For more than a thousand years, God promised the Israelites safe and plentiful lives in a fertile land of olive trees and grape vines off of the Mediterranean Sea, as long as they faithfully carried out the law of Moses. Their land was the basis of both their law and relationship with God. When people died, they just died.
And apparently this was unbearable. Because when Jesus came to Earth, he gave us the Good News.
And here it is: Almost every person who will ever have lived will burn in Hell forever, except a small group of people who will be saved.
Can I be honest?
That’s not very good news. Really, if you asked me to think of the single worst news I could think of, this “Good News” would roughly be it.
In fact, *whispers quietly* I’m honestly a bit fond of the old system.
If you’re one of the many people I suspect who struggle to find anything good in this, I don’t think you should be made to be afraid to say so. And while for centuries we have constructed an increasingly sophisticated religion dedicated to being among those who will not go to Hell, I don’t think you should be made to be afraid to rethink it.
I know the words of damnation are right there in the Bible, but I have dared to say that I actually think something else is happening.
Your Bible is borrowing.
Today, we’re going to talk about the Greeks. If Socrates, Plato, and Alexander the Great had never been born, your Bible would be unrecognizable.
A Five-Minute History of Greek-Israeli Relations
We’ve talked a lot about the Old Testament over the last four weeks. The Old Testament ends with Persia in charge of the known world, but when the reader turns to the first book of the New Testament, the Persians are gone and the Romans are in charge.
On the surface, the Bible appears to skip Greece, and that’s a problem for readers of the New Testament.
Persian rule of Asia gave way to Alexander the Great of Greece when Alexander won three important military battles and Persia’s King Darius was assassinated. The decisive year was 333 BCE. This year also marked the traditional end of Old Testament biblical history. Among the things I’ll show you today is why that traditional view isn’t at all true.
Greece is right there in the Bible, but to show you what to look for, I have to talk about Greece and its philosophers, whom I will get to shortly.
The Greek empire was characterized not just by its rule, but by the spread of its culture. Prior to the establishment of the Greek empire, its culture had been developing for more than a century. The spreading of its culture is what your high school world history teacher was talking about when he or she mentioned “Hellenization”—and you and I dosed off. In addition to the spreading of art, music, mathematics, and science, gymnasia, theaters, amphitheaters, and hippodromes were erected throughout the near east during this time. Also, much of the Greek world adopted the Greek language, and some places took on a near complete Greek identity.
Others, however, had a more complicated relationship with Greece.
Looking at you, Israel.
Israel’s two-century relationship with Greece moved back and forth along a spectrum. On one end were times when Israel’s rulers welcomed Greek thought and institutions with open arms. On the other end were times when Israel resisted Greek thought, even to the point of all-out war. In fact, we have the resisters to thank for the fact that the Jewish canon does not include any Jewish texts that were officially recognized as having been written during Greek rule (I say “officially”, because scholars are virtually certain that the second half of Daniel and I and II Chronicles were written during Greek rule, so they weren’t completely successful).
Alexander the Great didn’t live a long time to enjoy his conquests. And after his death, a Greek civil war broke out, the result of which being that the Greek empire was split among the competing factions. Again, the history here is complicated, but the short story is that, for two centuries, Israel was tossed around between the Ptolemy faction and the Seleucid faction. That’s an overgeneralization, but, again, that covers it for my purposes.
During this time, the Greek king of Ptolemy commissioned the version of the Old Testament that every New Testament writer ever quoted, the Septuagint. We often say that the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, but for every one of the New Testament writers, the Old Testament was written in Greek.
During the Seleucid rule of Judea, the Greeks understood the Jews to be primarily a religious community with no king. As such, the high priest—subject to the approval of the ruler of Ptolemy or Seleucid—was seen as the de facto leader of the Jewish people. After Antiochus IV took the throne in 175 BCE, two priests—Jason and Menelaus—vied for the high priesthood. Both were passionate Hellenizers who wanted to modernize Judaism and make Israel look more like a Greek polis.
Also, both would do anything to assume the high priest.
Including bribing Antiochus IV.
Menelaus outbid Jason, and, if you can believe it, Antiochus IV chose him to be the next high priest. This corruption was compounded by the fact that Menelaus was not a Levite, and the Torah has something to say about priests coming from the tribe of Levi.
(For example, it says priests are to come only from the tribe of Levi.)
