Thom Stark: ‘The Human Faces of God’

19 06 2011

Thom Stark was a Fig Tree and Ledbetter scholar at Emmanuel School of Religion: A Graduate Seminary. He is a member of several professional societies, including the American Academy of Religion, the American Historical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society of Biblical Literature. Thom’s academic interests include Second Temple Jewish History and Religion, Christian Origins, Second Testament Christologies, Ancient and Modern Apocalyptic Sects, Global Theologies of Liberation (Christian and Islamic), Interreligious Dialogue, Anthropology of Religion, Postcolonial Studies (African, Latin American, and Middle-Eastern), and Religion and Globalization. Thom has lectured on Second Temple Jewish apocalypticism, Christian origins, the Parables of Jesus, and early Christological controversies. In addition to The Human Faces of God, Thom is the author of several academic essays and a forthcoming monograph on New Testament Christological language understood in the context of broader second temple Judaisms, tentatively titled, Behold the Man.

Thom writes for the website Religion at the Margins, where he sporadically engages issues in religion, politics, and culture.

Thom is married to Erica Daniela Calderon, with whom he has one daughter, Gabriela Madeline Stark.

The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It).
Foreword by John J. Collins. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2010. 268 pages.

FROM THE BACK COVER: Does accepting the doctrine of biblical inspiration necessitate belief in biblical inerrancy? The Bible has always functioned authoritatively in the life of the church, but what exactly should that mean? Must it mean the Bible is without error in all historical details and ethical teachings? What should thoughtful Christians do with texts that propose God is pleased by human sacrifice or that God commanded Israel to commit acts of genocide? What about texts that contain historical errors or predictions that have gone unfulfilled long beyond their expiration dates?

In The Human Faces of God, Thom Stark moves beyond notions of inerrancy in order to confront such problematic texts and open up a conversation about new ways they can be used in service of the church and its moral witness today. Readers looking for an academically informed yet accessible discussion of the Bible’s thorniest texts will find a thought-provoking and indispensable resource in The Human Faces of God.

FROM THE FOREWORD: “This is a courageous book, that challenges us to take the modern criticism of the Bible to its logical conclusion. It deserves a wide readership.” — John J. Collins, Yale

GREG BOYD: The Human Faces of God is one of the most challenging and well-argued cases against the doctrine of biblical inerrancy I have ever read. The value of this bold and witty book goes well beyond posing challenges evangelicals like myself must face, however. All who hold the Bible in high regard will benefit from Stark’s brutally honest, insightful, and well-researched investigations into the text, as well as from his own constructive proposal to interpret Scripture’s “damnable texts” as “negative revelations.” Rarely have I read a book with which I agreed and disagreed so much—which is precisely why I found this stimulating work to be deeply rewarding and believe it is a work that deserves to be seriously wrestled with by evangelicals and mainstream Christians alike.

TONY CAMPOLO: Here is a book that answered a lot of questions that I had about what really transpires historically as it pertains to the revelation of God in Scripture. I learned so much from this book that I can strongly encourage anyone who is seeking to move from simplistic proof-texting to a comprehensive understanding of the Bible to read this book carefully.

Click here to read Thoms review of Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God.


“I am a Christian. Sure, not by fundamentalists’ standards, but I’m a Christian nonetheless. I say this at the outset because I don’t want my intentions to be misunderstood. In critiquing Paul Copan’s apologetic defenses of our frequently morally problematic Bible, my aim is not to turn anybody away from the Christian faith. In fact, I am critical of apologetic attempts to sweep the Bible’s horror texts under the rug precisely because I believe such efforts are damaging to the church and to Christian theology. After having read and critiqued Paul Copan’s latest apologetic effort, I am obliged to say that I can only recommend this book to atheists who are looking for a good book to give to their Christian friends to show them what’s wrong with Christianity.

Books like Copan’s will only take Christianity ten steps backwards. In the name of inerrancy, the truth is trampled. Contemporary popular apologists tend to look for any way to salvage the text, no matter how unlikely or untenable the argument. They’ll use scholarly sources selectively, or pounce on one scholar’s argument and run away with it, without any concern for the fact the vast majority of scholars haven’t been persuaded by it. They’re not interested in what’s plausible, only in what’s “possible,” if it serves their immediate purposes. They trade in eisegesis, wild speculation, and fanciful interpretations, reading into the text what isn’t there, indeed, what’s often contradicted by the very passages they cite—something Copan himself does not infrequently, as we’ll see.

But they seem oblivious to the real harm they’re doing. Not only are they giving permission for Christians to be dishonest with the material, they’re reinforcing delusions that disconnect well-meaning Christians from reality, blinding them to the destructive effects many of these horror texts continue to have upon Christian communities and in broader society. Those Christians who aren’t genuinely struggling with the horror texts will read pulp apologetics books like Copan’s just to have their presuppositions reinforced, accepting the apologist’s word uncritically, even though, in most cases, these apologists aren’t even properly trained in biblical studies.

This is a serious pastoral issue. A friend of mine who is a pastor, after reading the following review of Copan’s book, lamented its damaging effects on the Christian community. Saddened by Copan’s disingenuous treatment of the source material, this pastor wrote to me:

This continues to be one of my greatest pastoral challenges—books like this that turn into five minute interviews that give people crap answers to get us settled back into the Matrix and ignore the stuff of life. Ultimately I’ll be conversing with people who will have read Copan, understand from his text even less than he seems to on this subject and feel thoroughly confident in the mind numbing conclusions they adhere to.

What he speaks to is a pervasive reality. These apologists are perpetuating an insular Christian culture, giving well-meaning Christians permission to switch off their brains and their consciences and go about their business, pretending everything is all right. The apologists don’t care to convince those struggling on the margins of faith—they’re preaching only to the converted, only to those who are looking for easy answers to questions others are asking them, but which they aren’t asking themselves. Yet those Christians who are genuinely struggling with these horror texts, those who are tormented by them, on the verge of having a crisis of faith—they find no comfort in the easy answers peddled by the pious spin doctors. Rather, they are repulsed by them, and often come to think that the only alternative to an intellectually dishonest and morally compromised faith is no faith at all. I see this tragic reality every day. I know not a few former-Christians-turned-atheists who expressly credit Christian apologists like Copan for their loss of faith. These Christians, who are genuinely struggling with these texts, see right through these hollow, ad hoc, incoherent and inconsistent “answers” and recognize these “answer-men” for what they are. And this is why I’m so critical of apologists like Paul Copan—not just because their arguments are frequently absurd and usually, at the very least, untenable, but because they are doing real damage to real people, all because they’re more concerned to protect their insular, fideistic doctrines than they are to speak the truth. They are sophists, in a world crying out for prophets. Prophets speak the truths that no one wants to hear, which also happen to be the truths that everyone needs to hear. We cannot move forward until we find the courage to confront our problematic texts, the courage to be brutally honest. Only in the pursuit of the truth of the matter will we be able to find God. But when our agenda is rather to defend our institutions, all we will find is the gods of our own fashioning, which are the gods Copan defends in this book.

My heart, therefore, is not to attack apologists like Copan, but to call them to honesty for the sake of the church, and for the sake of those who are struggling at the margins of faith. Don’t misunderstand me. I do not think that Paul Copan is a malicious person. I do not think he is being intentionally dishonest, though it is clear that he is being dishonest with himself and by extension with us. If he weren’t writing books that were negatively influencing thousands of people, I’d let him have his personal, self-sustaining deceptions. But instead he is either duping Christians, or repulsing them—and as for the non-Christians, he is having no effect at all with books like this one, which alone is indication enough that something is seriously wrong with Copan’s project. No doubt Copan is a very intelligent person, but his commitment to a narrow and exclusivistic fundamentalism prevents him from making intelligent arguments. Likewise, I am sure he is a kind person, with fairly decent morals and ethics (with a few exceptions standard among conservative Evangelicals). But he is not a moral apologist. And it’s his apologetics, not his personal morality, that affect so many.

This book review seeks to confront Copan’s distortions of the text, while at the same time confronting the text where it needs to be confronted. This is a necessary step, before we can begin to move forward constructively, as a people who hope in God. I wrote this review, not because I had nothing better to do. I wrote it because it’s necessary. I wrote it because I expect better from Copan, because I want him to be a positive force, not an agent of regression and propaganda. I wrote this book because I want to challenge Christians not to accept the easy answers uncritically, not to rest easy in the delusion that everything is as it should be with our institutions and our texts. We have to struggle if we want to find God. And we have to learn to identify and resist any and all attempts to lull us into docility. Jacob did not defend God; Jacob wrestled against God. And he came out wounded, not whole. And that is what it means to be Israel.”

Click here to continue reading.

For the [ad hoc] Christianity podcast interview w/ Thom, click here.

Click here to listen to Nick and Josh podcast interview w/ Thom.

Click here to hear Thom on the ‘Naked Jews & Neo-hippies’ BlogTalkRadio show.

Follow Thom on Twitter.

Like Thom on Facebook.

Other bits and pieces by Thom

here are two (of several) reasons. I argue that the Bible is a collection of books, not a single book, and that many of the books of the Bible are arguing with one another (sometimes even different sources within the same book are arguing with each other). Thus, from my perspective it makes no sense to say that I do not accept what the Bible says on a particular point, because the Bible may contain different views on the matter, and I may agree with one view while disagreeing with another. From my perspective, on several matters I cannot agree with “the Bible” without also disagreeing with it.

