False Dilemmas In Science and Faith

farHeads or tails? Odds are somewhat even either one of these will be the result of a coin toss. Sure, there is an infintessimal chance that it will land on its edge, but seriously? The concept of “heads or tails” is the go-to principle for just about every “either/or” situation that comes up, and many of us humans are so very fond of feeling the need to pick one.The dictionary even has an entry for “Either-Or,” defining it as an unavoidable choice or exclusive division between only two alternatives.

In literay circles, this is referred to as a “false dilemma,” or a “false dichotomy”, and a “fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses,” to name a few. Generally, it involves the presentation of a situation where only limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option. Sometimes presenting a false dilemma is quite intentions. A good example would be “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” However, a false dilemma can be caused simply by accidentally omitting additional options, or not knowing that additional options even exist.

When dealing with false dilemmas, problems arise not generally out of the arguments itself, but from the options that make up the crux of the argument. The first question that should be asked is whether or not the options are valid, to start with. An example would be if someone argues that fire is hot, and another argues that fire is cold, and thus a compromise is made (argument from moderation) that fire is lukewarm. The result is going to be that no matter who touches the fire, they are going to get burned because fire is, indeed hot.

It’s not so cut-and-dried in other areas, and this mostly due to the presence of both a false dilemma, and putting an unarguable premise up for argument. Complicating the problem is a lack of understanding on difinitives, or what something means. Using the example of the fire as stated above, the argument of whether or not fire is hot should have ended if both persons first had a rudimentary understanding of the properties of fire.

The person who presented the argument that fire is cold could present his argument that the word “hot” has a subjective meaning, however. There are circumstances where they would be correct, but the field of interpretation is pretty narrow. I find an ambient temperature of 80 degrees to be quite comfortable. However, my wife finds an ambient temperature of 80 degrees to be uncomfortable warm. A difference of ten degrees either way will change whether or not either one of use will use the phrase, “It’s hot.” This levity disappears when fire is present.

Such are the literary differences when we use vernacular definitions. What’s this got to do with false dilemmas? Quite a lot, particularly where science is concerned, and specifically where matters of faith intersect. The word “theory” is a perfect example. When used in non-scientific context, the word “theory” implies that something is unproven or speculative. When used by scientists, and as party of the scientific method, a theory is an explanation or model based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning. A theory is a principle that has been tested and confirmed, and can explain and predict something. It is based on a careful examination of facts, and include observational consequences.

An example that most of us know and accept is Newton’s theory of gravity, which consists of problem-solving strategies that are applied to many scientific circumstances, and like other theories, is formed from independently tested hypothesis. In short, a scientific theory represent the best explanation of some aspect of the natural world using facts, laws, and tested hypotheses.

I don’t really know anyone who disputes the theory of gravity, and anyone who does will likely not be around long enough to argue their point. I know of nobody who states that their belief in the God rests upon whether or not gravity exists. If they did, they would be unceremoniously heckled.

This brings me to two other theories. Evolution and the Big Bang. These two scientific theories had to undergo the same scrutiny that the theory of gravity (and relativity – E=MC2) had to, but among many of the faithful, they are still considered arguable or something that is to be “believed in” or worse yet, principles that belief or rejection of God somehow rests.

There are several reasons why many Christians take issue with Evolution and the Big Bang. One, obviously, is the application of the vernacular definition of the word “theory” on these scientific principles. We often hear “It’s just a theory” when many Christians refer to Evolution and the Big Bang, but this is an incorrect use of the word, and you will never hear this coming from a scientist.

Another reason is the incorrect assumption that Evolution and the Big Bang encompass “first cause.” Fact is, neither Evolution or the Big Bang make any reference to First Cause. Yet another reason is the insistence by hard-core atheists that belief in God is incomptible with Evolution and the Big Bang.

Finally, the common premise among many that evolution and the big bang are a question of belief, when it is only a matter of whether or not one understands them. When properly understood, these facts of our scientific world are not in competition with faith.

Regarding the Big Bang Theory, consider this, from S. Michael Houdmann:

Prior to the 20th Century, it was not clear if the universe ever had a beginning. Had it always existed? No one knew. It was a matter of faith. Then a succession of discoveries throughout the 20th Century showed beyond a reasonable doubt that the universe did have a beginning. It wasn’t always here.

First, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, published in 1916, suggested that the universe had not always existed. Unsettled by the implications of his own theory, however, Einstein added a “cosmological constant” to make his equations support the possibility of a static (and therefore eternal) universe. Then the works of Georges Lemaître and Edwin Hubble in the 1920s demonstrated that the universe is expanding and that Einstein’s cosmological constant was a mistake. This left a lot of astrophysicists very unhappy. Many felt that Lemaître, a Roman Catholic priest, was trying to inject religion into physics by suggesting that the universe had a beginning.

Over the next several decades, physicists tried to salvage the eternality of the universe by proposing everything from the Milne model (1935) to the steady state theory (1948). But with the 1964 discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation—predicted by Big Bang theorists in the 1940s—the Big Bang theory became the preeminent cosmological model. The question was no longer, did the universe have a beginning? The question became, how did it happen?

As more and more astrophysicists focused their attention on what happened in the first few moments, months and years of the universe, some Christians became upset that the new theoretical models didn’t match up with their interpretation of Genesis. Just as many astrophysicists felt that the expanding universe theory was a ploy to inject religion into science, many Christians have come to feel that the Big Bang is an effort to undermine the biblical account of creation. Other Christians, however, feel that the Big Bang is consistent with the Bible’s account and welcome such compelling evidence for the creation of the universe.

Keep in mind that the Big Bang wasn’t a sudden explosion of energy in some empty part of space at some distant moment in time. According to the theory, all space, time and energy came into existence together in that “bang.” Before the Big Bang, there was no time. There was no space. Then, suddenly, an exceedingly dense, incredibly hot, infinitesimal ball of something – everything – appeared somewhere, somehow for reasons unknown and began to expand rapidly with our whole world inside of it.

It is hard not to see the evidence for the Big Bang as a stunning example of where science and theology intersect. Astrophysicist Dr. Robert Jastrow phrased it this way in his book God and the Astronomers (New York, W.W. Norton, 1978, p. 116): “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” Why? Because, as Jastrow explained in a subsequent interview, “Astronomers now find they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation to which you can trace the seeds of every star, every planet, every living thing in this cosmos and on the earth. . . .That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact” (“A Scientist Caught Between Two Faiths: Interview with Robert Jastrow,” Christianity Today, August 6, 1982, pp. 15, 18).

If Christians are to have objections to the Big Bang theory, it should only be in the atheistic presuppositions that often go along with the theory. The idea itself, that the universe came into existence due to an explosion, is not necessarily incompatible with the biblical creation account. As one Christian theologian has stated, “I am not necessarily opposed to the Big Bang theory. Rather, I know who banged it.”

Also, consider that Pope Pius XII declared, at the November 22, 1951 opening meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, that the Big Bang theory does not conflict with the Catholic concept of creation. In fact, some Conservative Protestant Christian denominations have also welcomed the Big Bang theory as supporting a historical interpretation of the doctrine of creation.

In fact, the Catholic Church maintains the position that the mind of God is at the genesis of the Big Bang Theory, as well as Evolutionary Theory. Pope Benedict said,

“The universe is not the result of chance, as some would want to make us believe,” Benedict said on the day Christians mark the Epiphany, the day the Bible says the three kings reached the site where Jesus was born by following a star. Contemplating it (the universe), we are invited to read something profound into it: the wisdom of the creator, the inexhaustible creativity of God.”

Accepting the Big Bang and Evolution doesn’t require the adoption of atheism. Here’s what the Episcopal Church says about “creation science:”

Whereas, … several states have recently passed so-called “balanced treatment” laws requiring the teaching of “Creation-science” whenever evolutionary models are taught; and …

Whereas, the terms “Creationism” and “Creation-science” … in these laws do not refer simply to the affirmation that God created the Earth and Heavens and everything in them, but specify certain methods and timing of the creative acts, and impose limits on these acts which are neither scriptural nor accepted by many Christians; and

Whereas, the dogma of “Creationism” and “Creation-science” … has been discredited by scientific and theologic studies and rejected in the statements of many church leaders; …

[T]he … Convention affirms the glorious ability of God to create in any manner, whether men understand it or not, and in this affirmation reject the limited insight and rigid dogmatism of the “Creationist” movement…

Here is a 1996 quote from Pope John Paul II:

“Today, almost half a century after the publication of [Pius XII’s] Encyclical, fresh knowledge has led to the recognition that evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.”

The Catholic Church also officially supports the Big Bang theory because it agrees with their theological position that time itself began at creation. The reference to “Creationists” mean people who reject standard science. The Pope certainly believes the universe was created by God, but he is not a “creationist” in this sense.

Hard core atheists are fond of attributing the discoveries made at CERN, the nuclear research center in Geneva, as proof that God doesn’t exist. But many people of faith see the beauty and the mystery of the world as indicators that God is creator of heaven and earth, as well as how God could have used a natural evolutionary process in the forming of the human species.

In fact, the Catholic Church no longer teaches creationism (that God created the world in six days), and states that the account in the book of Genesis is an allegory for the way God created the world. While the church objects to using evolution to bolster atheism, which denies God’s existence or any divine role in creation, it also objects to using Genesis as a scientific text. Fact is, teachings about God are compatible with modern scientific understanding about biological evolution, including both macro and micro-evolution.

When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, Christians generally accepted evolution as they reconciled it with the design argument. A popular theology at the time involved creation as an indirect process that is controlled by divine laws. Natural selection was readily defenced as being compatible with intelligent design, and Darwin wrote in his second edition, the following conclusion:

“I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number. Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide.

“Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction. We see this even in so trifling a circumstance as that the same poison often similarly affects plants and animals; or that the poison secreted by the gall-fly produces monstrous growths on the wild rose or oak-tree. I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed by the Creator.”

Within a decade most scientists had also been won over to evolution.

There is no reason to believe that God was not a guiding force behind evolution or the cause of the Big Bang. Sure, this contradicts some specific interpretations of God (like those requiring a literal interpretation of Genesis 1) relatively few people have such a narrow of a view of God.

There are many people who believe in the existence of God and understand the science behind the facts surrounding Evolutionary Theory and the Big Bang. In fact, the concept of God and science being harmonious would seem to only be objectionable to hard-core atheists and religious fundamental literalists. The atheists and religious literalists present an either-or proposition between belief in God and acceptance of evolution and the big bang. The atheist demands proof of the unprovable, and the religious fanatic cannot reconcile the known and the unknown.

When left with only the “false dilemma” of either God or science, it is difficult (if not impossible) to wholeheartedly reject God and choose science.

Jesus’ Teaching on Hell

jesus-shroudThis essay is from the book The Teaching of Jesus: From Mount Sinai to Gehenna: A Faithful Rabbi Urgently Warns Rebellious Israel, and from the book Essays on Eschatology: An Introductory Overview of the Study of Last Things.

Most of what we believe about hell comes from Catholicism and ignorance of the Old Testament, not from the Bible. This study will cause you to re-examine current teaching on hell and urge you to further study on what happens to the wicked after death.

I was righteously indignant when, a number of years ago, a caller uttered these words on a call-in radio show I was conducting. Perturbed by his haphazard use of Scripture, I pointed out to him and the audience, that hell couldn’t possibly be something invented by Catholic theologians because Jesus talked about it. I forcefully read some of the passages where Jesus did, and concluded that hell couldn’t possibly be the invention of an apostate church.

I now believe that hell is the invention of Roman Catholicism; and surprisingly, most, if not all, of our popular concepts of hell can be found in the writings of Roman Catholic writers like the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), author of Dante’s Inferno. The English poet John Milton (1608-1674), author of Paradise Lost, set forth the same concepts in a fashion highly acceptable to the Roman Catholic faith. Yet none of our concepts of hell can be found in the teaching of Jesus Christ! We get indignant at the mention of purgatory—we know that’s not in the Bible. We may also find that our popular concepts of hell came from the same place that purgatory did-Roman Catholicism. The purpose of this study is to briefly analyze Jesus’ teaching on hell (more correctly gehenna, the Greek word for which hell is given), to see whether these popular concepts are grounded therein.

A Plea for Open-Mindedness as We Begin

If we strive for open-mindedness and truly want to know what the Bible teaches, the following quotation will help us in our search:
We do not start our Christian lives by working out our faith for ourselves; it is mediated to us by Christian tradition, in the form of sermons, books and established patterns of church life and fellowship. We read our Bibles in the light of what we have learned from these sources; we approach Scripture with minds already formed by the mass of accepted opinions and viewpoints with which we have come into contact, in both the Church and the world. It is easy to be unaware that it has happened; it is hard even to begin to realize how profoundly tradition in this sense has molded us.

But we are forbidden to become enslaved to human tradition, either secular or Christian, whether it be “catholic” tradition, or “critical” tradition, or “ecumenical” tradition. We may never assume the complete rightness of our own established ways of thought and practice and excuse ourselves the duty of testing and reforming them by Scriptures. (J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958], pp. 69-70.)

Of course, Packer just reminds us of Biblical injunctions to test everything proposed for our belief. For example, in II Cor. 13.5, Paul told the Corinthians:

Try your own selves, whether ye are in the faith; prove your own selves.

Likewise, in Eph. 5.8-10, Paul commanded the Ephesian Christians to be involved in such testing:

for ye were once darkness, but are now light in the Lord, walk as children of light, proving what is well-pleasing unto the Lord.

In New Testament times, one was only a disciple of Christ when he was willing to examine himself, his beliefs, and everything proposed for his belief as a child of light. Nothing less is required now.

Hell vs. Sheol and Hades

We first begin by eliminating the problem the King James Version of the Bible introduced to this study by indiscriminately translating three different words in the Bible as hell: sheol, hades, and gehenna.

Sheol Used of Unseen

In the Old Testament, the word for which hell is given in the King James Version is sheol, a word whose root meaning is “unseen.” The King James Version translates sheol as “hell” 31 times, “the grave” 31 times (since someone in the grave is unseen), and “the pit” three times.

Yet in the Old Testament sheol was not exclusively a place of punishment, for faithful Jacob was there (Gen. 37.35, 42.38, 44.29, 31). Righteous Job also longed for it in Job 14.13. David spoke of going to sheol in Ps. 49.15 and Jesus went there, Ps. 16.10 and Acts 2.24-31. In all these cases, these men were “unseen” because they were dead.

Sheol Used of National Judgments

Many times the Bible uses the word sheol of national judgments, i.e., the vanishing of a nation. In Isa. 14.13, 15, Isaiah said Babylon would go to sheol, and she vanished. In Ezk. 26.19-21, Tyre so vanished in sheol. Likewise, in the New Testament, in Mt. 11.23, 12.41, Lk. 10.15, and 11.29-32, Jesus said that Capernaum would so disappear. These nations and cities didn’t go to a particular location, but they were going to disappear, and they did. They were destroyed. Thus, sheol is used commonly of national judgments in both the Old and New Testaments.

Hades Used of Anything Unseen

The New Testament equivalent of sheol is hades, which occurs only eleven times. Like its synonym sheol, the King James Version translates the word “hell.” However, the correct translation is hades, or the unseen. The Bible doesn’t use hades exclusively for a place of punishment. Luke 16 pictures righteous Lazarus there. Acts 2.27, 31 says Jesus went there. In I Cor. 15.55, Paul used the same word when he said, “O grave, where is thy victory?” In Rev. 1.18, Jesus said he had the controlling keys of death and hades, the unseen, and in Rev. 6.8, death and hades followed the pale horse. Finally, in Rev. 20.13, 14, death and hades gave up the dead that were in them, and were then cast into the lake of fire. These verses illustrate that hades refers to anything that is unseen.

Hades Used of National Judgment

Like its companion word in the Old Testament, hades was also plainly used of national judgments in the New Testament. In Mt. 11.23 and Lk. 10.15, Jesus said Capernaum would go down into hades, i.e., it was going to vanish. In Mt. 12.41 and Lk. 11.29-32, Jesus said his generation of Jews was going to fall.

About hades in Greek mythology, Edward Fudge said:

In Greek mythology Hades was the god of the underworld, then the name of the nether world itself. Charon ferried the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx or Acheron into this abode, where the watchdog Cerberus guarded the gate so none might escape. The pagan myth contained all the elements for medieval eschatology: there was the pleasant Elyusium, the gloomy and miserable tartarus, and even the Plains of Asphodel, where ghosts could wander who were suited for neither of the above…The word hades came into biblical usage when the Septuagint translators chose it to represent the He­brew sheol, an Old Testament concept vastly different from the pagan Greek notions just outlined. Sheol, too, received all the dead…but the Old Testament has no specific division there involving either punishment or reward. (Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes [Houston: Providential Press, 1982], p. 205.)

We need to make sure that our ideas concerning hades come from the Bible and not Greek mythology. We have no problem using sheol the way the Old Testament used it, or hades, as the New Testament used it. Both refer to the dead who are unseen, and to national judgments.

Tartarus Is Also Translated Hell In the King James Version

In II Pet. 2.4, we read:

For if God spared not angels when they sinned, but cast them down to hell, and committed them to pits of darkness who were being punished when II Peter was written, to show that God knew how to treat disobedience among angels. It says nothing about fire, torment, pain, punishment of anyone else, or that it will last forever. It simply doesn’t pertain to our subject.

The Popular Concept of Hell Unknown to the Old Testament
Before we move to the gospel’s teaching on hell, we want to think further concerning that the word gehenna (popularly mistranslated hell, as we’ll see) didn’t occur in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. Let’s take a few paragraphs to let the significance of that fact soak in. In previous editions of this material, I merely remarked that prominent Old Testament characters like David and Abraham never heard the term or its equivalent. They were never threatened with eternal torment in hell or heard anything like our popular concept now. However, Gehenna’s absence in the Old Testament is a much more serious omission than that. (The concepts in this section are suggested by Thomas B. Thayer in his 1855 Edition of Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment.)

Before the Mosaic Law

Adam and Eve in the Garden

When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he never mentioned the concept of eternal torment to them. Read for yourself–it’s just not there. Don’t you think it strange that as human history began on this planet, while God explained which tree they could not eat of, that he didn’t give the parents of all mankind some kind of warning about eternal punishment, if there was potential for it to be in their future, and the future of all their posterity?

Most of us think eternal torment will engulf the vast majority of mankind, nearly all of Adam and Eve’s descendents, yet here’s a father, God, who didn’t warn his children of the potential of what might befall them. What would you think of a father who told his young child not to ride his bike in the street, and if he did, he would get a spanking. Suppose he also planned to roast him over a roaring fire for fifty years? After he spanked him, would you think him a just father for not warning his child? Can you think of an apology or a defense for him? Yet to Adam and Eve, the father of all mankind failed to mention a much greater punishment than the death they would die the day they ate of the forbidden tree. Was this just a slip of the mind on God’s part, to not mention at all the interminable terrible woes that lay ahead for the vast majority of their descendants? No, God announced to them a tangible present punishment the very day they committed the sin: “In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” They found that the wages of sin was death.

Cain and Abel

The same is true with Cain and Abel, a case of murder of a brother. Surely, we would think that God might roll out the threat of eternal torment that Cain was to receive as a warning to all future generations. In the whole account, there’s not a hint, not a single word on the subject. Instead, Cain is told, “And now art thou cursed from the earth…When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.” Again, Cain received an immediate, tangible physical punishment administered, with absolutely no warning of future eternal torment. Like Adam, Cain heard none of the dire warnings preached from pulpits of the fiery wrath of God, tormenting his soul throughout eternity.

Now, if Cain were to receive such punishment from God without warning, would God be a just lawgiver and judge to impose additional, infinitely greater punishment with no word of caution whatsoever? In Gen. 4.15, God said, “Therefore, whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him seven-fold.” If, with no warning, Cain was going to receive eternal fiery torment, would those who killed him receive seven times endless fiery torment?
I’m not making light of endless torment, I’m just pointing out that it’s remarkable that God hadn’t said a word about it thus far in the Bible story.

Noah and the Flood

When we come to Noah and the flood, God noted that “every thought of man’s heart was only evil continually,” and that “the earth was filled with violence, and all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth.” If not before, wouldn’t this be the ideal time to reveal eternal torment ahead for nearly all inhabitants of the earth? If any circumstances warranted such punishment, this would be the time, would it not? However, Noah, “a preacher of righteousness,” didn’t threaten endless punishment to evildoers. If warnings of such punishment serve to turn man aside from his evil way, surely this would have been the time to have revealed it, but there’s nary a whisper of it. Instead, they were destroyed by the flood, a physical, tangible punishment for their sin, with absolutely no warning of endless torment. Nor was there such a warning when mankind inhabited the earth again after the flood. One word from God might have set the world on an entirely different course. Surprisingly no such word was given.