Importantly, the factions of Jason and Menelaus continued to squabble, and it got to a point that Antiochus couldn’t take anymore. He sought the total Hellenization of Judea (Menelaus actually assisted him in this), and he imposed some new rules:
- Jewish modes of worship were forbidden,
- observing the Sabbath was forbidden,
- circumcision was forbidden, and
- Antiochus forced the Jews to sacrifice pigs—Judaism’s most famously unclean animal—to Greek gods in the temple in Jerusalem.
This started a war.
The Maccabean Revolt was the very first war in recorded history for religious freedom.
And, against great odds, Israel won.
The Catholic Bible includes 1st and 2nd Maccabees, and it is from these books that we learn about the Maccabean Revolt. Further, it is from the books of Maccabees that Jews trace the holiday of Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Dedication.
If you don’t think this inter testamentary period was important, consider that Jesus observed Hanukkah—the celebration of Israeli independence and the rededication of the purity of the temple in Jerusalem.
But, as I mentioned earlier, Israel frequently swung from one end of the Greek spectrum to the other: within a century of victory over the abuses of Antiochus IV, the kings of Israel were once again openly trying to become Greek. So . . .
When Greece replaced Persia as the world’s hegemon, it brought to each of its subordinate locales a century’s worth of philosophical tradition, much of which permeated even into the well-developed world of Jewish philosophical tradition.
Even Jews who resisted the Greeks were profoundly influenced by their ideas.
If you would endure just a little more Greek history, today we’re going to get into the meat of that, and it will totally be worth it.
A Five-Minute Explainer on Greek Philosophy
Greek philosophy starts with Socrates, one of the great men of mystery in world history. Socrates, who lived in the 5th century BCE, never wrote anything down that we know of. We have the surviving text of a play written by Aristophanes, a contemporary of Socrates, whose play made an unflattering depiction about him. The Socrates character is made to be an odd fellow who spent much of his time just wandering around, observing whatever he could, and asking people questions.
Socrates had many pupils, but two of them—Critias and Alcibiades—turned out to be particularly bad apples. Socrates was not a fan of democracy. He felt that only those who were trained in philosophy should be able to vote. But certainly, Critias and Alcibiades represented the worst among the forces that worked against the democracy in Athens. Further, Critias was the leader of an anti-democratic reign of terror in 404 BCE. In 403 BCE, a democratic reign of terror replaced the oligarchic one, and Socrates was shortly thereafter put on a black list.
In 399 BCE, Socrates was put on trial (1) for “impiety” to the gods of Athens and (2) for “corrupting the young.”
Depending on your perspective, his defense to the jury in Athens came across as either principled or arrogant. He portrayed himself as a hero and as one who was smarter than anyone else in all of Athens. Never mind that that may have been true, but unfortunately for Socrates, when the 500 juror ballots were counted—yes, 500 jurors!—280 jurors had voted to find Socrates guilty and 220 for acquittal.
This infuriated Socrates’s most famous student, Plato, and the works that arose out of his anger are virtually our only gateway into the mind of Socrates. His writings are recollections of back-and-forth discussions Socrates had with all sorts of people during his life. Socrates and Plato had a lot to say about a lot of things, but you can boil down their interest—if not obsession—to one question.
What is everything’s ideal version?
Socrates and Plato argued that we live in a world of visible matter and that, for all the visible organized matter in the world you can see, somewhere there is yet to be discovered an invisible and completely perfect version of that visible thing. The way they talked about these cosmic idealized versions of everything in the world was the same way metal workers talk about a cast or the way concrete workers talk about forms. If you’ve ever seen one of these things, you can visualize their thought process. We live in a world of matter (the concrete) that to some degree or another has been shaped or partially shaped by the Form.
To Socrates and Plato, there was an ideal version of everything you could think of—shoes, love, justice, horse carriages, politics, swords, beauty, poetry, sex, and the list could go on.
Socrates and Plato called these ideal versions of things their “Forms“.
Forms are impossible to completely know, but the things in our world Socrates and Plato would say are “shadows“, “copies“, “imitations“, and “imprints” of the Forms. They would say that just as shadows exist only because of the light of a fire, our world exists as, “the offspring of the good”.
Socrates and Plato believed that the function of humans in this world of shadows is therefore to imitate the ideal world as much as possible. This meant giving considerable thought to the Forms and trying to conduct oneself as close to them as possible.
Which brings us to the role of the philosopher.
