In a recent exchange on social media, I came across this excerpt of N.T. Wright’s interpretation of Luke 13:3-5.
No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (ESV)
Per usual, Wright’s interpretation is contextually responsible; and so, he gives wonderful insight into the politics of Jesus, regarding the Roman occupation of 2nd Temple Israel. In saying, “you shall all likewise perish,” Jesus was not indicating anything except a warning to those, who plot violent uprising(s) against overlords. See the excerpt:
The Double Edge
The reader will notice Wright’s statement, “Many have read this passage and supposed that it was a warning about perishing in hell after death.” What a very astute observation! Those who practice a conservative / fundamentalist evangelical tradition of interpretation—a much less contextually responsible methodology—struggle against the back swing of Wright’s 2-edged interpretive blade. If Jesus (as Messiah) was only warning his original audience & calling them to a change of mind & action about their zealot-led rebellion against Rome, then what of “Hell” & what of the “eternal salvation of the soul?”
As a former fundamentalist evangelical, I can say it is hard to break free of the traditions handed down from the [Roman Catholic] 14th Century Dante’s Inferno version of “Hell Fire & Brimstone.” The Protestant Reformers did not go so far as to examine that doctrine, as they should have. But, more contemporary scholarship has thankfully taken up what the Reformers left. These studies show Jesus’ view of hell was exactly what any 2nd Temple, hellenized Jew (a.k.a. the New Testament writers) believed. To them, the grave (Sheol) is the realm of the dead (Greco-Roman Hades/Tartarus) and the Valley of Hinnom (Ge Henna)—a place of dissipation and decay, of makeshift tombs and burning heaps of corpses in times of invasion by conquerors (ex. Nebuchadnezzar sacking Jerusalem). Not nice. Anyone with the ability to make analogies gets the point. It’s all very pictorial, parabolic and diametrically opposite to the ancient concept of Paradise (Hellenized world’s Elysium) and/or Abraham’s Bosom. The concept was used to describe an after-death, misery-riddled and dehumanized level existence, devoid of dignity, which is a consequential judgment by God (to say the least); but which certainly never approaches the eternal, conscious, physical torment of Dante’s sort.
Revelation does indicate the final judgement by using the imagery of tossing Death (the grave/Sheol) and Hell (Hades: the Roman God god of the underworld) into the Lake of Fire, along with the Beast (an Alter-Jesus Empire), its State Religion False Prophet and their worshippers. In the paleo-orthodox view, there is judgment for Religiously-charged Empire and those who perpetuate it, according to their contra-Christ ways/deeds; but just as fallen spirits are held in “eternal chains” (whatever those are) in Tartarus (see Jude) and let out again (Revelation 9), are we really to believe the “Lake of Fire” and “the smoke of their torment” means God will consciously, physically torture people forever? Or, does it indicate these sort are judged to the sentence of eternally seeking (both day & night) yet never finding the rest/peace that worshippers & followers of the self-sacrificial Lamb obtain? Is that not a torment of soul & just like the grave: always hungry/thirsty, never satisfied? Therefore—in the end—those rejecting the Lamb and His Way are given the same annihilation (“consuming fire”) as death & the grave itself. The smoke (testimonial memoriam) of their souls’ torment rises forever.
In condensed form, we understand the New Testament writings to indicate oppressive and violent empire & its ‘ideological adherents’ will get theirs in the end; but you, who belong to Jesus, keep the Faith by following the Way of the nonviolent, pacifist, self-sacrificial Lamb.”
But, reverting back to Luke 13:3-5, was Jesus of Nazareth just a 2nd Temple, Jewish sectarian leader, who taught the Jews of his day how to avoid an early, politically-charged grave? Was he only interested in making a way forward for his people, like any sage of an enslaved ethnicity? Was he just a good teacher, whose legacy teaches us how slaves of empire can preserve ourselves from the early and tragic death, which all zealots get for violently rebelling against their oppressors?
The Supernatural Politic of Jesus
The marvel of Jesus’ politic rests in that it proves he is more than merely a teacher or sectarian leader. Is it natural for humanity to respond to their oppressors by blessing & loving and praying them into conciliation with us? Is our first response not to rise up in violence to secure justice for ourselves? Do the oppressed secretly & involuntarily hope to carry the gear of an occupying army’s soldier the second mile, when one is required? Do we wish to house and feed the same occupying military, as if they are our very flesh & blood, our beloved neighbor? Do we naturally want to give up our own power and privilege, in order to raise others up and make them enriched? Do we want to leave our positions, in order to be made a servant? Do we want to follow Jesus, striving against evil and mortal flaw to the point of death, even the death of the cross?
I hear Jesus say, “Take up your cross, and follow me.”
Now, no one is saying we should not stick up for ourselves or in defense of others, when it is moral to do so. There are times for sacrificing self in the rescue of others, for non-violent civil disobedience so that future generations can build on that, for Kingian activism, for underground railroads and hiding places, for marches & peaceful protest, for using poetry and prose and music and ALL kinds of art, times for obtaining the vote and right to own a plot of land on which to exist, …for preserving the Image of God in you.
The image of God in you is also preserved, however, by loving enemies like Jesus. Remember You are Light and You are Love. Remember to Whom You belong, Whom you serve!
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” Martin Luther King, Jr.
The politic Martin Luther King, Jr. embraced is the same as Jesus’ politic; and Jesus is Light, and Jesus is Love. Jesus’ politic is not easy; it is not natural to us humans. Jesus’ politic is above natural and beyond natural for us. Jesus’ politic is supernatural… because Jesus is Lord & he is God.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)
Here are other legitimate and supportable definitions of Hell, like the 1st Century view or like annihilation, which find basis in interpreting parables of Jesus as such, and with the ancient understanding, rather than a real account or with a 14th C. Dante’s Inferno view.