Sodom and Gomorrah

We could go on with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the physical destruction of the cities and their inhabitants, with not even a rumor of endless future torment that we probably think they unknowingly faced. What would we think if our government passed a new law with a huge fine as the punishment, but when a guilty party was found, he paid the fine, but also had to serve endless torment that the citizens had no warning of? What kind of judge explains the law and known penalty, while carefully concealing a much more awful penalty? What would the penalty of a few thousand dollars matter in a case where he was also going to be tormented horribly and endlessly? Yet the popular concept is that the Sodomites were sent into such a judgment.

We could go through the accounts of the builders of the tower of Babel, the destruction of Pharaoh and his armies, and Lot’s wife, yet we would notice the same thing. All these received a temporal physical punishment, with no mention of an infinitely greater torturous punishment awaiting them in the future.

Was this teaching deliberately excluded from the record, or did it never belong? We know that it isn’t there. Neither the word gehenna nor the concept of endless torment was given in the millennia before the giving of the Law of Moses. From the creation to Mt. Sinai, there was simply no insinuation of it in the entirety of human history up to that time. By the conclusion of this study, we’ll see that God never had a plan of inflicting such dreadful torment on the people of his own creation.

Under the Mosaic Law

Most of us are familiar with the blessings and cursings Moses pronounced upon the Israelites in Deuteronomy 28-30 before they entered the promised land. If the Jews were disobedient to God, he promised them every conceivable punishment: he would curse their children, their crops, their flocks, their health, the health of their children, the welfare of the nation, etc. He foretold that they would even go into captivity, and would have such horrible temporal physical judgments to drive them to eat their own children. Among such an extensive list of punishments that would come upon his disobedient people, God uttered not even a whisper of endless torment upon them in any case of rebellion. All these physical, temporal judgments would take place in this life.

We could multiply such cases of temporal punishments for rebellion, corruption, and idolatry under Moses. He spelled them out in minute detail. The writer of Hebrews (in 2.2) said: “…the word spoken through angels (the Mosaic Law) proved stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward…” As we’ve seen, the punishment was physical and temporal with no promise of endless torment whatsoever. Endless torment was simply unknown under the Law.

The question now arises, did every transgressor and disobedient Jew receive just punishment, or not? If they did, will their punishment continue to be just if in the future, they will also receive endless torment in “hell” that they were never told of and knew nothing of? If so, will eternal torment on top of their just physical temporal punishment still be just? It cannot be, can it? How can adding infinite torture in the future that they knew nothing of to a just punishment they received in the past under the Old Testament still be just?

In summary, the popular concept of hell is not found anywhere in the Old Testament. The word gehenna is not even contained in the Greek Old Testament, endless torment is nowhere to be found in its pages.

Where Did the Concept of Endless Torment Originate?

As we’ve seen, it most certainly did not originate in the Old Testament, either before or during the Mosaic Law. A great deal of evidence (more than we’ll give here) suggests that it originated in Egypt, and the concept was widespread in the religious world. Augustine, commenting on the purpose of such doctrines, said:
This seems to have been done on no other account, but as it was the business of princes, out of their wisdom and civil prudence, to deceive the people in their religion; princes, under the name of religion, persuaded the people to believe those things true, which they themselves knew to be idle fables; by this means, for their own ease in government, tying them the more closely to civil society. (Augustine, City of God, Book IV, p. 32, cited by Thayer, Origin & History, p. 37.)

Contriving doctrines to control people? Who would have believed it? Well, the Greek world did, the Roman world did, and evidently between the testaments, the Jews got involved, as well, as the concept of endless torment began appearing in the apocryphal books written by Egyptian Jews.

Thayer wrote further:

Polybius, the historian, says: “Since the multitude is ever fickle, full of lawless desires, irrational passions and violence, there is no other way to keep them in order but by the fear and terror of the invisible world; on which account our ancestors seem to me to have acted judiciously, when they contrived to bring into the popular belief these notions of the gods, and of the infernal regions. B. vi 56. .

Livy, the celebrated historian, speaks of it in the same spirit; and he praises the wisdom of Numa, because he invented the fear of the gods, as “a most efficacious means of governing an ignorant and barbarous populace. Hist., I 19.

Strabo, the geographer, says:

“The multitude are restrained from vice by the punishments the gods are said to inflict upon offenders, and by those terrors and threatenings which certain dreadful words and mon­strous forms imprint upon their minds…For it is impos­sible to govern the crowd of women, and all the common rabble, by philosophical reasoning, and lead them to piety, holiness and virtue-but this must be done by su­perstition, or the fear of the gods, by means of fables and wonders; for the thunder, the aegis, the trident, the torches (of the Furies), the dragons, &c., are all fables, as is also all the ancient theology. These things the legislators used as scarecrows to terrify the childish multitude.” Geog., B., I

Timaeus Locrus, the Pythagorean, after stating that the doctrine of rewards and punishments after death is necessary to society, proceeds as follows:

“For as we sometimes cure the body with unwholesome remedies, when such as are most wholesome produce no effect, so we restrain those minds with false relations, which will not be persuaded by the truth. There is a necessity, therefore, of instilling the dread of those foreign torments: as that the soul changes its habitation; that the coward is ignominiously thrust into the body of a woman; the murderer imprisoned within the form of a savage beast; the vain and inconstant changed into birds, and the slothful and ignorant into fishes.”

Plato, in his commentary on Timaeus, fully endorses what he says respecting the fabulous invention of these foreign torments. And Strabo says that “Plato and the Brahmins of India invented fables concerning the future judgments of hell” (Hades). And Chrysippus blames Plato for attempting to deter men from wrong by frightful stories of future punishments.

Plutarch treats the subject in the same way; sometimes arguing for them with great solemnity and earnestness, and on other occasions calling them “fabulous stories, the tales of mothers and nurses.”
Seneca says:

“Those things which make the infernal regions terrible, the darkness, the prison, the river of flaming fire, the judgment seat, &c., are all a fable, with which the poets amuse themselves, and by them agitate us with vain terrors.”

Sextus Empiricus calls them “poetic fables of hell;” and Cicero speaks of them as “silly absurdities and fables” (ineptiis ac fabulis).

Aristotle.

“It has been handed down in mythical form from earliest times to posterity, that there are gods, and that the divine (Deity) compasses all nature. All beside this has been added, after the mythical style, for the purpose of persuading the multitude, and for the interests of the laws, and the advantage of the state.” Neander’s Church Hist., I, p. 7. , (Origin & History, 41-43.)

Mosheim, in his legendary Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, described the permeation among the Jews of these fables during the period between the testaments:

Errors of a very pernicious kind, had infested the whole body of the people (the Jews—SGD). There prevailed among them several absurd and superstitious notions concerning the divine nature, invisible powers, magic, &c., which they had partly brought with them from the Babylonian captivity, and partly derived from the Egyptians, Syrians, and Arabians who lived in their neighborhood. The ancestors of those Jews who lived in the time of our Savior had brought from Chaldaea and the neigh­boring countries many extravagant and idle fancies which were utterly unknown to the original founders of the nation. The conquest of Asia by Alexander the Great was also an event from which we may date a new accession of errors to the Jewish system, since, in con­sequence of that revolution, the manners and opinions of the Greeks began to spread among the Jews. Beside this, in their voyages to Egypt and Phoenicia, they brought home, not only the wealth of these corrupt and supersti­tious nations, but also their pernicious errors and idle fables, which were imperceptibly blended with their own religious doctrines. (Mosheim’s Institutes of Ecclesias­tical History, Century I pt. I chap. ii.)

A similar statement is made in an old Encyclopedia Americana, cited by Thayer:

The Hebrews received their doctrine of demons from two sources. At the time of the Babylonish captivity, they derived it from the source of the Chaldaic-Persian magic; and afterward, during the Greek supremacy in Egypt, they were in close intercourse with these foreigners, particularly in Alexandria, and added to the magician notions those borrowed from this Egyptic-Grecian source. And this connection and mixture are seen chiefly in the New Testament. It was impossible to prevent the intermingling of Greek speculations. The voice of the prophets was silent. Study and inquiry had commenced. The popular belief and philosophy separated; and even the philosophers divided themselves into several sects, Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes; and Platonic and Pythagorean notions, intermingled with Oriental doctrines, had already unfolded the germ of the Hellenistic and cabalistic philosophy. This was the state of things when Christ appeared. (Encyclopedia Americana, art. “Demon, “ cited by Thayer (Origin & History, p. 120).

Note that Luke wrote in Ac. 7.22 that “Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” yet knowing the Egyptian concepts, he gave not a whiff of endless torment in any of his writings.

Thus, we see that the concept of endless torment afterlife was not found in the Old Testament. It evidently crept in among some Jews during the period between the testaments.

Thayer summarizes the intertestamental period on this subject in the following words:

The truth is, that in the four hundred years of their intercourse with the heathen, during which they were without any divine teacher of message, Pagan philosophy and superstition had, so far as regarded the future state, completely pushed aside the Law of Moses and the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and set up in place of them their own extravagant inventions and fables respect­ing the invisible world. (Ibid., p. 53)

The First Use of Gehenna

Most of our modern translations no longer translate hades and sheol with the word “hell.” Now we want to examine the remaining Greek word, gehenna, that is still commonly rendered “hell.” (We will discuss whether this is an appropriate translation near the end of this study.) Notice the first occurrence of this word in the Bible in Mt. 5.21-22. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell (gehenna—SGD) of fire.

When Jesus used the term “hell of fire” in these verses, he actually used the Greek word gehenna for the first time in inspired writing.
We want to begin with this first occurrence of gehenna and then study all of its occurrences in the New Testament. In this way, we can determine the totality of the Bible’s teaching on what is now commonly called hell.

The Message of John the Baptist and Jesus

To understand Jesus’ first use of gehenna in the Sermon on the Mount, we must first put his ministry, and that of his contemporary, John the Baptist, in their proper contexts. We saw there that Malachi prophesied the coming of John the Baptist, and that Jesus confirmed that fulfillment by John. John’s preaching consisted of announcements of an imminent (“the axe lieth at the root of the tree”) fiery judgment on Israel if she didn’t repent. This was the same fiery judgment of which Malachi had spoken, and said that John would announce. With this idea of imminent fiery judgment in the context, John continued in Mt. 3.11-12:

I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire: whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.

Al Maxey, a serious student of these matters, has noticed the following about the word translated “burn up” here:

This is the Greek word katakaio which means “to burn up; consume.” It signifies to completely, utterly, totally destroy with fire. It is enlightening, in the context of this study, to note that this word is used in the LXX (Septuagint) in Exodus 3:2 where Moses beholds a burning bush — “The bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was NOT consumed. (Al Maxey, “The Consuming Fire, Examining the Final Fate of the Wicked in Light of Biblical Language,” Reflections #46, June 6, 2003.)

Hence John and Jesus said the wicked would be consumed with unquenchable fire, yet we popularly read it to mean they will not be consumed, thinking folks in hell will no more be consumed than the burning bush was!

Remember this “unquenchable fire.” It will figure in our study throughout. It is the fire spoken of by Malachi, John, and Jesus.
Old Testament Background of Gehenna

Gehenna, the word hell is given for in the New Testament, is rooted in an Old Testament location. It is generally regarded as derived from a valley nearby Jerusalem that originally belonged to a man named Hinnom. Scholars say the word is a transliteration of the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, a valley that had a long history in the Old Testament, all of it bad. Hence, Gehenna is a proper name like the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and New Mexico. This being true, the word should never have been translated “hell,” for as we’ll see, the two words have nothing in common.

We first find Hinnom in Josh. 1.8 and 18.16, where he is mentioned in Joshua’s layout of the lands of Judah and Benjamin. In II K. 23.10, we find that righteous King Josiah “defiled Topheth in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech.” Josiah, in his purification of the land of Judah, violated the idolatrous worship to the idol Molech by tearing down the shrines. Topheth (also spelled Tophet) was a word meaning literally, “a place of burning.” In II Chron. 28.3, idolatrous King Ahaz burnt incense and his children in the fire there, as did idolatrous King Manasseh in II Chron. 33.6. In Neh. 11.30, we find some settling in Topheth after the restoration of the Jewish captives from Babylon. In Jer. 19.2, 6, Jeremiah prophesied calamity coming upon the idolatrous Jews there, calling it the valley of slaughter, because God was going to slaughter the Jews there, using Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. In Jer. 7.32, Jeremiah prophesied destruction coming upon the idolatrous Jews of his day with these words:

Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter; for they shall burn in Tophet, till there be no peace.

Notice the mention of Topheth, “the place of burning,” again. Isaiah also spoke of Topheth this way in Isa. 30.33, when he warned the pro-Egypt party among the Jews (i.e., those trusting in Egypt for their salvation from Babylon rather than God) of a fiery judgment coming on them. In Jer. 19.11-14, Jeremiah gave this pronouncement of judgment by Babylon on Jerusalem at the valley of Hinnom:

And the houses of Jerusalem, and the houses of the kings of Judah, shall be defiled as the place of Tophet, because of all the houses upon whose roofs they have burned incense unto all the host of heaven, and have poured out drink offerings unto other gods.

From these passages we can see that, to the Jews, the valley of Hinnom, or Topheth, from which the New Testament concept of Gehenna arose, came to mean a place of burning, a valley of slaughter, and a place of calamitous fiery judgment. Thus, Thayer in his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, said, concerning Gehenna:

Gehenna, the name of a valley on the S. and E. of Jerusalem…which was so called from the cries of the little children who were thrown into the fiery arms of Moloch, i.e., of an idol having the form of a bull. The Jews so abhorred the place after these horrible sacrifices had been abolished by king Josiah (2 Kings xxiii.10), that they cast into it not only all manner of refuse, but even the dead bodies of animals and of unburied criminals who had been executed. And since fires were always needed to consume the dead bodies, that the air might not become tainted by the putrefaction, it came to pass that the place was called Gehenna.

Actually, since Gehenna was a proper name of a valley, it would have been called Gehenna whether or not any idolatry, burning, or dumping of garbage had ever occurred there, and it did, as we now see.

Valley of Hinnom

Gehenna
The Valley of Hinnom (Wiki Image)

Fudge said concerning the history of the valley of Hinnom:

The valley bore this name at least as early as the writing of Joshua (Josh. 15:8; 18:16), though nothing is known of its origin. It was the site of child-sacrifices to Moloch in the days of Ahaz and Manasseh (apparently in 2 Kings 16:3; 21:6). This earned it the name “Topheth,” a place to be spit on or abhorred. This “Topheth” may have become a gigantic pyre for burning corpses in the days of Hezekiah after God slew 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a night and saved Jerusalem (Isa. 30:31-33; 37:26). Jeremiah predicted that it would be filled to overflowing with Israelite corpses when God judged them for their sins (Jer. 7:31-33; 19:2-13). Josephus indicates that the same valley was heaped with dead bodies of the Jews follow­ing the Roman siege of Jerusalem about A.D. 69- 70…Josiah desecrated the repugnant valley as part of his godly reform (2 Kings 23:10). Long before the time of Jesus, the Valley of Hinnom had become crusted over with connotations of whatever is “condemned, useless, corrupt, and forever discarded.” (Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes [Houston: Providential Press, 1982], p. 160.)

We need to keep this place in mind as we read Jesus’ teaching using a word referring back to this location in the Old Testament.

The Twelve Gehenna Passages in Chronological Order

Mt. 5.21-22

In Mt. 5.21-22, Jesus used gehenna for the first time in inspired speech:

Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment, and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire (gehenna—SGD).

As we mentioned earlier in this study, Jesus actually used the Greek word gehenna for the first time in inspired writing. The word had never occurred in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. When we read the word hell, all kinds of sermon outlines, illustrations, and ideas come to the fore of our minds. None of these came to the minds of Jesus’ listeners, for they had never heard the word before in inspired speech. It is very significant that the word did not occur even once in the Septuagint, quoted by Jesus and his apostles.
I suggest that to the Jews in Jesus’ audience, Jesus’ words referred merely to the valley southeast of Jerusalem. In their Old Testament background, Gehenna meant a place of burning, a valley where rebellious Jews had been slaughtered before and would be again if they didn’t repent, as Malachi, John the Baptist, and Jesus urged them to do. Jesus didn’t have to say what Gehenna was, as it was a well-known place to the people of that area, but his teaching was at least consistent with the national judgment announced by Malachi and John the Baptist. The closest fire in the context is Mt. 3.10-12, where John announced imminent fiery judgment on the nation of Israel.

Let’s notice the other gehenna passages to ascertain more about Jesus’ use of gehenna. As we do so, let’s analyze each passage thus: Does the passage teach things we don’t believe about an unending fiery hell, but which fit national judgment in gehenna?

Mt. 5.29-30

The next passage is Mt. 5.29-30, where Jesus used gehenna twice when he said:

And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell (gehenna—SGD). And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell (gehenna— SGD).

In our traditional idea of hell, unending fire after the end of time, we normally don’t think of people having their physical limbs at that time. This is not an argument, but just the realization that we don’t think in terms of some people being in heaven with missing eyes and limbs, and some in hell with all of theirs. As William Robert West said in his excellent work on the nature of man, “No one that I know of believes that the ‘soul’ shall ‘enter into life,’ which he or she says is in heaven, with a hand of that soul in hell.” (William Robert West, If the Soul or Spirit Is Immortal, There Can Be No Resurrection from the Dead, Third Edition, originally published as The Resurrection and Immortality [Bloomington, IN: Author House, September 2006].)

However, these words do fit a national judgment. It would be better to go into the kingdom of the Messiah missing some members, than to go into an imminent national judgment of unquenchable fire with all our members. This was equivalent to John’s demand that his Jewish audience bring forth fruits worthy of repentance or receive imminent unquenchable fire. The whole body of a Jew could be cast into the valley of Gehenna in the fiery judgment of which John spoke.

Mt. 10.28

The fourth time Jesus used gehenna was when he said:

And be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna—SGD].

Again, Jesus spoke of gehenna consistently with imminent national judgment on Israel. This verse is often used to affirm that the soul of man cannot be destroyed, that we’re all born with an eternal soul, and it’s that soul that we think Jesus spoke of in this verse. This directly contradicts the plain language of Jesus. If the body and soul of man cannot be destroyed, the language of Jesus has no meaning whatsoever! To help us understand Jesus’ teaching here, let’s briefly review the Bible’s teaching concern­ing man being a living soul. The word soul in the Old Testament comes from the Hebrew nephesh, which fundamentally refers to man’s animal life, i.e., the life he shares with all animals. Hence, in Genesis 2.7, we read:

And Jehovah God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Here, Adam consisted of (1) a physical body, composed from the earth, which was not living. However, when God gave this body (2) the breath of life, Adam was a living soul (nephesh). It’s interesting that the term nephesh is applied to animals many times in that same creation chapter. For example, in Gen. 2.19, it’s applied to animals: “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures (nephesh).” In Gen, 1.21, the same word is translated living creature: “And God created the great sea-monsters, and every living creature that moves wherewith the water swarmed.” In Gen. 1.24, it’s again translated animals: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind, cattle, and creeping things, and beasts of the earth.” In Gen. 1.30, it’s translated life: “And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the heavens, and to everything that creeps upon the earth, wherein there is life.” Hence, the term a living soul, is applied to animals as well as man. They are all living souls.”

Since both animals and man are living souls or beings, we can read the Bible’s saying that souls (nephesh) can be smitten with the sword and utterly destroyed, as in Josh. 11.11:

And they smote all the souls [nephesh] that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them; there was none left that breathed: and he burnt Hazor with fire.

Thus, as Israel invaded Canaan, the national judgment they were carrying out on the inhabitants was referred to as destroying their souls with their swords. A similar usage of souls in the same context is in Josh. 10.35, 39:

…and they took it [the city of Eglon] on that day, and smote it with the edge of the sword; and all the souls (nephesh) that were therein he utterly destroyed that day, according to all that he had done to Lachish.

…and he took it [the region of Debir], and the king thereof, and all the cities thereof; and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed all the souls that were therein; he left none remaining: as he had done to Hebron, so he did to Debir, and to the king thereof; as he had done also to Libnah, and to the king thereof.

Likewise in Lev. 23.30, we read of the penalty for working on the Day of Atonement:

Whosoever soul [nephesh] it be that doeth any manner of work in that same day, that soul will I destroy from among his people.

In none of these examples was the word soul referring to an immortal part of man. Significantly, this usage is how the Jews listening to Jesus in Mt. 10.28 and Lk. 12.4-5 would have understood such language. They knew from their Old Testament background that God could, and had many times, destroyed both bodies and souls in various national judgments.

The question arises, “What’s to keep anyone else from carrying out such judgments of destroying both bodies and souls?” The answer is absolutely nothing, if they’re capable of doing it. Not everyone is, and this passage doesn’t say that only God is capable, does it? We may have thought that only deity could destroy a soul because thought soul implied an immortal part of man. However, that wasn’t what any of these passages contemplated. The same comments apply to the following passage.

Lk. 12.4-5

This is the fifth time Jesus used gehenna, when he said: Lk. 12.4-5
And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, who after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell [gehenna-SGD]: yea, I say unto you, Fear him.
Here Jesus taught the same thing John taught in Mt. 3.10-12, that unquenchable fire (gehenna, Mk. 9.43) was coming upon rebellious Israel.