Secondly, “the Bible” never makes any claim about “itself.” Only certain authors make claims about certain texts within what we now call the Bible. But not every author of the Bible might agree with those authors or that view of scripture. Indeed, if in fact some books and sources are intentionally arguing with other books and sources in what is now the canon, then those authors would certainly disagree with any other biblical author who (may or may not) claim that “the Bible” is inerrant. Thus, again we do not have “the Bible” making a claim about itself, but a few authors within the Bible making claims that reflect the views of certain groups within Judaism at a certain time. At most that’s what we can say we have. To say that I “do not agree with what the Bible says about itself” is therefore, from my perspective, to confuse the reality of the sources we have.

I don’t at present have time to debate the issue, but you asked for a “taste,” and there’s a very small one. I argue that this is the only consistent historical-grammatical approach to the question, and that inerrantists shoot themselves in the foot whenever they assert that the historical-grammatical hermeneutic is the only valid hermeneutic. I argue at some length that in fact many of inerrantists’ axiomatic hermeneutical principles contradict a historical-grammatical hermeneutic, such as (for instance) the principle that “the Bible is the best interpreter of itself.”


Interview w/ Huffington Post

You’re saying God evolves in the Old Testament?

Exactly. Surprise of surprises, as Israel aspired to greatness and sought to make a name for itself, surrounded by vast empires, Yahweh got bigger and bigger, until he became so grandiose in their theologies that it no longer made sense to refer to the other national deities as gods at all — so vastly superior was Yahweh to the gods of other nations, according to Judean propaganda literature.

Tell us more about this evolution from tribal deity to monotheism.

Well as Chris Rollston argues, there are various stages in Israel’s progression from polytheism to monotheism. Yahweh begins as a junior member of the divine pantheon. This is the view during the tribal confederation period of Israel’s history. After Israel became a monarchy, Yahweh gets a promotion to head of the pantheon, taking his father Elyon’s place. (This parallels similar ideas in Babylonian literature, in which Marduk’s ascendancy to king of the gods mirrors the rise of the Babylonian empire.)

Over time, Yahweh and Elyon are conflated, they sort of merge into one god. At this stage Yahweh starts to be seen as creator-god. But in this period, Israel still believes in other gods; it’s just that they’re not supposed to worship other gods because they owed their allegiance to Yahweh, their patron deity. Of course, Yahweh was believed to have had a wife, Asherah, and it is clear that Israelites worshiped her as Yahweh’s consort.

This seems to have been acceptable orthodoxy until the seventh century BCE or so. At that point, prophets like Jeremiah began to polemicize other gods, calling into doubt their very existence. This idea that Yahweh alone is God is solidified during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century for a complex set of reasons. This is when official Israelite religion finally became monotheistic.

Is this, as Sam Harris called it, “The End of Faith?”

One thing that the New Atheists and fundamentalist Christians share is this either/or logic. Either Christianity is true, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then it’s useless. I don’t buy into that simplistic paradigm.

When we’re talking about an ultimate truth that may or may not lie beyond the metaphysical iron curtain, we’re talking about a “truth” that is very different from the kind of truths that can be verified or falsified by scientific procedures. Talk about this ultimate truth, or “God-talk” as theologians call it, is always going to be conditioned by the limits of human knowledge on this side of the curtain. As Wittgenstein put it, the limits of language are coterminous with the limits of the world. But if there is anything meaningful about our existence, it lies beyond those limits, and speaking truthfully about what lies beyond the limits of language cannot by definition entail speaking about what we can demonstrate to be true empirically.

Truthful God-talk is poetry, not science — evocative, not descriptive. “Faith” is what we have when we live our lives as if they were meaningful, and Christianity offers us one language that helps us do that. Like any language, of course, there are different dialects, accents and vocabularies. Just as with English speakers, some Christians get irony, metaphor and humor, and others don’t. Moreover, just as languages evolve to adapt to new realities and new knowledge, religions do the same, and rightly so, whether practitioners acknowledge it or not.

How should Christians read the Bible in light of this kind of scholarship?

Between the lines. That’s how they should read the Bible. Christians need to learn to appropriate our tradition’s God-talk both critically and constructively. As I argue in chapter 1 of my book, the Bible is an argument with itself. It doesn’t have one viewpoint, but in the Bible you’ll find actual disputes between different personalities about the meaning of it all.

To be a Jew or Christian, to be a part of that tradition, is to participate in the argument. It’s to join in. You can take up a position represented by Jesus, or by the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, which is sharply at odds with the two other major schools of thought in the Bible. (I’ve often said that if Ecclesiastes wasn’t in the Bible, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a Christian on most days.) Or you can come up with a new position. But to be a member of the faith community is to participate in the discussion.

I am a Christian because I believe that what our predecessors have said continues to be important to the discussion, even if what they said is sometimes dead wrong. Christians need to understand that it’s OK to disagree with the Bible; but, in doing so, it’s not OK to pretend like we’re not indebted to our predecessors, even when we disagree with them.

To read the rest of this interview, click here.

In the body of your argument, you offer seven reasons why you believe God exists. The confusion we’re having in this back and forth relates only to four of those seven. The other three I disagree with for different reasons, which I’ll restate later. But for now, the four that are causing the confusion:
1. Moral Conviction
2. Spirituality
3. Beauty and Goodness
4. Personal Experience
Actually, the 4th may not need to be critiqued alongside the other three. The basic problem there is that most people have a personal experience that confirms their respective beliefs for them. That being the case, this is not a very good reason to believe in your specific God, or any God at all. You should be suspicious of this, if you’re honest, and honest enough to admit that if you were a Muslim, you personal experience would probably “confirm” that ontology too, as the personal experiences of countless Muslims have done for them. The same goes for atheists, and so on and so forth. Furthermore, to argue that it might not have weight on its own, but it becomes significant as part of a “cumulative” argument is unsatisfactory. If a “cumulative” case is built on units of evidence that on their own possess no real weight, but look substantial when held up side by side, that is not a good case; it is an optical illusion.
But let’s deal with (1), (2) and (3). You say that the fact that all human societies have a morality (even if it’s not the same morality, but a morality nonetheless), the fact that the majority of humanity have generally had a “spirituality” throughout history, and the fact that there is beauty and goodness in the world says to you that belief in God is more probable than not.
I am saying that these things themselves are not pointing you to God. You are looking at them, and postulating God to explain them. In a poetic sense, they “speak of God to you.” But you must acknowledge that these things do not “speak” at all about anything other than themselves. The world is there before us, as a fact, a surprising one, to be sure. But the world does not point to God (if it did, which god would it point to, and how do we know?) in any sense other than in the poetic sense of the one who is looking for God in the world.
You completely mischaracterize me (and misunderstand my claims) when you claim that I “choose to trust the scientific construct for extra-scientific reasons.”
I am not trusting the scientific construct any more than you are. Understand that. I know full well that you do not deny that neuroscience explains what is happening in our brains when we have what we call “spiritual” experiences, when we experience certain emotions (fear, awe, joy, etc.), and that neuroscience together with social sciences adequately explain why our brains react the way they do to certain stimulants in order to produce a particular sensation. I know that you accept this. This is all that I’m saying. Science explains how and why (conditioning>>stimulant>>affectation) we have “mountain top” experiences, “spiritual” trances, and (as neuro-biological evolutionary science has shown, along with occasional help from anthropology) why we as a species have something like what some philosophers call “morality” and what parts of the brain are functioning when we are doing moral reasoning.
You have the same “faith” in science I do, when it comes to that. When I am saying that science is a “sufficient” explanation, I am not saying that it’s a rival explanation to theology. I’m saying that it sufficiently explains why and how we function the way we do and how we developed to function this way (physiologically and socially).
To deny the empirical data is irrational, which is not to say that affirming the empirical data is reductionistic. I am not saying the natural explanation is “all there is,” or that it’s the only explanation. I am saying that it is sufficient to explain why you feel like there’s something bigger out there when you are standing on top of a (big) mountain or looking out at a (big) sky of stars. The sensation we feel is perfectly explicable in terms of neurology. Nothing more need be posited than: that’s the way we work.
Now, most of us experience these things, and whether we know there is a sufficient natural explanation or not, we feel like there must be “more to it.” As I pointed out earlier, this feeling itself (the feeling that there must be more to it) is explicable in terms of neurology.
The world is a fact. Our brains are a fact within that fact. And that they release chemicals from a certain quadrant that produce the sensation we have learned to name “moreness” is also a fact, a fact of biology, which is a fact of the world. The fact of the world is a given. There is no explanation for it that is intrinsic to it. Any “meaning” of the world is something that lies beyond the world.
That human beings look at a river in a glen from the peak of a mountain and see beauty is a fact. That our brains release chemicals to give us that sensation of beauty, awe, and transcendence–that is also a fact. That the beauty of the riven in the glen “points us to God” is not a fact, but a poetic construct. We are positing an ontology to “explain” the fact (but not in the same sense as the neurological explanation), but that ontology is not a fact of the world. By its very definition it “is” beyond the world, and therefore beyond the limits of language (which are coterminous with the limits of the world).
Put most simply: a flower does not tell us of God’s existence; we tell the flower that it tells us of God’s existence.
You are assuming that I am saying that science is a paradigm for interpreting the world just like theology is. I am not saying that. Science is a way of seeing the world, but it not a way of seeing the world in the same way that theology or metaphysics is a way of seeing the world. It is not a rival to poetry, so that either the scientist or the poet is right, but not both. You know this.
When I say that science is a sufficient explanation, I am saying that science is attempting to explain the fact of the world. When I say that theology is a gratuitous explanation, I am saying that theology is attempting to ascribe meaning to the fact of the world. Science cannot falsify a construction of meaning. And theology cannot falsify a demonstration of fact.
Therefore, when you are making the claim that you believe in God because (1) there is what we call beauty, (2) there is what we call morality, and (3) there is what we call spirituality, you are making a statement of belief that is not in fact justified by what we call beauty, morality, and spirituality. What you are doing is postulating a metanarrative and interpreting the world within it. Atheists do the same thing, and their metanarratives are equally coherent. And so on, and so forth.
So, if you are honest, all you can really say is, I believe in God, and I believe in a very particular God within a very particular narrative, and therefore, when I look at certain facts of the world, I interpret those facts within the context of my belief in God. This is reducible to: I see God because I see God. The most honest answer to the question, “How do you know God exists?” is: “I don’t. But I choose to because the idea gives me comfort, or because it gives me hope, or because that’s how I was raised and I haven’t yet found reason to reject my heritage, etc. etc.” These are honest answers. “Because grass is pretty” and “people know what decency means” are not justifications for belief in God. They are facts of the world. To claim that they are justifications for your belief in God is the very definition of circular reasoning.
As for your other three arguments (design, first cause, and the resurrection of Jesus), they are problematic too. Design is problematic, actually, for all the same reasons detailed just above. The facts of the world do not indicate a designer, except that we bring to the fact our prior experience that says that complex things are designed. The analogy of the watchmaker is again a case of circular reasoning. We are interpreting the facts based upon our prior conditioning. But the fact is, we simply do not have an explanation for origins. None is possible. The world is a given. No explanation necessary. We begin with the fact. How or whether we interpret that fact is up to us. But a given is by definition something that requires no justification. (That’s an analogy.)
As it happens, every attempt to use the facts of the world to argue for design has failed, as has every attempt to prove that the world must have had an uncaused cause. The law of cause and effect only obtains within time and space. If time and space began with the world, the law of cause and effect would not and could not apply. You appeal to these slogans and speak of “probability,” but give no explanation for why you think the facts of complexity and existence are “more probable.” Based on what calculations? If on any calculations, who did them for you? And how can any calculations done within the world of facts, based on a world of facts, point in any specific direction beyond a world of facts? That is an absurdity.
Moreover, even if the facts of the world could direct us to God, to what character of God would they necessarily direct us? Do the facts of the world point us to monotheism or polytheism? To monism or dualism? To they point us to a God of love, or to a God of rage, or to a schizophrenic God? Do they point us to an absent God? Or do they point us to an uncaused flying monkey that had all the faculties enough to create a complex universe, but can’t itself speak English or ride a unicycle?
As for the resurrection, do read the essays on the two links I posted above, and refer again to the argument I had with you about that subject on another one of your posts.
I hope that I have clarified myself here. I am not a closed-universe naturalist and I am not advocating closed-universe naturalism when I say that natural explanations for your sensory phenomena are sufficient, and theological explanations are poetic and gratuitous.
Remember: You look at the world and see God, because God is how you see the world, not because the world tells you to see God.
Don’t change what you believe. Don’t change what you practice. Just understand the nature of your claims; be precise, and don’t lead people into a false sense of justification–only for them to become disillusioned later when they figure things out.


