Monday, June 29, 2020

Is God a Destroyer of Souls?

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
These are sobering words Jesus spoke to the disciples. What do they mean? There are two assumptions that are often made about this verse. The first is that it is about a postmortem, afterlife experience — often thought of as eternal conscience torment in “hell.” The second is that it is God who destroys both body and soul in hell. But let’s take a closer look.

Is Jesus speaking of a postmortem experience? The word for “hell” here is Gehenna, which often gets conflated with the word Hades and translated as “hell.” But is Gehenna the same thing as Hades, so that they can be spoken of synonymously, as many modern translations seem to do? I think not. I have written about both of these terms in previous posts (see links below). My conclusion is that they refer to two very different things and cannot be lumped together.
  • Hades is a Greek name and is a counterpart to the Hebrew word Sheol in the Old Testament. It refers to the realm of the dead (see Hades — A Word About Hell?). As such, it is postmortem in nature.
  • Gehenna, in the New Testament, is a variation of the Hebrew name, Ge Hinnom — Valley of Himmon — from the Old Testament (see Gehenna — A Word About Hell?). It is geographical, a place located outside of old Jerusalem and can still be found today. The prophets spoke of it as a place where faithless Israel would be judged, and the valley would be filled with their dead. This judgment was fulfilled in history, centuries before Christ. Although it was not a postmortem experience, Rabbis after the time of Jesus did come to use it metaphorically for such an experience, but it was thought of as a judgment that was of very limited duration, a purgatory of sorts.
So, how did Jesus use this word, Gehenna? What did he mean by it? It seems unlikely that he would have followed later rabbinic usage but much more likely that he would have followed the usage of the Old Testament prophets, to speak of a judgment that would occur not in some otherworldly scenario but in this world and could be located in history.

There is a movement of warnings in the book of Matthew that culminates in the Olivet Discourse, in Matthew 24, where Jesus warns of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. This destruction is seen as a judgment on the faithless leaders of Israel (see the “woes” pronounced on the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, ending with the words that their “house” would be taken from them). It is the destruction that occurred in AD 70, when Roman armies, after a long siege, burned the temple and the city to the ground. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, speaks of that horrific time and tells us that, during the siege, the Jews ran out of burial space for the dead, so the bodies were thrown over the wall into the valleys below Jerusalem. Jesus’ warnings about Gehenna were fulfilled.

In Mark 9, Jesus again speaks of Gehenna and adds that is where the “the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.” It is a reference to Isaiah 66:24, “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” (see Where Worms Do Not Die). This scene depicts not only the thorough destruction of the dead bodies of the faithless, rebellious ones but also the contempt that is shown for them. Cyril of Alexandria, a fifth century Church Father, commented on this final verse in Isaiah, connecting it with the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70:
These misfortunes piled on the Jews are meant to be the things we say happened to them at the hands of the Romans, when the temple was destroyed and all were subjected to cruel slaughter. Suffering such things they became a spectacle for all, but their suffering was not prolonged indefinitely. Yet this is what perhaps is meant when it says, “Their worm will not die nor the fire go out.”
If Gehenna is not a postmortem, otherworldly experience but a judgment in this present world, then who is “the one” who can destroy both body and soul there?  Many assume that it refers to God. But is God a destroyer of souls? In John 10, Jesus speaks of the thief who comes to steal, kill and destroy, while Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep and gives deep and abiding life without limits. We know that God does not act any differently than Jesus, because Jesus is the perfect expression of God (Hebrews 11:3). And if God were the destroyer of both body and soul in Gehenna, it would be rather odd that the verses immediately following describe him in quite a different way:
Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-30) 
God is the Good Father who knows when a sparrow falls. God is not the destroyer of souls. Jesus is not playing “Good Cop, Bad Cop” here. God is not malevolent one moment and then benevolent the next — there would be no assurance in that. But Jesus clearly intends to reassure the disciples about God’s intimate care for them.

Who, then, is “the one” Jesus is talking about in verse 28? Would it not be “the evil one” he referred to earlier, when he taught the disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13)? I am persuaded that it is so.

The persecutors Jesus warned the disciples about knew how to kill the body, but how is the evil one able to destroy the soul? Can he annihilate the soul and put it out of existence? No, he is not the creator and sustainer of the soul, so he has no power to make it cease. Nor does he have the power of death, for that has been destroyed by Christ: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). The only ability that he has is to and accuse and to slander — that is what the name “devil” means. His is not the way of Christ, whose way is love and forgiveness, but the way of hate and shame.

Jesus promised that those who followed him would be persecuted by the Jews and spoken of falsely — and, indeed, many were martyred for following him. Yet that was not to be feared; those who were persecuted for the sake of righteousness would have great reward (Matthew 5:11-12).

Far greater than the destruction of the body through such persecution would be the destruction of the soul if they departed from the way of Christ, the way of peace, the way of forgiveness. In the prayer Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he lay heavy emphasis on forgiveness: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Failure to forgive is no small thing but is a trap of the evil one. In 2 Corinthians 2:10-11, Paul instructs them to forgive, “in order that Satan might not outwit [exploit, defraud, take advantage of] us. For we are not unaware of his schemes” (see Don’t Let the Devil Outsmart You).

For those who followed the way of Christ, death would find no shame in them. But for those who turned instead to the way of violence, the Gehenna that was to follow in AD 70 would be not only the destruction of the body but also the shaming of the soul. Even if the Jews had defeated the Romans and gained the whole world by their violent resistance, their souls would have been eaten up by their own bitter hate.

Those who followed the way of Christ endured persecution but were not present at the destruction of Jerusalem, for they had been forewarned by Christ about when to leave (Matthew 24). But those who followed the way of violence suffered terribly under that destruction and were put to shame by the Romans.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this powerful exposition of a portion of Scripture which has often been misunderstood. The Lord bless you!

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