Notice also in verse 49 that Jesus said:

I came to cast fire upon the earth; and what do I desire, if it is already kindled?

The fiery judgment of which Jesus spoke was not far off in time and place, but imminent and earthly. In verse 56, Jesus noted that the judgment of which he spoke was imminent, for he said:

Ye hypocrites, ye know how to interpret the face of the earth and the heaven; but how is it that ye know not how to interpret this time?

The word for earth in both these verses is gn, the standard word for land or ground, not necessarily the planet, which we might think.

Thayer defined the word as:

1. arable land, 2. the ground, the earth as a standing place, 3. land, as opposed to sea or water, 4. the earth as a whole, the world. (p. 114)

This is the word used in Mt. 2.6 (the land of Judea), Mt. 2.20 (the land of Israel), Mt. 10.15 (the land of Sodom and Gomorrah), Mt. 11.24 (the land of Sodom), Mt. 14.34 (the land of Gennesaret), Jn. 3.22 (the land of Judea), Ac. 7.3 (into the land which I shall show thee), Ac. 7.6 (seed should sojourn in a strange land), Ac. 7.11 (a dearth over all the land of Egypt), etc. Thus, Jesus again spoke of imminent fiery destruction on the land of Israel, just as Malachi and John the Baptist said he would announce.

Mt. 18.9, Mk. 9.43-45

These verses contain the sixth, seventh, eight, and ninth times Jesus used the word gehenna. These are verses like Mt. 5.29-30, which speak of it being better to enter life or the kingdom without some members of one’s body rather than going into gehenna with a whole body. However, we want to pay special attention to Mark’s account, because in it, Jesus further described gehenna:

And if thy hand cause thee to stumble, cut it off: it is good for thee to enter into life maimed, rather than having thy two hands to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire [emphasis mine—SGD].

Notice that Jesus specifically said what’s coming in gehenna-unquenchable fire. John the Baptist said he would baptize with unquenchable fire, not necessarily fire that would burn unendingly, but which would not be quenched. Unquenchable fire is unstoppable! It’s fiery destruction brought about by a divine being. In Jer. 17.27, God warned the Jews of his time of imminent fiery judgment on themselves:

If ye will not hearken unto me…then will I kindle a fire in the gates of Jerusalem, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.

Likewise, in Jer. 7.20, Jeremiah foretold the same thing:

Therefore, thus saith the Lord God: Behold mine anger and my fury shall be poured out upon this place, upon man, and upon beast, and upon the trees of the field, and upon the fruit of the ground, and it shall burn, and shall not be quenched

This unquenchable fire, brought on by the Babylonians, devoured the palaces and gates of Jerusalem during Jeremiah’s lifetime, in 586 B.C.

In Ezk. 20.47-48, God promised such a national judgment on Judah:

Hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it shall consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched, and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it. And all flesh will see that I, the Lord, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.

Of course, Babylon fulfilled these words in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The fire was not quenched, but Jerusalem didn’t burn unendingly from 586 B.C. on.

Likewise, in Amos 5.6, God had promised a similar judgment on the northern kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians, fulfilled in 722 B.C.:
Seek the Lord that you may live, lest He break forth like a fire, O house of Joseph, and it consume with none to quench it for Bethel.

The unquenchable fire that consumed Israel was unstoppable, but no one believes it’s still burning unendingly. Thus, when Jesus spoke of unquenchable fire in Mk. 9.43, he used language that his Jewish listeners would associate with the national judgments God had brought on nations in the Old Testament.

In fact, they had never heard such language used any other way! Of course, we have, but not from the teaching of the Bible.

Thayer mentioned the use of the word unquenchable in the Greek language by Josephus and others:

  1. Strabo, the celebrated geographer, speaking of the Parthenon, a temple in Athens, says: “In this was the inextinguishable or unquenchable lamp” (asbestos, the very word used in Mark iii 12, Luke iii 17, and Mark ix. 43). Of course, all it means is that the lamp was kept constantly or regularly burning during the period alluded to, though extinguished or quenched ages ago.
  2.  Homer uses the phrase asbestos gelos, “unquenchable laughter.” But we can hardly suppose they are laughing now, and will laugh to all eternity.
  3. Plutarch, the well-known author of the biographies familiarly known as “Plutarch’s Lives,” calls the sacred fire of the temple “unquenchable fire” (pur asbeston, the exact expression of Jesus), though he says in the very next sentence it had sometimes gone out.
  4. Josephus, speaking of a festival of the Jews, says that every one brought fuel for the fire of the altar, which “continued always unquenchable,” (asbeston aei). Here we have a union of the word supposed to mean specially endless, when in the form of aionios, with the word “unquenchable,” and yet both together do not convey the idea of duration without end; for the fire of which Josephus speaks had actually gone out, and the altar been destroyed, at the time he wrote! And still he calls the fire “always unquenchable.”
  5. Eusebius, the father of ecclesiastical history, describing the martyrdom of several Christians at Alexandria, says: “They were carried on camels through the city, and in this elevated position were scourged, and finally consumed or burned in unquenchable fire” (puri asbesto).
  6. Here, again, we have the very phrase employed by our Lord, and applied to a literal fire, which, of course, was quenched in the short space of one hour, probably, or two hours at the longest. All that is implied is, that it burned till it had consumed the victims. (Thayer, Ibid., p. 68-69.)

These are perfect illustrations of the scriptural use and definition of the word unquenchable. Jesus used the word the way his audience had always heard it used, of something unstoppable, not endless.

Mt. 23.15

In the tenth time Jesus used gehenna, he said:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he is become so, ye make him twofold more a son of hell (gehenna—SGD) than yourselves.

These Jews knew what Gehenna was, and Jesus and John had foretold the unquenchable fiery judgment awaiting them there. He told these Jews that they were headed for it, and the people they taught were as well. It is the same national judgment he’s been speaking of thus far.

Mt. 23.33

Eighteen verses later, Jesus used gehenna for the eleventh time. Continuing in the same address, he said:

Ye serpents, ye offspring of vipers, how shall ye escape the judgment of hell [gehenna—SGD]?

Just three verses later, Jesus said, in Mt. 23.36:

Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.

About these same things, Jesus said in Mt. 24.34:

Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all these things be accomplished.

Thus, Jesus gave the time element when this fiery destruction on the land would be carried out: in that generation, i.e., in the time of his dealing with the then present generation of Jews. To sum up, Jesus threatened the Jews in the environs of Jerusalem that they were headed for the valley named Gehenna where there would be unquenchable fire (Mk. 9.43) upon his generation (Mt. 23.36) in his generation (Mt. 24.34), when God destroys the souls of those of Jesus’ generation after killing their bodies (Lk. 12.5, Mt. 10.28). We cannot make it more precise! If hell is what Jesus said it was, hell was the unstoppable fiery destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Jas. 3.6

There remains but one more occurrence of gehenna in the Bible. It’s the only time the word occurs outside the gospels, where James, writing to Jews shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem, said:

And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell [gehenna—SGD].

While this is the only passage speaking of gehenna outside the gospels, it is consistent with how Jesus defined it. James condemned misuse of the tongue, specifically in terms Jesus used the first time he used the word in Mt. 5.22, where he spoke of cursing one’s brethren putting one in danger of the hell of fire (gehenna—SGD). In Jas. 3.9, James said:

Therewith bless we the Lord and Father; and therewith curse we men, who are made after the likeness of God: out of the same mouth cometh forth blessing and cursing.

Thus, the last time gehenna occurred in the Bible, it taught the same thing it taught in the first. The Jew of Jesus’ day that abused his brother with his tongue was in danger of imminent, fiery, national destruction. He was headed for unquenchable fire on his generation, in his generation.

We see the same imminence of this judgment against Jesus’ generation of Jews later in James. For example, in Jas. 5.5, James mentioned a day of slaughter coming. In Jas. 5.7, he mentioned the coming of the Lord. In Jas. 5.8, he said the coming of the Lord was “at hand.” In Jas. 5.9, he said “the judge standeth before the door.”
Summary of the Twelve Gehenna Passages

From these twelve gehenna passages, we learn that Gehenna would be the familiar valley on the southwest side of Jerusalem where an imminent fiery judgment was coming on the Jews of the generation in which Jesus was crucified. It was unquenchable fire on that generation in that generation. It was a national judgment against the Jews. Gehenna was to the Jews of Jesus’ day what it was to the Jews of Jeremiah’s day-where the term originated-the city dump! But it entailed all the horror of being rejected and abandoned by God to the merciless enemy who surrounded the gates and who would cause their dead carcasses to be thrown into the burning, worm-infested place. Thus, when Jesus used the term He used it in the same sense that Jeremiah did: as Jerusalem then was abandoned to Babylon’s invasion, so Jerusalem of Jesus’ day was about to be abandoned to Roman invasion-unless they repented. None of these hell passages say that anyone of our day can go to hell. None of them associate hell with Satan. None of them say that Satan’s domain is hell. Though they speak of men being killed and destroyed in Gehenna, none of them speak of men being tormented there.

As we’ve seen, the concept of endless punishment was completely foreign to inspired writing before the Law of Moses, during the Law of Moses, and now we see it’s foreign to the teaching of Jesus.
Contrast Jesus’ use of hell with traditional preaching on the subject. For example, we quote a Rev. J. Furniss, who said:

See on the middle of that red-hot floor stands a girl: she looks about sixteen years old. Her feet are bare. Listen; she speaks. “I have been standing on this red-hot floor for years! Look at my burnt and bleeding feet! Let me go off this burning floor for one moment!” The fifth dungeon is the red-hot oven. The little child is in the red-hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out; see how it turns and twists itself about in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor. God was very good to this little child. Very likely God saw it would get worse and worse, and would never repent, and so it would have to be punished more severely in hell. So God in His mercy called it out of the world in early childhood. (J. Furniss, The Sight of Hell [London and Dublin: Duffy], cited by Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes [Houston: Providential Press, 1982], p. 416.)

Charles H. Spurgeon, renowned Baptist preacher, said:

When thou diest thy soul will be tormented alone-that will be a hell for it-but at the day of judgment thy body will join thy soul, and then thou wilt have twin hells, body and soul shall be together, each brimfull of pain, thy soul sweating in its inmost pore drops of blood and thy body from head to foot suffused with agony; conscience, judgment, memory, all tortured. Thine heart beating high with fever, thy pulse rattling at an enormous rate in agony, thy limbs cracking like the martyrs in the fire and yet unburnt, thyself put in a vessel of hot oil, pained yet coming out undestroyed, all thy veins becoming a road for the hot feet of pain to travel on, every nerve a string on which the devil shall ever play his diabolical tune. Fictions, sir! Again I say they are no fictions, but solid, stern truth. If God be true, and this Bible be true, what I have said is the truth, and you will find it one day to be so. (Charles H. Spurgeon, Sermon No. 66, New Park Street Pulpit, 2:105, cited by Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes [Houston: Providential Press, 1982], p. 417.)

Only conceive that poor wretch in the flames, who is saying, “O for one drop of water to cool my parched tongue!” See how his tongue hangs from between his blistered lips! How it excoriates and burns the roof of his mouth as if it were a firebrand! Behold him crying for a drop of water. I will not picture the scene. Suffice it for me to close up by saying, that the hell of hells will be to thee, poor sinner, the thought that it is to be for ever. Thou wilt look up there on the throne of God-and on it shall be written, “for ever!” When the damned jingle the burning irons of their torments, they shall say, “For ever!” When they howl, echo cries, “For ever!” “For ever” is written on their racks, “For ever” on their chains; “For ever” burneth in the fire, “For ever” ever reigns.” (From a sermon preached in 1855, cited by Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes [Houston: Providential Press, 1982], p. 417.)

Jonathan Edwards, famous Calvinist preacher of an earlier century, said:

So it will be with the soul in Hell; it will have no strength or power to deliver itself; and its torment and horror will be so great, so mighty, so vastly disproportioned to its strength, that having no strength in the least to support itself, although it be infinitely contrary to the nature and inclination of the soul utterly to sink; yet it will sink, it will utterly and totally sink, without the least degree of remaining comfort, or strength, or courage, or hope. And though it will never be annihilated, its being and perception will never be abolished: yet such will be the infinite depth of gloominess that it will sink into, that it will be in a state of death, eternal death.

To help your conception, imagine yourself to be cast into a fiery oven, all of a glowing heat, or into the midst of a glowing brick-kiln, or of a great furnace, where your pain would be as much greater than that occasioned by accidentally touching a coal of fire, as the heat is greater. Imagine also that your body were to lie there for a quarter of an hour, full of fire, as full within and without as a bright coal of fire, all the while full of quick sense; what horror would you feel at the entrance of such a furnace! And how long would that quarter of an hour seem to you!And how much greater would be the effect, if you knew you must endure it for a whole year, and how vastly greater still, if you knew you must endure it for a thousand years! O then, how would your heart sink, if you thought, if you knew, that you must bear it forever and ever!

That after millions of millions of ages, your torment would be no nearer to an end, than ever it was; and that you never, never should be delivered! But your torment in Hell will be immeasurably greater than this illustration represents. How then will the heart of a poor creature sink under it! How utterly inexpressible and inconceiv­able must the sinking of the soul be in such a case. (Jonathan Edwards, cited by A. W. Pink, Eternal Punishment [Swengel, PA: Reiner Publications, n.d.], cited by Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes [Houston: Providential Press, 1982], p. 417.)

The world will probably be converted into a great lake or liquid globe of fire, in which the wicked shall be overwhelmed, which will always be in tempest, in which they shall be tossed to and fro, having no rest day and night, vast waves and billows of fire continually rolling over their heads, of which they shall forever be full of a quick sense within and without; their heads, their eyes, their tongues, their hands, their feet, their loins and their vitals, shall forever be full of a flowing, melting fire, fierce enough to melt the very rocks and elements; and also, they shall eternally be full of the most quick and lively sense to feel the torments; not for one minute, not for one day, not for one age, not for two ages, not for a hundred ages, nor for ten thousand millions of ages, one after another, but forever and ever, without any end at all, and never to be delivered. (Cited by Gary Amirault, The Ancient Inventors and Modern Perpetrators of Hell, p. 4.)

Did all that preaching come from the twelve gehenna passages we’ve just analyzed? Did any of it? We can find none of this language of red-hot floors, dungeons, red-hot ovens, vessels of hot oil, being able to see the throne of God, brick-kilns, torture racks, chains, or great furnaces anywhere in these twelve passages that deal with the subject of gehenna in the Bible. However, they are easily found in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. .

Such concepts are also found in Islamic writings:

As for the disbelievers, they know at the moment of death that they are destined for Hell. The angels beat them up on the faces and rear ends (8:50 & 47:27), order them to evict their souls (6:93), then “snatch their souls” (79:1). The Quran teaches that the disbelievers go through 2 deaths (2:28 & 40:11). They will be put to death – a state of nothingness during which they see Hell day and night in a continuous nightmare that lasts until the Day of Judgment (40:46). Hell is not yet in existence (40:46, 89:23). (Dr. Rashad Khalifa., Submission.org)

The reader may wonder, “Well, if Jesus didn’t teach that the wicked presently living will finally go to hell, then what did he teach about the final destiny of the wicked?” First, we don’t have to know the answer to that question to know that traditional teaching on hell is Biblically bankrupt. Second, Jesus didn’t teach anything about the final destiny of the wicked, that is, at the end of time. If we’re tempted to use the account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16), let’s recall that in this account, Lazarus, the rich man, and Abraham were all in hades (they couldn’t be seen), and the passage doesn’t address what happens after the end of time at all. Whatever the passage teaches, it doesn’t deal with the final destiny of the wicked.

One other observation deserves to be made. As we’ve seen, the word gehenna occurs sparsely in the Bible-none in the Greek Old Testament, and only twelve times in the New Testament, eleven by Jesus, and one by James. Amazingly, the word is nowhere used in the book of Acts. Luke recorded thirty years of preaching by Paul (who claimed to have declared “the whole counsel of God”) and others in Acts, yet the word is not used once. Not only does Acts not record any of the teaching on hell that we’ve just seen samples of, it doesn’t even mention the word! The gospel being preached in Acts didn’t contain such a concept at all, but it did carry a lot of preaching to Jews about the inescapable fiery judgment that was coming upon them if they didn’t repent.

Other Terminology Commonly Thought to Referto Eternal Fiery Hell

Now we want to notice other expressions of fiery judgment which we traditionally use to describe hell. These include fire burning to sheol, the worm dying not, unquenchable fire, fire that is not quenched, everlasting fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth, gnashing of teeth, fire and brimstone, rising smoke, no rest day or night, being cast into fire, and melting.

Fire Consuming a Nation

In Isa. 33.10-11, Isaiah said about Assyria:

Now I will arise, says the Lord, now I will be exalted, now I will be lifted up. You have conceived chaff, you will give birth to stubble; my breath will consume you like a fire, and the peoples will be burned to lime, like cut thorns which are burned in the fire….Who among us can live with the consuming fire? Who among us can live with continual burning?

A careful study of the Old Testament prophets shows these expressions of the Assyrians being consumed by fire, and burned to lime are expressions of national judgment upon that nation. These expressions are similar to Jesus’ statement in Lk. 12.49 that he came to send fire on the land of Israel. This is also the Old Testament basis for Jesus’ statement to the Jews in Jn. 15.6:

If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.

Isaiah’s language was also similar to that in Dan. 7.9-12, where Daniel foretold the judgment of the beast about to overcome the saints of the Most High:

I kept looking until thrones were set up, and the Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool. His throne was ablaze with flames, Its wheels were a burning fire. A river of fire was flowing and coming out from before Him; Thousands upon thousands were attending Him, and myriads upon myriads were standing before Him; The court sat, and the books were opened. Then I kept looking because of the sound of the boasting words which the horn was speaking: I kept looking until the beast was slain, and its body was destroyed and given to the burning fire.

This scene portrayed the national destruction of the pagan power attempting to destroy the saints of the Most High. This is the same scene described in Rev. 20.11-15:

And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat upon it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne; and books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it; and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. And if any was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire.

Both of these scenes depict national judgments against a nation persecuting God’s saints, both have judgment scenes, both have people judged out of things written in the books, and both have those not pleasing God in the judgment being cast into a river or lake of fire. This national judgment goes with John’s expressions of imminence in Rev. 1.3 (“the time is at hand”), Rev. 22.6 (“things which must shortly come to pass”), and Rev. 22.10 (“Seal not up the words of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand”). Those who take the early date of Revelation (A.D. 67) believe these words refer to the destruction of Jerusalem, while those who take the later date for Revelation (A.D. 90-96) believe these words refer to the destruction of the Roman Empire. Whether they refer to Jerusalem or the Roman empire, they refer to a national judgment.

Fire Burning to Sheol, Consuming the Earth and Mountains

This language is generally associated with a fiery judgment at the end of time, and hell. However, in Dt. 32.22, Moses said the same about the punishment God would bring on Israel for her idolatry:
For a fire is kindled in My anger, and burns to the lowest part of Sheol, and consumes the earth with its yield, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

This language described national judgment that caused a nation to vanish.

Worm Dieth Not, Fire Not Quenched

While this language is generally applied to hell, it’s not so used in any of the gehenna passages in the Bible. In Isa. 66.24, we read of God’s destruction of Jerusalem in the generation when Jesus was crucified:

Then they shall go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence to all mankind.

This passage contains nothing about conscious suffering, much less enduring to the end of time. Yet this is the same kind of language we saw in Mk. 9.47-48, the passage where Jesus described gehenna with “unquenchable fire.” There Jesus said:

It is good for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell; where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

When Jesus spoke these words, the Bible had never used such language of anything but a national judgment.

Unquenchable Fire

Likewise, when John the Baptist and Jesus spoke of unquenchable fire, the Jews had never heard such language used of anything but a national judgment. For example, in Ezk. 20.47-48, God promised national judgment on Israel:

Hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it shall consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched, and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it. And all flesh will see that I, the Lord, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.

In Amos 5.5-6, we have the same language used of national judgment on Israel again. God had promised a similar judgment on the northern kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians, fulfilled in 722 B.C.:

Seek the Lord that you may live, lest He break forth like a fire, O house of Joseph, and it consume with none to quench it for Bethel.

In Isa. 66.15-16, 24, Isaiah spoke of New Jerusalem’s enemies being burned with unquenchable fire, as he spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70:

For behold, the Lord will come in fire, and His chariots like the whirlwind, to render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. For the Lord will execute judgment by fire, and by His sword on all flesh. And those slain by the Lord will be many….Then they shall go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence to all mankind.

In Jer. 21.10-12, we read of Babylon’s burning Jerusalem with unquenchable fire, a national judgment fulfilled in 586 B.C.:

For I have set My face against this city for harm and not for good, declares the Lord. It will be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he will burn it with fire. Then say to the household of the king of Judah, Hear the word of the Lord, O house of David, thus says the Lord: Administer justice every morning; and deliver the person who has been robbed from the power of the oppressor. That My wrath may not go forth like fire and burn with none to extinguish it, because of the evil of their deeds.