You said, “[I]t is [an] error to say that homosexuality is the same [as the issue of women wearing head coverings]. All Biblical writers that deal with the issue [homosexuality] agree that it is a sin.”

But the argument from homosexual hermeneutics is not that what the Bible condemns as sin is not sin. The argument is that the kind of homosexuality that the Bible condemns as sin is not the kind of homosexuality Christian homosexuals are attempting to vindicate—committed, loving, monogamous homosexual love.

You said, “In this day [the first century A.D.], the Romans did not see a problem with homosexuality. It was practically a given that a man in high position would have a young boy he would visit.”

This is simply untrue. Many Greek and Roman moral philosophers and politicians believed that homosexuality is an unnatural act. While male-child sex slaves were common among the aristocracy, that does not mean it was socially acceptable behavior. Many considered it debase and immoral.

The pro-gay interpreters are not arguing that the Jews did not view homosexuality as a sin. They are arguing that what Jews were talking about when they condemned homosexuality is something different from the kind of homosexuality up for discussion here. The understanding is that ancient Jews had no real concept of the possibility of committed, loving, monogamous homosexual love. The homosexuality Jews condemned was typically associated with paedophilia, idolatry, or promiscuity. No homosexual in Paul’s day claimed to be a good Jew or a good Christian. There is no record of any attempt to reconcile homosexuality with the Christian moral paradigm. The assumption is that this is the first time in history this conversation has taken place.

You said, “Jesus never specifically denounced homosexuality, but neither did He denounce child molestation! He used the Greek word “porneo” which is an umbrella word for all kinds of sexual immorality…”

The question up for debate is whether committed, loving, monogamous homosexuality should be put under the umbrella of pornea. Pornea certainly meant promiscuity, incest, adultery, temple prostitution, paedophilia, bestiality, and rape. We are debating whether or not committed, loving, monogamous homosexuality should come under pornea in the first place. It is a question that the New Testament does not specifically address. When we are addressing issues that the New Testament does not specifically address, it is important that we come to the conversation with patience, attentiveness, discernment, and a commitment to being willing to repent of our position if it is demonstrated to be the wrong position. However nice it is that we are willing to love homosexuals despite their sin of homosexuality, that is not a commitment to really hearing what homosexuals are saying. Starting the conversation by saying, “You’re wrong but I love you anyway,” is analogous to saying, “With all due respect, everything you have to say is a pack of lies; but let’s be friends anyway so I don’t have to come to terms with my parochialism.”

Now, I am not saying that we will never reach the point where we say, “You’re wrong but I love you anyway.” I am only saying that this conclusion is appropriate at the end of a genuine, reciprocal dialogue, not at the beginning of one.

You said, “Some liberal scholars believe that Romans 1 just deals with the homosexual acts committed by the Caesars. No where in Paul’s writing does he even hint at that… He does not refer to a select rich group of Gentiles when he deals with homosexuality… he deals with the sins of the Gentiles in this area as a whole.”

First, I recommend you cease with the use of the term “liberal” and its counterpart “conservative.” The labels do more harm than good, and they are quickly losing their descriptive power as what was liberalism fifty years ago is today’s conservatism. Your scientific method of Bible study (historical-grammatical hermeneutics) was at one time called “liberalism.”

Second, no one here has argued that Romans 1 is referring to homosexual acts committed by the Caesars.

Third, your conclusion that Paul “does not refer to a select rich group of Gentiles when he deals with homosexuality” but that “he deals with the sins of the Gentiles in this area as a whole” is pure conjecture. How do you know who Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 1? Were Gentiles “as a whole” homosexually active? Was every individual that rejected the Creator God a homosexual? Anyone who argues that they know who Paul is referring to when he speaks of “men lying with men” and “women with women” is pushing their pro- or anti-homosexual agenda. We can do all sorts of historical background studies to see what kinds of homosexuality existed in the first century Mediterranean world, we can look at samples of ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish conceptions of homosexuality and the moral stances they took toward it, but all of that work will not make it any clearer who Paul has in mind when he talks of men lying with men, and in what context such “lying” takes place. Moreover, all of this focus on Romans 1 for “Paul’s view” of homosexuality is a red herring, since the point of Romans 1 is found in Romans 2. The argument against Gentile immorality was not one of Paul’s invention. Paul hijacked the standard Jewish argument against Gentile immorality only to subvert it and throw the Jews into the same boat with the Gentiles. We do not know whether Paul actually approved of the argument he employed in Romans 1, since 1) it was not his own argument and 2) he employed it only as a rhetorical move to make a rather different point.

You said, “Paul brings it up again in 1 Cor. 6:9 and alludes to it in 1 Tim. 1:9-10. John alludes to it in the end of Revelation.”

You clearly have not read very much in the literature of homosexual hermeneutics. These are typically considered the weakest texts to point to since the Greek is so ambiguous.

You said, “Why do I bring up all of these references? Because this topic that is brought up by OT authors and at least 2 NT authors (Paul brings it up as sin in at least 3 of his letters) is major. It does not constitute a cultural interpretation. It was not just mentioned once to a specific audience… thereby, it is hard to see it as a cultural thing.”

You have given us no exegetical work for us to evaluate. We do not know why you think Paul’s references to homosexuality should include every possible form of homosexuality or just the kinds of homosexuality that homosexuals themselves condemn.

The universal/cultural distinction is a waste of time, and it can be a serious distraction. Do you believe that killing another human being is a universal or a cultural issue? The question doesn’t really make sense. The question we mean to ask is, What do you mean by “killing”? In other words, Is there any circumstance in which killing another human being might be deemed legitimate? I assume that your answer to this is that there are such circumstances, however regrettable they might be. Then let us frame the homosexual question the same way. What do you mean by homosexuality? Do you mean pure machismo translated into violent sex? Do you mean male temple prostitutes lying with male idol worshippers? Do you mean a man sleeping with his uncle? Do you mean a man sleeping with a man who is not his spouse? Do you mean a heterosexual who decides to try homosexuality on for size? Do you mean promiscuous or premarital homosexual sex? Or do you mean committed, loving, monogamous homosexual marriage? This latter one seems not to have been a consideration in the minds of the authors of Scripture. Is there any circumstance in which homosexual sex might be deemed legitimate? What would be the conditions for its legitimacy? In what ways might those conditions be any different from the conditions for the legitimacy of heterosexual sex? These are just a few of the questions that need to be taken into consideration when approaching an ethical dilemma.

