Fit for the Trash Heap: Understanding Hell in the Gospel of Matthew

December 30, 2006

In a previous post, I talked about the origin of the word “ghenna” which most English bibles translate as “hell.” In short, ghenna was a stinky garbage dump, where Jerusalem’s refuse was taken to be burned. When he used the term “ghenna,” Jesus was talking about a garbage dump, not a place of eternal punishment, though many Christians believe that ghenna was used as a metaphor for such a place.

I also pointed out that most of what the New Testament says about ghenna comes from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and that Matthew seems to have more to say about it than any other gospel. For that reason, I think it is important to understand how the idea of ghenna fits into the message in Matthew’s gospel.

In a nutshell, here is what I think is happening in the gospel of Matthew:

1. Jesus arrives on the scene, announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God can be understood as God returning into his creation to restore it to its original, perfect state.

2. Jesus teaches about how life within the Kingdom should function (for example, the Sermon on the Mount) and he also teaches about how the Kingdom of God will grow and develop (for example, the parable of the sower in chapter 13).

3. Jesus’ teachings are accompanied by signs and wonders which demonstrate that God is present among his people and which indicate his concern for disease, death, and poverty.

4. Jesus’ authority is challenged by the religious and political powers of his day, who conspire against him and kill him. However, God raises him up from death, defeating those powers and proving him to be God’s son. Thus, the gospel concludes with Jesus’ announcement that “all authority on heaven and earth has been given to me,” which is accompanied by a call to make disciples of all nations. (28:18-20).

Understanding the message of the Kingdom of God requires a way of thinking that is difficult for those of us who are steeped in modern culture. We tend to view something as either existing or not existing. Its either here or not here. But Matthew and the other writers in the New Testament didn’t think that way. They believed that there was a sense in which the Kingdom of God was already present, and a sense in which it was yet to come. Both of these ideas were true. Thus, the Kingdom of God is present and progressive: it is here, but not here fully.

Within this larger story about God’s kingdom being established in and through Jesus is the recurring theme of God’s judgment. That is, if God is going to set the world right, then he is going to have to deal with all of the people who are making it wrong. Thus, Jesus is often seen as a farmer, harvesting wheat. The wheat itself (which represents those who are worthy of the Kingdom) will be “brought in” to his barn, but the chaff will be destroyed. (3:11-12).  Similarly, those who are not “salty” – capable of enhancing and living in harmony within God’s creation – become God’s refuse, to be thrown out and trampled. (5:13).

I hope you can see how the idea of a notorious garbage dump fits perfectly within the overall theme of God’s judgment. Those who are not “useful” for God’s kingdom are put outside the city with the rest of the garbage.

In another post I’ll talk about who the ghenna-bound people are – because they aren’t who you think: they are the powerful, the greedy, and those who oppress and mislead others – Matthew never sees hell as a place for the poor and oppressed. Indeed, Matthew believes that by consigning the powerful and greedy to ghenna, Jesus is saving the poor and oppressed.

But for now, my point is this: ghenna is a description of someone’s relationship with God’s kingdom. Those who are outside of that kingdom, because they are found to be unfit, are described as existing in ghenna. They have no relationship with God or his kingdom because they are not useful within it or, worse yet, because they hinder it.

I also think that ghenna is similar to the kingdom of God in the sense that it is both already and not yet. That is, people can be seen as being in a ghenna relationship with God in the here and now as well as in the future.

Flickr credit: Ever Upward


Christmas Eve Adventures

December 24, 2006

This morning, we enjoyed worshipping with the Church of Christ in Cisco. The language and practices here always come across as a little alien to my kids. In Cisco, they “partake” of the Lord’s Supper – not a word that they hear used a lot. There is also a lot of talk about being “worthy” as we worship – a part of our faith tradition’s longstanding concern with holiness. 

Larry Fitgerald – the preacher here – continues to do a solid, faithful job ministering to this congregation that is steeped in the traditions of Churches of Christ.

The language and traditions of the folks here in Cisco are an important part of their spirituality – every bit as integral to their faith as the Book of Common Prayer to those who are a part of the anglican traditions. It is a privilege to come and be a part of those rhythms from time to time.

The familiar faces here are a great inspiration – examples of faithfulness and commitment to the way of Jesus, even as the ways of the world continue to change around them. I was also impressed by their commitment to imitate Jesus in the way they reach out to the needy in the community – several of these folks will be working to provide meals (about 400 total, as I understand it) for the community tomorrow.

Tonight, after a few more hours with my extended family, we will be at St. Paul United Methodist in Abilene for their candlelight Christmas eve service. Then…home for Christmas.


One last question: I’m embarrased to say it, but at 42 years of age, I still don’t know exactly what “round yon Virgin” means. Can anyone explain that for me? Anyone else want to fess up to not knowing what it means themselves?

Lawyer Hell

December 22, 2006

If there is a hell to which disputatious, uncivil, vituperative lawyers go, let it be one in which the damned are eternally locked in discovery disputes with other lawyers of equally repugnant attributes.

– Judge Wayne Alley, United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, Krueger v. Pelican Products Corp. (1989)

Amen and Amen.

Favorite Posts of 2006

December 18, 2006

I’ve been inspired by Wade Hodges’ list. Here are my own favorites from 06, in no particular order:

1. Churches of Christ: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century

2. The DaVinci Code: Rediscovering Jesus

3. Do you suffer from MGS?

4. Reading scripture literally

5. Theologians all

6. Musings on Marriage and Submission

7. Heaven, Earth, and Gospel

8. McWork

9. Rock Fighting and Motherly Grace

10. The Political Passion Series (Thursday, in particular)

11. A Kellog’s Heretic?

12. The Kingdom and the Law Series (particularly Frankenstein’s Monster)

Christmas Chaos

December 14, 2006

Tonight was a crazy night at the Ritchie house as our annual goodwill gifts for friends and family were in full-scale production.

