha! I see what they did there.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      “I am always deeply suspicious when someone comes along and says “Though this appears to plainly say ‘ X ‘ it really means ‘ Y’.”

      I am always deeply suspicious when someone comes along and says “This text from thousands of years ago and a culture very different from yours and mine has a plain meaning.” It might be that the reading that seems plain to a 21st century American is also the plain meaning from the time and place it was written, but it could be wildly different. How would we know without a close study of the original cultural context?

      The great gift of the Reformation was that scripture is for everyone. They didn’t imagine that this was an easy gift. The Reformation was closely followed by the ideal of universal literacy, combined with great respect for scholarship. I love the observation that the first thing the puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony did as soon as they weren’t going to starve or freeze to death was to found Harvard. The fatal flaw of modern American Protestantism is the belief that scripture is for everyone, and that this is easy. Read a snippet, make a superficial impression of what it means, and go with that: Easy peasy.

  12. I think it’s important for folks like Perriman and others to question our understanding of scripture. I have always been troubled by how modern Evangelical Christianity packages everything is a way that is more like marketing and less like discipleship. We should always be looking for a better understanding and I fully agree that the context of the times, culture, experience of the writers of the Biblical books is important but oft ignored. I had the pleasure of a conversation with someone who would probably agree with Perriman and he brought to light the customs, linguistic nuance and symbolism of the samaritan story. It opened my eyes to what Jesus was trying to say on a deeper level than children’s Sunday school.
    The Bible, I believe, operates on two levels at all times… the real world and the spiritual world…the historic and the contemporary/future… the works of faith and consequence of evil….
    I would like to see more Christians engage in deeper studies of these issues. Great topic.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I think it’s important for folks like Perriman and others to question our understanding of scripture.

      In that respect, he’s following in the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus tended to question the understanding of Torah as applied in His place and time.

  13. If there is any take-home message I’m getting these days from the array of different interpretations on the Christian belief of what happens after we die it is the following:
    Perhaps aside from the Resurrection and some sort of Judgement by God, the rest remains vague, likely on purpose. While there is a hope for the future, our focus as those already citizens of the God’s Kingdom is to live as the image of Christ, both for ourselves and to the world. That statement encompasses a lot, but without getting into waters deeper than I am equipped to swim, or making this post tldr.
    I guess I’m learning to be OK with not having all of the details. I think I’ll just leave it at that.

  14. John Walton has a helpful phrase relating to preterist/contemporary interpretation and application: The Bible was written for us, but not to us. I have believed this for a long time (growing past my institutional American evangelical church upbringing, in part by reading people like NT Wright, Richard Bauckham and RT France), but couldn’t articulate it this clearly.

    • It is actually even a little more complicated than that. For example, in the teachings of Jesus, recorded in the gospels, we usually have 3 ‘horizons’ (as my pastor correctly likes to point out).

      The first horizon is what did Jesus mean in his context and how would his hearers have heard and understood it? This in itself is more often than not quite different from the typical ‘clear meaning’ kind of reading done by most people. For example, ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [justice]’ would probably mean something much different to Jews living under Roman oppression longing for God’s justice to be done than it does for someone today – who usually understands it to be a desire to be more like Jesus.

      The second horizon is ‘what is the author trying to say to HIS original audience?’ For example, Mark was probably written to the church at Rome around the time persecutions under Nero were beginning. Mark takes Jesus’ words and teachings and ‘re-applies’ them to the context and situation of his readers (that ‘take up your cross’ thing probably had real, perhaps literal, meaning to them).

      The third horizon is ‘what application does this have for me and contemporary Christians?’ Unfortunately that is where most readers begin, but beginning at the end usually gets it wrong. We must understand the first two horizons before we can correctly understand what God is saying to us today.

      Even in the epistles we have two horizons – the original audience (what was, say, Paul, saying to them) and ours (what does this mean, or what principles does this teach, for me and Christians today?).

      As Walton says, it was written for us, but not to us. (Another Walton quote I like is ‘The Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their “scientific” understanding of the cosmos. . . . they thought about the cosmos in much the same way that anyone else in the ancient world thought, and not at all like anyone thinks today. And God did not think it important to revise their thinking.’ But that’s another topic.)

      • “It is actually even a little more complicated than that.”

        Or not. It depends on how narrow or broad we wish to make the categories. Walton is not reaching for detail, but a generally helpful paradigm.