In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Socrates states that people live their whole lives in a kind of cave. Inside the cave, they can see shadows on the walls that are cast from things outside the cave, but they can never see the actual things that are outside the cave. To Socrates and Plato, the philosopher is like one who has been outside the cave and has come back to tell everyone what is on the outside.
If you were to combine all of Socrates’s Forms—in other words the Form of the Forms—you would get what Socrates and Plato call the Logos. This is the Greek word for . . . “word.” The concept of the logos can be thought of as the theory behind everything, the sum of all knowledge, the doctoral thesis of the universe.
Again, the Jews were far from immune to the influence of Greek philosophy, but one Jew who lived during the time of Jesus Christ took this influence to a special level.
Philo was a Jew who lived in Alexandria, Egypt and was born about twenty years before the birth of Jesus Christ. His writings demonstrate that he was thoroughly trained in Greek philosophical classics, and he used this influence the same way I have shown time and time again that ancient Jews used their influences to make new statements.
Because he was so thoroughly trained in Greek philosophy, he opened up his Hebrew Bible and found Greek philosophy there.
To this end, Philo was a prolific writer. The pivotal and the most developed doctrine in Philo’s writings—really the doctrine on which hinged his entire philosophical system—is his doctrine of the Logos. Again, to the Greeks the Logos was the sum total of all the Forms. Philo interpreted the Logos as the mind of Yahweh, the shadow of God that was used as an instrument and a pattern of all creation (his words, not mine). He, like Socrates and Plato, believed that Forms, though beyond our comprehension, leave an impression and a copy and procure qualities and shapes to shapeless things and unorganized matter. The Logos converted unqualified, unshaped preexistent matter, which Philo described as “destitute of arrangement, of quality, of animation, of distinctive character and full of disorder and confusion.” According to Philo, Genesis anticipated Plato by teaching that water, darkness, and chaos existed before the world came into being. The Logos, an indestructible Form of wisdom, arranged this matter.
Philo believed that the “Image of God” from Genesis 1 is the invisible divine Logos.
Which takes me to the Gospel of John.
If Philo could borrow the Logos from Socrates to describe the mind of God, John could borrow from Philo to describe Jesus Christ.
In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The Logos became flesh and pitched his tent among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
(John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
Notice how John interweaves the ideas of the Essenes with the ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Philo. In this short passage, John deftly portrays Jesus as the Greek Logos and the John the Baptist as the philosopher in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave who has come to talk about the forms.
I think it’s fair to say we would not have John c1 if Socrates wasn’t born.
As I said earlier, even though Greek thought profoundly influenced the Pharisees, they would have denied it until they were blue in the face. Individuals who grew up in the Pharisaic tradition wrote most of the New Testament. This includes Paul of Tarsus.
Paul was a pupil of Gamaliel, a Pharisaic doctor of Jewish law and leading authority of Jewish Sanhedrin of the 1st century CE. Gamaliel was also the grandson of Hillel the Elder, possibly the most influential Pharisee of all time.
Notice how Paul writes about Jesus and his relationship to the Old Testament (and he writes this way a lot).
Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
Now that you see how much Socrates influenced the Pharisees, are you beginning to hear his voice in Paul’s letter? Paul is convinced that the world as we see it is matter and that out there somewhere is a Form. As a Jewish Pharisee, he grew up to believe that God gave the law to serve as a shadow of a Form that is inaccessible to humans. Now as a Christian, he is convinced that the Form he heard Gamaliel talk about all those years is Jesus Christ.
This reminds me of how Paul also thought Jesus was a watering, rolling rock in the Sinai desert.
And it’s not just Paul. Whoever wrote Hebrews was also probably a Pharisee.
Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.
Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.
It’s almost as if whatever was true, whatever was noble, whatever was right, whatever was pure, whatever was lovely, whatever was admirable—whatever that thing was, it was Christ. Perhaps this is what Paul meant when he said, “All things are yours.”
Plato’s book, Phaedo, is a dialogue between Socrates and his friends on the day of his execution by drinking poison. Socrates’s friends are sad, but Socrates tells them that he is neither sad nor scared of his impending death. He said, “I desire to prove to you that the philosopher had reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die, and that after death he may hope to achieve the greatest good in the other world.”
Socrates believed, and argued, that the soul was immortal. He believed in eternal life, which, believe it or not, found tepid acceptance in the ancient world.
But for Socrates, eternal life was simply the logical extension of his philosophy of Forms. And his idea spread.