You said, “[A]nd if we get into the realm of church history… every major father or reformer has taught that it [homosexuality] was a sin: Augustine, Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wesley, Spurgeon, etc.

Do you know what else Augustine, Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wesley, and Spurgeon taught? They taught that one of the ways Christians can express their love for their enemies is by killing them regretfully. Well, that’s a caricature. They taught (some taught, some just believed) that when whatever state/kingdom you’re in determines that it is necessary, love for enemy may be suspended and replaced with justifiable homicide for enemy.

Appealing to the authority of the fathers and the reformers has its place, but usually that appeal involves an appeal to an argument put forward by such authorities and not to a belief that was also the belief of nearly every man, woman and child contemporaneous to the authorities.


Thom replies to Ben’s post “Am I evil for pointing out that Jesus was evil?” on (FB July 29, 2015)

The point you derive from my talk of the transition from underdog to empire is not a point I made or even could make. Jesus instructed his followers to be nonviolent, and to lead by serving, rather than lording over others. Constatinianism was a betrayal of Jesus’ teaching, not the logical conclusion to it. As far as your take on “hell,” you’re adopting the later Christian understanding of it, which Jesus did not have (because it didn’t exist yet). Jesus spoke of gehenna, which was the trash-dump outside of Jerusalem. Jesus opposed the religious leaders and power-brokers who made life miserable for the poor masses. It was those powerbrokers who, according to Jesus, were headed for gehenna—which was not eternal conscious torment for all eternity, but a graveyard for the disgraced, where the smoke from their ashes would rise (metaphorically) forever and ever. Jesus’ talk of judgment is underwritten by solidarity with the poor and marginalized (even non-Jews) and opposition to those who hold those marginalized under their oppressive thumbs. Your dichotomy between the Emperor Sadist Jesus and the Liberal Hippy Jesus is a false one. Jesus was neither a hippy nor a Harold Camping nut. People can hold wrong beliefs and still hold lots of right ones. We can be critical of the wrong ones, and understand their influence on the right ones, without casting everything off as you’re doing. Did Jesus believe God would soon come to overthrow the Romans? Yes (the Roman power-structure, not the Roman population in general). Did that mean he thought anyone who wasn’t a justice-loving Jew or Christ-professing gentile was going to burn in hell forever? We have no evidence to support this, and lots of evidence to the contrary. Remember, second temple Jews believed in a life on earth after their final vindication, not a life in an eternal spiritual afterlife in heaven or hell. The vision was one in which God would reign directly over the earth, and there would be justice everywhere. It was a utopian vision of universal peace (where the lamb lies down with the lion, and swords are fashioned into plowshares). Jesus drew the line of judgment at who helped the needy, and who refused to help them. See Matthew 25, or the Good Samaritan story you yourself mentioned in the article. Maybe the moral contradiction is not in Jesus’ own ideas, but in the conflation of later Christian notions of “hell” for all nonbelievers, with Jesus’ justice-based final judgment, in which the powerful overlords would finally be humbled and their lives and rule brought to an end, in shame, rather than honor (i.e., Gehenna).

I understand you have a mission to fulfill, Ben, but I also understand you’re committed to making sound arguments. I agree with much of what Avalos says about the “bad Jesus.” I talk about Jesus’ end-times beliefs and their impact on his ethics, critically, in Human Faces of God. But Avalos makes a lot of unsupported assertions about the material, and overstates his case too often. He’s got an agenda, which is fine, but doesn’t always lead to the best analysis. I recommend you get your information from more reputable sources than Avalos and Carrier. Carrier’s claim that Jesus was just like all the other second-temple messianic hopefuls is, historically, laughable. Real historians (ones without agendas) don’t dump historical figures into categories and say “this one is just like all those ones.” They point out the differences and similarities between all instances in question, with considerable nuance and a marked lack of moral adjudication. And between all the messianic hopefuls, there are important similarities, and important differences.

Love you, Ben. You can do better than this. Christians with power in our culture need to be disarmed and brought to shame. I’m with you on that. But not at the expense of easy generalizations and poor historical arguments.


Ben then responded thus:


Wow, we profoundly disagree about the moral core of Jesus. Your Jesus is only against the elite and the flagrant oppressors, and friend to all the downtrodden (presumably the majority), and those few enemies will simply be ashamed and non-existent(?) after Judgment Day. Sounds like a great guy with just a few extraneous not-mentioned line items to take issue with. That’s not the Jesus I found though. My Jesus preaches the same thing yours does, but in actuality ends up defining pretty much everyone as evil and he has them tortured forever. Apparently you think my Jesus comes solely from the later church conventions and that there is no evidence whatsoever of mine otherwise. I’ve heard your kind of case before. Incidentally my presentations demonstrate my case solely from the canonical gospels.

It says in Matthew 18:34-35 that “hell” would be like torture in first century prisons. It’s not like one can’t be tortured and experience shame, too. Also, what’s the point of threatening fires that never die if no one is going to be burning in them that whole time? And worms that never stop eating if there’s no one that’s going to be eaten by them that whole time? If the eternal punishment isn’t eternal is the eternal life also not eternal? Perhaps the eternal life is just metaphorical as well and Yahweh will merely appreciate the memory of his people fondly forever? How can Jesus believe in “eternal” sins if there won’t be eternal punishments? Etc. The fire pit outside the city seems to just be the earthly analogy Jesus uses before applying the eternal modifiers.

Perhaps you have keen answers to all my questions. I’ve incorporated them into my argument maps, and no one ever takes my questions seriously. They just run out of things to say and it leaves me believing they were just looking for some way to get out of the fundie cliche’ but they weren’t really looking where they were going. If there is a book that goes in depth addressing these issues from the perspective you favor, I would like to read it.

Thom said: “Did that mean he thought anyone who wasn’t a justice-loving Jew or Christ-professing gentile was going to burn in hell forever? We have no evidence to support this, and lots of evidence to the contrary.”

Oh? Just the Romans (and Jewish elite?)? Or is Jesus pointing the finger at just about everyone who doesn’t repent in just the right way to just the right measure? Did not Jesus believe few would be saved in Matthew 7:14 and again in 22:13-14? Was he asked if only a few *Romans* would be saved? Was not Jesus asked the direction question about whether or not a few would be saved implying that his listeners must have thought Jesus’ teachings indicated this would be the case (Luke 13:23-24)? Did Jesus not continually lambast his entire generation as evil, perverse, faithless, sinful, and whatever else? Did he not use the Pharisees, the scribes, and teachers of the law as cases in point to typify the entire generation? I don’t think “generation” refers to a small group of people or school of thought, does it? Judgement Day was going to come on everyone and not just one school of thought, right? Didn’t Jesus call his immediate audience evil just offhandedly as though he was used to just about everyone being evil (Matthew 7:11 & Luke 11:13)? Did Jesus not preach perfectionism impossible to attain without divine assistance (again implying it was really hard to make it)? Did not Jesus compare his apocalypse to Noah’s flood where only 8 people were saved? Was he not used to a god from the Old Testament in general who was not well known for saving most people? Did not Jesus tacitly admit that basically all the nations of the world belonged to Satan (during the temptation), implying virtually everyone in them were under a non-saved demonic dominion? Didn’t he run into demons and demon-possessed people often implying he lived in a world controlled by dark forces?

It seems clear to me that there’s a *ton* of evidence Jesus lived in his tiny cultic fractured fairytale land where the “few” of the elect were vastly outnumbered by the dark forces all around them. And so that’s why I don’t take your core revolutionary Jesus very seriously.

I have other things to say about the other things you wrote, but I wanted to focus on the most important elements.


And Paul Avery added this:

“And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell.” Comparing tne humble village of Capernaum to the more illustrious Roman towns near the area at that time. I don’t see how Jesus can be seen as the champion of the downtrodden or against wholesale damnation. You’re analyses are the more probable, Ben, If anything, Jesus mellowed out by the time the Johannie texts were composed.


The rest of the following is my response to Ben and Paul.

Ben, your reading of the texts conflates a lot of things and demonstrates a lack of familiarity with basic concepts. If you’re willing to listen (I know quite a bit about all this stuff, having studied it closely for over a decade, and for several years under the tutelage of world-class scholars who did their training in places like Harvard, Johns Hopkins, etc), maybe I can offer some guidance here.

BEN: “It says in Matthew 18:34-35 that ‘hell’ would be like torture in first century prisons. It’s not like one can’t be tortured and experience shame, too.”

The word “hell” is not used in the Bible. There are four words which are translated as “hell” by lazy translators: sheol, hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna. The first three simply refer to the “grave.” It is the same concept/word used in the Old Testament for the place of the dead, even before belief in resurrection emerged in the second-temple period. Sheol/hades/Tartarus is not “hell.” It is the ground in which dead bodies are buried, who exist in a kind of shadowy afterlife, with no real complete consciousness (similar concept you’d find in like The Odyssey—everyone goes there when they die, nobody really likes it, but everybody’s sort of a mere shadow of their former consciousness; they’re “asleep”). Both good and bad live here. Before belief in resurrection emerged among some Jews, everyone went to sheol when they died. After belief in resurrection emerged, sheol is the place from which the faithful would be resurrected.