    • Interesting. I thought that I was the only one who used the phrase “The bible is written for; us not to us.” That has pretty much become the way I look at scripture over the last 5 years or so.

  15. To what end?

    What’s his purpose in this ‘new’ take on it?

  16. If there is not a Hell, there are major implications to the nature of the Gospel. I’ve never been a fan of “turn or burn,” but at the same time, if the wrath of God is nothing to be afraid of, how is the death of Christ of priceless benefit?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Most likely there is “a Hell”, but our tradition has garbled some details and elaborated on others, and speculated elaborate details where none were originally available. Kind of like the Victorian convention of “Speculative History” where no real facts were available.

      As pointed out above, “Perhaps aside from the Resurrection and some sort of Judgment by God, the rest remains vague, likely on purpose.”

    • Miguel, he believes in a final judgment.

      • Right. …but are there consequences of this judgement? Is he arguing for annihilationism? As much as I don’t want Dante’s Inferno to be an essential part of the Gospel proclamation, especially considering it didn’t receive much press in the ecumenical creeds, being condemned at the final judgement cannot be much of a happy thing. I am leery of any view on hell that leads its adherents to try “scaring people into faith.” At the same time, I’m also skeptical of any view of the afterlife that relegates having faith in this life to anything less than absolutely crucial and eternally significant.

        I think Perriman’s thoughts are interesting and worth contemplating, but I just wanted to point out the implications of this issue run deep, and are intrinsically connected to many other areas of doctrine and dogma. It’s hard to draw stark lines around what the Scriptures spend so little time on, but it seems the extremes are well worth avoiding.

        • As I said in the post, he sees the final fate of those whom God judges as “death” or “destruction,” not eternal conscious punishment.

        • I’m not so fussed about people presenting Dante’s Inferno as long as they don’t leave out Dante’s Purgatorio and Dante’s Paradiso (or read any of them as a literal tour of these places). Why the Inferno is the most famous in popular culture I’ll never understand, not least because popular culture doesn’t follow any of the tropes from Inferno- eg. you’ll be hard pressed to find a depiction of Hell where the centre of it is all ice, or where Satan is its prisoner rather than its overseer. But the Purgatorio has given me some of the most spiritual nourishment I’ve gotten from a work of fiction, and the Paradiso is utterly sublime. There is more Gospel in there than you might expect. If only, when preachers did preach Heaven and Hell, they preached it like Dante.

    • If “heaven” and “hell” are eternal resting places and not, à la Rod Serling, states/dimensions of mind, it’s odd that during the ~40 days after his resurrection when he conversed with the disciples about the Kingdom of God Jesus didn’t give them any more or clearer information about “heaven” and “hell” being the destinations of the departed than what we have ascribed to him in the Gospels, and much of that is parabolic. Did the disciples not ask him? Were they forbidden to pass along what he might have told them more clearly about “heaven” and “hell” and what happens to a person post mortem? Was there some other reason we hear nothing or little about “heaven” and “hell” in Acts and the Epistles?

      Yes, there’s Revelation, but I think that’s a shaky choice to derive real descriptions of “heaven” and “hell” from since its prophecy was given in symbols. (Let alone the fact that its repeated statements that Jesus was coming soon seem to have been wrong.)

      • I find it exceptionally odd the whole diversity of things Christ didn’t bother mentioning to his disciples, or at least, they didn’t bother writing down. If I had been God incarnate, I think I’d of left behind some sort of systematic theology just to keep people from arguing for the next 2000 years. But I guess that’s Jesus for you. Sometimes I wonder if he even sadistically relishes the plurality of Scriptural interpretation that rose from the same texts and the frustration experienced by those trying to understand it rightly.

        I agree that the Scriptures aren’t as clear cut on hell as turn-or-burn fundamentalism would like it to be (or Evangelism Explosion, for that matter…), which is why I prefer to argue an understanding of it from systematic theology, since it affects so many other categories. Personally, I am perfectly fine with annihilationism, but I’m not entirely confident it’s exactly what Christ and the Apostles meant to communicate. Either way, death outside of Christ is bad, even if we’re not sure on the specifics of why. Perhaps the vagueness was meant to prevent us from writing novels of graphic descriptions of excruciating affliction aimed at psychologically manipulating the masses into cooperation with religious institutions. …except that that didn’t work either.

