Wednesday, April 3, 2013

April Fool! Or, how to spot bad exegesis

My Monday (April Fools' Day) post got some interesting responses. I was expecting general amusement at my series on Hell ending so unceremoniously with universalism, but a surprising number of people either were fooled or played along in case my change of mind was real. I don't mean to shame you, dear readers, but if you are taken in by a completely insincere post full of false teaching and Biblical mishandling and slapped together with no forethought in an hour and a half, that worries me. I haven't even read Love Wins and don't know any of the arguments Rob Bell used! In light of these responses, I thought I'd dissect my post as a case study in how to spot bad exegesis, since I understand its argument fairly well and can bad-mouth the author as freely as I like.
This is actually surprisingly simple. As I explained last time, the Greek word that is translated to "Hell" in the New Testament is "Gehenna", referring to a place of paganistic fiery child sacrifice outside Jerusalem. So Jesus warns in Luke 12:5: "But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him." What are some other characteristics of this Hell?
  • Fiery (Matthew 5:22, 18:9, James 3:6)
  • A place of destruction of both body and soul (Matthew 10:28)
  • A place of darkness (Matthew 6:23)
Well, here we have a contradiction. Hell can't literally be a place of both fire and darkness. What is Jesus getting at? I think these speak to theological, not literal truths--darkness as the absence of God's light, and fire as the destruction of the soul as the body decays.
Like any convincing lie, my post started with truth. I built off my word study of Gehenna in the second post of the series, looking for what Jesus and other New Testament voices have to say about Hell. The first problem was that I was being deliberately selective here about what I stated about Hell. As my friend Mitchell pointed out, I ignored any verses that mention Hell as eternal (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 or Jude 13) or a place of punishment (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 again, Matthew 23:33).

I also make an (I would say) unfounded leap from verses that speak of Hell as a place of destruction to Hell being a place of destruction (as in annihilation) of the soul. The view that the Christian soul dies along with the body and is subsequently raised with it is called Christian mortalism and is interesting to look into, but I seriously mishandled it here. This becomes obvious in the following paragraphs.
Here's the crazy part. God isn't just destroying the soul--He's destroying it so He can give us new life. 1 Corinthians 15:50 says, "I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable." And in v53: "For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality."
In fact, earlier in v42-44, Paul says: "So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." What he is saying applies just as much to the soul. It must be destroyed in order to live forever--to be "saved through the flames" (1 Corinthians 3:15). It isn't pleasant, but it's worth it in the end.
But what about their sin? Paul covers that too! Romans 7:1 says that "the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives". Dying frees us from the power of sin, and we can't die again. Christians have already died to their sin by being identified with Christ's death, but everyone else still dies in both body and soul, as Jesus says--so that they can be freed from sin. Psalm 32:8 reads, "I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you." This verse clearly isn't David speaking like the rest of the Psalm; it's a promise from God.
Here is where the nature of the post as a joke should become obvious. My assertion, "God isn't just destroying the soul--He's destroying it so He can give us new life" is completely unfounded. This was not a conclusion drawn inductively from scripture, it was me pre-emptively deciding the conclusion I wanted to draw about Hell, before turning to scripture to "justify" it. This "justification" then consists of turning to verses that sound like they could speak to my point and quoting them completely out of context. Paul is talking in 1 Corinthians 15 about the (bodily) resurrection of Christians, not of nonbelievers. In 3:15 he is not talking about salvation at all but about peoples' work building up the church.

It's interesting to note here that the New Testament writers themselves, especially Paul, are quite guilty of this kind of out-of-context quoting, which New Testament scholar Peter Enns notes extensively in his books. Some examples:
  • Matthew 2:15 says Jesus fulfilled Hosea 11:1, which is talking about disobedient Israel.
  • John 19:36 says Jesus "fulfilled" an obscure Passover regulation that originally had nothing to do with Him.
  • Paul actually misquotes Isaiah 59:20, changing "The redeemer will come to Zion" to "The redeemer will come from Zion".
  • The author of Hebrews similarly alters the text of Psalm 95:7-11 in 3:7-11, changing forty years from the duration of God's anger to the duration of His showing the Israelites His deeds, only to reference the Psalm as originally written a few verses later.
So we can't simply dismiss the kind of fast-and-loose handling of scripture I displayed as "unbiblical"; clearly it is, in fact, biblical to quote verses out of context to support your point and even alter them to suit your rhetorical ends, which I didn't even stoop to do in my post. So why are the Biblical authors right to do this while I am wrong? Because I think the apostles were inspired both by the Holy Spirit and by the realization of how Jesus Christ completely changes the meaning of God's history with His people. In addition to the original, Biblical-literal meaning of these verses, the apostles saw how they fit into the new "big picture" of Christ as lord, savior, and head of the church. Jesus breathes new life, new context, and new meaning into old words. In contrast, my hermeneutic was not based on my conception of Christ (as I usually hope it is) but on a deceptive, preconceived view of Hell.

The second part of the post used some similar tactics of deception as the first--starting with something true and agreeable and easing into a lie. Again, the rehabilitation-retribution divide is something I'm still wrestling with, and my conclusion might seem plausible even to me if I hadn't knowingly fabricated it.  My idea of how God progressively reveals Himself in new ways to His people is not without Biblical precedent (see the deeper view of the law presented in the New Testament, the increased focus on an eternal afterlife, the changing nature of the Old Covenant after the Babylonian exile, and of course Christ Himself), but clinging to the belief that "God and His word never change" is much simpler, so it's easy to miss this concept of progressive revelation and impose a greater unity on scripture than it really displays.

But, of course, it's also easy to take progressive revelation too far, as I did. The building of a structure or painting of a picture is a better metaphor for it than metamorphosis. Though we can expect to interpret and apply the Bible in new ways as culture and circumstances change, those new ways should expand on or illuminate what the Bible actually says, never contradict it. Like it or not, there is zero scriptural evidence for the Bible being like the Norwegian prison system, progressive though it may seem to us.

So, a few points for application (namely spotting bogus theology that people genuinely believe):

  • Read critically. Be wary of trains of thought that seem good and correct but slide into untruth. This takes practice but is incredibly important, especially on the internet.
  • When people quote scripture, think about how they're handling it. Look up the references and their context yourself. If something doesn't seem right, consult a friend or a commentary (I happily volunteer my own services for this).
  • You've probably heard the anecdote of how bank tellers are trained to spot counterfeit bills by studying real ones intensively. While I'm pretty sure this isn't actually true, the metaphor still applies to theology. The best way to detect bad theology is to know what you believe and why, not just on the level of individual verses but in the story of the whole Bible. This is the focus on Biblical theology classes like at my church. It's a lifelong labor, but one that is supremely worthwhile--believe me.

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