The consistent view of immortality in the Bible (yes, some things are consistent) is that it belongs to God alone. When belief in the resurrection emerged, it is seen as a gift given to the righteous, in contract to the unrighteous who remain “asleep.” The Greek word translated “asleep” (for those in the ground) is keimai (from which we get our word “cemetery”), literally means, “to lie down.” By contrast, the Greek word translated “resurrection” is anastasis, meaning “to stand up.” So the resurrection is the standing up of those who are lying down. Nowhere is the idea of resurrection applied to the unrighteous. The unrighteous follow the pattern of Adam and Eve, who after sinning were denied access to the tree of life which gave them immortality. The gift of immortality was taken away from them. It is only given to the righteous, according to the entire New Testament. The notion of inherent immortality (of the soul) is entirely Greek, not Jewish.

It is he alone who is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. (1Timothy 6:16)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not _perish_ but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

^^^ The contrast is between perishing (dying) and having eternal life. This is like, the most basic verse in the New Testament, and nobody seems to notice what it says. #ThanksDante’sInferno

I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:28)

For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. (John 17:2)

To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Romans 2:7)

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

^^^ Again. Hello!

“So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable…. I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable…. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.'” (1 Corinthians 15:42, 50, 54)

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. (1 John 1:11)

So to reiterate, the idea of inherent immortality is not a Jewish notion; that’s Greek stuff, Plato and what-not. Eternal life in the Bible is always something that God either gives (to the righteous) or withholds (from the unrighteous). There is no doctrine of the immortality of the soul in the Bible. But, you know, the Greco-Roman folk appropriated Christianity from the Jews and made it their own thing.

One of the main words translated as “hell” is Gehenna. Gehenna means “Valley of Hinnom.” It is the trash dump outside the walls of Jerusalem. The fire that burns there is the fire that burns the trash. The fire is always burning because there is always trash to burn. So when reference is made to Gehenna, “where the fires are always burning,” it’s describing something people could see by looking south over the wall. There’s the valley. There’s the trash. There’s the fire, always burning. Burning up the trash. The trash turns to ash, because it gets burned up.

Now when John the Baptist and Jesus talk about the “chaff” being “burned up” in an “unquenchable fire” (e.g., Matt 3:11-12; 13:40), the word for “burn up” is katakaio. It means, “to burn up; consume.” In other words, to utterly destroy with fire. Note that this meaning is clear; in the LXX Exodus 3:2 (Moses and the Burning Bush), it says, “The bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was _not consumed_” (katakaio). When Jesus and his mentor/predecessor John talk about those who will be judged with fire, the language clearly and unequivocally indicates a total destruction by fire, not a “never-ending torment” in fire.

Indeed, the very parable you reference above makes this absolutely clear. Let’s quote Matt 18:34-35:

“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Did you miss something here? “to be tortured _until he would pay his entire debt_.” Even the parable you cite clearly envisions a temporary punishment.

BEN: “Also, what’s the point of threatening fires that never die if no one is going to be burning in them that whole time? And worms that never stop eating if there’s no one that’s going to be eaten by them that whole time?”

Like I said above. The fires in Gehenna were always burning because it was a trash heap. In their actual lived experience, the fires were always burning. And after the resurrection, where the righteous of God are living in the renewed Jerusalem, those fires would always be burning, because it’s a trash heap. That’s where, Jesus is saying, the bad folks would be buried—out there where the fire is never quenched and the worm never dies (Mark 9:42). Note it doesn’t say, “the worm never stops eating.” It says “the worm never dies.” But the point being, there are always worms and fire out there in the dump. That’s where the bad guys are going to be laid to rest. It’s not really that difficult to understand, Ben, if you’ll allow yourself to disentangle what the text actually says from what traditions have told you the text says. It never says the worms are going to be eating the bad guys (not that they wouldn’t); what it says is the bad guys are going to that place every Jerusalemite passes by everyday where there’s always trash burning and worms eating at the trash. A dishonorable death outside the walls of Jerusalem. That’s the image Jesus is offering; that’s the image his first-century Jewish hearers are hearing. Not “everlasting physical torture in the underworld.”

Note again, the fire is said to be “unquenchable” or “eternal,” but what it does to the object is “burn up; consume” (the opposite of Moses’ Burning Bush). “But the chaff he will burn up (katakaio) with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:12 & Luke 3:17). The fire is unquenchable; the chaff is consumed by it. The image again: the burning object is totally destroyed by the fire, and the fire will not be quenched until there’s nothing left to burn. This isn’t “magic” fire. It’s just that the dead bad guys aren’t the only trash; there’s always more trash to keep the fires going. It’s saying they’re trash, just like the rest of the trash, basically. Indeed, the metaphor here is explicitly “chaff,” so that plays into the “useless garbage” motif just dandy.

BEN: If the eternal punishment isn’t eternal is the eternal life also not eternal?

First of all, the word “eternal” here is the Greek aionios. It is translated often as “eternal,” but generally means “age long.” It comes from “aion,” which just means “an age/period of time/type of period of time.” Aionios doesn’t always signify something that lasts forever and ever. It sometimes is actually used for a short period of time, but a period with a quality that is really intense. Regardless, the only place Jesus ever uses the phrase “eternal punishment” is in Matthew 25:46. He just gets finished talking about judging between those who cared for the needy and those who refused to care for the needy. These are divided into two groups and of those who spurned the needy, “these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

So the question here is, what is “eternal punishment”? You’re thinking “eternal conscious torment,” because that’s how a Greek philosopher-theologian is gonna read it. What is God’s punishment for that kind of thing? Death. The answer is death. That was the punishment for Adam and Eve. That’s what the “wages of sin” are, according to Paul. That’s what John 3:16 says God sent Jesus here to save us from. The eternal punishment is death. It’s contrast is eternal life. The punishment is eternal, meaning—they don’t share in the resurrection which is given only to the righteous (according to Matthew 25, those who cared for the needy). That’s what happens when you get “burned up,” like “chaff,” to use the terminology of both John the Baptist and Jesus. The punishment is a death that you don’t ever get to come back from. For the others, the reward is, you get to come back from death forever. It’s all right there.

The wicked suffer “eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46), “eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:2) and “eternal destruction” (2 Thess 1:9). But this doesn’t mean that they endure it consciously forever and ever. They receive “eternal destruction” the same way the righteous receive “eternal redemption” (Heb 5:9; 9:12). The righteous aren’t undergoing an eternal process of redemption. They are redeemed, and that redemption is forever. In the same way, the unrighteous are destroyed, and they are destroyed forever. They are forever destroyed, but they are not forever being destroyed.

“They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (Hebrews 5:9).

In other words, they are destroyed, dead, never to be resurrected, and never to live in the presence of the Lord (who reigns on earth).

“and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 9:12).

They are not “eternally being saved.” They are saved, and that status of having been saved lasts forever, just like the unrighteous are destroyed, and that destruction is irrevocable (eternal).

“Though the wicked spring up like grass and all evildoers flourish, they will be destroyed forever” (Psalm 92:7).

That Psalm was written long before resurrection was even conceived of in Israel. Its an idiom. “Destroyed forever.” Just means dead.

“And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” (Isaiah 66:24).

Oh look. Jesus was quoting a Bible verse written before resurrection was even conceived. Worms. Unquenchable fire. “Loathsome to all mankind.” Yup. Out there in trash dump.

“Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched” (2 Kings 22:17).

Ah, another “unquenchable fire.” Doesn’t mean “eternal conscious torment.” It means the fire won’t go out before it utterly destroys what it’s burning.

“Circumcise yourselves to Yahweh, circumcise your hearts, you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it” (Jeremiah 4:4).

“Therefore this is what Yahweh who is sovereign says: ‘My anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place—on man and beast, on the trees of the field and on the crops of your land—and it will burn and not be quenched'” (Jeremiah 7:20).

“This is what Yahweh says to you, house of David: ‘Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it'” (Jeremiah 21:12).

Say to the southern forest: ‘Hear the word of Yahweh. This is what Yahweh who is sovereign says: ‘I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it. Everyone will see that I Yahweh have kindled it; it will not be quenched'” (Ezekiel 20:47-48).

2 Peter references the total destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as a pattern of God’s judgment of the unrighteous. God turned “the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes,” he “condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly” (2 Pet. 2:6).

We look at the book of Daniel, which Jesus referenced many times. This is one of the very late books of the Old Testament, written in a time when resurrection had finally emerged as a belief among apocalyptic Jews.

“Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:35).

The metaphors used throughout the New Testament for God’s judgment denote annihilation, not some eternal conscious torment:

“The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).

“Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:19).

“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age” (Matthew 13:40).

Do weeds burn forever and ever?

“If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6).

In Matthew 7:13, Jesus contrasts the gate that “leads to destruction” with the gate that “leads to life.” Note also Matthew 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” The clear implication here is that God will do to the soul of the unrighteous what humans do to the body—kill it. In other words, if you’re killed for being righteous, you will die but you will be awaiting resurrection. On the other hand, if you care more about your life now than obedience to God, your whole existence will be extinguished forever.

BEN: “Perhaps the eternal life is just metaphorical as well and Yahweh will merely appreciate the memory of his people fondly forever?”

