The More I Follow Jesus, the Less I Like His Teaching

Friday, September 02, 2011

Over the years I have been increasingly troubled by the doctrine of Hell. As my love for God and my neighbor increased, the horror at the thought of many of those I love suffering eternal punishment had increased with it. In other words, this was not a crisis of faith, it was the result of my faith. The more I experienced God's grace in my life and grew to share Jesus' heart for the lost, the more I was troubled by Hell.

Now what makes this even more complicated is the fact that most of the statements about Hell found in the Bible are said by Jesus. The one who is leading me to question Hell, is the very one who teaches it. Similarly, Jesus is known for preaching love of enemies and nonviolence, yet many of his teachings use very violent imagery. Again, how can we understand these apparent contradictions? How can we think of Jesus as compassionate and loving when he says such harsh things?

There's a movement among emerging folks like me to focus on the teachings of Jesus over the doctrines of Paul as a way to get away from legalism and back to grace. I like the idea of getting to grace, but I've always had a problem with this for two reasons: First of all, Paul is all about grace, and any legalistic dogmatic interpretation of him is a misinterpretation. Second, Jesus (as we have seen) is anything but easy to interpret. In fact, if one takes a literalistic approach to the teachings of Jesus they are sure to come up with the most un-Christlike teachings imaginable. So in light of that, I'd like to offer a more sophisticated approach to interpreting the teachings of Jesus that take all of this into account.

Let's begin with the parable of the unmerciful servant (Mt 18:21-35). Jesus tells the story of a king who forgives his servant for a huge debt, but then when he hears that this same servant has refused forgive very small debt, the king becomes enraged. Jesus tells us that the king "handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed." and the concludes “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Now the debt the servant owed was basically unpayable. Scholars say that it was more money that an entire kingdom would have had, and so it would be like us saying "a zillion dollars" meaning he would never be able to pay it, and would thus be tortured forever. So are we to conclude from this that if we don't forgive others that God will torture us in hell forever? It is crucial here to look at the context: Jesus tells this parable in response to a question from Peter were he asked Jesus "how many times must I forgive, seven times?" Jesus answers "no, seventy -seven times" (v. 21-22). So if we read this like an accountant we would need to conclude that we should forgive 77 times, but God does not do this. God (according the parable here read in a pedantic fashion) does not even forgive seven times like Peter suggests, or two times for that matter. Just one chance and then that's it. God here appears at first infinitely merciful, forgiving a huge debt, and then suddenly flips and wants to torture us forever.

Does God suffer from some form of borderline personality disorder where he is at first loving and forgiving, and then suddenly becomes brutal and merciless? Are we more merciful than God? No, this is a parable, and a parable is essentially a loose analogy. As everyone knows, if any analogy is pressed too far it becomes absurd (as we can clearly see here). The broad point Jesus is making here is that it would be really horrible if we were forgiven a great debt, but then turned around and were merciless to others. We should treat others with the same grace that we need, and which God has richly shown us.

This is an interpretation that fits with the overall point of this pericope. To read it literalistically would mean that the point Jesus was making to Peter was completely undermined by Jesus' own parable -- be merciful as your Heavenly Father is... who is not merciful at all! Clearly, that cannot be what Jesus was trying to convey. To understand Jesus we need to listen to context of his larger point which is always about showing mercy to others, about radical unconditional grace.

Now, so far I've just been following rules of basic biblical interpretation -- considering genre (a parable), reading a passage in context (explaining to Peter why we should forgive more than seven times), and focusing on authorial intent (teaching that we should show great mercy as God has shown us great mercy). Let's take that a step further now: In the above parable Jesus compares God to a king who -- in the way dictators do -- flies into a rage and orders torture for an ungrateful servant. Yet if we keep reading in Matthew, we see that a couple chapters later, Jesus questions the entire idea of comparing God to a king. "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mt 20:25-28). In other words, Jesus models the way of God, not as one who "lords it over others" but as the servant Lord, and calls for us to embody that way too. Following Jesus means rejecting the way of domination, the way of kings.

So to the extent that you have embraced that idea, you will have a problem with the above parable of the king. You'll read "God is like an angry king" and think "No, Jesus teaches us that God is not at all like a king, God is like a suffering servant," and you would be absolutely right. In each of these parables, Jesus is turning our thinking upside down. He begins by turning the idea of payback on its head. When he says "not seven times, but seventy-seven" he is alluding to a passage from the Old Testament where Lamech says "If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times" (Gen 4:24), and reversing it. Jesus replaces escalation of violence with the escalation of mercy. In the second parable he is similarly dismantling our understanding of greatness, and redefining how we see God. God is the servant. Power is about lifting people up, not pushing them down.

In doing this, Jesus not only dismantles our traditional concepts of what justice and power are about, at the same time, he also dismantles his own parables. Once we have embraced Jesus' understanding of servant lordship, we cannot accept the crude comparison of God to a volatile dictator. So when reading these parables as disciples of Jesus, we need to keep in mind that each one is beginning with the assumptions of the crowds. He begins there, with their familiar ideas of kings and slaves and torture and then introduces a radical new idea into the mix which flips one of those ideas on its head. The more we embrace these ideas of Jesus' "upside-down kingdom," the more we will have trouble with the worldly assumptions that these very parables are situated in. That's not because we are disagreeing with Jesus here, but because we have fully embraced his new way of thinking. So the more we follow Jesus, the more we'll question the worldly values the parables are set in. That is, we can embrace the idea of forgiving a great debt (which is the point Jesus is making), but reject the idea that God is a torturing dictator (which reflect the worldview assumptions of his first century audience -- assumptions Jesus is repeatedly challenging).

That means that when we read statements about Hell and "torture," we need to ask whether these are the main point Jesus was trying to teach, or whether it is in fact part of the worldview that the people had already accepted -- like they had slavery and dictatorship -- which Jesus is dismantling bit by bit.

Consider the parable of the sheep and goats just a few chapters later in Matthew (Mt 25:31-46). Here we hear Jesus make some very harsh statements about Hell, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (v. 41). But again, what is the central point that Jesus is illustrating here? It is not a description of how the last judgement will look. That is the assumed setting, just as the first parable we looked at assumed a king and servants. Here Jesus is drawing on the familiar apocalyptic imagery of his Jewish audience, and once again he is turning the tables: The righteous will not be determined because they are part of the right race or religion (as his audience thought), but rather by how they love the least. Jesus redefines what makes a person "in" or "out" -- you are in if you care for those who are out. In doing this, he tears down the very barrier separating insiders from outsiders. Once again, he begins with a common assumption (the image of the final judgement) and turns it on its head: you show your allegiance to God by how you love those who are condemned.

If you study all the passages that allude to hell in the Gospels, you will see this pattern over and over: Jesus is not in fact teaching "this is the way hell is" any more than he is teaching "God is like a emotional dictator." Rather, these are the people's assumptions that he begins with in order to introduce a radical new idea focused on grace. That's how we need to read Jesus, and that's a point that even many biblical scholars miss. Because in order to really get it, you need to follow. You need to adopt the way of Jesus, and let his heart become your own. The more I do that, the less I think God looks like a king or a judge, and the more I think God looks like Jesus who redefines all those terms, and indeed redefines how we conceive of God.

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