Again, at the time John the Baptist and Jesus used this language in the gospels, the Bible had only used it of national judgments.

Fire That Is Not Quenched

The same thing is true of this expression. In Jer. 4.4, Jeremiah used it of the destruction of Jerusalem. In Jer. 21.12, he used it to describe the destruction of the house of David. In Amos 5.5, 6, Amos used it of the destruction of Jerusalem. In II K. 22.17, it’s used of the destruction of Judah. In Isa. 34.10, Isaiah used it of the destruction of Edom, and in Isa. 66.24, he used it of the destruction of the enemies of the Messiah’s people. See also Jer. 7.20, 17.27, where Jeremiah used it of the destruction of Judah, and Ezk. 20.47-48, where Ezekiel spoke of God’s destruction of Jerusalem.

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

These words are so often thought of as applying to people suffering unending conscious torment in hell, that it will surprise many to find that the Old Testament used this language exclusively of national judgments.

In Isa. 22.12, speaking of the time Jerusalem would be destroyed by Babylon, Isaiah said:

Therefore in that day the Lord God of hosts, called you to weeping, to wailing, to shaving the head, and to wearing sackcloth.

See also Isa. 16.9, Jer. 9.1, and 48.32. The entire book of Lamentations contains such language as Jeremiah lamented the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. In the New Testament, Jas. 5.1 uses the same kind of language to describe the weeping of the rich for fear of God’s imminent judgment on Jerusalem:

Come now, ye rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten.

This judgment was also imminent in Jas. 5.5-9, where the day of slaughter was spoken of as at hand, as the judge was standing before the door. John used this same language in Rev. 18.9, of the pagan kings lamenting the destruction of spiritual Babylon:

And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived wantonly with her, shall weep and wail over her, when they look upon the smoke of her burning, standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, Woe, woe, the great city, Babylon, the strong city! for in one hour is thy judgment. And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn over her…

On the gnashing of teeth in particular, an adversary about to kill his victim did this in Job 16.9, Ps. 35.16, Ps. 37.12, Lam. 2.16, and Acts 7.54. Ths Psalmist used it of gnashing of teeth by the victim in Ps. 112.10, where the psalmist said:

The wicked man will see and be vexed, he will gnash his teeth and waste away: the longing of the wicked will come to nothing.

Thus, when Jesus and John the Baptist issued their warnings if the impending destruction of Jerusalem, they used language that the Old Testament had only used of national destruction.

Fire and Brimstone

In Isa. 34.9, Isaiah used this language of national judgment on Edom:

And its streams shall be turned into pitch, and its loose earth into brimstone, and its land shall become burning pitch.

In Isa. 30.33, Isaiah used it of such a judgment on Assyria:

For Topheth [the place of human sacrifice to Molech, an Assyrian god—SGD] has long been ready, indeed, it has been prepared for the king. He has made it deep and large, a pyre of fire with plenty of wood; the breath of the Lord, like a torrent of brimstone, sets it afire.

Psalm 11.6 spoke of fire and brimstone on the wicked, Ezk. 38.22 used this language to speak of national judgment on Gog, a pagan nation opposed to God’s people in the restoration after Babylonian captivity. In Rev. 14.9-11, John used fire and brimstone of national judgment on the empire attempting to eradicate the Messiah’s people. Scripture uses this language only of national judgment.

Rising Smoke

Isaiah used this language of national judgment against Edom in Isa. 34.10:

It shall not be quenched night or day; Its smoke shall go up forever; From generation to generation it shall be desolate; None shall pass through it forever and ever.

No Rest Day or Night

Isaiah used this language of national judgment on Edom in Isa. 34.10, quoted above.

Cast Into Fire

In Ezk. 5.4-5, this language described Israel being cast into the fire, in her destruction by Babylon:

And take again some of them and throw them into the fire, and burn them in the fire, from it a fire will spread to all the house of Israel…Thus says the Lord God, This is Jerusalem; I have set her at the center of the nations, with lands around her.

Thus, this expression is used consistently of national destruction.

Unfruitful Branches to Be Burned Up

In Ezk. 19.10-14, Ezekiel used this language of the national destruction of Israel:

Your mother was like a vine in your vineyard, Planted by the waters; It was fruitful and full of branches Because of abundant waters. And it had strong branches fit for scepters of rulers, And its height was raised above the clouds So that it was seen in its height with the mass of its branches. But it was plucked up in fury; It was cast down to the ground; And the east wind dried up its fruit. Its strong branch was torn off So that it withered; The fire consumed it. And now it is planted in the wilderness, In a dry and thirsty land. And fire has gone out from its branch; It has consumed its shoots and fruit, So that there is not in it a strong branch, A scepter to rule. This is a lamentation, and has become a lamentation.

Melt

In Mic. 1.2-7, God said he would melt Israel and Judah. In Ps. 75.3, the Psalmist used this language of the destruction of God’s enemies in the Old Testament. Peter may well have used this language of the destruction of Jerusalem in II Pet. 3.10-12. Like all the other expressions, melt portrays national destruction.

This section shows that none of the language we usually associate with hell is so associated in the Bible, and most of that language was used of strictly national judgments.

Is Hell Even a Proper Translation for Gehenna?

Having seen the concept involved in Jesus’ use of gehenna, that it was an unstoppable fiery punishment on his generation in his generation, we now ask whether hell is even a proper translation for gehenna. Does our English word “hell” fit the concept of gehenna we find in the teaching of Jesus?

Did Gehenna Even Need Translating?

As we have seen, Gehenna was the proper name for a location just outside Jerusalem. Why did it even need translating at all? We don’t translate other proper names, such as Gethsemane, Calvary, or Bethlehem, all in the vicinity of Jerusalem. People living far away from Jerusalem, say in Ephesus or Rome, might not have known what these names referred to, but residents of the environs of Jerusalem certainly did, and didn’t need the word translated.

When interpreting the Bible, or any other writing, for that matter, one of the fundamental rules is that we take a passage in its most literal sense unless something in the context forces us to interpret it otherwise. Thus, we should take any expression as literal, or at face value, unless the evident meaning forbids it. By evidently forbidden, we mean there’s evidence that forbids the idea that it should be taken literally. By evidence, we don’t mean, “I just hope it’s taken figuratively, or I can’t figure out what this means; so therefore, it must be figurative.” That’s not evidence. By evidence, we mean things like the correct definition of a word or something in the context or other verses that demonstrate that it is not to be taken literally.

Applying this rule to the present case, we ask, “Is there evidence that forces us to think that Gehenna is anything other than the valley just outside Jerusalem? What is the evidence that Jesus’ language cannot mean that?” In the absence of such evidence, Jesus simply warned the Jews in the region of Jerusalem, that unless they repented, their city was imminently to be destroyed.

A second rule for the interpretation of potentially figurative (non-literal) language is that expressions are figurative when the literal meaning would involve an impossibility. Applying this rule to the present case (the interpretation of Gehenna), we ask, “Does interpreting Gehenna literally involve us in an impossibility? Does interpreting ‘Jesus as warning the Jews in the region of Jerusalem that unless they repented, their city was to be imminently destroyed’ involve an impossibility?” Of course not, because historically, that is exactly what happened.

A third rule is that a passage isn’t literal if the literal view places it in conflict with another. Applying this rule to the present case, we ask, “Does interpreting Gehenna literally place these passages in conflict with any others?” Again, the answer is, obviously not, since Old Testament prophets foretold of Jerusalem’s destruction (including John the Baptist, and Jesus himself). Why didn’t translators obey these rules when interpreting Jesus’ teaching on Gehenna?

Is there anything in the context that forced them to think that Gehenna doesn’t mean exactly what it says, i.e., a physical, literal location just outside Jerusalem? Of course, people who lived far away from Jerusalem probably wouldn’t have known what Gehenna was, any more than people outside New York City may not know about Fishkills (the proper name of their municipal dump). But no one outside the region of Jerusalem was threatened by the destruction of Jerusalem. No one in Ephesus or Rome was ever threatened with the prospect of Gehenna if he didn’t repent.

No Gentile was ever threatened with the prospect of Gehenna if he didn’t repent. We are not threatened with the prospect of Gehenna if we don’t repent.

As one reviewer commented, “Of all things—Gehenna just means Gehenna!”

What Is the Origin of the English Word “Hell”?

Concerning the word “hell,” the Encyclopedia Britannica says:
Hell, the abode or state of being of evil spirits or souls that are damned to postmortem punishment. Derived from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “to conceal,” or “to cover,” the term hell originally designed the torrid regions of the underworld, though in some religions the underworld is cold and dark. (The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 5, 15th edition [Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.], p. 813.)

Britannica’s lexicographer (whose job is to define words as they are now used) correctly defined hell as it’s used now as the place of punishment after death. However, notice that the word historically meant “a cover.” Our word “helmet” comes from the same origin, as it covers the head. Scholars tell us this word was used in the middle ages of a farmer, who would put a “hell” or “cover” over his potatoes to preserve them during the winter.

Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary says:

Hell [ME, fr. OE; akin to OE helan to conceal, OHG hella, hell, to conceal, ON hel] heathen realm of the dead, Goth halja hell, L celare to hide, conceal, Gk kalyptein to cover, conceal, Skt sarana screening, protecting, basic meaning: concealing. (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, editor Philip Babcock Gove, Ph.D. [Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1993], p. 1051.)

Webster agrees that the Old English origin of the word means “cover.” This word had nothing to do with a place of punishment or eternal torment. Those connotations came much later, just in time, we might say, to be corrupted by Roman Catholicism into its present form. To translate “gehenna” (which didn’t contain any meaning of eternal torment or punishment), with the word “hell” (which also didn’t contain any meaning of eternal torment or punishment) isn’t a translation at all, but a substitution of a man-made doctrine into a word convenient to be corrupted.

This would be like the proper noun “Palo Duro Canyon,” a familiar feature in the Texas Panhandle near the author’s residence. People living far away have never heard of it. If someone translated the words “Palo Duro Canyon” with a completely unrelated word, and then said that new word meant “eternal torment,” it wouldn’t make sense, would it? That is exactly what happened with the proper noun Gehenna, a location familiar with inhabitants of Jerusalem. But to then suggest that the word Gehenna should be translated by the word “hell,” a word that has none of the meaning of the word Gehenna, compounds the problem. “Hell” is not a translation of Gehenna, any more than New York is a translation of Jerusalem.

Another example of this unjustified substitution of a completely unrelated English word for a Greek word is the word “Easter” in Ac. 12.4. The King James Version tells us that Herod arrested Peter:
And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.

The word “translated” Easter is Pascha, the standard word for Passover throughout the New Testament. The translators of the King James Version, all members of the Church of England, essentially the English version of the Roman Catholic Church, knew the word “Easter” didn’t mean Passover, and didn’t have any relation to the Passover. Rather than translate Pascha as Passover, they just jammed Easter into its place. The same thing happened when the translators jammed the word hell into the place of gehenna. Hell is no more related to gehenna than Easter is to Pascha.

Universalist J. W. Hanson wrote something on this subject worth considering, even though we do not agree with his theory of salvation:

The word should have been left untranslated as it is in some versions, and it would not be misunderstood. It was not misunderstood by the Jews to whom Jesus addressed it. Walter Balfour well says: “What meaning would the Jews who were familiar with this word, and knew it to signify the valley of Hinnom, be likely to attach to it when they heard it used by our Lord? Would they, contrary to all former usage, transfer its meaning from a place with whose locality and history they had been familiar from their infancy, to a place of misery in another world? This conclusion is certainly inadmissible. By what rule of interpretation, then, can we arrive at the conclusion that this word means a place of misery and death?”

The French Bible, the Emphatic Diaglott, Improved Version, Wakefield’s Translation and Newcomb’s retain the proper noun, Gehenna, the name of a place as well-known as Babylon.

Dr. Thayer significantly remarks: “The Savior and James are the only persons in all the New Testament who use the word. John Baptist, who preached to the most wicked of men did not use it once. Paul wrote fourteen epistles and yet never once mentions it. Peter does not name it, nor Jude; and John, who wrote the gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelation, never employs it in a single instance. Now if Gehenna or Hell really reveals the terrible fact of endless woe, how can we account for this strange silence?

How is it possible, if they knew its meaning and believed it a part of Christ’s teaching that they should not have used it a hundred or a thousand times, instead of never using it at all; especially when we consider the infinite interests involved? The Book of Acts contains the record of the apostolic preaching, and the history of the first planting of the church among the Jews and Gentiles, and embraces a period of thirty years from the ascension of Christ.

In all this history, in all this preaching of the disciples and apostles of Jesus there is no mention of Gehenna. In thirty years of missionary effort these men of God, addressing people of all characters and nations never under any circumstances threaten them with the torments of Gehenna or allude to it in the most distant manner! In the face of such a fact as this can any man believe that Gehenna signifies end­less punishment and that this is part of divine revelation, a part of the Gospel message to the world?

These con­siderations show how impossible it is to establish the doctrine in review on the word Gehenna. All the facts are against the supposition that the term was used by Christ or his disciples in the sense of endless punishment. There is not the least hint of any such meaning attached to it, nor the slightest preparatory notice that any such new revelation was to be looked for in this old familiar word.”

Salvation is never said to be from Gehenna. Gehenna is never said to be of endless duration nor spoken of as destined to last forever, so that even admitting the popular ideas of its existence after death it gives no support to the idea of endless torment. (J. W. Hanson, D.D., The Bible Hell, fourth edition [Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1888. Available on World Wide Web].)

Robert William West gave a good summary of the popular use of the word “hell”:

Hell: No such word was in their vocabulary, and they knew of no such place. No word with the meaning that the English word Hell has now was used, or known about unto long after the Bible. It is not in Greek literature in New Testaments times or before, first century writers did not use it, Josephus, or any other historian of that time did not use it, it is not in the Septuagint. A place where God will torment the lost forever after the Judgment Day was not known about. the concept of the place called hell, or the name hell is not in the bible, and does not occur in any writing of either the Hebrews or the Greeks until long after the Bible. The Old Testament Hebrew, or the New Testament Greek, has no word that is even close to today’s English word “hell.” How do we know about this place called hell? Where did hell come from? It is not in the Bible. Neither is the name “hell” in the Bible. Where did it come from? Not by faith that comes by hearing God’s word. It is from the doctrines and precepts of men [Matthew 15:9]. It was not used in the first century because it was a word that was not in their vocabulary, and a place they know nothing about. (William Robert West, If the Soul or Spirit Is Immortal, There Can Be No Resurrection from the Dead,Third Edition, originally published as The Resurrection and Immortality [Bloomington, IN: Author House, September 2006] p. 138.)

Summary of Jesus’ Teaching on Hell

False theories of eternal punishment of the wicked have done unfathomable damage in the religious realm. Untold millions of people have obeyed God purely out of fear of a false concept of hell. Other untold millions have turned their backs on God because of a false sense of hell, as described by Roman Catholic sources, and their followers in most denominations.

This study shows that when John the Baptist and Jesus used these terms, they used language familiar to the Jews whom they taught. The Jews had heard this language no other way than in scenes of national judgment. While it is easy for us to read these passages from the point of view of enduring conscious punishment, we should read them as the Jews who heard them first.

Rather than our present day beliefs about hell coming from the Bible, the caller to the radio program was right. Our beliefs come from Roman Catholic theologians. As a result of an earlier version of this material, many have asked the author to deal with the final destiny of the wicked. While we are not prepared to deal with that larger subject at present, we can see, if our conclusions are correct thus far, that the subject of the final destiny of the wicked was never part of Jesus’ teaching on gehenna or hell.

That connection was given to us courtesy of Roman Catholicism, just like it gave us purgatory, the sale of indulgences, Limbo Patrum, Limbo Infantrum, etc.
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Revised and Expanded September 2007. Copyright © 1996, revised © 2004, expanded © 2007 by Samuel G. Dawson
“Jesus’ Teaching on Hell,” comes from the book The Teaching of Jesus: From Mount Sinai to Gehenna: A Faithful Rabbi Urgently Warns Rebellious Israel by Samuel G. Dawson © 2004 by Samuel G. Dawson, and Essays on Eschatology: An Introductory Overview of the Study of Last Things by Samuel G. Dawson © 2009. Used by permission of the publisher.
Check out Samuel G. Dawson’s books at The Teaching of Jesus at Amazon.com.
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Copyright
All Old Testament scripture quotations are taken from The New American Standard Bible, © 1960-1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All New Testament scripture quotations are taken from The American Standard Version New Testament, © 1901, 1929 Thomas Nelson and Sons.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1996, revised © 2004, expanded © 2007 by Samuel G. Dawson.

Dear Arizona – A Letter From George Takei

George_TakeiDear Arizona,

Congratulations. You are now the first state actually to pass a bill permitting businesses–even those open to the public–to refuse to provide service to LGBT people based on an individual’s “sincerely held religious belief.” This “turn away the gay” bill enshrines discrimination into the law. Your taxi drivers can refuse to carry us. Your hotels can refuse to house us. And your restaurants can refuse to serve us.

Kansas tried to pass a similar law, but had the good sense to not let it come up for a vote. The quashing came only after the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and other traditional conservative groups came out strongly against the bill.

But not you, Arizona. You’re willing to ostracize and marginalize LGBT people to score political points with the extreme right of the Republican Party. You say this bill protects “religious freedom,” but no one is fooled. When I was younger, people used “God’s Will” as a reason to keep the races separate, too. Make no mistake, this is the new segregation, yours is a Jim Crow law, and you are about to make yourself ground zero.

This bill also saddens me deeply. Brad and I have strong ties to Arizona. Brad was born in Phoenix, and we vacation in Show Low. We have close friends and relatives in the state and spend weeks there annually. We even attended the Fourth of July Parade in Show Low in 2012, looking like a pair of Arizona ranchers.

The law is breathtaking in its scope. It gives bigotry against us gays and lesbians a powerful and unprecedented weapon. But your mean-spirited representatives and senators know this. They also know that it is going to be struck down eventually by the courts. But they passed it anyway, just to make their hateful opinion of us crystal clear.

So let me make mine just as clear. If your Governor Jan Brewer signs this repugnant bill into law, make no mistake. We will not come. We will not spend. And we will urge everyone we know–from large corporations to small families on vacation–to boycott. Because you don’t deserve our dollars. Not one red cent.

And maybe you just never learn. In 1989, you voted down recognition of the Martin Luther King holiday, and as a result, conventions and tourists boycotted the state, and the NFL moved the Superbowl to Pasadena. That was a $500 million mistake.

So if our appeals to equality, fairness, and our basic right to live in a civil society without doors being slammed in our face for being who we are don’t move you, I’ll bet a big hit to your pocketbook and state coffers will.

George Takei

Dear White Christians of Florida

christstainedglassAn Open Letter from Pastor Michael Bledsoe, Riverside Baptist Church Washington DC.

Dear White Christians of Florida:

Far be it that I, a white clergyman who is not a lawyer, instruct you as to the illogical nature of your “stand your ground” license to kill but let us note something that is apparent now after two cases where your predominantly white juries could not agree to convict a man who admitted he killed an unarmed teen-ager: if you convict a person for attempting to murder ten teens but fail to convict the killer for actually killing a teen, then you have incentivized killing since, not only on the face of it but in actuality, you have told the person we will not convict you for killing a black, unarmed teen-ager but we will imprison you for attempting it.

The stench from your houses of worship is wafting its way across this country, polluting citizenship, demoralizing parents and families, mocking accountability and blaspheming the Holy God whom you say you love and worship. If that offends you, try reading Amos.

Here is my premise and I dare you to prove me wrong: if white Christians in Florida stood up and cried out for justice, demanding an end to the license-to-kill-stand-your-ground law, it would be rescinded immediately. Where is your conscience? Where is the little light you promised to shine for Christ? You have put it beneath a bushel and suffocated it. You know as well as anyone that teen-agers should not be killed for playing loud music. But then, we all know don’t we, that Jordan Davis was not killed for playing loud music. He was killed for being an uppity black kid who dared to smart off to a drunken white man with a concealed weapon’s permit. Speak up, for Christ’s sake, for the sake of your conscience and because you know in your heart of hearts that had a black man killed your white son playing music in a car with friends, you probably would not have to be demanding he be tried because a mob of white folks would have administered mob justice. Shame. Shame. Shame!

White Christians of Florida, speak up for justice. Stand up and demand that this license for murder be removed from your books, from your lives. Stop defending it. It is but a few steps removed from lynching. And you recall, do you not, that the center of the Gospels is the story of the passion of our Lord who was lynched by Romans who perceived him as a threat?

I’ll end with a word from the great neo-Orthodox theologian Karl Barth, a man acquainted with evil in the form of Nazism and who, along with a small group of other ministers, signed the Barmen Declaration, refusing to swear an oath to the Fuhrer. This is what he said in the 20th century—it is as apt today for your hearing as then: “The time is not always ripe. It may be past, it may be still to come. But woe to the church if when the time does come it is silent….”