This kind of sarcasm doesn’t play really well when you don’t know what you’re talking about. 😉

BEN: “How can Jesus believe in ‘eternal’ sins if there won’t be eternal punishments?”

Well, according to Jesus there was only one “eternal sin.” That’s blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. And it’s quite obvious what he meant by that; the logic of the text is unambiguous, Ben.

“Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:29).

Obviously, the meaning of “eternal sin” is a sin that can never be forgiven. What did you have in your head? Some kind of platonic ideal sin that exists forever and ever? The “eternal punishment” for this “eternal sin” is you don’t ever get to be forgiven, therefore you don’t ever get to be resurrected from the dead. Not. Rocket. Science.

BEN: “The fire pit outside the city seems to just be the earthly analogy Jesus uses before applying the eternal modifiers.”

Ha. Again: after the resurrection the people of God are going to live in Jerusalem forever and ever and ever. The Valley of Hinnom will always be outside the wall, where the worm will never die and the fire will never be extinguished, because that’s where the trash goes. Jesus wasn’t some Greek who thought everyone was going to live in the heavens when they died. He was a Jew who believed in _bodily_ resurrection on the selfsame _physical_ earth.

BEN “Thom said: ‘Did that mean he thought anyone who wasn’t a justice-loving Jew or Christ-professing gentile was going to burn in hell forever? We have no evidence to support this, and lots of evidence to the contrary.’ Oh? Just the Romans (and Jewish elite?)?”

You miss the point. I said there is lots of evidence to the contrary of the view that they would “burn in hell forever” (i.e., “conscious torment forever”). I also meant that there’s no evidence that Jesus believed everyone in the world who wasn’t explicitly one of his followers is going to 1) suffer consciously forever (obviously, because that’s not what he taught about anybody), and 2) die permanently. All the primary treatises of Jesus on judgment draw the line between those who please God by doing what is just and good, and those who displease God by refusing to do so. The Sermon on the Mount (loving your enemies, etc). Matthew 25 (taking care of the needy). The Good Samaritan. The ENTIRE POINT of the Good Samaritan parable is that it’s not believing the right things, but doing the right things, that pleases God. The Good Samaritan says that even people who believe the wrong things are counted worthy in God’s eyes if they do the right things, and even people who believe the right things are counted unworthy in God’s eyes if they don’t do the right things. That’s the whole point of it. It’s supposed to indicate that the kingdom of God is going to be full of surprise guests, and missing a lot of people his audience might have assumed would have been there.

BEN: “Or is Jesus pointing the finger at just about everyone who doesn’t repent in just the right way to just the right measure?”

There’s no basis for that kind of loose, sloppy generalization, and it goes against much of Jesus’ own teaching, Ben.

BEN: “Did not Jesus believe few would be saved in Matthew 7:14 and again in 22:13-14? Was he asked if only a few *Romans* would be saved?”

What does Matthew 7:14 follow after in the text, Ben? It’s the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, beginning in chapter 5. Why don’t you read it?

Whose is the kingdom of heaven? Those who are poor. Not the doctrinally correct. The poor.

Who will inherit the earth? The meek. Not the doctrinally correct. The meek.

Who will be filled? Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The word for righteousness is the same word for justice. He’s talking about actions, not doctrines.

Who will receive mercy? Those who show mercy.

Who will see God? The pure in heart. Not the pure in doctrine; the pure in heart.

Who will be called the children of God? Those who make peace.

Whose is the kingdom of heaven? Those who are persecuted for the sake of justice. So, currently, like, #BlackLivesMatter, etc.

He then says that his listeners are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. But if they “lost their saltiness” or “hide their light,” they lose what makes them children of God. To shine the light, Jesus says, is to “do good works.” What are these good works? He extrapolates:

Make peace with people you’re angry with.

Be pure in your love; love genuinely.

Don’t abandon your wife making her vulnerable to this patriarchal society. (He’s speaking in a context.)

Be genuinely honest. Be true to your word.

Be good even to those powerbrokers who try to exploit you. Even your Roman occupiers.

Love your enemies, because you’re children of God, and God loves everybody. Don’t just love your own kind, your own friends and family. Everybody does that. That’s nothing special. Love your enemies, specifically. Overcome evil with good.

Don’t make displays of piety in public to show off how religious you are. Keep your piety in the closet. Do your good deeds anonymously.

Don’t make ostentatious prayers to show off. Keep your prayers simple and to the point, and in your prayers, don’t ask for more than you need, and always remember that God’s mercy on you is contingent on your showing mercy to others.

Don’t abase yourself and show it off so others will think you’re so holy. Keep your piety in the closet. True religion is not about how pious you are in public.

Don’t be greedy. Don’t amass stupid amounts of wealth. Share what you have. You can’t take it with you anyway.

Fill yourself with good things. Don’t revel in darkness. You are what you consume.

You have to make a decision between God’s way of doing things, and pursuing wealth. The two are incompatible. You cannot fulfill the law of love if your primary pursuit is money.

Don’t worry about yourself. Worry about others around you, and you’ll be taken care of.

Don’t judge others for their sins. You’ll be a hypocrite 100% of the time.

Live a life of open trust.

The entire law and everything the prophets ever said basically amounts to this: do for others what you would like others to do for you.

Now we’ve arrived at Matthew 7:13-14. It begins the concluding portion of the sermon. Everything prior to 7:13-14 is Jesus’ description of the kind of life that children of God should lead. Now we enter into the section in which he makes clear that whether we have lived this kind of life or not is the basis of how we’re going to be evaluated by God.

7:13-14 says that the life he’s described from 5:3-7:12 is hard, and not many are up to the challenge. He says nothing of doctrines or beliefs or anything of the sort. The narrow gate that leads to life is the hard, challenging life in which we show mercy to the unmerciful, in which we give love even to our enemies, in which we make peace with our neighbors and avoid self-righteousness, in which we abandon the pursuit of wealth and instead share with those who are in need, in which don’t concern ourselves with the sins of others but focus on our own moral life, in which we are truly honest and in which we love authentically. That’s the narrow gate.

But broad is the road that leads to destruction: the road where we are judgmental, where we don’t show mercy, where we make war with our enemies, where we don’t reconcile with our neighbors but instead prolong conflict and compound aggression, where we are unfaithful to our loved ones and where we pursue selfish gain, money, public recognition and acclaim. That’s the road that leads to destruction, and that’s the road most people take. Even apart from God’s judgment, it’s pure self-destruction. But it’s the easy path.

Conversely, the life of genuine love, forgiveness, mercy, and radical openness is hard. Very few find it.

Jesus then concludes the sermon with three comments on judgment. You shall know a tree by its fruit. What is good fruit? He just spent the sermon describing it. For example, someone who teaches you to hate your enemies is a false teacher; they will lead you astray from the life of genuine love. Don’t heed them. They’re a false prophet (i.e., most pastors and right-wing politicians in America today—bad fruit). He then makes it clear that just doing religious things in his name isn’t going to get you in heaven. Even if you’re doing all sorts of fancy miracles in his name, if you haven’t lived the life of genuine love described in the sermon, then you’re not somebody that Jesus recognizes as his own. He wants the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the enemy lovers, the givers of mercy. He has no interest in the miracle-working powerbrokers who don’t know what it means to really love the Outsider. Finally, don’t just listen to what he says. You got to do it. Sort of the same principle as the critique of “slacktivists.” You can spout off all the right ideas, but if you’re not out there actively doing the hard work of love, building better communities and better societies by being peacemakers and sharers and truth-tellers and lovers of the Other in the world, then that’s not good enough. Don’t just post it on Facebook and show everyone you got the principle down. Get out there and pick that homeless woman up off the ground and take her to your guest room, etc. If you don’t live a life of love and show mercy, no mercy will be shown to you. But if you do, then mercy will be shown to you. Gandhi got it. So did the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable. That is what Jesus is saying, in no uncertain terms, God cares about. As in Matthew 25, so here: God’s hand is extended to those who have extended their hands to others; it is withheld from those who have withheld their hands from others. This is the central message of Jesus. It is repeated throughout the synoptic Gospels over and over again.

Hell, even Paul, in Romans 2:14-16 says that those without God’s law are judged according to how well they measured up to their own consciences, and either accused or excused by it:

“When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.”

Ben, you point to Matthew 22:13-14 as a prooftext for your view that Jesus was this nutcase zealot who wanted almost everybody to suffer. Did you even read the passage to which vv. 13-14 are the conclusion?

This is what the parable means:

God has sent his messengers out to invite God’s people to come into his. The kingdom is depicted as a great celebration. But most of God’s people rejected his messengers, and even killed them. This is a reference not only to Jesus’ disciples but to the long line of Israel’s social justice prophets who were killed by mobs. You have to understand this trope: the prophets throughout Israel’s history were always being sent to Israel to say: put an end to your injustices. You exploit the poor and trample on them; you sacrifice your children to idols; your society is full of systemic injustice. Put an end to all these horrible practices and start acting justly. (Not everything in the Old Testament is all genocide and slavery, you know. It was written by a bunch of people with a bunch of different perspectives, and a bunch of them were trenchant critics of real injustice, and strong advocates for social justice.)

Let’s take the prophet Amos for example. Read, carefully and thoughtfully, this passage from Amos 5. My commentary will be in square brackets.


They hate anyone who reproves in the gate, [they hate those who calls the city out for their injustice]
and they detest someone who speaks with integrity.