Both of our DVD burners, one on our home computer and one on my work notebook, were working hard cranking out DVDs of our annual Christmas photo/video.

I always tell people that we don’t write Christmas newsletters to friends and family because everyone else’s newsletters are so much more impressive than anything we could write. Instead, we just do a DVD with some photos from the prior year and a modern worship or CCM song that we all like as the soundtrack. It seems to work pretty well. (This year’s song: The Newsboys’ Secret Kingdom.)

Here is Lexi, our one-kid quality assurance department, watching one of the DVDs that just came off of our burners. She watched over 30 of these tonight. She will be re-living our Disney trip, only this time with a Newsboys soundtrack, in her sleep tonight.

In the meantime, Sheila is working on candies, cookies, pretzels, etc. etc. for our goody platters:

As Homer Siimpson would say: “Mmmmmm….Sugar cooookiiiessss… ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

…and Here is the final product, ready to go out to friends and family:

Form and Substance

December 12, 2006

A few months ago, I listened to a lecture from Jedi Master Dallas Willard in which Willard told of an experience when he was a young student at Baylor University. He said he kept asking God to give him places to speak, and the reply he seemed to be getting from God was to “have something to say and then I’ll take care of the rest.”

As things turned out, Willard has had a thing or two to say that have been worth hearing.

I’ve tried to take Willard’s remarks to heart in the last few months. The work that Sheila and I have done in Romans has been more about immersion in the subject, in prayer, and in substantive reflection, rather than fascination over the details of presentation.

We’ve spent months and months talking about the theology and practical applications from Paul’s great work, but it has often been in only the last day or two before we get down to talking about exactly how we’re going to organize our 30-45 minute time slot.

At first, I was uncomfortable doing things this way. But Sheila prefers it. And the longer we’ve done it, the more I’ve seen how waiting on God’s wisdom is more important than rushing things into an outline.

Not that organization and planning are bad things in teaching or preaching, etc. I just think they are better off taking a back seat throughout most of the process.

Superman II Finally Makes Sense

December 9, 2006

Superman II, originally released in 1980, had a plot hole the size of Kansas.

Having decided to give up his life of saving the world and what-not so that he could instead enjoy the occasional snuggle with Lois Lane, Superman consults with the spectral image of his mother. She tells him that, in order to do so, he must give up his powers by stepping into a molecular chamber, and that he CAN NEVER EVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES EVER GET HIS POWERS BACK. WITH NO EXCEPTIONS.


Superman then steps into the molecular chamber, where he loses his powers.

Then, guess what? About fifteen minutes later, he has his powers back.

There is no explanation as to what happened. He returns to the Fortress of Solitude. A green crystal glows very eerily, and the next thing we know he is flying all over the place, fighting with super villans.

It turns out that Superman II, which was originally shot alongside the first Superman film, had to be re-worked after Marlon Brando successfully sued the producers for a substantial cut of the first film’s revenue. As a result, the scenes  involving Superman giving up his powers and then getting them back – which involved footage originally shot with Brando – never made it into the film. A new director was brought on to replace Richard Donner, director of the first film, and a newly revised script now had Superman in dialog with his mother in these critical scenes.

200px-sup2-donner-dvd.jpgBut now, thanks to the efforts of a handful of editors, sound engineers, and effects people, Richard Donner’s original vision of Superman II can be viewed on DVD. I just finished watching it – and it was instantly my impression that getting rid of Brando and Donner in the sequel was the mistake that sent this very promising film series into the tank.

Here’s how the plot involving Superman losing his powers originally played out:

Superman consults with a spectral vision of Brando/Jor-El and is told that he must give up his powers if he wants to live the life of a mortal. This is very similar to the conversation with his mother in the 1980 film. However…

When he returns to try and get his powers back, he has ANOTHER conversation with Jor-El. Jor-El says he anticipated that this might happen, and that he allowed in advance for one, last hope – by giving up his own, last strength, preserved by Kryptonian technology in the Fortress of Solitude, Jor-El will give Superman his powers back. That is, Jor-El offers to give up his life so that Superman can return.

Brando’s last words before his second “death” in the series? He says that a prophecy will now be fulfilled: The son becomes the father and the father becomes the son. These are the same, last words that he speaks to infant Kal-El before he leaves Krypton. In other words, Superman must now think of who he is as both father (Jor-El) AND son (Kal-El). He must be faithful to who his father was, as well as to who he is.

It is so obvious now: this scene – tragically cut from the 1980 film – was the thing that tied it all together. Not only are we given a plausible, if still slightly cryptic explanation, for how Superman’s powers return, but it underscores the theme of Jor-El’s sacrificial act in giving Superman to the world and adds a whole new layer of meaning to the subsequent conflict and dialog between Superman and the three Kryptonian villans that Jor-El originally imprisoned. In short, without this scene, Superman I and II become disjointed, lacking in continuity or adequate exposition of the motivations of the characters.  With it, the first two films form a very tight, very sensible couplet that is centered on the themes of fathers, sons, love, sacrifice, and faithfulness to identity.

If you have ever been a fan of the Superman films, rent Richard Donner’s 2006 director’s cut. It will give you a whole new perspective not only on Superman II, but on the original film as well.