Speak up for justice. Rescind Stand Your Ground for the blasphemous sham it is. Do it because were the roles reversed, you would want someone to cry out for your murdered child.

In the Name of the Murdered and Risen Christ,

Dr. Michael Bledsoe
February 16.2014

Meaningless Church Jargon

blahby Nadia Bolz-Weber

After my quiet time with the Lord, where I was bathing in prayer, God laid it on my heart to be a transformational leader by just loving up on my blog readers and offering them some ideas from my missional imagination.

Earlier this morning, I saw a tweet from @JesusofNazareth316: Blessed are they who stop using the word “‪#missional“, which caused me to post something on Twitter and Facebook asking people what their favorite church jargon is – mine being “Missional Imagination”. The response was unbelievable and also quite interesting.

I realized upon reading the #meaninglesschurchjargon tweets that the responses tended to fall into several categories

1. Mainline Protestant church consultant/bad seminary class lingo. (“Missional imagination”; congregations as “centers for evangelical mission”; pastors as “transformational leaders”; referring to members as “giving units”; and churches “doing life together”) this language has a commonality with corporate jargon and like corporate jargon, refers to the culture and practices related to an organization.

IDEA: Let’s make sure that in seminary classrooms and at church conferences and in congregational life when we use a term or a phrase, that it points to an actual thing, or person or event and is not just a string of words that sound like something meaningful but in fact, lack real meaning. There is a reason that my computer does not recognize the word Missional. Try it at home.  Go ahead.  Type that shit and see.

2. Evangelical piety lingo.  This was overwhelmingly the most common type of answer: using “just” repeatedly as a placeholder for “um”; wanting to “love up on” someone, “God laid it on my heart to tell you ___”; I just have “a heart for” children in Africa; asking God for a “hedge of protection” – (this one was new to me)

IDEA: Stop it. This is crazy.

3. When we say ___, but we really mean is ___. “We have discerned” when used to make a simple decision sound special, holy, and beyond reproach; “I’ve got a word from The Lord for you” which is usually followed by some kind of manipulation; “I just don’t feel a peace about it” = “I’ve decided not to do it”; “I’ll pray for you” is code for “Let’s stop talking about your stuff now”; “laid on my heart” usually means “I want my idea to have extra authority”

IDEA: Let’s just tell the truth.  Doing otherwise hurts other people and makes us look like assholes. Related IDEA: Let’s have churches where it’s ok to say you don’t want to do something and where it is ok to just have an idea be your idea and not something co-signed on by the Almighty.

4. Stuff that just sounds creepy. “We just want to love up on these kids”; a speaker saying Jesus had just “nailed her to the floor”; a post-evening service thingie called…”Afterglow”; keep “pressing into God”, you should “bathe that in prayer”

IDEA: Maybe we could take a minute and actually hear what we sound like to normal, non-churchgoing folks. Seriously.

Honorable mention: The Grammatically problematic.  “Christian” as an adjective, “Disciple” as a verb, “fellowship” as a verb, “Gospel” as an adjective.

Sure, jargon has it’s place.  We sometimes experience real things – things that have to do with actual people and events and physical reality, and in an effort to describe that, or in an effort to look toward something more, something bigger, we create language to sprinkle on top.  We make new phrases.  This is natural.  The problem becomes when these phrases and jargon replace speaking about things that are real.

Maybe there was a moment in prayer when someone felt really vulnerable and exposed and in his or her mind they saw an image of protection from God, and it seemed like it was almost like a hedge. There is nothing wrong with that.  The Psalmist did this kind of thing all the time.  And maybe there was a moment in time when, in reaction to a real situation, someone realized that the church was too focused on itself and focused enough on God and they realized that God is not just in the church but outside it as well, and in an effort to think broadly about this they thought “maybe what we need is to imagine what God wants to accomplish – we should have a, I don’t know…like, a missional imagination”.  Fine. Nothing wrong with this. But what happens is that the farther that “hedge of protection” and “missional imagination” is from the actual feelings and events and people it was created to describe, the less actual meaning it has.

So, as someone who is constantly being told to “watch her language” I offer the same. Let’s watch our language out there.  The church has some beautiful things to offer.  Let’s all speak of God and faith and community in clear and simple language. I’ll try and do the same. (right after I ask God to form a hedge of protection against my web-enemies)

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widow pic croppedNadia Bolz-Weber is the mission developer for House for All Sinners and Saints (HFASS) in Denver, Colorado. They are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Check out their site for more info.

Nadia Bolz-Weber: Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television (This is her book. It will change your life.)

Greed and Oppression of the Poor

homelessAn Every-Verse Method study – By K. Scott Schaeffer

I know what most people are thinking as they approach this study: “I already give to the needy, so I don’t need to examine all of the greed and oppression verses in the Bible. I get it, already!” Or, “Yes, yes, I know I need to give more, but must I endure a whole study that’s going to guilt me into it?”

The reason you need to read this study is that it’s about so much more than personal giving. Most of the Bible’s greed and oppression verses are intended to influence other parts of our lives, such as our business dealings and even our politics. We Christians tend to let greed and oppression issues take a back seat to issues that we think are more important. And that’s a mistake. I’m about to present to you an overwhelming number of verses that prove it.

The Bible contains so many verses that address greed and oppression of the poor that I will not analyze them all, but I will relate as many of them as possible to modern-day scenarios. I have divided these verses by subject and will begin with a brief analysis of immigration. I will then follow with an examination of every verse that addresses greed, greed of the poor, interest, oppression, God’s judgment of the oppressors, and taxes.

Immigration

Exodus 22:21, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Context: Included in a listing of various laws.

Exodus 23:9, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:33-34, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

Leviticus 25:35, “If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens.”

Context: Chapter 25 addresses the year of Jubilee as well as mercy on the poor.

Ezekiel 22:7, “Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you.”

Ezekiel 22:29, “The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and the needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress.”

Context: Ezekiel prophesies against Jerusalem.

Zechariah 7:10, “…do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”

Context: God appeals to his people to act righteously rather than fast.

Analysis: The Bible’s first oppression verse (Exodus 22:21) strikes at the heart of an American controversy. God expected His people to show kindness to immigrants and to let them live among them as long as they followed the law. God’s reasoning: the Israelites were aliens in Egypt, and they were oppressed by the Egyptians; therefore, they were to have empathy for aliens and treat them as they would want to be treated. God hates oppression, not only of His own people, but of all people.

The most common argument that Christians make regarding these immigration verses is, “I’m okay with immigration; it’s illegal immigration that I hate.” So what does the Bible say about illegal immigration? It says nothing, because there was no such thing as illegal immigration in ancient Israel. Throughout history, earthlings have been able to settle anywhere on earth they wanted. So what we really need to ask ourselves is, “Is it right to make immigration illegal? Does God give us the right to keep the needy away from our prosperity?”

I’m not going to present a definite answer on that. These are complex issues that involve national security, overpopulation, the need to keep track of people in case they commit crimes, and the nation’s responsibility to protect its citizens from incoming criminals, such as kidnappers and drug dealers. However, we must obey God and show His compassion and mercy toward immigrants and avoid the “It’s mine, and you can’t have any,” attitude that so many of us exude.

Greed

Deuteronomy 17:17, “And he [the king of Israel] must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.”

Context: God provides guidelines for future kings of Israel.

Analysis: Even the king of Israel was to avoid materialism.

Proverbs 23:4, “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist.”

Context: Proverbs don’t really have a context. Most of them were written by King Solomon, and each one is usually unrelated to the verses preceding and following it.

Analysis: Many Evangelical Christians subscribe to the politically conservative belief that there’s no such thing as working too much, that the person who works 15-hour days, six or seven days a week, is the kind of  righteous person who makes America great.

God disagrees. It’s a sin for us Christians to be slaves to business success. That’s not to say we shouldn’t work hard when we work. But we must realize that God didn’t put us here to get rich and to meet the world’s requirements for success. Rather, we need to put relationships and serving God, neither of which pay money, ahead of worldly business.

Proverbs 23:6, “Do not eat the bread of the stingy; do not desire their delicacies;”

Analysis: The eating of bread mentioned here is reminiscent of Jesus’ warning to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus, of course, cleared up His disciples’ confusion by explaining that He was warning of their teachings. Therefore, this proverb is similarly a warning against the teachings of the stingy.

Christians today often love the teachings of the stingy, many of which blame the poor for their poverty and credit the wealthy for their successes.

Proverbs 28:22, “The miser is in a hurry to get rich and does not know that loss is sure to come.”

Analysis: Misers are not generous, so they resist helping the needy. This proverb tells us that those of us who are devoted to pursuing riches will lose them in the next life or, very possibly, in this life, so it’s vain to devote ourselves to the pursuit of riches.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-11, “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money, nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. When goods increase, those who eat [‘consume’ in the NASB] them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes?”

Analysis: This is why trickle-down economics—in which the wealthy voluntarily pass their economic gain down to the workers and consumers—doesn’t work. When the wealth of the wealthy increases, the wealthy desire even more wealth. In fact, people at all income levels fail to be satisfied with increased prosperity.

This verse also addresses the pointlessness of buying expensive mansions, cars, clothes, etc., which provide no more tangible benefits than ordinary houses, cars and clothes. All we can do with these over-priced items is look at them or hope that others will look at them and be impressed.

Ecclesiastes 5:13-17, “There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to their hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands. As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have for toiling for the wind?”

Analysis: We are often fascinated with the fall of the wealthy, from people who strike it rich and lose everything, to seemingly brilliant businessmen whose ventures nose-dive amidst the shifting winds of the economy. This Bible quote reminds us how fleeting wealth can be, and what a waste it is to work our lives away in order to acquire it, since we can’t take it with us when we die.

Matthew 6:19-21, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Context: This is one of Jesus’ various teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.

Luke 12:33-34, “Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.”

Context: This quote caps off Jesus’ instructions to His disciples not to worry.

Analysis: Yet again, the Bible reveals how is easy it is to lose earthly riches and how it’s far better to focus on things of eternal value.

Today, we may not worry so much about thieves, moths and rust, because we have insurance to restore our losses. But those worries have been replaced with concerns about losing one’s home due to job loss or losing all that one has ever worked for thanks to medical bills from an illness or injury.

Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Context: This is one of Jesus’ various teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. This same quote also appears in Luke 16:13.

Analysis:  Having worked in corporate sales for fifteen years, I’ve often had to choose between serving God and serving wealth. Nearly all corporations deceive potential customers through their marketing and sales tactics, because they will do whatever it takes, and hurt whoever they have to hurt, to reach their financial goals. The rallying cry of most sales executives is, “We must hit our numbers at any cost! No excuses!”

A recent example of this is the mortgage industry from approximately 2005-2007. When the housing boom cooled off around 2005, the mortgage bankers were unwilling to lower their sales objectives. Like almost all corporations, they raised their sales quotas year after year, never satisfied with their wealth, threatening to fire managers who failed to achieve them. Therefore, managers created a new way of obtaining lots of business—offering adjustable rate mortgages to those who couldn’t afford to buy a home and convincing them through aggressive sales pitches that they’d be able to refinance when the interest rates went up after two years. Some sales reps failed to inform their borrowers altogether that their rates would increase.

These companies and their employees placed their love for their true master, wealth, ahead of God’s law, and multitudes of unsuspecting people lost millions of dollars.

Matthew 13:22, “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth chokes the word, and it yields nothing.”

Context: Jesus explains to His disciples the parable of the sower. In this parable, a person spreads seeds upon the ground, yet most of the seeds fail to produce plants because of various conditions. Jesus then likens these natural obstacles to obstacles in life that keep us from being productive in serving God.

Analysis: For many years I thought this parable’s message is that having wealth keeps us from doing God’s will, because we spend our time enjoying the pleasures money buys rather than serving God. However, I’ve since realized that even the working poor have no time to serve God, because they must work their lives away in order to barely pay the bills. So not having time to serve God isn’t the sin here.

Rather, it’s the “lure” of wealth that chokes the word, not wealth itself, according to Jesus. In other words, it’s the greed, deception, and taking advantage of others that angers God.

Matthew 13:44-45, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Context: These verses are included in a chapter full of parables and metaphors.

Analysis: This is the first of Jesus’ quotes in which he mentions selling all of our possessions. That makes most of us uncomfortable, myself included.

Matthew 19:21, 23-24, “Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me… Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Context: A wealthy man had approached Jesus with the question of what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus told him to obey the commandments, but the man was not satisfied with that answer. So Jesus told him to sell everything he had and follow Him. The man then walked away disappointed, because he was wealthy. Also see Mark 10:17-27 for a repeat of the same story.

Analysis: In the Divorce study, I distinguished between a sin and an imperfection. That theology applies here as well. We do not sin if we fail to give away all of our possessions. But, according to this story, we have a shot at obtaining perfection if we do.

Why is it so hard for a rich man to enter heaven? It’s probably a combination of two things, one of which I’ve already mentioned: people usually obtain wealth by sinful means. The second reason is that wealth is a source of pride, and pride is one of the biggest sins in the Bible (see the study on Pride, Arrogance and Judgmentalism). The wealthy usually credit themselves, not God, for their success and believe themselves to be more deserving of its benefits than the poor. Also, those who grow up wealthy, or easily acquire wealth, rarely have merciful attitudes toward those who don’t, because they blame the poor for their poverty. If our friends and family live a life of ease, we lose touch with those who struggle to support their families. Those who have not experienced or witnessed the struggles of the poor lack empathy and, therefore, neglect the needs of the poor.

Luke 3:11-14, “In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with him who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do? He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.’”

Context: These quotes are from John the Baptist. He would go on to baptize Jesus.

Analysis: These verses can be difficult to apply to modern American life. Thanks to our society’s wealth and organizations like the Salvation Army, few people lack clothing. Likewise, thanks to food stamps and school lunch programs, as well as food charities like Philabundance, few people go hungry. (May God bless those who created these programs.) Similarly, American soldiers don’t threaten people for profit, and the CPA’s and the IRS don’t take more than the law allows.

While I usually take the opportunity to chastise Christians for how we fall short of God’s will with regard to money, this time I just want to give thanks for the fact that we live in a country that grew up on Christian values. We’ve achieved a lot of what God wants in a society. Yes, greed still reeks havoc and the poor still suffer, but our society is not as cut-throat as the Roman Empire, and our poor are much better off than the poor in biblical times.

Luke 12:15, “And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’”

Context: Jesus responds to a man who asks Him to force his brother to share the inheritance with him. Jesus then follows this quote with a parable about a rich man who was unable to enjoy his wealth, because he died before he could do so.

Analysis: The man in this story expects Jesus to scold his brother for keeping more than his share of the inheritance. That sounds fair, doesn’t it? Much to his surprise, Jesus chooses not to scold the man’s brother for being unfair, but warns this man who made the request not to obsess over money. To Jesus, the relationship between brothers is of greater importance than fair distribution of money.

Luke 19:8-9, “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.’”

Context: Jesus was headed to Jericho, and Zacchaeus was so eager to see Him that he climbed a tree for a better view. After Jesus requested to stay with him, the man repented, as we see here.

Analysis: Thanks to this verse, we may now wipe the sweat off of our collective brow. Zacchaeus only gives up half of what he owns, and Jesus appears to be content with that. Jesus rejoices not over the giving of money, but over Zacchaeus’ repentant heart.

1 Timothy 6:5-10, “…and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. Of course there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. And in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

Context: Paul instructs Timothy on running a church.

Analysis: Verse 10’s revelation that some have left the church in their “eagerness to be rich” suggests that wealth is often obtained by means contrary to biblical teaching. Yet today, many American Christians see wealth as God’s reward for good behavior, and they tie faith and prosperity together into an anti-biblical theology.

God’s call to us is to be content. That doesn’t mean we may never try to improve our financial situation; the desire to do so is not true greed. It means we must be satisfied with what we have when financial gain is only possible through sinful acts that “plunge people [others] into ruin and destruction,” like selling investments designed to fail or sneak-charging customers with fees they don’t expect.

2 Timothy 3:1-2, “You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money…”

Context: Paul warns Timothy about a future increase in sinfulness.

Analysis: Loving ourselves and loving money go hand in hand. When we love ourselves more than others, we make our desires our priorities, and then we seek money at the expense of others, and spend it on our pleasures rather than on the needs of others.

Hebrews 13:5, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’”

Context: The writer of Hebrews gives various instructions to the Jewish Christians in the last chapter of this letter.

Analysis: This call to contentment emphasizes the fact that our relationship with God is of greater importance than our financial status.

James 1:9-11, “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat, and withers the field; its flower falls and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.”

Context: This quote appears to be unrelated to the messages preceding and following it.

Analysis: The Bible is pretty hard on the rich, and it makes every attempt to destroy their arrogance and prove them to be no better than others if not worse than others. Unfortunately, many conservative American Christians today see the rich as heroes who create our jobs, yet the Bible never speaks of them in this light, even though the rich were employers in biblical times just as they are today.

[Economic Note: Contrary to what some say, the wealthy don’t create jobs; consumer spending is the only thing that can create jobs. The wealthy (and even small business owners) merely seek to maximize profits. If demand for their products and services increases, they add jobs to take advantage of that demand – in an effort to maximize profits. If demand for their products and services falls, they cut jobs rather than pay idle employees – in an effort to maximize profits. The wealthy are not heroes who choose, out of the kindness of their hearts, to convert their money into jobs. The wealthy, rather, invest their money in whatever gives them the best return on investment (ROI), and in an economy like ours where consumers have seen their spending power cut in half, the best ROI is definitely not from job creation, but rather from investing in gold, oil futures, short-selling stocks, high-end real estate, etc.]

1 Peter 2:16, “…for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the father, but from the world.”

Context: Peter warns against living by our fleshly desires rather than by living as God desires. The next verse states that the world is passing away, but those who live by God’s desires live forever.

Analysis: Wealth is temporary. Not only may we lose it in this life, but we are certain to lose it when we move on to the next life.

Greed of the Poor

Exodus 23:2-3, “You shall not follow a multitude in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute.”

Context: This is one of many laws that follow the 10 Commandments.

Analysis: This verse opposes lawsuits in which groups of poor people attempt to steal from the wealthy by making false claims.

Today, winning a big lawsuit is the new American dream. Thanks to the growing popularity of victim mentality, we blame others for our problems, especially when they have money that we desire. We sue corporations for accidents resulting from our own negligence. And we sue the government and school districts for their employees’ mistakes and, in turn, sue our neighbors, since the government and schools are funded by taxes which we all pay. Not all lawsuits are evil, but we may only sue with just cause and honest testimony.

Proverbs 30:15, “The leech has two daughters; ‘Give, give,’ they cry. Three things are never satisfied; four never say, ‘Enough.’”

Analysis: While the Bible opposes oppression of the poor, it also denies the poor permission to demand unnecessary handouts. The poor must do the best they can and not develop the attitude that society owes them a living.

Proverbs 21:25-26, “The craving of a lazy person is fatal, for lazy hands refuse to labor. All day long the wicked covet, but the righteous give and do not hold back.”

Analysis: Those who work hard and are generous please God, while those who are lazy and desire riches disappoint Him.

Interest

Exodus 22:25, “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.”

Leviticus 25:36-37, “Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit.”

Context: God instructs the Israelites to treat family members who fall on hard times as they would a resident alien.

Deuteronomy 23:19,20, “You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent. On loans to a foreigner, you may charge interest…”

Ezekiel 22:12, “In you, they take bribes to shed blood; you take both advanced interest and accrued interest, and make gain of your neighbors by extortion; and you have forgotten Me, says the Lord.”

Context: Numerous, unrelated laws are listed in Exodus 22 & Deuteronomy 23. Ezekiel 22 prophecies against Jerusalem.

Analysis: Israelites were not to charge interest when lending to one another. Charging interest to one’s own countrymen for necessities and consumer products does nothing to benefit the national economy. It only makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. It’s the rich who have the excess money to lend, and it’s the poor who lack funds and need to borrow. Over time, as the poor continue to pay interest, their limited income is transferred to the rich who collect that interest.

Does this mean that we should eliminate charging interest in America? First of all, doing so would be a tremendous shock to our economy and would probably collapse it. The country would have to have been set up as interest-free from its inception. Second, these passages only address lending to those in need, not those who seek to buy non-necessities despite lacking the money to do so.

By modern American standards, God’s rules on interest are unfair, because the lenders lost real dollars if inflation increased while the debt was owed. Lenders were only to lend money as a charitable act, not as an effort to profit from those in need. God expects the rich to make sacrifices for the poor, because He wants the poor to enjoy a quality lifestyle, since they too are created in His image.

Matthew 25:27-28, “Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.”

Context: In verses 14-30, Jesus tells the parable of the talents in which a man gave three of his servants money to invest for him while he went away, and when he returned, the two men to whom he had given the most returned the money with interest, while the man who had only been given one talent had buried it in the ground and returned it without interest. Verses 27-28 are the man’s response.

