If we are going to understand what Jesus and the authors of the New Testament meant when they spoke about the wrath of God or judgment or Gehenna, we have to come at the matter with an entirely different frame of mind. We have to read historically and contextually rather than theologically and abstractly. We have to keep at the front of our minds the question: How does the theological content of the New Testament work within its own narrative-historical setting?
- Andrew Perriman
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Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective
by Andrew Perriman
Recently I was visiting a patient who told me a preacher came to visit him at the request of a family member. When the patient expressed doubts about whether he believed or not, the preacher told him immediately that he was going to hell. He asked me if I would come back and talk to his wife and him and give them a second opinion (!). About a week later we met, and I told him Jesus said he came into the world not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved.
If this had been a person who wanted to talk on a different level about what the Bible teaches about hell (and heaven), I might have had introduced Andrew Perriman into the discussion. Whether one ends up agreeing with him or not, his understanding of how the New Testament approaches the subject of eschatology should be taken seriously.
Perriman thinks the doctrine of hell (and heaven, for that matter) as traditionally formulated is unbiblical.
He is not a liberal or modernist who finds the idea of God’s wrath incompatible with faith in a loving God.
He is not a universalist. He believes God judges, and he maintains belief in an ultimate judgment.
Though his interpetation ends up having some surface familiarity with preterism, he is not a preterist. Preterism is a traditional theological position, whereas Perriman’s views grow out of a different interpretive framework — a “narrative-historical” approach that is kin to other “New Perspective” proponents who have delved more deeply into the Second Temple historical context of the New Testament.
Perriman believes that evangelical theology is in a season of transition in which we are shifting from a theological paradigm to another that prioritizes the historical context of the text and reading its narrative in that light. Representing this “New Perspective,” Andrew Perriman thinks the church has developed a bad habit of interpreting Scripture according to theological and dogmatic categories rather than understanding it in its historical and narrative context.
When Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins came out, Perriman did a series of blog posts on hell and related eschatological subjects. He brought these together into an e-book that sets forth a case for his “narrative-historical” views.
In its first section Perriman discusses what he means by a “narrative-historical” approach to the NT.
Section two contains some general posts on “hell,” in which he interacts with several other authors who have weighed in on the recent debate regarding hell.
The third section discusses many specific passages according to the “narrative-historical” hermeneutic.
In section four he shifts his attention to the subject of “heaven.”
With regard to “eschatology,” Andrew Perriman’s conclusion is that “material that has usually been understood to describe end-of-the-world events actually refers to more immediate and more urgent realities.”
The word “eschatology” would normally mean something like “the study of last things”. Traditionally it has been treated as a heading either for the classification of such ultimate realities as death, judgment, heaven and hell, or for debates over competing millennialist timelines. I find both these approaches unhelpful. Within the frame of my preferred narrative-historical hermeneutic, I would use the word “eschatological” primarily with reference to prophecies of decisive, theologically significant historical events in a foreseeable future. From the perspective of the New Testament this means essentially the two horizons of the Jewish War and the victory of the persecuted church over Roman pagan imperialism.
So then, for example with respect to “the wrath of God” in Scripture, he asserts that it:
“…always — I repeat, always — refers to some historical event or process by with a people or a nation or a civilization is “judged.” It is how the creator God puts matters to right amongst the nations.”
Therefore, when Perriman reads what Jesus said about judgment to come, he asserts: “Jesus does not teach ‘hell’ if by that we mean a place of unending torment after death.”
What about the scene in Matthew 25 where God divides the sheep and the goats? It does not portray a judgment of the dead (that’s an assumption we have made). Instead it describes a judgment of the nations that occurs after the vindication of the Son of Man and the early martyr church. Like N.T. Wright and other New Perspective interpreters, Perriman thinks that many of Jesus’ eschatological teachings are sourced in the book of Daniel, which describes a “coming” of the Son of Man to judge the nations.
What about Jesus’ warnings about the “fires of Gehenna”? These refer not to a universal hell but to a coming judgment upon Israel in history. The imagery of corpses (note: “corpses”) being consumed by undying worms and unquenchable fire foretell the horrific destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies. The dead bodies are not souls being tormented endlessly in hell but graphic evidence of a brutal invasion.
What about the image of “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”? This describes the exclusion of faithless Israel from the people of God.
What about Paul’s descriptions of judgment in passages such as 2Thessalonians 1:5-12? Perriman argues that these words apply specifically to the persecutors of the early church. Using apocalyptic language, Paul echoes the “woes” of the O.T. prophets, who proclaimed that God ultimately protects his people and destroys their enemies within history, and not beyond.
To summarize Perriman’s position: There are three horizons of eschatology in the New Testament:
(1) The coming destruction of Israel by the Romans,
(2) The victory of the persecuted church over Roman pagan imperialism,
(3) The final renewal of heaven and earth which involves a final judgment.
(4) By far, most of what the N.T. envisages relates to the first two categories. “In my view the supposed heaven and “hell” passages in the New Testament relate to impending historical crises: the martyrs will be rewarded with an interim stay in heaven, where they will reign with Christ thoughout the coming ages; the enemies of the emerging people of God in Christ, whether Jewish or pagan, will suffer decisive judgment.”
(5) When it comes to the final judgment — “The New Testament does not have a doctrine of ‘hell,’ but neither does it teach that everyone goes to heaven when they die. The fundamental antithesis is not between heaven and hell but between new creation life and irrevocable death, represented symbolically in Revelation 20:14-15 by the ‘lake of fire.’”
The final state of those judged by God is death — destruction — and not eternal torment.
By the way, Perriman also does not believe the NT teaches an “intermediate state,” a paradisiacal place where believers go when they die (as well as a corresponding place of torment for the wicked). The NT hope is resurrection: “People die in Adam; they are raised to life at the coming of Jesus.”
A lot to chew on here. Have at it.
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Andrew Perriman blogs at P.OST – An Evangelical Theology for the Age to Come. You can search the site for the posts that make up his e-book, or purchase the e-book by clicking on the link at the top of the page ($6.99 as of this post) and have all the articles in one volume.
A good place to start to get his own overview on this subject is Perriman’s post, “Hell, the unbiblical doctrine of.”