Therefore, since you trample on the poor
and take wheat as a “present” from him, [overtaxing the poor],
you have built houses of cut stone, [fancy houses built with poor people’s money]
but you won’t inhabit them; [God won’t let them enjoy their fancy houses]
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you won’t drink their wine.
For I know your numerous rebellions,
and your “mighty” sins—
oppressing the righteous, taking bribes,
they push aside the needy in the gate.

So, at a time like this a sensible person keeps quiet;
for it is an evil time.

Seek good, not evil,
that you may live;
and so Yahweh, God of armies,
may be with you, as you have said.

Hate evil, love good,
set up justice in the gate;
it may be that Yahweh, God of armies,
will be gracious to the remains of Joseph.

Therefore thus says Yahweh, God of armies, my Lord:
In all the squares — wailing;
in all the streets they’ll say, “Alas! Alas!”
and call the farmers to mourning,
those skilled in wails, to wailing;
in all the vineyards — wailing,
for I will pass among you.
says Yahweh.
[God is coming to judge them for their systemic injustices]

Alas to you who desire Yahweh’s day!
What is Yahweh’s day to you?
It’s darkness, not light!
[They looked forward to God’s arrival, but they didn’t imagine he was coming against them.]

Like someone escaping from a lion,
who meets a bear; [ha!]
and entering the house,
leans a hand on the wall,
and a snake bites him.
Isn’t Yahweh’s day darkness, not light,
gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I reject your festivals, [your religious crap is bullshit]
I will not stomach your assemblies. [i.e., “church” services]
Even though you offer me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I won’t accept them;
and the peace offerings of your prize beasts
I won’t approve.
Spare me the roar of your songs;
I won’t listen to the music of your guitars.

But let justice roll like water,
and righteousness as a permanent torrent.


Then check this out in Amos 9:7:

Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel? says the Lord.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?

Amos is flat out saying that Israel is nothing special. God saves the Ethiopians, the Egyptians, the Philistines, and Arameans. These are all bigtime enemies of Israel, and Amos is saying that God is looking out for them too. Israel thinks it’s God’s special people, but God is in the business of saving even Israel’s greatest enemies, and Israel is going to be judged for its systemic injustices. Just because they’re God’s “chosen people” doesn’t mean they can act like assholes to the most vulnerable in society and get away with it. God doesn’t care about their religious ceremonies or their worship music or any of that shit. He wants them to take care of the vulnerable and establish justice in their society. But if they keep building paradises for themselves on the backs of the poor, God will make sure they never get to enjoy that twisted paradise.

This is the message of Amos. And for it, Amos was tortured and killed by a bigtime priest (i.e., political leader). This is a pattern throughout the prophets. The prophet (i.e., political gadfly) comes and preaches against Israel’s obscene treatment of the vulnerable and poor, and then Israel’s powerbrokers kill the prophet. Why did they kill Jesus? What was the tipping point? None of other than his protest in the temple, where he confronted the moneychangers and protested their exploitation of the poor. That’s when they finally decided to kill him.

Now let’s look again at Matthew 22:


The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.


This is the same trope, it follows the same pattern we see in Amos and other social justice prophets. Jesus is saying that his mission is to invite Israel to come into the kingdom, which he likens to a celebration. Some scoff and go home. Others come and kill the messengers, just like they killed Amos and other social justice prophets throughout Israel’s history. So God judges those who rejected the invitation (i.e., the call to repent of all those things the prophets have condemned: the exploitation of the poor, the constant enmity and strife, the injustice, the war-making, the exorbitant rich living off the taxes and offerings of the poor).

What God does next, in the parable, also exactly mirrors what was said in Amos. Amos said that God would judge Israel, but that the Egyptians and the Ethiopians and all them, they’re all God’s people too. God saves even Israel’s enemies. This is exactly what happens in the parable:

“Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Did you catch that? They gathered “both good and bad.” Both “good and bad” get to come into the kingdom. This doesn’t mean a bunch of wicked, unjust people get to come in; it just means the same thing the parable of the Good Samaritan means: the kingdom of God is going to be full of surprise guests, people “good Jews” would have been scandalized to see there. Then it says, “the wedding hall was filled with guests.” Note: “filled.”

Then the parable includes that bit about the man at the wedding feast who didn’t have a robe. Remember, this is a parable. It symbolizes the same people Jesus spoke about at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s talking about those who say, “Lord, Lord. I did all this great stuff in your name.” But Jesus be like Amos: “I don’t care about your religiosity. You didn’t seek justice. You didn’t give mercy to those who needed it, so no mercy will be given to you.” The “robe” then that the guy didn’t have is the stuff Jesus talked about all throughout Matthew that children of God are supposed to be doing: caring for the needy, visiting the prisoners, sharing with the poor, loving the enemies, making peace where there’s enmity and conflict. That’s the robe. That’s the consistent message of the social justice prophets (I do not want your ceremonies and sacrifices, I want justice), and the consistent message of Jesus.

So when it concludes that “many are called but few are chosen,” it certainly doesn’t mean that most of the world is going to burn in hell consciously forever and ever. That’s not something Jesus ever taught about anybody. What it means is, when Israel (primarily Israel’s leaders, but in general too) was confronted with their gross exploitation of the vulnerable in their society and invited to repent of it, and they killed the messengers for it, those who rejected the message weren’t chosen. But what the parable does say is that the king then sent his people back out to gather in “all they found, both good and bad,” and that the wedding banquet was “filled.” The point is the opposite of your atomistic reading of verses 13-14: the message of justice went out to a bunch of people. Most rejected it, thus “few were chosen.” But beyond that, a whole bunch of people were brought in, the kind of people no one would expect to see at the banquet of a king. It’s massively subversive, counter-intuitive, and its message is one of openness, just like Amos saw God’s salvific reach extend way beyond Israel even to their biggest enemies (and not in some “Christian” sense either, Amos wasn’t no post-Pauline Christian, and neither was Jesus).

Continue to Part 2:

And this is where Paul Avery’s comment comes into play as well. He quotes the “woes” from Luke 10. If you’ll read Luke 10, you’ll find that it’s actually the exact real-world correspondent to the parable in Matthew 22 we just examined. He sends his disciples to all the cities of Israel, and they are to stand at the edge of the city and bring this message of repentance. Exactly like in Amos, where the man of integrity stands in the city gate and brings reproof against the systemic injustices of the city. If the city hates the messenger, the city dooms itself, because, what that means is, they refuse to stop their injustices. The cities named in the woes (a common prophetic genre) are the hometowns of Jesus and some of his most prominent disciples. The messenger’s are sent to the city, with the message of justice and repentance, and if the city rejects the messenger, they bring judgment on themselves. This is not some Harold Camping apocalyptic cult type of thing. This is a major prophetic trope in Israelite literature. And it’s about justice. The social justice prophets are full to the brim with “woe” passages, always about cities that reject the message of social justice. Jesus spent a huge chunk of his ministry in this area. But if you think the “woe” to the city means that everyone in the city is doomed to destruction, you just don’t understand the literature. This is a place where Jesus healed the Roman Centurion’s servant, and where many people believed in him and were healed by him. The woe trope is a general oracle of doom on a city, particularly its leadership, not on every single inhabitant. The parallel to Luke 10 is in Matthew 11. But another passage in Matthew talks about the leadership in Capernaum, with regard to the collection of the temple tax; and it’s a very incisive, populace critique of the establishment:

“When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’ He said, ‘Yes, he does.’ And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, ‘What do you think, Simon [i.e., Peter]? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?’ When Peter said, ‘From others,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.'”

Let’s break this down, because it’s awesome.

Jesus asks Peter how the power structure works in the real world, where kings rule over populations of workers trying to get by. “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” First jab at the establishment: the economic system is fundamentally unjust: kings don’t levy taxes on their own (those who would actually be the wealthiest in society), but instead tax everyone else. Then, after Peter answers that the taxes are levied on the others, not the king’s children, Jesus brings it home: “Then the children are free.” What is he saying? Who is the king? Who are the children? The king is God (whose house is the temple), and the children are everybody in Israel. Jesus is saying that nobody, nobody owes taxes to the temple. He’s completely undermining the economic power structure and its exploitation of the people. So in Matthew, Capernaum is mentioned as a place where the powerbrokers are piling taxes upon taxes for the working-class, subsistence folks to pay (they owed taxes to Rome, to Herod, and to the temple). Recall the passage from Amos we looked at earlier:

Therefore, since you trample on the poor
and take wheat as a “present” from him,
you have built houses of cut stone,
but you won’t inhabit them.

Now do you see where the “woe” on Capernaum is coming from? And of course, there was a woe on Jerusalem too, elsewhere. Read in the broader context, the declaration of woe is a prophetic trope directed at the exploitative economic power structure in the cities of Galilee and Judea, as with Jesus’ social justice prophetic predecessors in whose tradition he firmly stands.

Your next atomistic prooftext also misses the point of the passage from which you excised it:

BEN: Was not Jesus asked the direct question about whether or not a few would be saved implying that his listeners must have thought Jesus’ teachings indicated this would be the case (Luke 13:23-24)?

Let’s look at Luke 13:22-30:

Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, ‘Lord, will only a few be saved?’ He said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us,” then in reply he will say to you, “I do not know where you come from.” Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” But he will say, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!” There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.’

If you stop right there, sounds like only a “few” are saved. But Jesus goes on:

“Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

It’s like, saying the opposite of what your atomistic reading took it to say.