Analysis: Most Christians interpret this parable as a directive for us to use our God-given gifts (talents) to serve His purposes. We follow this interpretation, because the word “talent,” which once described a monetary denomination, now means ability. I won’t dispute this interpretation, because serving God with our abilities is a good idea. But let’s not ignore this parable’s literal interpretation.

When we make money and desire to give more than the required 10%, we should invest the money and grow it for God’s purposes, rather than turn around and give it right back to Him. If Christians had done this over the centuries, the money available for ministering to others would be exponentially more than it now is.

So why haven’t Christians invested for future giving? Many have avoided it because they believed that Jesus’ return was imminent. They didn’t invest in the future, because they didn’t believe in a future. That’s one of the dangers of proclaiming that Jesus will return within the next few years or decades (the other danger is that people will lose faith in Jesus when He fails to return within the predicted time).

Oppression

Exodus 22: 22-24, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.”

Context: Various laws are listed in this section on Exodus.

Analysis: Why are widows and orphans so special? Because, along with aliens, they had no inheritance in the land. In Israel, men inherited land from their fathers as they became adults (they did not have to wait for their fathers to die like we do today). As women reached adulthood, they left their fathers’ lands to live on their husbands’ lands. On these lands, people grew their food and built their homes with the resources of the land. So this inheritance of land gave young Israelite families what they needed to survive. It’s quite different from our society in which young people venture out on their own lacking both food and shelter and having to earn enough money to obtain it.

Widows, orphans, and aliens, however, could not share in Israel’s inheritance, and therefore, lacked proper food and shelter. That’s why God so frequently calls the Israelites to look out for their interests.

Exodus 23:8, “You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.”

Context: Various laws are listed in this section on Exodus.

Analysis: Bribes still exist today, but are illegal. They’ve been replaced by campaign contributions from those who seek to influence politics to their own benefit rather than the benefit of the common good.

Ezekiel 18:5,7, “If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right…does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment…”

Context: This quote ultimately ends with God promising life to someone who is this righteous.

Analysis: This passage calls for a righteous man to be both passive and aggressive in his righteousness. In other words, he must avoid oppressing and robbing others, but he must actively help those lacking food and clothing. Too many times, we base our righteousness on what we don’t do and fail to balance it with charitable actions.

Leviticus 25:39-40, “If any that are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves. They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers. They shall serve with you until the year of jubilee.”

Context: Chapter 25 addresses the year of jubilee as well as mercy on the poor.

Analysis: Bankruptcy was non-existent in ancient Israel. If someone owed a debt greater than they could pay, they had to sell themselves into slavery. Here God requires that fellow Israelites receive better treatment than slaves would have received, and that their debts be forgiven in the year of jubilee, which occurred every 50 years.

Deuteronomy 5:14, “But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.”

Context: The Ten Commandments are reiterated in Deuteronomy. This time, God explains why the Sabbath is so important for the people.

Analysis: The penalty for breaking the Sabbath was death. Most of us judge the death penalty to be far too harsh for such an act, because we think of the Sabbath in terms of our own decisions to work. However, as we see in this verse, God prohibits work on the Sabbath primarily for the sake of others. Throughout history, workers and slaves have been forced to labor seven days a week—wasting their lives away while suffering physical exhaustion. God hates this oppression so much that He required the maximum penalty for those who imposed it upon others.

This is why Jesus would later say, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” God didn’t create the Sabbath day laws or any other laws for His direct benefit; He created them for our benefit, so that all of His children may live a quality life instead of a miserable one.

Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 11, “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be… Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”

Context: Chapter 15 begins by requiring that the Israelites grant a remission of debts every seven years—yet another one of God’s commands of mercy toward those in need.

Analysis: This mercy toward the poor, while not well-defined in terms of percentage of income, was mandatory for all of God’s people who had more than they needed.

The question we need to ask ourselves is whether God is calling for personal or government-enforced charity. Here in Deuteronomy, God gives laws to the nation of Israel. These are not suggestions on how individuals should behave; these are requirements for how an entire nation must behave. So we can conclude that God required the nation of Israel to force its people to share their wealth. How they carried this out is not entirely known.

Deuteronomy 23:15, “Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them. They shall reside with you in your midst, in any place they choose, in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them.”

Context: Numerous, unrelated laws are listed in this portion of Deuteronomy.

Analysis: These are likely to have been slaves that escaped from other nations. They were to know a better life among the Israelites. It’s likely that many of them came to love God as a result of this compassion (that is, if the Israelites actually obeyed this command).

Deuteronomy 24:14-15, “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.”

Context: Numerous, unrelated laws are listed in this portion of Deuteronomy.

Analysis: Nobody does this today. In the sales world, some companies delay commissions as long as possible so that the payroll expense will be pushed into the following quarter and the resulting numbers will deceive potential investors into believing that the company is more profitable than it really is.

Psalms 10:2, “In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.”

Context: The psalmist beseeches the Lord to bring justice upon the wicked and rescue the oppressed.

Analysis: Out of our arrogance, many of us blame the poor for their poverty. We then credit the wealthy for their success and regard them as righteous, and thus, we join the wealthy in schemes to keep the poor in their poverty. Should Christians continue to support the wealthy at the expense of the poor, more and more of us will be “caught in schemes they have devised,” and join the poor in their poverty over time.

Psalms 12:7, “‘Because the poor are despoiled; because the needy groan, I will now rise up,’ says the Lord. ‘I will place them in the safety for which they belong.’”

Context: In this psalm, God comes to the rescue of the poor.

Psalms 14:6, “You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.”

Context: King David laments of all the evil in the world.

Proverbs 11:24-25, “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.”

Proverbs 13:23, “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.”

Proverbs 14:31, “Those who oppress the poor insult their maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor Him.”

Analysis: How do we insult God by oppressing the poor? Many politically-conservative Christians say that those who are smart and work hard achieve financial success, while the poverty of the poor results from their laziness and stupidity. As for laziness, many hard-working people struggle to support their families. And as for being smart, we can’t all be Einstein. If we were born too stupid to figure out how to get rich, we are as God made us. Does the Bible tell us that less intelligent people should struggle to survive as punishment for their stupidity? If God gives us our smarts, skills and lucky breaks, we have no business being arrogant toward those who receive a less lucrative package of abilities from Him. When we blame the poor for their lack of intelligence, we insult God for making them as they are.

Proverbs 19:17, “He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his good deed.”

Analysis: This verse brings to mind Jesus’ statement, “As you’ve done it unto others, you’ve done it unto Me.” As I’ve previously stated, God creates rules not for His own direct benefit, but for the benefit of His children (which is all people, not just the ones whose beliefs match ours). Yet, somehow, according to this verse, God benefits when we love others well, especially the needy.

Proverbs 21:6, “The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death.”

Analysis: When we Christians think of committing sins with our speech, we tend to think of using bad words. But the Bible shows us here (and in many other passages) that lying to gain wealth and take advantage of others financially is a far greater sin of the tongue.

Proverbs 21:13, “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.”

Analysis: In our modern society, where exactly do we hear the cry of the poor? Those of us who live well, live in areas where there are no poor. And even when we walk or drive through an impoverished area, it’s rare that we hear people cry out.

Yet the poor do make their voices heard in our society, but in an organized fashion. They organize politically to cry out for money to pay for health care. They organize into unions to cry out for fair wages – wages that provide food, clothing, shelter, basic enjoyment (yes, having some pleasure in life is a necessity), and a respectable share of their company’s profits. Yet many of us ignore and oppose their organized efforts, because we believe that those who fail to prosper in the land of opportunity deserve their poverty, and those who prosper in the land of opportunity shouldn’t have to share.

But remember that opportunity is only opportunity. Opportunity combined with hard work doesn’t assure prosperity. Many try their best and still come up short. The formula for prosperity is hard work, plus opportunity, plus God-given ability, plus knowing the right people, plus luck (changes in market conditions, etc.). Only hard work is within our control, the rest is beyond any person’s control; therefore, we must not arrogantly close our ears to the cry of the poor in our country. Much of their suffering is beyond their control.

Proverbs 22:9, “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.”

Proverbs 22:16, “Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss.”

Analysis: How does a person enrich oneself by oppressing others? One way is to make employees work too many hours, thus depriving them of the quality life that God desires for all people. We live in a culture, even a Christian culture, which smiles upon those who work too hard. Christians have their favorite Bible verses that call for hard work and responsibility, but they overlook passages like this one that warn of working people too hard.

When we work too hard, we fail to have the quality relationships with others that God desires, and we find no time to serve Him, because we devote our lives to serving our employers instead.

How does the sin of “giving to the rich” while “oppressing the poor” “lead only to loss?” This verse may merely speak of spiritual loss or God’s retribution, but it may, on the other hand, be a warning to us today as many politically-conservative Christians seek to cut taxes for the wealthy while making life harder on the poor and working class. Such an approach is bad for the economy, ultimately hurting the rich too, because the fewer people you have spending money, the worse an economy is. (For example, if 80% of the population can afford to have their carpets cleaned, more jobs are needed, and more money is earned, in the carpet-cleaning industry than if only 20% of the population can afford to have its carpets cleaned. Since it only makes sense to clean carpets every so often, the wealthiest 20% will not spend their extra wealth on enough carpet-cleaning service to make up for the money not being spent by the bottom 80% of income earners.)

Proverbs 22:22, “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate.”

Proverbs 23:10, “Do not remove an ancient landmark or encroach on the fields of orphans.”

Proverbs 28:3, “A ruler who oppresses the poor is a beating rain that leaves no food.”

Proverbs 28:27, “Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse.”

Analysis: Altogether, we have eleven Proverbs opposing oppression of the poor. Anything addressed eleven times in a single Bible book must be one of God’s top priorities. We can no longer allow other issues to take precedence over this one. This is far more important that worries about gay marriage, creationism, alcohol consumption, secular music, etc.

Proverbs 25:21, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.”

Analysis: Jesus’ teachings were often based on the Old Testament. His command to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) may have been inspired by this verse. Taking care of the needy is of greater importance than loyalty to our causes. It doesn’t matter if they believe what we believe politically or religiously. What matters is that they live a quality of life that anyone created in God’s image (which is everyone) deserves.

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3, “Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.”

Context: King Solomon shares his God-given wisdom.

Analysis: Does this mean that we should encourage abortion, because the never-born are better off? Of course, not! However, this verse teaches us that suffering oppression in this life is worse than being dead or never having been born. Therefore, politically active Christians need to adjust their priorities accordingly.

Isaiah 1:17, “…learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

Context: This verse is part of a vision Isaiah had concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the years prior to Babylon’s conquest of Judah. It commands the Jews to behave as God had always desired.

Analysis: If we American Christians have a political calling from God, this verse reveals it. It’s not simply enough to personally avoid hurting others. This passage calls us to rescue the oppressed from the harm of those who oppress them.

How do we do that?

Do we kidnap them from their workplaces and take them somewhere nice?

No.

This verse commands us to plead their cases, to defend their causes. Only politically-oriented action will accomplish this. It’s a sin for us to neglect their causes.

Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…”

Context: Early in Jesus’ ministry, He read this quote from the book of Isaiah in the synagogue and proclaimed that this prophecy had been fulfilled in Him.

Analysis: Some might argue that this quote refers to the poor in spirit, but there’s no evidence for that. The “good news” to which Jesus refers is that God’s supports the poor and opposes their oppressors.

James 2:5-6, “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?”

Context: All of chapter 2 addresses the sin of favoring the rich over the poor.

Analysis: It’s unlikely that the rich oppressed Christians by taking them to court to sue them over money, since Christians probably had little of that. Instead, the rich may have made false accusations against Christians because they hated them for supporting the needs of the poor over the desires of the wealthy.

James 2:15-16, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

Context: All of chapter 2 addresses the sin of favoring the rich over the poor.

Analysis: Contrary to what many Evangelical Christians believe, life on this earth does matter. Notice that neither this verse nor any other verse requiring us to help the needy says that we should do so for the sake of converting them to the faith. We are to help the needy…period!

James 5:4-6, “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.”

Context: Verses 1-3 also warn the rich, but do not address specific sins.

Analysis: Holding back wages is a sin that many Christians think is impossible to commit in modern America. But let’s think for a minute what happened when these laborers were hired. They were told they would receive a certain amount of money for a certain amount of work, yet once the work was performed, the failed to receive all of what they were promised.

Having spent over 15 years of my life working in sales, I’d have to say that the majority of employers deceive potential sales reps about the income they will likely earn. This is easy to do since sales reps are paid, at least in part, in commissions. A set income cannot be pre-determined, so recruiters exaggerate the amount a given rep is likely to earn. So the reps wind up earning less than they were told for the hours they work.

The inverse of this is when an employer accurately tells potential employees what salary they will receive, but fails to inform them how many hours they will have to work to receive that salary. When employers overwork salaried employees, this too is stealing wages.

1 John 3:17, “How does the love of God abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Context: Love for others is a dominant theme in 1 John. John encourages Christians to make sacrifices for others, much like Christ made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.

Analysis: Both James and 1 John call us to action in helping the poor. Prayer, worship, and preaching the gospel are essential to the Christian life, but should not take so much of our time that we fail to serve the needs of others.

God’s Judgment of the Oppressors

Isaiah 3:14-15, “The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of His people: ‘It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?’ says the Lord God of hosts.”

Context: Isaiah prophecies against Judah (the southern kingdom) during the time period in which Israel (the northern kingdom) was under siege by Assyria.

Analysis: One of two things is happening here. Either, the wealthy vineyard owners are underpaying their workers (and God is saying that the workers deserve more of the spoils), or the nation’s leadership is taking from small, local farmers and hoarding the spoils to support their luxurious lifestyles.

Some might see the latter explanation as one that opposes taxation. But, as we’ll see later, there’s a difference between taxes that take from the wealthy to help the poor and taxes that take from the poor to enrich the wealthy, as these taxes do.

Isaiah 5:8, “Ah [‘Woe to’ in the NASB], you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!”

Context: Isaiah prophecies against Judah (the southern kingdom) during the time period in which Israel (the northern kingdom) was under siege by Assyria.

Isaiah 10:1-2, “Ah [‘Woe to’ in the NASB], you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!”

Context: Isaiah prophecies against Israel.

Analysis: Notice that God addresses politics as He rebukes those “who write oppressive statutes.” I’m unaware, however, of any civilizations that have passed laws requiring the wealthy to oppress the poor. It’s not what the law commands that oppresses the poor; it’s what the law permits. Allowing business and legal practices that make life harder for the working class is the sin of which this verse speaks.

Isaiah 58:3, “‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.”

Isaiah 58:6-7, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Isaiah 58:9-10, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”

Context: Isaiah prophecies against Judah.

Analysis: Verses 3-9 demonstrate that God turns His back on nations that neglect the needs of the poor. Some Christians say that the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 are evidence that God is turning His back on the United States. If they are correct, it may not be the sins of the non-Christians (such as homosexuals) fueling God’s anger, however, but the sins of the Christians who oppress the poor. Remember, it wasn’t the World Gay Center that fell; it was the World Trade Center. If this disaster was indeed God’s punishment on America, it was our business practices He was judging, not the sexuality of non-Christians.

Jeremiah 5:28-29, “They have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things…?”

Jeremiah 6:6, “For thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Cut down her trees; cast up a siege ramp against Jerusalem. This is the city that must be punished; there is nothing but oppression in her.”

Context: Jeremiah prophesied to Judah during the years prior to its fall to Babylon.

Analysis: Notice that, in chapter 5:28-29, God wants the wealthy to “make” the orphans prosper. He denies the wealthy the right to do whatever they want with their money and power. When they assume such a right, God’s punishment follows.

Amos 2:6-7, “Thus says the Lord, ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.”

Amos 4:1, “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’”

Amos 5:11-12, “Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.”

Amos 8:4, “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land…”

Context: God speaks against the sins of Israel and goes on to promise a day of judgment upon it.

Analysis: We’re seeing an abundance of verses in which God promises wrath for His people who oppress the poor. Will we American Christians experience this wrath? Will oppressing and neglecting the needy, while supporting the wealthy, be acceptable as long as we do it in Jesus’ name?

Ezekiel 16:49, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and the needy.”

Context: Ezekiel is prophesying against Jerusalem.

Analysis: This is yet another example of God infuriated with a nation that fails to care for its poor.

Daniel 4:27, “Therefore, O king, may my counsel be acceptable to you: atone for your sins with the righteous, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged.”

Context: Daniel interprets the dream of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar.

Micah 2:2-3, “They covet fields, and seize them; house, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance. Therefore thus says the Lord: Now, I am devising against this family an evil from which you cannot remove your necks; and you shall not walk haughtily, for it will be an evil time.”

Context: Micah prophecies judgment against Samaria and Jerusalem.

Analysis: Here the word “covet” again applies to the desire to acquire someone else’s property.

Unlike portable objects, houses and lands are immovable. To take them requires a political or financial scheme. In modern times (at least up through 2008), this scheme might involve a loan to someone who’s unlikely to be able to keep up with the payments, or even an Adjustable Rate Mortgage in which the lender knows that the borrower will be forced to foreclose when interest rates rise, thus allowing the lender to seize the property and sell it at a profit in the event that prices rise after the loan is issued.

Many people support schemes like these by placing all blame on the borrower for wanting and borrowing more than they can afford. But I know from both sales experience and being the target of mortgage industry sales pitches that mortgage sales reps twisted numbers in order to deceive potential homeowners into borrowing more than they could afford. The mortgage companies didn’t care if the people couldn’t pay (because they sold the mortgages off to be bundled into securities); they only cared about the size of their commissions—the bigger the loan, the more they earned. Granted, in the end, this wasn’t a scheme to take property, but it was a scheme to run up prices, earn big payouts, and earn additional refinancing income when the rates adjusted on the ARM’s, all at the expense of unsuspecting individuals. Either way, it’s an example of oppressing “householder and house, people and their inheritance.”

Malachi 3:5, “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear Me, says the Lord of hosts.”

Context: Unhappy with the behavior of the Jews during the decades following their return from Babylon, God promises future judgment upon Israel again, but this time, through the coming of Jesus.

Analysis: How are “hired workers” oppressed in their wages? It’s possible that their promised wages were withheld, but businesses that practiced such things probably had trouble recruiting workers after a short time. It’s far more likely that these businesses oppressed their workers by paying them too little.

As Americans, this makes no sense to us, because we’re taught that it’s right, as well as “just good business”, to pay workers as little as the free market will allow. The goal of any supposedly efficient business is to minimize the cost of labor in order to maximize profits. In such a world, there’s no such thing as paying a worker too little; if an employer’s compensation for a particular job is below that job’s market value, then qualified workers will find “fair” wages elsewhere and the job will never be consistently filled.

But this passage indicates that God holds a different set of values. Maybe workers deserve more than being paid as little as the free market will permit. Maybe they should be paid wages that reflect the value of the workers’ contribution to their employers’ success.  Or maybe they should be paid enough to afford food, shelter, clothing and basic enjoyment of life, since they’re of great value, being created in God’s image.

That’s not to say that businesses struggling to survive are guilty of sin when they pay workers low wages. But when corporate executives and investors earn several hundred times as much as their employees, who are paid as little as the market will allow, they likely violate God’s words in this passage.

Matthew 25:41-46, “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they will also answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you? Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Context: Jesus explains that on Judgment Day, He will separate the righteous from the evil. The righteous will receive eternal life, while the evil will face God’s wrath.

Analysis: In the Old Testament, God brings wrath upon the nation of Israel for their neglect and oppression of the poor. Jesus’ ministry, on the other hand, focused upon individuals rather than upon a nation.

We who oppress and neglect the poor will suffer eternal punishment. Many Christians might argue that we receive forgiveness for this if we believe in Jesus, but that’s only if we repent of this behavior and try to turn away from our sin. Remember, in Matthew 7:21, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my father in heaven.” Jesus makes it clear that mercy on the poor is a vital part of God’s will. Therefore, it’s a requirement for eternal life.

Luke 6:24, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”

Context: Chapter 6 is Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. Some will argue that this is a different sermon, because verse 17 says that Jesus came down to a level place. However, many mountains have level areas, and the text does not say that He came off the mountain. Also, the events that follow the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew follow this sermon as well.

Analysis: Are all wealthy, full, and happy people going to hell? Probably not. Here, Jesus warns the wealthy that their prosperity on earth will one day end, and that if their prosperity results from oppression of the poor or causes neglect of the poor, they will be the ones suffering for eternity.

Acts 5:1-5, “But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the Apostles’ feet. ‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were of the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard it.”

Context: See Acts 4:32, 34.

Analysis: Why did Ananias and Sapphira lie? Were they required to sell their property and give all the money to the church, or had they promised to do so in an attempt to impress others? I guess we’ll never know. It’s enough to make us wonder whether all Christians must sell their homes and give the proceeds to the church. There are, however, biblical references to Christians owning homes, such as 1 Corinthians 11:22 in which Paul says, “Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?” So we need not jump to a rash conclusion based on this example.

Taxes/Redistribution of Wealth 

Leviticus 19:9, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”

Context: Numerous, unrelated laws are listed in this portion of Leviticus.

