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I was asked to speak briefly on these issues to a group of Christians following a Wednesday evening meal at the Oliver Creek Church of Christ, in Arlington, TN.
It is VERY informal and brief. These comments are certainly not polished or extensive. There has been more interest in the topic of Hell in recent years due to the publications of Rob Bell (aka No Hell Bell) and Edward Fudge (aka Fudging on Hell). My comments should not stir the controversy that either of these authors has.
Thanks to Oliver Creek congregation for making this audio available.
This audio recording begins a few minutes into my presentation [mea culpa].
The history of Israel, documented by both the prophetic and narrative texts, leaves little doubt that assimilation to the surrounding idolatrous values and culture was an easy path for most of God’s people. If Jesus’ own perceptions are to be trusted, and they are, then he also detected the almost inevitability of this when he stated, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:13-14). John the prophet also witnessed the assimilation to non-Christian beliefs and lifestyle by numerous Christians among the seven congregations in Roman Asia.
John used the two monikers of Balaam (Rev. 2:14) and Jezebel (Rev. 2:20) to highlight this fatal attraction to Hellenistic-Roman culture among some of the congregations he addressed in the book of Revelation. The prophet might have chosen these particular male and female examples of assimilation to give some gender balance to these prophecies, but in my judgment there is a more likely explanation.
John’s own prophetic piety and anti-assimilationist theology was rooted in the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, and he saw, like Paul had earlier seen (1 Cor. 10:1-13), that the church’s departure from biblical faith was on a trajectory begun in the apostasy of Israel. Accordingly, it would benefit us to look at an instructive dialogue between Jeremiah and some Israelite assimilationists of his day. Here is the heart of the text (Jer. 44:15-19):
- Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD! We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.” And the women said, “Indeed we will go on making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her; do you think that we made cakes for her, marked with her image, and poured out libations to her without our husbands’ being involved?”
We clearly see that large numbers of God’s people are enchanted by the prospect of the benefits of departure from biblical faith. There are, admittedly, examples of a handful of assimilationists at times in Scripture, but it is remarkable how many times in Scripture the number of those who are willing to forsake God’s ways are quite large. In this episode Jeremiah is reporting on the Israelites who fled Jerusalem to Egypt to avoid Babylonian capture or destruction. Basically they fled to avoid God’s promised discipline and, therefore, hope of future redemption. This “large assembly” consisted of husbands and wives and “all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt.” Accordingly, one should not be shocked at the great number who prefer idolatry to faithfulness.
A second salient point on this trajectory is the bluntness of their acknowledgment of and commitment to assimilation. Their candor is shocking, “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD!” In fact, some of the woman leaders later pronounced, “Indeed we will go on making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her.” The prophetess Jezebel at Thyatira (Rev. 2:21) appears to be using the same playbook as these earlier Israelite women in Egypt, for Jesus had given Jezebel of Thyatira “time to repent, but she refused to repent.” Repentance is rare from a person whose heart is so defiantly rebellious.
A final similarity between the assimilationists in John’s congregations and those whom Jeremiah confronted was their preoccupation with the external benefits of religion. Somewhere in the history of Israel many of God’s people began to forget the ultimate focus of their faith. They abandoned a desire to love God and began to love the promised benefits of their relationship with God. Once they surrendered to a quid pro quo religion, where benefits became the pinnacle of religious desire, then getting into bed with another “god” who seemingly offered better benefits became rather easy. As these opponents of Jeremiah stated without a blush about their previous devotion to pagan deities, “At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing.”
If modern Christians worry about assimilation and seeing churches, like Laodicea, who have not yet let Jesus in the door, they should listen to John the prophet. John’s prophetic words offer both guidance and encouragement in many areas. One very important facet of John’s theology is his commitment to seeing this issue of assimilation in his own congregations as located on a trajectory revealed by the Hebrew prophets and continuing into his own world.
Thoughts about this video?
I have pointed out earlier in this blog and now in my recent commentary (Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible) that many Graeco-Roman pagans also believed in postmortem punishment in the afterlife. You might not be aware, however, that they actually believed they had discovered some of the entrance portals to Hell, Hades, and the underworld where one encountered smoky streams and lakes of fire and sulfur. Think of the science fiction TV series Stargate SG-1, but imagine a portal that does not transport you to another region of the universe, but into the underworld where the dead reside. Or, perhaps better known to those of us more familiar with earlier science fiction culture, think of Jules Verne’s 19th century work Journey to the Center of the Earth. This view about entrance points into the underworld was generally accepted in antiquity and even Jesus spoke of gates into the afterlife/underworld (Matt. 16:18). In Graeco-Roman mythology this type of site was called a Plutonium, named after the pagan deity of the underworld, Pluto, a.k.a. Hades.
