Just What Siddhartha Wanted

I am glad that Andrew Perriman thinks I am genial fellow, which is a trait that really ought to be cultivated more, as I believe, in most discussions of everlasting damnation. And I am happy for the opportunity to interact a bit with Andrew’s response to my Hell and Hellenism post.

Just a few comments before getting into the back and forth. This will enable visitors who are here only because of the interaction with Andrew to get oriented a bit more quickly. First, I am broad enough to appreciate N.T. Wright, and enough of a fundamentalist to be annoyed by him. Second, I am leery, right up front, of any system of reading Scripture that winds up equating Christian damnation with Buddhist salvation. If we are warning people with what they are yearning for, I think there has been a breakdown somewhere. And third, although I am a robust Protestant, I read a little bit of Dante every week, which helps keep me centered.

I won’t be able to chase every point that Andrew made, time being what it is, but let me make just a few representative points.

“Yes, the New Testament was written in Greek, but nearly all the literary trails lead back to the Old Testament, not to the Aeneid or Plato.”

This is not an either/or thing. Of course the New Testament is saturated in Old Testament themes, motifs, allusions, quotations, and so on. And if you are an Old Testament scholar, you might be tempted to think that this is all that is going on. But if you are acquainted with classical literature, you will discover that there is a lot of that too. Which leads to the next point . . .

“What did the translators of the Septuagint think they were doing when they used ‘Hades’ for ‘Sheol’?

Well, they were doing what translators always do — choosing words that they believed had the same approximate lexical range. I am happy with the word “approximate,” and I try not to be a fusser. But Sheol and Hades are both places where shades congregate, and it isn’t the graveyard. Samuel came up out of the earth, which would have been Sheol (1 Sam. 28:13-14), and nobody thinks that the witch of Endor had set up shop at Samuel’s actual tomb. In Jonah 2:1-2, Jonah cried from the depths of Sheol, which was at least deep in the ocean (although I believe that Jonah had actually died and gone to Sheol, and was revived by the Lord in the belly of the fish so that he could then pray). Odysseus summons the shades (analogous to what happened to Samuel at Endor, with the dead coming to the living), while Aeneas goes down to Hades (the living coming to the dead). But nobody is going to a grave site.

So the concepts of Sheol and Hades are close enough for the one term to be used for the other, and without a need for redefinition. It is part of my argument that no such redefinitions are offered in the New Testament. (“Now when we say Hades, do not think . . .”)

“Did God cut off and destroy branches from the sick Jewish olive tree in order that he could graft in some healthy Greek concepts? Really!”

No, not really, but yes, kind of. I wouldn’t say “healthy Greek concepts,” but rather wild olive branches. God cut off centuries of Hebraic cultivation that had gotten diseased, and grafted in some wild Greek notions to give the history of Western thought that extra tang (“Darn! Plato again!”). There is no disputing that the substitution of these wild branches for the cultivated branches constituted, at least in the mind of the gardener, an improvement.

“Sadly, Wilson does not consider the argument that Jesus’ use of ‘Gehenna’ sits neatly on a line that can be drawn between Jeremiah’s warning that when Jerusalem comes under attack from the Chaldeans the dead will be cast into the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom (ie. Gehenna) and Josephus’ account of the dead being thrown into the valleys during the Roman siege.”


The fulfillment of Jeremiah’s warning in the destruction of Jerusalem is something I am happy to acknowledge. I don’t need to be talked into this — Gehenna got its name from the Valley of Ben Hinnom, absolutely. What I am not happy to do is consider the subject or the metaphor exhausted. It is very clear that the language of the worm not dying and the fire not being quenched is a metaphor taken straight from Jerusalem’s land fill (Is. 66:24). No question. But why would this not be an appropriate metaphor to warn every man about what was going to happen to him? Note that I am not arguing against the Jerusalem applications. My point is that Jerusalem went down, and yet we still have sinners running around who need to be told to knock it off. Our message needs to include the fear of God . . . and I am sorry, but the bliss of Nirvana isn’t scary.

“Wilson blithely asserts that the “Jewish name for Elysium was Abraham’s bosom, or Paradise”. Where is the evidence for that?”

This is my “quacks like a duck” argument. Hades had two compartments, Tartarus and Elysium. The New Testament uses the names of two of these three, and I infer the third by good and imaginative consequence. For example, the Bible never calls the Church the new Eve, but the new Adam has a bride, who must therefore be a new Eve — and who is the mother of all the living, or the mother of us all. In short, if there is a scriptural category for New York City, there is quite likely a scriptural category for Queens.

Jesus said He was going to the heart of the earth like Jonah did, and Jonah went down to Sheol, which was in the heart of the earth, and which the New Testament calls Hades, and Jesus told the thief on the cross that He was going to Paradise, and the only subterranean place that could remotely be thought of as a kind of Paradise would be Elysium. See, I am not crazy, though it sometimes looks that way initially.

[Regarding 1 Peter 3:19-20] “Tradition has simply got this wrong. Peter is speaking figuratively of Jesus’ preaching to Israel in the same Spirit by which he was raised from the dead, at a time when the nation faced its own flood.”

But in order to take this as a figurative metaphor, we have to disregard certain things that Peter actually claims. Peter claims that Jesus preached, not to first century Jews facing their own flood, but rather to the spirits who had been disobedient “in the days of Noah.” There is no question but that the destruction of Jerusalem was analogous, a point Jesus makes elsewhere (Luke 17:26). But Peter says that Jesus preached to antediluvians.

“‘Tartarus’ in 2 Peter 2:4 is certainly a Hellenistic sojourner in the conceptual world of Judaism, though presumably it arrived by way of Hellenistic-Jewish apocalypticism.”

No problem. I don’t believe that the world of the Jews and the classical world were hermetically sealed off from each other. There was a lot of cross-pollination, which is a central part of my point. And if you are well read in classical literature and philosophy, you will soon discover there are a lot of hmmm moments.

“But the paradigm remains intact: the dead are in Sheol or Hades, conceived conventionally as a place of shadows, of negligible existence, not of torment.”

Except that Jesus conceives of at least one part of Hades as a place of torment, in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Even if we are talking metaphor, or “just” a parable, it is still the case that Hades > torment.

“Gehenna in Jesus’ usage is a metonymy for God’s judgment on Jerusalem; the wages of sin is death; resurrection is from the dead, ultimately either to the life of God’s new creation or to a final destruction in the lake of fire.”

I simply don’t think this fits with all the data. When Jesus warns that it would be better to lose a hand than to go with two hands into gehenna, He describes it with an appositive, “the unquenchable fire” (asbeston pur). Every judgment in history is a type of every other divine judgment in history, of course, including Sodom as a warning to Jerusalem. But Sodom and Jerusalem together are a warning to every man.

“And after certain days, when Felix came with his wife Drusilla, which was a Jewess, he sent for Paul, and heard him concerning the faith in Christ. And as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee” (Acts 24:24-25).

When Paul warned Felix of the “judgment to come,” if he had been warning about what was coming up for Jerusalem, Felix ought not to have trembled at all. First, he was a Roman, and they were going to win that one. And second, if it were that kind of temporal judgment, he could always inquire carefully about the times, like Herod did with the wise men, and put in a duty request to be transfered to Spain.

We are talking about the afterlife, and so it is good to be cautious. I don’t want to over-specify, and on a topic like this I certainly don’t want to go beyond what is written. But I feel confident in saying that there is a resurrection of the unjust (Acts 24:15), and that this is not a prelude to them receiving just what Siddhartha wanted.

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