First of all, notice that this is a doublet, a variation on the tradition from Matthew 7:21-23, at the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount:

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”‘

Remember, in Matthew 7, “doing the will of my Father in heaven” is defined by chapters 5-6 of the Sermon on the Mount. Loving the enemy, showing mercy, making peace, being truthful and true to your word, loving authentically, not judging. He sums up the law and the prophets with “do for others what you would want them to do for you.” This is “doing the will of my Father in heaven.” And those who don’t live this way will come to him thinking that their religiosity will save them, their association with him. But no. They forgot to show mercy, therefore no mercy will be extended to them. So this is what Luke 13 is saying. Remember, all that stuff is in Luke too, in the Sermon on the Plain. In Luke 13, as in Matthew 7, the door is narrow. How is that defined? By the content of Jesus’ commands: all that good stuff in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain. It’s narrow because a lot of people don’t truly strive to live their lives that way. A lot of people are content to love their own, and hate their enemies, to hold grudges, and seek money and public recognition. The door is narrow because love is hard. But, Jesus doesn’t just say that few are going to make it. He introduces a new concept, a radical concept to his hearers: “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:29-30). That’s the exact opposite sentiment you were deriving from verses 21-23. The kingdom of God is opened up to everybody everywhere—everyone is invited to the banquet. “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” This is that radical reversal of expectations. The people you thought (as a good religious person) would never in a million years be there are going into the banquet at the front of the line, to get the best seats, and the people you thought would be at the front of the line because of their piety and doctrinal correctness and religiosity—they’re at the back of the line if they get in at all. Jesus blows the doors to the kingdom wide open. Only the merciless are excluded, because they spent their lives excluding others from their own parties.

BEN: “Did Jesus not continually lambast his entire generation as evil, perverse, faithless, sinful, and whatever else? Did he not use the Pharisees, the scribes, and teachers of the law as cases in point to typify the entire generation? I don’t think “generation” refers to a small group of people or school of thought, does it?”

Again, here’s where some background in biblical studies helps you, Ben. This is basic prophetic trope stuff here. There’s one other prophet that uses “generation” like Jesus does in these cases. Just one other prophet. His name was Jeremiah. He used it in chapter 2 and chapter 7, to describe the injustice of the current generation, their wickedness. Because Jeremiah’s was a “generation that provoked God’s wrath,” they would soon be invaded by Babylon, their temple destroyed, Jerusalem laid waste. You’re reading this, as a fundamentalist with a point to prove, as some sort of evidence that Jesus believed the vast majority of Jews were going to hell to burn forever. Nope. He was alluding to Jeremiah’s warning of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. In short, this is the trope you use when you want to warn everybody that Rome is about to swoop down and wreak destruction on Jerusalem. You read the text like a novice literalist. Jews communicated in memories. They alluded to broad chapters in their recurring history. When Jesus says that his generation is wicked, he is recalling Jeremiah’s oracles; he is warning of the coming destruction of Rome. (And don’t get all anti-supernaturalist on me. Jesus wasn’t the only prophet in the first century to warn that Rome would sack the temple, well ahead of the fact. It’s just a matter of reading the political situation. Besides, the earliest Gospel was written just a few years prior to the event, and the next two shortly thereafter. So if you’re one who doesn’t think Jesus really predicted the destruction of the temple, then all this “generation is wicked” stuff is added as part of the temple prediction anyway. That’s its meaning.) He’s not talking about a whole generation “going to hell to be tormented forever.” He’s talking about the Jewish-Roman war that began in 66 CE, just three decades after his death.

BEN: “Judgment Day was going to come on everyone and not just one school of thought, right?”

Judgment day comes on the righteous too, so yeah. That’s why they call it judgment. You’re judged, and found guilty or innocent, or shown mercy. What did Jesus say about mercy? Oh, right. The merciful shall receive it.

BEN: “Didn’t Jesus call his immediate audience evil just offhandedly as though he was used to just about everyone being evil (Matthew 7:11 & Luke 11:13)?”

Well, at least you can make me laugh. That’s about the most stilted reading of a text I’ve come across in a very, very long time.

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

You actually want to use this as evidence that Jesus thought everybody was going to hell. A passage where the very people he called “evil” are told that their Father loves them and will give them good things. You’re losing the plot, man. If I say, “We’re all evil,” that’s not the same thing as saying, “Dick Cheney is evil.” You know what Jesus said when somebody called him “good”? He said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Same exact point: no one is good but God. “If you who are evil know how to be good to your kids, imagine how good God is to you.” And you use this as a prooftext for your “Jesus hates everybody” thesis. Oh, Ben. Ben, Ben. Take a step back and recognize: this is symptomatic of your whole project. You find a thesis and you use your uninformed, literalistic, stilted, jaded reading strategy to support it any way you can.

BEN: “Did Jesus not preach perfectionism impossible to attain without divine assistance (again implying it was really hard to make it)?”

Not in the way you’re thinking. If you’re talking about the heightened demands of the Sermon on the Mount, yeah, he increased what was required of people, but it wasn’t a greater legalism, it was a move away from legalism. He moved away from “murder” and cut to the heart of it: “anger with your brother.” He moved away from retributive justice and said, “love your enemies.” He said he didn’t come to abolish the law, but then he said the whole law is summed up in this: “do for others what you want them to do for you.” In other words, stop focusing on the letter of the law, because obeying the letter doesn’t make us better people. Finding love in our midst: that’s how you fulfill the law. That’s the message he preached. And that’s a hard message. But it’s not a legalistic message. It’s truth. You don’t have to believe in a god to recognize it. Even in secular society: being a good neighbor doesn’t just mean not shooting him when you have a dispute. It means reconciling and reaching out, finding common ground and becoming friends. A society isn’t healthy just because North and South aren’t at war with each other. It’s healthy when we break down the walls that separate us through confrontation, peace making, and learn to love and respect one another. Tolerance is like the lowest common denominator for society. But genuine respect and concern and care, even for those we disagree with, is what makes a healthy society. You can obey the law and still be a bad citizen. But you can’t be a bad citizen if you learn how to love your enemies and actively do for others what you would want others to do for you. And as hard as it is to live up to that, Jesus never demands perfect fulfillment of the law of love. Remember at the outset of the Sermon: “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” For Jesus, it’s not about legalistic fulfillment of the law: it’s about showing mercy to one another, and reconciling when relationships break down.

BEN: “Did not Jesus compare his apocalypse to Noah’s flood where only 8 people were saved?”

Except, if you want to be literal like that, he actually went on to describe a scenario where exactly 50% of people were saved from the destruction.

BEN: “Was he not used to a god from the Old Testament in general who was not well known for saving most people?”

lol. Please refer above to the discussion of Amos 9:7. The prophets Jesus alluded to most had visions of universal salvation, where the masses of the gentiles come into the fold, and there’s peace the whole world over. I understand you and I are both critical of those narratives in the Hebrew Bible like the Canaanite genocides and the flood, etc., but we’re talking about how Jesus thought about his scriptures, not how you or I, post-Enlightenment, think about them. Jesus wanted to open the gates wide, like the prophets before him.

BEN: “Did not Jesus tacitly admit that basically all the nations of the world belonged to Satan (during the temptation), implying virtually everyone in them were under a non-saved demonic dominion? Didn’t he run into demons and demon-possessed people often implying he lived in a world controlled by dark forces?”

Ben, that doesn’t mean he thought everybody in those nations was Satanic or evil or doomed. You really don’t understand ancient Near Eastern cosmology much. These are really sophomoric arguments, man. Look at Paul. He talked very explicitly about the dark spiritual powers that governed the earth and the different dark powers that governed the different nations. And yet, as you read earlier in Romans 2, Paul still believed that God would judge the people who actually lived in those nations according to how they measured up the law written on their hearts—their own consciences. He said some wouldn’t measure up to their own consciences, but some would.

BEN: “It seems clear to me that there’s a *ton* of evidence Jesus lived in his tiny cultic fractured fairytale land where the ‘few’ of the elect were vastly outnumbered by the dark forces all around them. And so that’s why I don’t take your core revolutionary Jesus very seriously.”

Ben, you don’t take any of this very seriously because you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s that simple. That last description of Jesus you gave there is just the perfect example of agenda and prejudice overriding sound historical description. “Jesus lived in his tiny cultic fractured fairytale land.” Dude. That’s just so jaundiced I don’t even know what to say. Your agenda is driving you to blatant reductionism, and its preventing you from being able to see Jesus and his world as a real world where people lived and dreamed and shared memory and had political struggles and economic conflict and were human beings just like the rest of us. You only see in caricature. And it’s sad.

It’s not sad because I have some ulterior agenda. I’m critical of Jesus’ apocalypticism, but the difference is, I actually understand what it properly entailed. I talk about how his view of the impending reign of God on earth affected his ethics (most notably his family ethics). And I say where I think he was wrong. It’s no secret. I’ve published it. You’ve read it. I don’t want you to be a Christian and I don’t want you to stop being an atheist and I don’t want you to stop doing what you do. It’s not my place to tell you what to do about anything. But the one thing I will tell you is this: think and say what you like about Jesus, but don’t think for a second you can take the kind of arguments you’ve made here to a proper academic discourse with people who are actual Jesus scholars and not get laughed out of the room. I’ll say it once and I’ll say it as a friend: this is garbage.




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