Deuteronomy 24:19-21, “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.”

Context: Numerous, unrelated laws are listed in this portion of Deuteronomy.

Analysis: Imagine not only farmers, but manufacturers as well, having to allow the poor to walk away with free goods. Do you think they would cry that it’s unfair? You bet they would. We could argue that verse 9’s command is the equivalent of paying taxes, since it’s nationally mandatory for all farmers and benefits the needy. Yet many Christians whine about having to do that, too. We argue that our sharing with the poor should be voluntary rather than be required by the government. But the Bible shows us here that God required His nation to share with the poor.

Leviticus 27:30, “All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord.”

Context: Chapter 27 instructed the Israelites on which things were to be set aside for the Lord.

Analysis: A “tithe” is ten percent of one’s income. This tithe was, in reality, a tax, because it was mandatory for everyone. While the tithe is said to be the Lord’s, that just means He determines who should receive it. Many Christians follow this command today, but on a voluntary basis. They contribute after paying taxes. But for the Israelites, the tithe was their federal tax.

Deuteronomy 14:22-23, “Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always.”

Context: The second half of chapter 14 addresses tithing.

Analysis: This is known as the Festival Tithe. The fact that God required a feast is further proof that He wants His people to have some enjoyment rather than continually suffer to impress Him.

This tithe was not for ministry, but for the common good. Since a tithe is a percentage of one’s possessions, those who have more pay more. The poorest people paid the least in God’s taxation system, but benefited the most.

Today, our government follows a similar model. If it needs to raise taxes for the common good, the rich pay the most, because it’s the rich who hold most of the nation’s wealth. Whenever politicians call for lower taxes, they aim to lower them for the rich at the expense of the common good.

Deuteronomy 14:28-29, “Every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat your fill so that the word of God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.”

Context: The second half of chapter 14 addresses tithing.

Analysis: God calls on the Israelites to look out for those who have no land. In early Israel, people received land through inheritance. Those who had land could grow food and build a home. Those who didn’t have land had to rely on the generosity of others. This law is the equivalent of a tax on property owners for the benefit of the poor.

Today, many Christians believe that taxing those who have more than enough and redistributing it to those who don’t is evil. To say so is to say that God is evil, because, as we see here, God is the creator of a national, mandatory, systematic redistribution of wealth from the prosperous to the poor.

Some will say that such redistribution is unfair, but God is far more concerned with everyone living a quality life than He is about fairness. Fairness isn’t a major principle promoted by the Bible, but God’s love is.

Deuteronomy 23:24, “If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in a container.”

Context: Numerous, unrelated laws are listed in this portion of Deuteronomy.

Analysis: Notice how this verse addresses not the poor who have no property, but neighbors. In order to be someone’s neighbor, you must own land, so this verse addresses land owners—people who weren’t totally impoverished like the widows, orphans and immigrants were. God required them to share with one another, at least in terms of satisfying their own hunger. (He also allowed trespassing. The idea that a person can’t even walk on the land God created, because you now own it, is anti-biblical.)

Again, this is unfair, because one neighbor may have a bigger and more fruitful vineyard than the next. And maybe that’s because one neighbor is more talented than the others. Most modern American Christians would say that the man who is more talented and more fortunate (and maybe even harder-working) than his neighbors shouldn’t be forced to share with them, because fairness dictates that he gets to decide what to do with anything he produces or earns.

But that’s not how God sees it. God proves here that He desires a society that mandates sharing. That’s not to say that God is a communist, but neither is He a right-wing American capitalist who takes property rights to the extreme.

Malachi 3:8-10, “Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflow blessing.”

Context: God continues to express displeasure over His people’s behavior.

Analysis: Here God is furious, not because individuals failed to make voluntary, charitable donations, but because the nation failed to collect its taxes (tithes). The food needed to provide for the Levites (who were government workers, since Israel was a theocracy), to provide for the poor, and to create enjoyment for the common good (the festival tithe) had not been collected; therefore, people created in God’s image suffered. They were robbed of what they deserved. And, as Jesus said, “As you’ve done it unto others, you’ve done it unto Me.” That’s why God accused the Israelites of robbing Him by failing to collect the tithes.

Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Context: This is one of Jesus’ various teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. This same quote also appears in Luke 16:13.

Analysis: I’m listing this passage again here among the tax verses, because so many Christians are obsessed with avoiding taxes to the point that they oppose God.

Yes, it’s difficult to see a significant portion of our paychecks go to someone other than ourselves. And, yes, the government doesn’t spend all tax money wisely. But we must not let our love of money harden our hearts and distort our theology.

In recent years, I’ve heard an increasing number of Christians say, out of their hatred for paying taxes, that a national, mandatory redistribution of wealth is evil. But since God created a national, mandatory redistribution of wealth for ancient Israel, anyone who says that redistribution of wealth is evil says that God is evil.

Some might argue that our secular government doesn’t have to do it God’s way. But when we vote, our only choices are to vote for God’s way or Satan’s way. While I’ve never read the Satanic Bible (for fear of being possessed), I’ve read commentary on it. And its message is basically, “Do what you want. If you want to help others, that’s fine. But if you want to put yourself first, that’s fine, too.” Satan is pro-choice all the way, whether we’re talking about abortion and adultery or money and business. God is never pro-choice. He requires that we put others needs on the same level as our own. If we’re going to be politically involved, how can we not vote to do it His way?

Right now, many politically conservative Christians are following the master of greed, obsessed with hoarding more money to themselves and hateful toward those who long to see all people created in God’s image enjoy at least some quality of life.

Matthew 17:24-27, “When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’ He said, ‘Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, ‘What do you think Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?’ When Peter said, ‘From others,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.’”

Context: This passage appears to be unrelated to those which precede and follow it.

Analysis: The temple tax was required of all adult Jewish men. It was needed for temple upkeep. In this story, Jesus does not oppose it, thus proving that He does not oppose taxation for the sake of the common good.

Jesus’ remark that the “children are free” implies that He should be free from paying it since He is the Son of God. Nonetheless, He pays it so as not to give people a reason to oppose Him

Acts 4:32, 34, “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common… There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned land or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the Apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as they had need.”

Context: The Gospel catches on quickly and with great enthusiasm as the disciples begin to preach it.

Analysis: This scene horrifies American Christians who see pure capitalism as gospel, because we have in these verses the early Christian equivalent of a commune, and a commune-inspired economic system is communism.

Should we practice communism in an effort to emulate the early Christians?

Not necessarily.

First, let’s look beyond modern economic systems and examine the principals involved. The intent of these actions was to ensure that “there was not a needy person among them.” This has always been always God’s desire. The solution was that everyone in the community would give up what they had in order for this intent to become reality.

Today, our society in America is wealthy enough that we don’t have to give up everything to help those around us. But we also lack the right to keep our wealth to ourselves.

2 Corinthians 8:13-15, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’”

Context: Paul attempts to inspire the Corinthian church to give to less fortunate churches by referencing the overwhelming generosity of the Macedonian church.

Analysis: The last sentence of this quote allows for some to have much and for others to have little, so it does not support communism in which all people earn the same. It does, however, support a system in which the wealthy give up excessive wealth so that the poor may enjoy a quality lifestyle. In fact, all the Bible’s greed and oppression laws were given to the Israelites for this purpose. If God desired a system like this for His nation, should we not desire such a system for ours?

Why do so many Christians promote a different system, in which the wealthy have exceedingly great wealth, far beyond what any person can enjoy, while the majority of citizens work their lives away while struggling to survive, and then it’s up to the whims of the wealthy to determine who will receive charitable donations? Is it not better to have a system in which those with exceeding wealth are forced to share it in order to lighten the suffering among all those in need? God thinks it is.

Galatians 2:10, “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.”

Context: Paul recalls meeting Jesus’ disciples at the council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15) in which they approved of his ministry.

Analysis: Jesus’ disciples could have asked many things of the Apostle Paul, but they asked only one: that he support the cause of the poor. All leaders of the early church were in agreement on this issue. Anyone who claims to be a Christian today must share the same priority.

We’ve just reviewed 96 Bible quotes that oppose greed and oppression of the poor. None of the other subjects we’ve covered received this much biblical attention. Even adultery, fornication, and homosexuality (which we haven’t covered) are only addressed a combined 64 times (approximately) in the Bible.

Despite the Bible’s emphasis on greed and oppression of the poor, most churches have opted to have other priorities. According to Compassion Magazine, a publication from a Christian charity (Compassion International) focused on releasing children from poverty, “Nearly half of all Christians went to church last year [2007] without hearing a single sermon about the poor or the biblical mandate to help the poor.”

Wow! Half of all churches ignore the most frequently addressed sin in the Bible! Why don’t they have time to address one of God’s greatest priorities? Many of them are too busy addressing man-made religious rules or emphasizing theologies built upon solitary Bible verses. Other churches have the time, but demand that their congregations donate to the church rather than to the poor. Also, many churches tend to be one-dimensional. One church will focus nearly every sermon on evangelism. The next church will hype Christ’s imminent return, week-in and week-out. Another church will repeatedly preach that Christians must take political control of America. Yet others talk about nothing but sexual immorality. Some of these topics, like evangelism and sexual immorality, must be addressed at times, but not to the extent that the majority of God’s biblical message is ignored.

Why do we oppress the poor?

The other half of the churches, those who heed God’s mandate to help the poor, usually address the needs of the poor in foreign lands. Indeed, some of these people are so poor that they struggle to find adequate food, clothing, and shelter. They exist in such great numbers because they live in politically unstable lands, in which the sins of the greedy and violent go unchecked and basic human rights are neglected. Many Christians (although not enough) are compassionate toward them and donate money. Unfortunately, providing financial support is all that most of us can do. We are powerless to change their governments and economies, since we can only vote for political changes in our own country, and yet it’s government and economics that can have the greatest long-range effects. Giving money only helps temporarily, but fails to address the underlying problems that cause the poverty.

It’s when we vote here in America that many of us find ourselves on the wrong side of God’s will regarding oppression. We support oppression of the American poor and working class for two reasons, the first of which is that many American Christians have wealth and seek to protect it. They oppose most government spending that helps the poor and working class, because they hate to see their tax money distributed among others. They’re jealous of the poor for the mercy tax rates that they enjoy. They wish that they could enjoy those rates too, but without having to be poor to do so.

The other reason is that many Christians believe that republicanism aligns perfectly with the values of Christianity. As we’ve seen throughout the Bible, republicanism and God’s word oppose one another more often than they agree with one another on the issues of greed and oppression of the poor. Republicanism promotes its oppression of the poor by instilling in its members a set of values that I call the Principles of Oppression.

Principles of Oppression

The Principles of Oppression don’t sound oppressive. That’s because many of us have been raised to embrace them as values supported by God Himself. But they all have two things in common: they are unbiblical, and they serve as a rallying cry for those who oppress the poor and the working class. Let’s examine each of them:

1. Fairness

Throughout the years in which I attended conservative Protestant churches, countless Christians have told me that our taxation system, which takes from the wealthy to make life better for the majority of Americans, is unfair and, therefore, anti-Christian. Yet, as we look back at Leviticus 25:35 (requiring support for aliens and kin), Isaiah 58 (requiring homeowners to take the homeless into their homes), Matthew 19 (requiring a wealthy man to give his wealth to the poor in order to be perfect) and all the Old Testament taxation (tithing) verses, we see that God’s laws require mercy over fairness when people are in need. Fairness isn’t a Christian value as much as mercy is.

This statement holds true not only in the Israelite law, but on a personal level as well. Take a moment to read Luke 15:11-32 (due to its length, I will not quote it here). In this parable, a son leaves home, wastes his inheritance, falls into financial ruin, comes back to his father, and his father accepts him with open arms and even throws a party celebrating his return. The other son, who had behaved all along, thinks his father’s response is unfair, so he bitterly resents both his father and his brother (remember that the money spent on the party, as well as provisions for the misbehaving son, likely came from what would have become the obedient son’s inheritance, because any money spent by a parent results in a diminished inheritance for his or her children). Had the father been fair, like his obedient son had wished, he would have treated the returning son as a slave rather than as a son, because that’s what he deserved for behaving irresponsibly, and because the behaving son deserved his full inheritance. The father does the right thing according to Jesus: he chooses mercy over fairness, just like God does when He forgives us.

This parable teaches us that fairness isn’t always consistent with Christian values. That’s not to say we should favor one person over another. But when people are in need (as is the wayward son in this parable), fairness fails and mercy prevails. God requires that we Christians apply this principle on a personal level, and we have no reason to deny this principle on a political level, since God has applied it there as well.

Higher taxes for the wealthy?

I’ve frequently heard Christians argue how unfair it is that the wealthy pay so much more in taxes. I’ve heard it said that our progressive tax structure is the equivalent of stealing from the rich. To determine the extent to which this is true, let’s take a look at the 2007 tax brackets for income and Social Security/Medicare (FICA) taxes as they apply to a person whose filing status is single.

From            To            Tax Rate (deductions & exemptions excluded)
$0                $7,825        10%      income + 7.65% FICA = 17.65%
$7,825        $31,850      15%      income + 7.65% FICA = 22.65%
$31,850      $77,100      25%     income + 7.65% FICA = 32.65%
$77,100      $97,500      28%     income + 7.65% FICA = 35.65%
$97,500      $160,850    28%     income + 1.45% FICA = 29.45%
$160,850    $349,700   33%     income + 1.45% FICA = 34.45%
$349,700    no limit       35%     income + 1.45% FICA = 36.45%

First of all, many people are unaware that each bracket applies to every person of every income status. In other words, the first $7,825 of a person’s taxable income is taxed at 17.65% regardless of whether their total taxable earnings equal $7,000 or $7,000,000. The system is fair, because everyone gets to enjoy the mercy rates of the lower brackets.

Second, we learn from this chart that a lower middle class person who earns $90,000 pays a total of 35.65% in federal taxes. An upper class person who earns $90,000,000 pays a total of 36.45% in federal taxes (before loopholes), because the decrease in FICA rates compensates for most of the increase in income tax rates. So the difference in tax percentage paid between the lower-middle class and the upper class is less than one percent.

Is that what all of the fussing, whining and crying is about? One percent? It can’t be. In fact, all taxable income exceeding $31,850 is taxed between the rates of 32.65% and 36.45% (except for that soft spot between $97,500 & $160,850), so even the difference between the lower class and the upper class is less than four percent. Based on these numbers, nobody can argue that the upper class pays significantly more than anyone else (in fact, they often pay far less, thanks to loopholes). Our tax rates are relatively flat.

So why are Christians so upset about this progressive income tax structure? We feel this way because many of us hate to see the poor get away with having to pay no more than 17.65% or 22.65% of their taxable income to the government. We cry that the system is unfair, and that the tax rates must become perfectly flat. If we got our wish, the tax percentages of the wealthy would barely change while the poor would have to pay tax rates they could not afford. Our progressive tax structure serves one primary purpose: it provides the poor with mercy rates on taxes, because they need to spend a higher percentage of their income on necessities. Unfortunately, many of us Christians hate mercy. We’d rather see the poor suffer in the name of fairness.

Fairness is an important value, however, when we tax those who have all they need and have money to spare. So, to be fair, we must address the tax loopholes for the wealthy which enable them to pay a tax percentage lower than people at the poverty level pay. For example, dividends and long term capital gains were reduced to 15% by the George W. Bush administration in 2001. Capital gains had been taxed at 20% before that, and dividends were taxed at the same rate as income—39.6% for the wealthy. Proponents of this move claimed it would create an incentive for capital investing (but the wealthy spent their tax saving on other things, as I’ll explain later) and improve everyone’s life by creating jobs (which failed to happen). Reducing the dividends tax from 39.6% to 15%, however, is a lot more than an incentive for investing; it’s an enormous tax break for the corporate wealthy who make most or all of their money from capital gains and dividends. From the time of this tax cut through 2011, living conditions for working class Americans got worse instead of better, thus proving that this tax cut for the wealthy was of little benefit to poor and working class Americans, and was of tremendous benefit to the exceedingly wealthy who lacked nothing.

Millions of American Christians supported these tax cuts for the wealthy. These are the same Christians who hate to see the poor get a tax break. Isn’t this mindset the opposite of what God promotes in the Bible? Clearly, the concept of fairness has been twisted to lure God’s people away from doing His will.

Is our nation a group effort or every-man-for-himself?

Some may argue that progressive income taxes are unfair and unjust, because the wealthy deserve to keep their money, because they earned every penny of it themselves.

The question we need to ask ourselves here is, “Do the wealthy really earn it all themselves?” Could they be so successful if it weren’t for all the workers who devote most of their waking hours to company success? Or more important, could they generate such great wealth if it weren’t for the sacrifices of so many Americans during times of military crisis?

The American wealthy wouldn’t know such wealth if they lived in a land lacking prosperity and political stability where neither armies nor police were strong enough to protect everyone. America’s prosperity and safety wouldn’t be so great if it weren’t for those who died in battle, those who sacrificed years of their lives to fight and serve, and those who sacrificed their sons, brothers and fathers (and more recently, their daughters, sisters and mothers) in war, in police protection, in fire-fighting, and in rescue operations. In fact, many of these people were drafted (or had their loved ones drafted) and never had a choice of whether or not to make such costly sacrifices. In the end, nearly every family that’s been here awhile has made these sacrifices for the common good. Yet the wealthy say, “I owe them nothing. I did it all myself.”

Is it fair that America is only a group effort when it’s the lower class sacrificing their lives and their loved ones to protect the interests of the wealthy, but when the families who’ve made such sacrifices are in need, the wealthy need not sacrifice as little as their excess income? Is it fair that the government can draft the lives of those who have the least, but can’t draft so little as the excess income of those who benefit the most from the sacrifices of the nation? Maybe it’s fair, after all, that those who benefit the most from this group effort known as the United States of America are forced to share the most with their fellow citizens.

2. Free Market 

Free market is the modern-day term used to describe capitalism. Capitalism is the ideology upon which our nation bases its economic principles. It’s far superior to communism, feudalism, and socialism, because it allows supply, demand, and pricing to allocate scarce resources rather than have the government do it. Governments that have tried to oversee resource allocation and pricing have driven their people into poverty, because such a task is too large and complex to be administered effectively. It’s no wonder capitalism has so many fans.

However, capitalism is a system of winners and losers. In it, every person, theoretically, has an opportunity for great wealth. But in its purest form, which is free from regulations and redistribution of wealth through taxation, only a small percentage of the population can achieve economic prosperity at the same time; meanwhile, the masses wallow in poverty; the winners reap extraordinary riches, while the losers struggle to survive. That’s why pure capitalism is, essentially, a jackpot economy—the winners win big, but are few in number.

In the 1800’s, America and Europe practiced pure capitalism. For most people, it was the economic equivalent of slavery. Even though no one legally owned anyone else, the endless work hours and deplorable living conditions of the workers rivaled those of slaves. In Europe, pure capitalism was so horrible that it inspired Karl Marx to invent communism, which he called “the workers’ paradise.” In America, anarchists threatened to overthrow the government by means of revolution. Fortunately for America, the emergence of labor unions, government regulations, and tax-funded government assistance programs (like Social Security) afforded the working class a bearable lifestyle, so revolution was avoided.

Today, right-wing Christians lament our impure form of capitalism and wish to return to the good old days of pure capitalism. Every time someone suggests that the government regulate the harmful behavior of the wealthy or redistribute wealth to the needy, right-wing Christians cry, “Socialism!” or “Communism!” in an attempt to make anyone who opposes pure capitalism look like an evil extremist. In reality, pure capitalism is an evil extreme in which the wealthy and powerful may do whatever they want to oppress the poor. Communism and Socialism are evil extremes, too. None of these extremes are a benevolent and effective economic system, and that’s why God imposed neither pure capitalism, pure socialism, nor pure communism on His people.

[Economic Note: Some people will argue that, in capitalism, everyone can be a winner; that America is the land of opportunity where if you work hard, you can get rich.

It’s certainly true that hard work can lead to great riches. But only if it’s combined with having profitable God-given talent, knowing the right people, and being lucky (such as having the right market conditions, or being wealthy enough to have the time to develop skills. Those who lack wealth may have to work too many hours to have time to develop marketable skills).

However, it’s only on the individual level that hard work, etc. might lead to riches. On a national level, not everyone can be rich or close to it. Even if all Americans were to work their hardest and get PhDs, they wouldn’t all prosper. Our economy would still need as many cashiers, janitors, shelf-stockers, lawn-cutters, etc. as it does today, and during tough economic times, a significant percentage of people would still be unemployed. The only difference would be that all of these people would now have PhDs. The reality is that the majority of jobs in America are low-paying, and regardless of how hard everyone tries, the majority of people will be working-class poor. It’s just like a foot race, someone has to finish last.