  17. Miguel, the death of Christ must be linked with the Resurrection – “the Passion” as we say in EO. The death of Christ is seen as the utmost expression of the love and forgiveness and humility of God; the way Christ “takes away our sin” by being united with humanity – and thus joined to all of who we are, yet himself without sin – and takes it into death, where it is no more; and the way he destroys death by actually entering into it and then arising bodily out of it. Without the Resurrection, the death of Christ would at best be the tragic politically-driven death of another good man.

    EOrthodox do not hold to the view that the Father is pouring out wrath up on the Son – else the purposes and the internal love of the Trinity would be divided. We don’t believe that we can offend God; he always loves us and has already forgiven us and is compassionate toward us, and that is what the Cross displays. It is on the Cross that Christ has come into his Kingdom in humility and love. What it means to be truly human is revealed through the crucifixion of God. In the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Christ, humans are freed from the slavery of sin that arises because of our fear of death – it’s all there in Heb 2.14-15. (The Incarnation and its meaning for humanity is pretty much missing from the theology of Protestantism.) Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. In the Passion of Christ, the love of God is displayed and humans are set free from death. Fr Stephen Freeman’s post on why Christ had to die explains this, better than I can:

    Not to forget Athanasius, “On the Incarnation.” Athanasius talks about why Christ had to die, and why it had to be a public death.


    • I agree, the Resurrection is essential. But it was His death that, even in a Christus Victor paradigm, removed the sin of the world. I understand EO reject penal sub, but there are too many scriptures left unexplained without it, for me, even if CV is the more important truth. The thing is, even if we don’t want a schizophrenic Trinity, we still need a Godhead that hates evil. If, on the cross, the Father did NOT pour out his wrath on the Son, at the very least, he could still pour out his wrath on the sin that His Son bore. It’s hard to reconcile a God who can’t be offended by sin with one who floods the earth or causes it to open up and swallow people. Granted, the cross seems to present us an entirely different mentality, but we can’t just pit the compassion of God against his righteous anger. They must both be true, even if compassion ultimately triumphs for the faithful.

      • Yes, his death removed the sin from the world, but not because of God pouring down wrath. Glad to know that CV is important to you. I would see it as a Godhead that deals with and judges evil and at the same time is working to bring all to healing; as it says in the Liturgy, “You brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. *You did not cease doing everything* until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come.” The verb tense indicates it is a done deal. EO (and NT Wright as well) explains scripture very well without penal sub. It’s all a matter of interpretation. EO reads and interprets all of the OT through the lens of Christ’s Passion; there’s no pitting the compassion of God against his “righteous anger.” Best I’ve ever read on that is Fr Stephen Freeman; search his blog for the post “Justice Enough” and read the current entry, “Wrath”.

        Whatever the Holy Spirit caused to be recorded in the OT, and whatever motive the Jewish authors (historians and commenters on their own history) ascribed to God, the EO view is that Jesus died for it all and redeemed all who sinned in those days as well. The Cross was about that, too; it spans the ages.


    • Excellent, Dana!

  18. “History” is not a stable project. Of course, there is what really happened, but most of that is inaccessible to historical investigation. What is accessible is open to enormously variant interpretations, and the interpretations do not stand still; they morph and change, and are heavily reliant on perspective and presuppositions. Because historical evidence is sparse and not self-interpretating, and requires a lot of input from historians to form a picture that makes any sens.

    And history is incapable, of course, of telling us anything about metaphysical realities. It’s one thing to say that you do not believe, based on your historical reconstruction, that there is warrant in Scripture for belief in an intermediate state; history, however, does not give us information about the relationship of time and eternity. Combine that fact with the possibility that those who occupied the original context from which Scripture was written and produced may not have known all the meaning that Scripture was inspired to have, that some of that meaning may have been seen only by later generations and across the centuries, even if not seen by the transmitters of the oral traditions and the writers themselves, and the historical approach to re-interpreting Scripture becomes seriously compromised and relativized.

    Scriptural scholar Luke Timothy Johnson rejects out of hand the idea that the earliest is automatically the most authentic or truest, particularly in matters of faith. He asserts that historical research has a very limited value in determining the best interpretation of Scripture both because of the limited access that the tools of scholarship have to the actual content of what happened in the past, and more importantly because in religious matters, the earliest is not necessarily the truest or most authoritative.