Even to a certain monotheistic religious group off the Mediterranean Sea whose only idea about God was that he protected their land and their crops.
The Torah doesn’t say anything about eternal life.
Check it. Really, go check it. You won’t find anything. Nor will you find anything in the Old Testament about eternal life.*
*(Actually, the last chapter of Daniel is about eternal life, but it’s a much later addition to the book. I’ll show you next week how we know that.)
Considering that eternal life and the immortality of the soul is such a major theme of the New Testament, it’s strange how absent it is in the Old Testament. After all, your eternal destination is pretty important, right?
And that’s what the Sadducees thought. As I’ve repeated from time to time over the last two weeks, the Sadducees had their Torah, and the absence of any discussion in it on the afterlife meant Socrates was wrong.
The liberal Pharisees, however, weren’t so sure. In fact, they found Socrates so convincing that—if you can believe it—they not only borrowed from him, but contorted their own scriptures to do it (of course you can believe, because for five weeks this is all I’ve let you read about).
Here’s what they did.
The Old Testament books of Isaiah and Jeremiah tell us that when the Babylonians invaded and destroyed Jerusalem, they buried the dead bodies in a valley that surrounds the west and south of Jerusalem and merges with the Kidron Valley, the other principal valley around Jerusalem. This valley is referred to throughout the Old Testament by one of two names: either “Topheth” or the “Valley of the son of Ben Hinnom.” In the New Testament, it is called “Gehenna”, a Greek transliteration of its Hebrew name. The Old Testament prophets interpreted this as the fulfillment of a curse brought on by child sacrifice in that valley. Here’s the text (pay attention to the bold portions):
Jeremiah c7 v30-34: The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away. I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for the land will become desolate.
Isaiah c66: “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. “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.
The Pharisees observed that God’s punishment in this life for disobedience was going down to this valley called Gehenna—that valley where Isaiah said there were so many bodies that maggots would never seem to stop feeding and the fire to incinerate them never seemed to stop burning. Therefore, the Pharisees reasoned that, if Socrates was correct, then punishment in the afterlife would have to mirror God’s punishment in this life.
Which the Pharisees concluded meant that the unrighteous would also go down to Gehenna in the next life.
The Pharisees were so influenced by Socrates that they weren’t debating whether anyone in the afterlife would go down to Gehenna. The texts we have merely reflect debates about who would go down to Gehenna. By the time Jesus came to the Earth, the Jewish rabbis had compiled a long list of people who would not inherit the ha’olam ha’ba (“the world to come”) and who would go down to Gehenna.
So, surely Jesus wouldn’t indulge in this theology that came from Socrates, right?
It turns out that Jesus not only engaged in it, but he made his own list:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. . . . And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna. Matthew c5 v21-22
You might be think, “No, Chris, Jesus didn’t say Gehenna; he said Hell.”
That’s what your Bible translates, but that’s not what he said. In fact, literally not any person in your Bible ever said the word “Hell.” The first time anyone used that word was seven centuries after Jesus’s time in pagan folklore.
The Jews invented the doctrine of Gehenna centuries before Jesus’s time, and Jesus borrowed the language of that doctrine.
Which raises all sorts of questions. Did Jesus even really endorse eternal punishment? When Jesus talked about Gehenna, what was he doing?
If you grew up the way I did, you’ve been raised to accept Hell without question.
And no matter how much gloss we put on top it, no matter how much we talk about it really being about a relationship with Jesus, no matter how much we avoid talking about it, no matter how many smiles we project, food pantries we staff, days of service we organize, happy songs we sing about blue skies and rainbows and sun beams from heaven—modern Christianity is almost entirely about not going to Hell.
But, in light of Hell’s origins, I think it’s time we at least revisit what Jesus was doing with it.
(I also think we should quit saying Hell and instead say Gehenna—I mean, if we’re trying to be biblical)
As you have seen in previous weeks, the Bible does all kinds of borrowing. The Old Testament borrows from Babylon. Jesus and the New Testament writers borrowed from the Essenes. Jesus and the New Testament writers borrowed from rabbinical Judaism. They even borrowed from some of the rabbis’ most audacious inventions.
Yet, in virtually no case did the Bible borrow something in order to affirm the underlying thing. It borrowed in order to rush towards something more lofty.
Next week, we’ll talk about the book of Revelation, the book of the Bible that by far borrows more than any other. By the time you finish, you may be surprised at how unsure you are about Hell after all.