Following the publication of Rob Bells' Love Wins: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (Harper Collins 2011), there has been quite a lot of debate - or perhaps rather, polarized exchange - about "hell" over that last couple of years, especially within the blogosphere. Andrew Perriman is a consummate blogger (www.postost.net). This publication is a collection of Perriman's blog posts on the subject. It is immediately obvious that this is not a written-for-purpose book, rather a compendium of forty eight 'blog essays' grouped under the the headings General Discussion; The Recent Debate About Hell; The "Hell" Texts and Summary" and "Life After Death". These are gathered together with only minor changes to their original format and are compelling and engaging, if occasionally untidy and sometimes repetitive - as is the nature of blog conversations. They retain the dynamic sense of the author's extrovert 'thinking it out aloud', but maintain a high standard of accuracy and coherence.
Perriman argues for a radical revision of the evangelical understanding not only of hell, but also of necessity, heaven, on the basis of a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament. Perriman builds upon the narrative-historical reading championed by NT Wright and popularized by emergent authors such as Brian McLaren. It is an approach that forces a rethink of some traditional assumptions, not least the narrative of punishment and reward, which is articulated as forming the integral part of the story of the people of God, as it passed through the long and painful transition from national Israel under the Law, to a cosmopolitan, empire-wide community under Jesus.
A narrative-historical reading takes the premise that if we are to understand what Jesus and the authors of the New Testament meant when they spoke about the wrath of God, or judgement, or Gehenna, we need to read historically and contextually, rather than theologically and abstractly. We have to keep in mind the question: How does the theological content of the New Testament work within its own narrative-historical setting? How is the prophetic Jesus-community making sense of its place in the lived story? What circumstances are they threatened by? What stories are they remembering?
Perriman's exegesis is impressive and detailed. It is hard in this brief review to do justice to its wide ranging engagement with scripture. In a nutshell, Perriman argues, convincingly in the reviewers opinion, that in Jesus' teaching, the Greek word gehenna, which is usually erroneously translated "hell", signifies not a general "place" of post-mortem punishment, but rather represents the out working of the divine punishment of Jerusalem by means of military invasion. The argument is straightforward: Jesus believed that in the absence of national repentance (my emphasis) his people faced the destruction of war (cf. Matthew 22:7; Luke 21:20). Jeremiah warned the inhabitants of Jerusalem that because of the evil they had done in the sight of The Lord they would fall by the sword when the Babylonians invaded and the bodies of the dead would be thrown into the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom (Jer. 7:32-34; 119:10-11). Josephus later describes how during the Roman siege, the Jews were compelled to throw the dead over the walls of the city into the surrounding valleys for lack of space to bury them. Perriman argues that it seems highly likely that Jesus intended to make the same point. Indeed Tom Wright suggests a similar understanding in Jesus and the Victory of God (454-55). "Hell" or "Gehenna" therefore needs to be understood in the context of temporal, historical, judgement against Jerusalem, not a final metaphysical judgement of all humanity. The eschatological horizon being imminent, not 'end of the world', nor 'eternal' in scope and implication.
Perriman argues that eschatology is not so much the "study of last thing", but has primary reference to prophecies of decisive, theologically significant historical events in the foreseeable future. From the perspective of the New Testament this means essentially the two horizons of the Jewish War and the victory of the persecuted church over Roman pagan imperialism. This does not however preclude the glimpse of a third eschatological horizon, which is the final renewal of heaven and earth as the climax to the constant striving throughout the narrative of the people of God, to embody and represent in the world the possibility of creation made new, in which the Creator God and not sin and evil, has the last word.
"Hell" then it is argued, is not a "place" of eternal conscious torment. Rather it stands for the (horrible) temporal judgement that was to fall on Jerusalem through the agency of the Roman army, from which, through suffering, those who followed the way of Jesus, the way of peace and not of violent national uprising, would be rescued and vindicated.
And so to heaven. Perriman thesis is that the fundamental problem addressed all the way throughout the biblical meta-narrative is not: How are people to get to heaven? (and, by implication escape hell), but: How is God to live in the midst of his creation?
Perriman, somewhat whimsically, offers a one sentence summary of the Gospel narrative:
'The long conflict between the one true creator God and the pagan nations, culminating in the victory of Christlike communities over Rome, has fundamentally transformed the nature and status of his "new creation" people in the world'.
If you enjoy having your paradigms challenged and changed, you will gain much in reading this compendium of carefully crafted blog articles.
James Mercer is the Vicar of All Saints' Harrow Weald and on the Leadership Team of Fulcrum
Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective Andrew Perriman P.OST, 2012 ISBN-13: 978-1479356065
James Mercer is the Associate Minister within the Benefice of St Aldhelm, Purbeck.