It has been known for a long time that one such imagined portal into the underworld was located in the city of Hierapolis, not far from the city of Laodicea mentioned in Rev. 3:14-22. Paul’s letter to the church of Colossae (4:13-15) also mentions Hierapolis and Laodicea as all three of these were located in the Lycus Valley, about 100 miles east of Ephesus. Recently Italian archaeologists have extended their excavations at the site of the Plutonium in Hierapolis and even created some digital views of what it might have looked like.
Both friend and foe of the biblical message have acknowledged that the writers of Scripture often used the common language of the day to communicate Christian doctrine, values, and ideas to the surrounding culture. This is clearly the case regarding ideas about the afterlife, at least at times. 2 Peter 2:4, for example, contains the Greek verb ταρταρόω, tartaroō which means “to cast into Tartarus.” Tartarus is defined in the best lexicon for the Greek NT as a location, “thought of by the Greeks as a subterranean place lower than Hades where divine punishment was meted out,” and was also viewed this way by the Jewish author Philo and also in “Israelite apocalyptic” literature (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, eds. Walter Bauer & F. W. Danker). It is no surprise that the archaeological museum at Hierapolis contains a clear example of the Greek deity Hades.
So if and when you make your way to Hierapolis, Turkey try to get your guide to show you the remains of the Plutonium. If and when you make your way into the Gospels or the book of Revelation, keep two points in mind. First, Jesus and his earliest followers certainly felt compelled to announce the painful consequences of rejecting God and his ways. Secondly, when apostolic authors did announce this, they did it in a way that was intelligible to their audiences by using the vernacular to communicate their theology.
With almost eschatological fervor I am expecting the publication of my commentary Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible. A Commentary on Revelation 1-3 within weeks rather than months. It has been a long journey for my family, for Harding School of Theology, and for me personally. Part of the issue was the major reformulation of the focus of the commentary. The decision I made a few years ago to do a more thorough job of integrating the text of Revelation with theological trajectories from the Hebrew Scriptures and Intertestamental Judaism meant I had to slow down and incorporate and quote not only more Jewish texts, but also a small fraction of secondary literature.
Those who know my other publications are aware that I do not believe that the early church existed within a historical vacuum, devoid of significantinteraction with its pagan environment. This belief requires the incorporation of primary sources, e.g., Graeco-Roman literature, inscriptions, coins, papyri, and architecture. Even if readers of this commentary feel comfortable with the settings and theological perspectives of sacred writers such as Jeremiah or Zechariah, they might not be as comfortable with and knowledgeable of Greek and Latin authors such as Aelius Aristides and Apuleius or, to move beyond the literary elite, Anatolian inscriptions or Roman numismatics. My decision to not only reference Graeco-Roman sources but to also quote them at times and to supply some secondary literature certainly required a significant increase of time, energy, and pages.
In addition to the expansion into Jewish materials, both canonical and non-canonical, and into Graeco-Roman sources, a third area also retarded earlier goals for completion. So many impediments stand in the way of our hearing John as he intended to be heard that the task is always extensive and labyrinthine. Some assistance can be provided by visual materials that literally bring the ancient world to light. So, I have attempted to use some images in the book to enhance the reader’s appreciation for the world of John and his first readers, an effort with a steep learning curve both for me and the publisher.
My first fantasies about this commentary included it being available as an ebook with color images, video, and hyperlinks. Issues such as markets, ebook readers with footnote abilities, and distribution outlets deflated that balloon a couple of years ago. I then attempted to locate a print publisher who would do 4-color images. Some of the obvious publishers embrace views about Revelation totally different from mine. Beyond the initial cost, the idea of self publishing in color seemed imprudent unless I wanted lots of copies sitting in a warehouse somewhere since I have no personal distribution outlets. I was delighted that Wipf & Stock agreed to publish my commentary, but it will be printed with grayscale images, supplemented with color images on this blog, richardoster.com.
As soon as the commentary appears I will have an Amazon.com link to Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible. A Commentary on Revelation 1-3 on this blog. I have also been invited to present two classes on this at the Pepperdine University Bible Lectureship, April 30-May 4, 2013.