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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.
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.
A disclaimer is in order: First, I don’t think TobyMac is the Antichrist, a member of the Illuminati, or guilty of any other nefarious associations or behavior, and I think it is clearly helpful to the Christian movement worldwide that he won the Best Contemporary Christian Album at this year’s Grammy Awards. I also find many of his lyrics to be on target spiritually.
I must, however, take umbrage at one of his comments that shows up in interviews and was quoted in an article cited in Huffington Post. I am referring to an article entitled “Christian Music Bounces Back With TobyMac, Chris Tomlin, Lecrae And More.” According to this article, “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church,” the artist [TobyMac] said. “He hung out with the people, where they were. And that’s to me where Christian music should be.” Since everyone knows there was no Christian church in existence in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, this statement is designed for its rhetorical impact, rather than its historical accuracy. Sometimes, though, rhetorical statements have a life of their own, and hearers forget the limitations of rhetoric. More probably the rhetoric of this statement was meant to emphasize the viewpoint that Jesus did not spend time associating with religious/Jewish organizations or hanging out in Jewish meeting places or chillaxing with the officialdom of Jewish religion. A fact-check of this viewpoint led me to conclude that it did not represent the whole story of Jesus.
This anti-institutional view of Jesus has a long history, but it stands in stark contrast to the picture of Jesus given us by the major writer of the New Testament, Luke, and also by John the prophet. Let’s look at a few facts. There was a very small nucleus of Jewish people for whom God pulled back the curtain to allow them to see and understand the historic and spiritual realities associated with the nativity story. This nucleus found in the birth narratives of Luke 1-2 includes:
1. the priest and temple functionary, Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth
2. Simeon who was guided by the Holy Spirit into the Jewish Temple (the epicenter of Jewish officialdom and pious folk) rather than into a local tavern to encounter there Mary, Joseph, and Jesus
3. and, finally, the prophetess Anna who would have only left the Temple if she were dragged out screaming and kicking (Lk. 2:37, “She never left the temple.”)
There were of course Jesus’ parents who had to be from the line of David and could not be priestly, but who seemingly went to the Temple at every ordained time. It seems that none of those chosen by God to be insiders into the miracle of Jesus’ birth felt compromised or dragged down by “hanging out in church” in their own day.
Then, of course, there is the 12 year old Jesus (Lk. 2:41-48), who had clearly broken away from the typical obedient child model and who began to establish his own spiritual identity. To establish his identity and mission early on, he chose to go to the center of Jewish formality and regulations. Since Jesus chose to be at the Temple discussing theology with Jewish teachers and theologians at the age of 12, he was about as churchy as a Jewish boy could be. When the frustrated parents of Jesus finally discovered him and questioned him about his behavior he replied (Lk. 2:49, The Message), “Didn’t you know that I had to be here, dealing with the things of my Father?” It would be difficult to construe this response into an anti-institutional statement by Jesus; in fact, it shows Jesus’ preference for hanging out at “Jewish church!” The words recorded next in Scripture preserve the response of Jesus’ mom and dad, but they also could have come right out of the mouths of many modern Christians who have been persuaded by the hip/hop-pop picture of Jesus, “But they had no idea what he was talking about” (Lk. 2:50, The Message).
To be sure, the validity of Christian ministry is determined by the authenticity of its message and accompanying lifestyle and not by its location. Bars and brothels are certainly within the purview of modern Christian ministry, but we need to be clear that this was not the fundamental approach used by Jesus. Most of Jesus’ time was spent in synagogues, in travel through the Jewish countryside, and in Jewish homes. It does not seem to have been an erratic choice when Jesus decided to give his inaugural teachings in synagogues (Lk. 4:14-15). There were inns and taverns in the Roman world and apparently in the social knowledge of Jesus’ audiences (Lk. 10:34-35), but based upon the historical record preserved in the Gospels, it does not seem possible to place Jesus in them for the purpose of reconstructing his public ministry. Moreover, many of the “outcasts” and “sinners” that Jesus encountered were in fact Jewish. For example, we might remember Zacchaeus regarded as the “chief tax collector” and known by the crowd in Luke 19 as “one who is a sinner.” Even though Zacchaeus was a tax collector and sinner, according to Jesus, Zacchaeus was “a son of Abraham” (Lk. 19:9). From a Lukan theological perspective, this spiritual reclamation of Zacchaeus, the back-sliding “son of Abraham,” is seen as a clear manifestation of Jesus’ missional identity as the “Son of Man who came to seek out and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10).
For sake of space, let me encourage you to read through Luke’s second volume, Acts, to see whether most of the gentile converts came from religious settings and religious buildings or from the bars and brothels of the Roman world. When Paul (if I may leave Acts of the Apostles for a moment) refers to saints in Corinth as former “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers” (1 Cor. 6:9-10), there is no reason to exclude these converts out of paganism from the “outsiders or unbelievers” that would have heard the truth of God when they attended the church’s worship services in Corinth (1 Cor. 14:23-25).
Now let’s turn to Revelation. Admittedly John is not concerned primarily with evangelism and outreach, but his view of Christ, believers, and the church seems to have a different flavor than the idea that “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church.” In the mind of some, the statement that “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church” might leave the impression that one could love Jesus and ignore the church, for example. That outlook would strike John as unacceptable, based upon what Jesus told him in the beginning of the book of Revelation. For the seven congregations in Revelation the defining picture of Jesus was not, as many might expect, the sacrificial Lamb of God (which does not show up until chapter 5:6), but instead the Son of Man. John’s message for his contemporary Christians did not focus on Jesus on the clouds (Rev. 1:7), contrary to the belief of some fundamentalist millenarians and evangelicals. Rather, for the Christians of his own day, John the prophet’s focus was upon Jesus “in the midst of the lampstands” (Rev. 1:13), the very lampstands Jesus himself identifies as the seven churches to whom John wrote (Rev. 1:20). For John the prophet, the Enthroned Christ lives and moves among the congregations of God. As I noted in my commentary, (Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible. A Commentary on Revelation 1-3, p. 89),
From first to last the Christ of Revelation is an ecclesiastical Jesus, a Jesus for the congregations of God. Whether seen under the rubric of the 144,000 sealed on their foreheads, or the Bride of the Lamb, or the city he loves, or the great multitude that no one can count, or the saints, or the witnesses of Jesus, or the New Jerusalem, the Jesus Christ that John knows and proclaims is one for the collective people of God, the congregations of Roman Asia. The prophet John’s identity is inseparably linked with congregations (ekklēsiai, ἐκκλησίαι, 1:4); the identity of Jesus is inseparably linked with seven congregations (epta ekklēsiai, ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησίαι, 1:11); and the significance of the book of Revelation is inseparably linked with congregations, “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches” (epi tais ekklēsiais, ἐπὶ ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις, 22:16).
We contemporary believers just might need to reconsider whether we want to recapture apostolic belief by acknowledging and confessing “that Jesus is not a parachurch Messiah” (p. 89), but a churchy Jesus, notwithstanding all the abuses and heresies propagated by his ostensible followers, both past and present. It cannot be doubted that Jesus of Nazareth, Luke, and John the prophet all knew very well the abuses and unspeakable atrocities engendered by God’s people over the centuries, but it never seemed a viable spiritual choice for them to dishonor God in response to the lamentable behavior of his people.
Now, go and watch the official music video for TobyMac’s “Eye on It.” http://tobymac.com/videos/eye-it-official-music-video
|Model of Jerusalem Temple on Temple Mount|
|Augustean Gem in the Art
History Museum in Vienna, Austria