Saturday, September 9, 2017

Did Jesus believe in the Christian Hell?

Some months while waiting in the gym for Herself to finish exercising, a stranger sat down across from me and asked if I was I. I confessed that I was; he asked, "Do you believe in Hell?" I allowed that I did not.1 The brief discussion that followed was awkward. At the end he thanked me for forthrightly answering his questions, and left. I have seen him around the gym from time to time and our exchanges were superficial but always polite. Again a few days ago in the locker room he renewed the discussion: "I believe you told me you did not believe in Hell," he said. "What is your evidence?" I replied that it was by observation; I found no evidence for it. He said "I thought so." I asked, what is your evidence that Hell exists? He replied: "the Son of God"—I took his answer to mean that according to the Son of God (Jesus) in the Bible, there is such a place, and hence I replied "the Bible is a human book. We can talk about it sometime, but it will take longer than three minutes." "Have a nice swim," he said, and we parted—me to the pool and him to the bike.
            I previously published a blog entitled "Did Jesus believe in the Christian Heaven?"2 but neglected to address Jesus' beliefs about the Christian Hell. That impossible-to-answer question runs headlong into the classic contradictions between Jesus as represented in the synoptic gospels and Jesus as represented in the Gospel of John.3 There is no mention of Hell (hades) or Gehenna (geenna) in the Gospel of John, although the synoptic Jesus (Q, Matthew, and Luke) is represented as believing in Hell.4 Of course we don't know what was in his head (nobody can read minds). We only know that statements about Hell are attributed to Jesus in the synoptic texts.
            For me the most interesting of the sayings on Gehenna is Luke 16:23, which appears in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-26). The Jesus Seminar voted that this story did not originate with Jesus. They further voted that it had been augmented by an early Christian reference to the resurrection of Jesus (Luke 16:27-31).5 If someone decided that the story did come from Jesus, however, they would still be confronted by the fact that the Gospel of John mentions neither Hades nor Gehenna, and on this question one is forced to choose between John and the synoptic.
            There is no future fiery place of punishment recorded in John's gospel! There are hints that there will be a judgment of some kind (3:16-19; 5:24-29; 9:30), but such judgment is not overtly described. In fact judging from these "hints," judgment may not even be eschatological but rather existential. The most interesting "hint" is the description of Judas as "the son of perdition" (17:12; compare 2 Thess 2:3; Acts 8:20; 2 Pet 3:16; Phil 3:19; Isa 57:4 LXX), but the nature of the "destruction" (ἀπώλεια, apōleia) is unclear.
            One must remember, however, that John is not writing history but rather writing theology, and may not even know the difference between these two different writing styles,6 which means John is completely unreliable as a historical source. But that must not be construed as a vote for Mark's representation of Jesus as the "historical" default—for Mark's gospel is also seriously flawed as historical report.7 Also It must always be remembered that "the son of God" is not an actual historical figure, but rather a construct of early Christian faith based on the largely unknown historical figure, Jesus of Judea.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "Hell does not Exist," August 29, 2015.
2Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, May 10, 2017.
3See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "The Gospel of John, a Revisionist Gospel?" Dec 6, 2012.
4Hades (Q = Luke 10:15 = Matthew 11:23; Matthew 16:18; Luke 16:23); Gehenna (Q = Luke 12:5 = Matt 10:28; Matthew 5:22, 29, 23:15; Mark 9:43 = Matt5:30, Mark 9:47 = Matt 18:19).
5Funk and Hoover, Five Gospels, 361-62.
6See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "Does John Know the Difference between History and Faith?" (September 21, 2015).
7See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "History, Historical Narrative and Mark's Gospel" (December 22, 2013); and "The Problem of History in Mark" (October 1, 2016).

Saturday, August 26, 2017


This essay appeared on September 3, 2017 on page I12 of the Springfield News-Leader under the News-leader’s title “A New Narrative is needed on Confederate Statues."

The recent racist demonstrations in Charlottesville and the ensuing riots are a graphic reminder that all Americans do not share the same values, or the same national story. There are many narratives that Americans have adopted to explain themselves—two conflicting views were in evidence at Charlottesville, revealed by the images streaming from our television sets. Elements of the Alt Right, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Neo-Nazis held a demonstration around Civil War Monuments in Charlottesville celebrating White Power and vilifying African Americans, Jews, and any others they held to be different from themselves. As a result there has been a backlash against civil war monuments. Some have been torn down and others removed. There have been cries to put them all in museums—"get rid of them" seems to be the sentiment of a vocal part of our countrymen.
            I am a son of the post-reconstruction South, born in Louisiana, reared and educated in the segregated public school system of Greenville, Mississippi (1940-52). I do not recall ever having seen a civil war monument during my early youth, although I must have seen a few. At least I can say for certain that in my education the War of Rebellion and its leaders were never extolled or held up for special honor. The "stars and bars" as the confederate battle flag is called was, and still is ubiquitous throughout the south, but in Greenville it was never displayed in public buildings or functions. Online I discovered that Greenville has one civil war monument at the Washington County Courthouse, erected in 1909 by the Private Taylor Rucks Chapter Daughters of the Confederacy "To Commemorate the Valor and Patriotism of the Confederate Soldiers of Washington County 1861-1865." The statue itself presents a single common soldier of the line. On the four faces at the base are statements by Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Randolph H. M'Kim, and Charles B. Galloway. Except for the statement by Jefferson Davis (who mentions "the sacred cause of states' rights"), the others do not specifically relate to the war, and in themselves might be judged inspiring.
A 2017 study reported that at least 1503 symbols of the confederacy can be found in public spaces across the United States. These memorials include monuments and statues; flags; holidays and other observances; and the names of schools, roads, parks, bridges, counties, cities, lakes, dams, military bases, and other public works.1
We cannot ease or erase our national shame for having accepted and tolerated slavery as a convenient solution to economic problems (even as early as our colonial period) by eradicating vestiges of the War of Rebellion. Such symbols are part of our history as a people, whatever the reason they were erected. What is needed is a new narrative that puts these symbols into national, rather than regional perspective, so that there is a more compelling narrative that completely disallows racist rhetoric and ideology. These surviving vestiges of the civil war are like the "stones" the Israelites erected after crossing over the Jordan. The stones were to remain a memorial so that "when your children ask in time to come 'What do these stones mean to you?' You shall tell them…"  (Joshua 4:1-24). In my view, the monuments should remain in place and not be hidden away, but rather officially placed in perspective as symbols of a flawed cause, misplaced loyalties, and the enslavement of human beings. We must not be allowed to forget.
            Any cause that calls one to bigotry, racial hatred, the disparagement and inhumane treatment of others, and/or aims to romanticize or otherwise misstate the national significance of the War of Rebellion by appealing to these vestiges of the war deserves to be condemned.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University