Greek Mythology in the New Testament



“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)

And I tell you that interacting with contemporary Pagans has given me greater appreciation for just how often the messianic Jews of the New Testament encountered and engaged with Greek mythology. Too often we skip over the explicit references to Hades (too many to mention), Tartarus (2 Peter 2), Artemis (Acts 19), Zeus and Hermes (Acts 14) and the more oblique references to Ares (Acts 17) and the Gemini twins (Acts 28) without a second thought to the mythological subtext. Yet they are all worth meditating on.

It makes me wonder, if Jesus had lived in India (now don’t start), would he have dropped mythopoetic references to Kali and Shiva instead? If the apostles Barnabas and Paul had journeyed through Scandinavia instead of Lystra, would they have been mistaken for Thor and Odin instead?

Maybe if we let our imaginations run free we may even see ways to engage more sensitively and substantially with the mythologies of our culture!

Yoder on Universalism

“Just as the doctrine of creation affirms that God made us free and the doctrine of redemption says that this freedom of sin was what led agape to the cross, the doctrine of hell lets sin free, finally and irrevocably, to choose separation from God. Only by respecting this freedom to the bitter end can love give meaning to history. Any universalism that would seek, in the intention of magnifying redemption, to deny the unrepentant sinner the liberty to refuse God’s grace would in reality deny that human choice has any meaning at all.”

John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood, pp 151

Universalism and the Constantinian Urge

In the wake of the “Christocentric universalism” controversy sparked off by Rob Bell, I am reminded of these comments from “Evangelism after Christendom” (Bryan Stone, 2007, 129-130):

“One of the persistant features of Constantinianism … is that, by deminishing the distinction between church and world, the church refuses to allow the world to disbelieve. One way of accomplishing this refusal, of course, is the crucade, the conquest, or the imperial edict. A second way is the perpetuation of a cultural Christianity into which one is born, baptized, and thereby a member for life. In neither case is it necessary to evangelize – or rather; evangelism is reduced to whatever mechanism will effectively transfer persons into the ‘in-group.’ In all its forms, Constantinianism refuses to allow that there could be any genuine obstacle to belief; and again, what is lost thereby is the possibility of witness.” 

“But rejection can never be construed as failure on the part of Christian evangelism in a post-Christendom context. In our world and given our times, it may be considered a success. In fact, with adequate clarification, one could well define evangelism in a post-Constantinian context as the practice of offering the gospel in such a way that it can be rejected responsibly.” 

I am reminded of these comments because I have a number of Pagan friends who, as far as I can ascertain, do understand the good news, understand it better than some Christians in fact, yet reject it nevertheless. What what would Rob Bell say to them? Would he grant them true freedom of religion? Or is this Christocentric universalism just the second Constaintinian way dressed up in postmodern garb?

12 bible versus from Hell

This evening I was dwelling on hell. The word “hell” is used 54 times in the Bible. It is translated from several different words with different shades of meaning.

In the Old Testament: 31 times from the Hebrew “Sheol,” which means “the grave.”

In the New Testament: 10 times from the Greek “Hades,” which also means “the grave,” 12 times from the Greek “Gehenna,” which means “the burning garbage dump” and 1 time from the Greek “Tartarus,” which means “the bottomless pit.”

Here I want to draw attention to the 12 fiery “Gehenna” verses. Notice anything strange about them?

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:22)

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (Matthew 5:29)

And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:30)

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)

And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. (Matthew 18:9)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. (Matthew 23:15)

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matthew 23:33)

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. (Mark 9:43)

And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. (Mark 9:45)

And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell (Mark 9:47)

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. (Luke 12:5)

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:6)

No, they’re not from hell, they’re mostly from Jesus. All but one in fact, and that one is from his brother. Surprising don’t you think? We expect the apostle Paul to be the fiery prophet but it’s actually Jesus.

What is more, a number of these fiery warnings are directed at the Pharisees, the religious gurus of that age, so, again surprisingly, it not about not being religious enough. It’s about not being honest enough. God’s going to burn away fakeness.