Since capitalism has always been a system of winners and losers, it’s wrong for Christian leaders and politicians to promote the lie that everyone can win simultaneously if they try hard enough. Instead they need to ask, “How badly must the losers (all of whom are created in the image of God) lose? How badly must they suffer for not being smart enough, well-connected enough, or cut-throat enough to make it in a dog-eat-dog economy?” We need to address the realities of our winners and losers system rather than pretend that poverty is a choice.

Economic Note #2: As for the desire to return to the “good-old days of pure capitalism,” in which the government left everyone alone….well, they weren’t so great after all. From the founding of our federal government in 1787 to 1932, this nation experienced seven depressions and spent approximately 47% of it’s time in recession/depression. However, from 1933 (the beginning of the New Deal and its various programs designed to redistribute wealth) to 2008, this nation only spent 14% of it’s time in recession and has yet to experience a depression. There’s a reason we don’t do everything the way the founding fathers did—we’ve learned from their mistakes the hard way and have learned how to do it better (albeit, not perfect).]

3. Lower Taxes/Limited Government 

The purpose of government is to protect its citizens from suffering. The government does this by eliminating the causes of suffering. Take law enforcement and the military, for example. Violent criminals inflict suffering upon the innocent, so the government seeks to eliminate criminal violence by funding law enforcement through taxation. Likewise, terrorist attacks and invading armies inflict overwhelming suffering upon humans, so the government spends billions to protect us from these ills as well.

Most conservative Christians support these uses of tax money to protect people from suffering. But for some reason, when it comes to protecting citizens from starvation, exposure, chronic pain and death due to lack of health care, and having their incomes stolen by the schemes of the greedy, conservative Christians cease to believe in protecting people from suffering through taxation and government regulations.

Why is this?

Why do we Christians tend to believe that the government has no business following God’s lead by creating business regulations and taxing those who have abundance in order to eliminate suffering and ensure quality living for the masses?

Reason 1: We don’t believe in mandatory mercy.

Since we Christians bury our heads in the New Testament and neglect the Old, we ignore God’s design for the nation of Israel and build our entire poverty-relief theology out of Paul’s statement to the Corinthian church in which he says, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver [II Corinthians 9:7].” Like the entire New Testament, this statement addresses individual Christians, not a government. It’s not an anti-taxation statement. Rather, it encourages those who already pay taxes to give out of their take-home pay as they see fit (the Romans paid taxes just like we do, so their situation differs little from ours). This verse lacks political value since it addresses individual hearts rather than government laws.

God’s political approach of requiring taxation and compassionate behavior for the sake of eliminating poverty is what I call mandatory mercy. Why did God insist upon it for Israel? Because mandatory mercy is the only method by which all people can be free from poverty. The voluntary charity solution promoted by right-wing Christians rescues only a select few from poverty, and, as a result, has never come close to eliminating poverty in any nation in the world’s history (it also failed to eliminate American poverty prior to the New Deal in the 1930’s, despite the fact that America had a much higher percentage of Christians back then than it does now). Voluntary charity is necessary, largely because most world governments fail at mandatory mercy. But voluntary charity is not God’s preferred weapon against poverty—mandatory mercy is.

Reason 2:  We think voluntary charity works better.

I challenge anyone to find a nation, past or present, that took care of its poor through nothing more than individual, voluntary charity, and did it as well or better than the United States has done through forced redistribution of wealth. Ancient Israel may have done as well or better, but as I’ve already demonstrated with numerous Bible verses, God forced them to redistribute wealth.

Conservative Christians are quick to point to huge dollar figures that prove how charitable we are as a nation. According to GivingUSA, U.S. charitable donations exceeded $300 billion in both 2007 and 2008. That sounds like a lot—until you compare it to the 2.2 trillion dollars the IRS collects and redistributes annually. Remember that almost all government spending creates jobs for working class Americans (directly or indirectly) or provides them with direct income through entitlement programs like unemployment compensation. So you could say that the government’s forced charitable donations equalled approximately seven times as much as was donated through charity.

Also, $300 billion in charitable donations pales in comparison to the $1.8 trillion that the wealthy invested in hedge funds in 2008 (this according to a speech by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as recorded in The Return of Depression Economics by economist Paul Krugman). Hedge funds specialize in short-selling stocks, that is, they borrow stocks from the stock-owner’s brokers and trade them, so they contribute no capital investments to companies and are of no benefit to anyone.

And let’s not forget the trillions the wealthy spend on mansions and vacation homes. When they buy an existing mansion, all they do is give another wealthy person millions of dollars in exchange for a house. This is yet another example of the wealthy doing things with their money that help no one. The wealthy, through stock trading, real estate purchases, etc. are simply exchanging money with each another in a financial game of king of the hill.

The truth is that the wealthy only give a small percentage of their excess wealth to people in need and to capital investments that create jobs. And most of the donations they do make go to universities, the arts, and special interest organizations ranging from the ACLU to PETA, but not to those boring poor people who need it most. Why should the wealthy (or anyone, for that matter) determine who deserves charity? Isn’t it much better to have a system in place where everyone who meets a standard requirement (like being unemployed or being of retirement age) receives aid, rather than leave it up to the whims of the wealthy to determine who receives aid, how much they receive, and when they receive it?

Reason 3: Both Oppression and Mercy are immeasurable.

The Religious Right enthusiastically supports big law enforcement budgets, because the crimes of common criminals are easy to identify. If someone breaks into a home and steals $10,000 worth of stuff, that’s measurable. But if corporations fail to pay fair wages to workers so that they can never afford to own $10,000 worth of stuff, that’s considered permissible by the religious right, because it’s hard to draw the line as to what wage is fair.

When corporations pay unfair wages and eliminate jobs for the sake of even greater profits, workers find themselves in need. When corporations steal from customers by lying about the products and services they sell (I’ve been in sales since 1993, and almost all sales reps lie, almost all advertising is deceptive, and almost all companies fail to deliver as promised at least a portion of the time), consumers find themselves in need. The only effective means of meeting their needs is through tax-funded wealth redistribution, whether it be entitlement programs or government-created jobs. It’s only fair to support these programs by taxing those who have benefited from minimizing employee compensation and stealing from the masses.

That’s not to say that taxation is a punishment for the oppressors. It’s simply a means of ensuring that the working class is compensated for their sacrifices. The fact that taxation is not punishment, however, makes it hard for many Christians to relate to, because punishment is an easier concept to understand than taxation. If someone commits a measurable crime by stealing, they go to jail. That’s a simple concept which most people can support. But if someone commits the immeasurable sin of failing to properly compensate workers, there can be no punishment, since we have no place to draw the line on what wages are livable and fair. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it. We can still help the workers through mandatory mercy—a concept rejected by many Christians.

Reason 4: Taxes (supposedly) hurt the economy.

Some of us oppose taxation for the common good, because it takes money from the economy. However, it’s not as if the government launches our tax money into orbit around Pluto, never to be seen again. Most American tax dollars (except for foereign aid and foreign military expenditures) are spent right here in America, paying government workers, purchasing American products, and helping those in need. So the money circulates right back into our economy (unfortunately, the U.S. government has awarded some weapons manufacturing contracts to foreign companies, so not all tax money remains in the U.S.). In fact, those who receive money through something like Social Security are more likely to spend it here in America than the wealthy who are likely to hoard it or spend it abroad, because low income people spend almost all of their money on necessities (food and shelter) which usually come from the local economy.

Contrary to what conservatives say, redistribution of wealth from the wealthy to the working class is actually good for the economy. This is because the economy thrives when the working class, which makes up the majority of the population, has buying power. If the working class is poor, and only the wealthiest twenty percent can afford to buy new cars and furniture, sales of these items will suffer. The wealthy will not choose to spend their excess money on extra cars and furniture—at least not to the extent that it will compensate for the rest of the population’s inability to purchase these items. Instead they may hoard their money to build a family fortune, spend it abroad buying $10,000 bottles of champagne on the French Riviera, or use it influence politics in their favor. But they will not purchase as many consumer items as the working class will if it has the buying power to do so, and the economy will, therefore, stagnate.

Also, conservatives argue that redistributing wealth from those who have it to those who don’t is bad for the economy, because it decreases the amount of money that the wealthy can use to invest in job creation. This is one of the most deceptive arguments in modern economics. Today, due to the new millennium’s drastic decrease in the buying power of the bottom 80 percent of American income earners, most jobs created by investors would produce goods or services that would fail to sell. For example, adding more jobs to produce more cars when the cars already on the lot aren’t selling would be a total waste of investment money and materials. In fact, hundreds of billions of dollars of investment money are now available, but investors refuse to throw that money away on job creation, because they can get better a much better return on investment (ROI) elsewhere, by buying gold, oil futures, gambling on short-selling stocks and derivatives, etc.

The truth is that redistributing money from those who tie it up in gold and investment gambling to those who would spend it on necessities and basic enjoyment would be a huge boost to the economy, since spending = buying products and services, which leads employers and investors to create jobs to take advantage of the increased demand for those products and services.

Reason 5: Poverty is (supposedly) Self-Inflicted.

Throughout the 2nd half of the 1900’s, America experienced an unprecedented phenomenon: nearly all hard-working, responsible people could support their families by simply doing their jobs each day. For example, my father raised a family of five on one income during the 70’s and 80’s by working in an auto parts factory. As long as he went to work each day (and worked overtime), the family could live reasonably well.

During this period, it was usually those unwilling to work or addicted to drugs who were poor. Their poverty was self-inflicted. All of us have known and worked with people who are so lazy and deceptive that they don’t deserve employment. Many of us would rather not pay taxes that help those who choose not to help themselves, and that’s one reason why so many Christians support right-wing politics.

As the 21st century continues, however, poverty will no longer afflict only the irresponsible. It will afflict the working class as well, in part because Christian support of right wing politicians enables them to reverse the programs and regulations that brought quality living to the working class in the first place. Many Christians today fail to realize that the widespread prosperity of the late 1900’s resulted directly from the growing power of labor unions (which ensured fair, livable wages for workers in the early years, but. I’ll admit, demanded too much for workers later on), and such government programs as Social Security and Medicare (which removed the financial burden of elder care from the working class), as well as unemployment and workers’ compensation.

These institutions all had one thing in common: right-wing politicians opposed them from the beginning. Had right-wing politicians always gotten their way, labor unions and government programs that ensured the working class a quality lifestyle would have been squelched at the start, leaving working class Americans in poverty, as they had been in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. If Christians continue to support right-wing politics, most of us Americans will return to the poverty that our ancestors once suffered.

Reason 6:  Some people abuse the system.

Many of us oppose taxation for the common good, because some people take advantage of government programs intended to help the poor. I’ve known of people who extracted every penny possible from government assistance programs in order to spend some or all of it on partying and expensive clothing. The wealthy hate to see their tax money pay for such things, while the working class hates to see lazy people abuse the system in order to enjoy a better lifestyle than they do. Indeed, those who abuse government programs are in sin, and our government should do all that it can to eliminate such abuses.

Fortunately, the government has taken steps to reduce these abuses. For example, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 reduced welfare rolls by approximately two-thirds by 2006. That doesn’t mean abuses no longer exist, but we may at least take comfort in the fact that welfare constitutes only about one percent of annual IRS revenue.

Some argue that, because of abuses, we should eliminate these programs altogether. But we must remember that the intended beneficiaries of most government aid are children. They cannot be held responsible for their parents’ abuses of the system.

While program abusers are indeed a problem, we must not allow their sins to harden our hearts toward the well-being of all people. When we insist upon massive reductions in government spending, and the resulting elimination of government programs, agencies, and regulations, we seek to restrict the government’s ability to fix problems and protect us from those who would do us harm, whether they be violent street gangs or greedy corporations.

4. Economic Growth 

For those who insist upon drastic reductions in taxes and government spending, their rallying cry is that lowering taxes, especially for the wealthy, benefits everyone, because it gives the wealthy more money to create jobs, and that helps economy.

However, tax cuts like these are only beneficial when the government fails to cut spending accordingly. For example, the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980’s helped the economy recover from recession, but that’s because the government failed to decrease spending despite the cuts, more than doubling the federal budget deficit from 32.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1981 (when Reagan took office) to 66.1% of GDP in 1993 (when his VP George H.W. Bush left office). Likewise, a decade later, George W. Bush combined tax cuts with lack of spending cuts to raise the deficit from 56.4% in 2000 to 83.4% in 2009 when he left office (Source: FY 2011 White House Budget).

Had the Reagan and Bush administrations cut spending to compensate for the decreased revenue from the tax cuts, the economy wouldn’t have fared as well, because nearly all government spending (except for foreign aid) creates jobs and income for Americans. Even if the government builds a bridge to nowhere, the money it spends on it pays American workers to build it and American companies to supply the materials, and they, in turn, pay their workers. Cuts to government spending, whether they be projects or entitlement payouts (like Social Security), cut people’s incomes, which cuts their spending, which hurts the economy.

As for job creation, the Reagan tax cuts/increased spending were effective, but the George W. Bush tax cuts of 2001-2003 failed. From the beginning to the end of his first term, Bush’s tax policies had created 0.0% job growth despite a growing population (source: Bureau of Labor Statistics). And by the end of his second term, unemployment numbers sky-rocketed as the economy collapsed into its worst recession in over 70 years. Bush’s job growth record was the worst for any president since Herbert Hoover. But Hoover took office just as a depression was about to hit, so he had an excuse. Whereas, George W. Bush inherited a good economy (the 2001-2002 dot-com recession only decreased GDP by 0.3%—one of the mildest recessions in U.S. history), and it took eight years of his economic policies to ruin it.

The lesson here is that cutting taxes hurts a good economy by giving the wealthy additional money to waste on short-selling stocks, gambling, vacationing overseas, and over-speculating on such things as real estate and oil futures, which in 2007-2008, helped crash the economy. The modern reality is that most wealthy people choose not to create jobs with their tax savings. They have much sexier things to do with their money.

Even when the economy has been good in recent times, however, it only seems to benefit wealthy. I’ve been a part of conversations with other working class people in which we had expressed concern over the fact that making a living had become more and more difficult, despite the news reports that the economy was in great shape. We’d been told that the increased wealth of the wealthy would trickle down to the working class, but it never happened.

As we learned in Ecclesiastes 5:10-11, the trickle-down effect inaccurately portrays the behavior of the wealthy. Wealthy businessmen see employees as an expense that is to be minimized, just like all other expenses. They pay their employees as little as possible and charge their customers as much as possible in order to maximize profits. That’s the way the corporations work, and that will never change. Rarely does a company raise wages or lower prices because their tax bill shrank. Never in the history of the world has the trickle-down effect improved the lives of a nation’s working poor.

All of this is not to say that economic growth is unimportant. We need a prosperous national economy in order to ensure quality living for all Americans. However, we must understand that economic prosperity isn’t everything. Sometimes, we have to sacrifice a little bit of economic gain in order to protect people from the harmful effects of the greed that fuels capitalism. We must balance economic well-being with the well-being of all people by compromising, not by embracing extremes. God achieved this balance in ancient Israel, and America achieved this balance in the late 1900’s. Let’s not allow this balance to slip away in the name of Republican Christianity.

5. Freedom 

A common argument of right-wing Republicans is that America is founded on freedom, and that those who impose taxation, along with government rules and agencies that prevent abuse of workers and consumers, oppose this freedom. They claim that the corporations and the wealthy should be free to do what they want and spend their money the way they see fit. It sounds like a good argument at first, that is, until we hold it up to the fourth Fundamental Freedom of the Christian Faith (from the Christian Freedom study)—the freedom from the harmful effects of each others sins.

Many right-wing Christians would love to eliminate tax-funded programs like OSHA so that corporations may be free to save money at the expense of employee health and safety. They’d eliminate the FAA so that airlines may be free to save money at the expense of the lives of flyers and employees. They’d eliminate the minimum wage so that corporations may be free to pay employees so little that they’d be unable to afford food and shelter. And, of course, they’d eliminate Social Security and Medicare so that the wealthy may be free from paying taxes while the working class elderly are left to die penniless or rely on their working class children to pay their expenses and health care bills while simultaneously trying to support families of their own.

What the right-wing Republicans and Libertarians really want is for the government to get out of the way so that the wealthy are free to oppress the masses while they hoard for themselves far more wealth than they could ever enjoy. That’s not true freedom. That’s Somalian freedom. Somalia is a country that effectively has no functioning government, so the cut-throat, unscrupulous, self-seekers profit at the expense of the innocent and the meek who have no freedom because they must hide and live in fear of the oppressors. Or, as I stated before, it’s satanic freedom, where people are free to promote their own interests at the expense of others.

However, in true freedom, the kind that God’s laws are designed to protect, all people are free from the harmful effects of the selfishness of others, so that all people can enjoy some quality of life. Why does God want this for all people? Because all people are made in His image and deserve better than being paid as little as the free market will allow.

We must not allow any of these Principles of Oppression to take precedence over God’s messages of mercy, because when it comes to economics, principles aren’t important—people are!

Beware of the Pharisees and the Sadducees

You might think, based upon my anti-Republican rhetoric, that I’m a life-long, loyal Democrat. Nothing could be further from the truth, because I’ve never been a Democrat. I realized at an early age that the left-wing Democrats wanted to ban all guns, abort unborn children, outlaw the eating of meat, legalize all drugs, protect the “rights” of criminals, create prison environments that fail to deter criminal behavior and that serve as fertile breeding grounds for gangs, promote a victim mentality among those able to help themselves, support frivolous lawsuits, and persecute Christians. That’s why I became a gung-ho Republican-at-heart in my early teens. Like millions of American Christians, I was attracted to the Republicans, because I was repulsed by the Democrats!

After registering as a Republican in my late teens, it only took a few years to realize that the enemies of God’s enemies were not God’s friends. As I followed Republican legislation, I noticed that it always supported the interests of the wealthy and powerful at everyone else’s expense. By the early 1990’s, I realized that Reaganomics had only succeeded in making the rich richer, not at improving the lives of the poor and working class, because the wealthy never did pass their excess wealth down to the workers and consumers as President Reagan had said they would. In 1992, I registered in Tennessee as an independent, and I remain independent ’til this day.

We must not kid ourselves into believing that when two sides oppose one another that one of them must be on the side of righteousness. Both sides can, and often do, represent evil. Imagine being in Poland in 1939, when both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia invaded. The Polish had no opportunity to choose their new leaders, but let’s imagine that they had. Who would you have voted for? The Communist-Russian Joseph Stalin, who represented the political left, or Nazi-German Adolf Hitler who represented the political right? To cast a vote for either would have left you with blood-stained hands, because both extremists represented evil. Hitler and Stalin were ideological adversaries, just like left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans are today, yet both sides opposed God’s will.

Similarly, in Jesus’ day the Pharisees and Sadducees were feuding religious parties. The Sadducees held only the first five books of the Bible to be the word of God and denied belief in the afterlife, while the Pharisees believed in the entire Old Testament and in the afterlife, too. Jesus also believed in the entire Old Testament and the afterlife. So did He support the Pharisees? No, He didn’t! In Matthew 16:6, “Jesus said to them [His disciples], ‘Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.’” He went on to explain that He opposed not their “yeast,” but their teachings.

Despite the fact that Jesus had more beliefs in common with the Pharisees than He did the Sadducees, He opposed both sides, because both sides opposed God’s will. To support either party would have been the equivalent of supporting that party’s oppression of others and its promotion of man-made religious teachings over those of the Bible. Jesus protected His disciples from making the mistake of believing that one of two opposing parties must align with righteousness.

The way I see it, Jesus is neither a Democrat nor a Republican (but Satan is a Libertarian). The Democrats sin by promoting individual freedom to the point where we do what we want with our bodies at the expense of and to the neglect of others, while the Republicans sin by promoting individual freedom to the point where we do what we want with our money at the expense of and to the neglect of others.

I don’t mean to say that we sin by belonging to either the Democrats or the Republicans, or by supporting capitalism or socialism. But I do mean to stress that we must not let these establishments teach us right and wrong. For us Christians, right and wrong must come from the Bible alone. God’s teachings must take precedence over those of our political parties, social groups, and even our nation. Those who claimed Jesus’ name during His ministry and the days of the early church did so because they believed Jesus’ teachings, and they obeyed His teachings above all else. Today many Christians call upon His name, but promote and obey teachings contrary to His, such as the promotion of the interests of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor. If we don’t believe and obey Jesus’ teachings (and the Old Testament teachings He supported), then we really don’t believe in Him.

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Copyright © 2009, 2010, 2011 by K. Scott Schaeffer

The Wisdom of Bishop John Shelby Spong

spong1For those seeking to experience Christianity in a new and vibrant way, Bishop John Shelby Spong offers fresh spiritual ideas. Over the past four decades, he has become one of the definitive voices for progressive Christianity.

He is a retired American bishop of the Episcopal Church, formerly the Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Bishop Spong is a liberal Christian theologian, a commentator  on religion, and an author.

Spong often speaks about the need for a fundamental rethinking of Christianity, including a move away from traditional doctrines and theism, in general.

Here are two videos from the “Future of the Progressive Church” conference, held at the Community Christian Church in Springfield, MO

First Lecture:

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Second Lecture:

Celebrating the Intersection of Faith and Reason