    • It is true that historical investigation has limits (such as incomplete information, bias of the sources, and bias of the historian) but that does not mean there is no value (or necessity) to interpret Scripture in light of the historical context of the events, the authors, and the original readers. We might not be able to historically prove the resurrection, and it is true that what those living in the first century (for example) believed about a passage may or may not be its true meaning, but we certainly can gain much from understanding the world in which they lived, their worldview, their ‘issues’ and concerns, and how they understood Jesus (or Paul, for that matter).

      To use one of my favorite examples, we read ‘faith’ and think of trust or belief (and from the Reformation tradition, completely trusting in Jesus’ death for our sins and nothing else, and so on). However that word is the same Greek word used for ‘faithfulness’ (and the Hebrew is similar). In the first century, it is much more likely that Paul’s readers would have understood that term in light of patron-client relationships (see ‘Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity’ by David deSilva) and in that context (their everyday world) it had much stronger implications on the ‘faithfulness’ side. When a patron extended a benefaction (‘grace’, charis) to a client, often through the brokerage of a ‘mediator’ (Greek ‘paracletos’), the response expected of the client was to publicly praise the patron for his ‘grace’ and to commit oneself to that person (Latin, ‘fides’, Greek ‘pistis’ – faith!). Understanding how Paul’s original readers would likely have understood how he used those terms (with which they were very familiar – patron/client relationships formed the structure of Roman society) certainly has implications for how we understand ‘faith’ in Jesus. It is much more likely Paul’s readers would have understood their relationship with Jesus in terms of commitment and faithfulness rather than simply trust in his death and not their own goodness. That is not to deny that ‘faith’ includes the element of trust, and we are saved by grace, but it does bring out an element that is often lost (or even denied) because we read Scripture in light of the issues of the sixteenth century rather than the first.

      • Yes, I overstated Johnson’s position. Perhaps I’m guilty of using what I know of Johnson’s position to advance my own agenda. Using whatever tools we have at hand to understand the texts in their original setting has value, and I don’t mean to deny that. But from what I know of it, there are significant disputes within the scholarly community about the specifics of the original context and what they mean. Responsible historians disagree about many things.

        If the meaning of Scripture for me depends on knowing which historical reconstruction is the correct one, then I’m way out of my depth, and might as well become a Quaker, because though I may be able to know what the Inner Light is, I will never have the credentials to know which historical reconstruction is the correct one.

        I take for granted that if I approach the Scriptures from within the believing community where I’m placed, using the rule of faith that community has acquired, I can know Jesus Christ and be caught up in the life of God despite the fact that I’m not a scholar, and neither are most of the people in community with me.

        The idea that I need to depend on the contentious community of scholars to have adequate truthful knowledge of the Scriptures and God fills me with despair; in that case, I’d as soon give Scripture back to the priests and seal it up in a language unknown to me.

        • Robert, I agree. Biblical scholarship is always evolving, but, as in many other areas, we are blessed (and sometimes it seems, cursed) to live in a time when God has made available so much information that simply wasn’t available to scholars even a generation ago (e.g. the Dead Sea scrolls, the contributions of linguistics to the original languages, computer databases of vast libraries of ancient Greek and Latin literature). The downside to all that newly available information and education is that (it seems to me) there are simply too many Ph.D. candidates trying to come up with original ideas for theses, so some things that are pretty far out there get proposed, and approved. Usually the guild of scholars either embraces or rejects those ideas pretty quickly. But, you are correct that it is very confusing and knowing what to believe is difficult (the present iMonk topic is a pertinent example), and it would be nice if we could just read the Bible and the Holy Spirit make it clear. Unfortunately, given the many conflicting interpretations of passages by sincere believers (not to mention the multitude of denominations with a slightly different doctrinal twist) it seems it just isn’t that simple (perhaps the Quakers do have it right – they’d probably be the only ones!).

          But I am also reminded that Paul says (in Eph. 4) that God has ‘given’ some as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (or perhaps pastor/teacher) to equip the saints. Most scholars (of which I am not) see their calling as helping the church (usually through teaching the pastors) understand God’s word more clearly. I believe that is a valid calling, and is Paul’s model for ‘equipping ministry’ and is how God intends to reveal his truth to, and through, that believing community. In the Reformation tradition we have taken the idea that everyone can read the Scriptures for themselves and understand it (the doctrine of perpescuity [sp?], perhaps distorted) to mean that anyone’s interpretation is as good as anyone elses. I agree that scholarship is always evolving and new ideas sometimes come and go, but we have to believe that there is actually a true and correct interpretation of Scripture, even if we can never be sure we have it. If not, we would all be in despair (or simply start another denomination 🙂 ). Blessings.