Challenging for me though, is that the bulk are in the form of lifestyle warnings for the crowds, to get their priorities straight, to keep their life struggles in perspective: fear God, not temporary discomforts; fear God, not the forces you think have power over you. It draws attention to the fears I submit to, the fears I let direct my decisions.

Talking about Hell

Satan-tongue-tattooI was asked about hell again last week, about what I thought, and about other religions. To be honest I am always very wary about talking about hell, not least because there are so many Dante-esque myths floating around that its virtually guaranteed that people will here me saying what I am not saying. So it prompts me to ask, what are some of the hellish myths you've come across?

What Is Hell Like? Does It Even Exist?

I have always appreciated the teaching of N T Wright and here he speak on hell and some of the myths about it. What are your thoughts? Personally I think there are a lot of myths floating around about hell in popular culture, myths that have little foundation biblically, myths that owe more to Pagan, Gnostic and Spiritualist syncretism than authentic apostolic teaching. I also find it interesting that Westerners, in their romanticism of Eastern religions, often forget Buddhism has its own hell teachings.

Considering Hell

I have been meaning to write something about hell here for a while, with it being such a thorny issue and all, so when the subject came up on the Salem Gathering forum this afternoon I thought I’d cross post some of my thoughts back here. The conversation is still ongoing, so bear in mind this is just a partial picture, but here’s my initial contribution:

The problem with talking about hell is that we have too many preconceptions about it. Over the years we’ve seen so many renaissance paintings, and so many Hollywood fantasies, both horrific and humorous, that it is difficult to read what the Bible has to say about hell without overlaying it with all sorts of imported images from elsewhere.

For example, in the popular imagination hell is often envisaged as an underground lair with steaming lakes of lava, populated by red demons running around with pitchforks taking great glee in tormenting naked men and women with the most exquisite punishments. But virtually none of this is Biblical. Demons never have pitchforks. The Bible never depicts demons as in charge of hell, only as prisoners in it, awaiting final punishment. Satan is described as an angel of light, and as a multi-headed dragon, but never as a sexy thing in red leather or spandex. Hell itself is described variously as a bottomless pit, as a lava lake, and as a rubbish tip, but curiously, caves are never mentioned. The Bible does not present us with one image of hell, it presents us with several, but none of these are what popular culture has told us to expect. What becomes clear from a deeper reading of what Jesus and the prophets actually said is that they were being very poetic when invoking it, and we need to look deeper if we want to understand what it points to.

Nowhere is this problem more obvious than with the word “hell” itself. A forgotten truth here is that the word “hell” is one we Christians adopted from Germanic Pagans. In the original Greek, the apostles spoke of Hades and Tartarus, the lands of death and punishment drawn out of Pagan mythology. Before attacking hell as an abominable Christian construction what needs to be recognized is that much of what we find in the New Testament actually represents a dialogue with Pagan culture using terms drawn out of Pagan culture. Uncovering the real meaning requires us to uncover similar worldview bridges in contemporary terms.

A complicating factor here is perception of time. Buddhists and Hindus have there own hells, but with their cyclical view of time souls are never permanent residents in it. This strikes many contemporary westerners as a good thing. What those same westerners often fail to appreciate though is that Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of heaven are similarly impermanent. Because of this, these systems rapidly shift to judging all existence as hellish, as samsara and maya respectively. To be reincarnated is to be trapped in a living hell. Is this truly more liberated than the Christian view?

The deeper we explore different worldviews, the more obvious it becomes that many of them have hells of sorts, however differently they may be envisaged. What is the common factor? I would say it is the understanding that actions have consequences, either in this life or the next. Only nihilists say otherwise. What distinguishes Christianity, Islam and Judaism from Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism is that they see history in asymmetric terms rather than symmetric terms, that they see a direction and purpose to history and thus hold out the hope of eternal resolution rather than eternal return.

Worldviews that do not incorporate a hell or judgment day of one sort or another must account for how injustices sometimes never have consequences in this life, how rapists sometimes seem to get away with it, how the poor sometimes suffer for no apparent reason. Generally such worldview systems come up with one of two possible resolutions, either the person deserved their blessings or punishments in some way we are not aware of, or the universe is amoral and indifferent. Both of these ideas have their own consequences.