          • Gregg, I guess I’ve reached a place in my life where getting it right doesn’t seem as important as trusting that, however I may mangle things, and perhaps more importantly, however badly the church(es) as interpretative community(ies) may mangle things, God’s reconciling love in Jesus Christ, in the Crucified and Risen One, is powerful and graceful enough to sweep us up into his will in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.

            If such an attitude tilts toward a universalism, so be it. Hell has always seemed like a problematic plank in the body of Christian doctrine to me, and I’ve tended to have great sympathy for Nietzsche’s analysis of it as resentment writ large on a cosmic screen; but I’ve had to contend with the fact that no figure in the Bible referred more to Hell (whatever Greek word is actually used) than Jesus himself.

            For this reason you might think that I would welcome Perriman’s re-interpretation. The problem is that, besides the fact that I believe I’ve come across at least some of his ideas in much older sources (sorry, I can’t give you citations), so they’re not entirely new to me, I find his ideas just too congenial to my wishes about Hell not being what the traditional definitions have said it is, and my wishes that Jesus did not have in mind the same thing that those doctrinal definitions did when he referred to Hell. Too good to be true, I think to myself; too much what I want rather than what is, I worry.

            So, for these reasons, which may largely be driven by my psychology rather than the facts, I remain unconvinced by Perriman’s arguments, insofar as I know them. And I continue to exist uncomfortably as a near universalist whose faith is in a Lord who didn’t mind liberally throwing around the threat of Hell.


        • “The idea that I need to depend on the contentious community of scholars to have adequate truthful knowledge of the Scriptures and God fills me with despair.”

          Welcome to Colossae.

  19. I think that perhaps you overstate Johnson’s position. I have read or referenced a fair amount of Johnson’s work, and he is thoroughly committed to the notion that one cannot interpret Scripture except in light of its historical context. In fact, in the short ‘Four Views on the Apostle Paul’ (one of the Counterpoints series) Tom Schreiner criticizes Johnson specifically because ‘the focus on Paul’s social location and history, which is the standpoint Johnson adopts, has some liabilities. In particular, the theological richness and profundity of Paul’s thought are not explored in the same depth that we find in the history of the church.’ Schreiner appears to be arguing your position against that of Johnson.

  20. I find Perriman’s work fascinating. I really appreciate his attempts to take the historical context of scripture seriously. However, sometime he does give cause for concern as occasionally he comes across as implying Jesus is really not central for the people of God in the post-Christendom age that we live in.

  21. I find it fascinating that quite a lot of people here are apparently rejecting the idea that Jesus could have been referring to impending temporal, collective judgement, when the Old Testament is jam-packed with the stuff.

    Arthur Katz’s book “The Holocaust: Where Was God?” suggests that God is still operating that way (with the Jews at least). It’s a horrifying thought, but it is internally coherent.

    • Isn’t such an understanding of judgement alarmingly close to, even overlapping with, the idea that the Jews deserve to be punished for the death of Christ, an idea that has been used down through the centuries to justify their persecution by Christians?

      • The same (Jewish) Art Katz once asked Elie Weisel about whether his Torah studies had caused him to connect the Holocaust and Jewish suffering through the ages with the curses and judgments of Leviticus 26:14ff. and Deuteronomy 29:15ff. (I guess related to Deuteronomy 18:18-19 (see Acts 3:22-23)). Katz said that Weisel’s response was something to the effect: “I cannot and will not consider that.” The story is told in Katz’ book REALITY: THE HOPE OF GLORY. I hope I recounted it correctly. You can probably find the story if you google for it.

        I used to attend Art’s meetings when we both lived in Kansas City, and saw him after we moved to Texas a couple times after that.

  22. It’s one thing for Jewish scholars to consider these things; it’s another for Christians, whose histories and churches have too often been red with the blood of Jewish scapegoats.

  23. Yes, I did know that Katz is Jewish.

  24. I generally agree with this more temporal view of “hell” and judgement and lean towards a historical/preterist-ish view of the last things. I find the problem on the other end of things though.

    I can see how the judgement spoken may have happened in history, but I cannot see how the blessings have. The world and the church both still kinda suck. Even when little boys aren’t being raped by the various clergies, we seem to see only the occasional glimmer of life or love within the church.