The Sermon on the Mount [and Barth]: Living the Obedient Life, Now or Later?

The Sermon on the Mount, so called, is one of the most recognizable pieces of scripture ever to be written; even pagans (well some) have heard of it. There are many ways into this sermon, many interpretations and frames of it; but since I am reading on how Karl Barth interpreted this section of scripture, we will focus on his ‘way in’. Indeed, Barth’s resonance with this area of holy writ is resonate with my own understanding of this passage; Barth, of course, offers a Christ-centric reading of the sermon, and he does so biblically theologically. In other words, Barth sees Jesus as the fulfillment, the New Moses, who went up Mount Sinai and received the Decalouge; and yet in the case of Christ, for Barth, Jesus is the subject and fulfillment of the Law, he is the embodiment and particular point of the Law. Christ is the only ‘human’ who had a chance to fulfill the dictates of the Law, for us; and now we are invited to echo Christ’s life as we have been united to his mediating gracious humanity by the Holy Spirit’s recreative and ‘unioning’ work in our lives (this is my gloss). Here is the account of Barth’s reading that A. Katherine Grieb provides:

Barth insists that the Sermon on the Mount, like any other biblical text, must be read in light of its context, that is, in a special connection with the theme of God’s reign as it has come in the person of Jesus Christ in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. This is as true of the Sermon on the Mount as it is of the other great discourses in Matthew. Now it is Jesus himself who defines the sphere in which he is present with those whom he calls. The order that constitutes the life of the people of God, for that is what the Sermon on the Mount is, as it repeats and confirms the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law, is now fulfilled by God in Christ for human salvation (II/2, 687). So even if the Sermon seems to be concerned with problems of human life (marriage, swearing, enemies, almsgiving, praying, and fasting), this is incidental and by way of illustration — which is why it has always proved impossible to construct a picture of the Christian life from these directions. The picture they offer is the picture of the One who gives these directions and of the one who receives them. The picture shows God’s reign, Jesus Christ, and the new human creature. They point, as the Ten Commandments point, to what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ (II/2, 688).

So Barth can say: “If the Ten Commandments state where [humanity] may and should stand before and with God, the Sermon on the Mount declares that [it] really has been placed there by God’s own deed. If the Ten Commandments are a preface, the Sermon on the Mount is in a sense a postscript (II/2, 688). The only question now is whether the church will live or not live in the fullness of life already granted to it. The Sermon on the Mount declares: “God has irrevocably and indissolubly set up the kingdom of [God’s] grace … which as such is superior to all other powers, to which, in spite of their resistance, they belong, and which they cannot help but serve” (688). [Katherine A Grieb, Chapter 6: “Living in Righteousness: Karl Barth and the Sermon on the Mount,102 in Thy Word Is Truth: Barth On Scripture, edited by George Hunsinger.]

So in contrast to something like my lullabies, those that I was weaned on as a dispensationalist exegete, Barth does not see the Sermon on the Mount as an annex only to be realized by the Jewish people in the coming millennial kingdom (a theme which Grieb also highlights in this, her chapter I have just quoted from); no, Barth sees the ethos and Logos (two loci that Grieb also highlights as she appropriates Aristotle’s ‘pathos, ethos, and Logos’ from Jarisov Pelikan’s application of these to Augustine’s, Chrysostom’s, and Luther’s interpretation of this ‘Sermon’) of the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus himself. So we can see the difference between something like the dispensational approach (or even the ‘Liberal’ approach), and Barth’s. Barth offers a highly realized notion and application of this sermon; because he sees the ideals of the Sermon already fulfilled, already completed in the person of Jesus Christ. The Sermon, then, isn’t something we are waiting for; the Sermon has already come, and it is preached everyday, afresh and anew as we live from and through the Spirit anointed humanity of Jesus Christ. We have been called to an Spirit inspired obedience that is truly counter cultural (and I mean counter church cultural in many ways). We (if we follow Barth on this) understand that this world has already been crucified to us, and us to the world (to borrow a Paulinism from Gal. 6); and so we don’t do what might be considered expedient, instead we stand on and in the obedience of Jesus Christ. This obedience is an eschatological obedience that breaks in on us every morning when we wake up; it is an obedience that is waiting for us with Spirit formed breath and life; it is obedience, like poetry, that has already been written, just waiting for us to read, act, and respond from. It is an obedience, the obedience of Christ, that has contradicted this world system and everything this world system believes is real (which is an illusion in light of the reality of Christ!).

We ought, then to live from the obedience of Jesus Christ, from his humanity for us — which is still for us, just read Hebrews 7:25 — we aren’t waiting for the Sermon to be fulfilled; the Sermon’s reality is in the New Humanity of which Jesus Christ is its first fruits.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. ~Colossians 2:6-8 (NIV)

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What Did Jesus Teach About Hell? Is it eternal, conscious, torment?

“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; . . . 46. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25.41, 46 (NRSV)

 Craig S. Keener comments on this pericope in his New Testament Background Commentary in this way:

25:41-45. Some Jewish traditions (like Qumran War Scroll) report that Belial (Satan) was created for the pit; destruction was not God’s original purpose for people (4 Ezra 8:59-60). In many Jewish traditions, the demons were fallen angels (cf. comment on 2 Pet. 2:4). Jewish tradition was divided on the duration of hell; this passage’s description of it as “eternal” was certainly not merely a concession to a universal image in Judaism.

25:46. Eternal life was promised to the righteous after their resurrection at the end of the age (Dan. 12:2). Some Jewish teachers believed that hell was temporary and that at the end some people would be burned up and others released; other Jewish teachers spoke as if hell were eternal. Jesus here sides with the latter group.[1]

This begs the question; what did Jesus believe about what has been labeled the eternal conscious torment doctrine of hell (the Traditional teaching)? According to Keener, and in this particular dominical teaching of Jesus; Jesus held to the belief that hell (or the after-life separated from participation with God through Christ [my gloss]) does indeed articulate that there is a literal hell that involves eternal conscious torment. As the quote from Keener also illustrates, the Jewish context in which Jesus taught as a Rabbi was not monolithic on this doctrine; it is just that Jesus appropriated and taught the strand that articulated that hell fits with what today would be called the traditional view.

In concert with this assessment, none other than The Evangelical Universalist, Gregory MacDonald (aka Robin Parry) holds that the dominical (Jesus’) teaching is consistent with Keener’s perspective; that is that Jesus taught that hell was eternal conscious torment. Note MacDonald,

[G]ehenna was a place of punishment and fire but beyond that was generally left unexplained. When we find Jesus drawing on the idea of Gehenna, we must remember that it was not a clearly worked out concept. Beyond its being a place of fiery punishment for the wicked, the details, if anyone wanted to fill them in, were up for grabs. That said, I think that it is quite clear that Jesus’ contemporaries would not have thought the he was a universalist of any variety. To the traditionalist this settles the case, but I think that there is more to be said. I want to argue, first of all, that none of Jesus’ recorded teachings about Gehenna explicitly affirm the notion that it was everlasting; and nothing Jesus is recorded to have said rules out the possibility that some or all of its inhabitants may at some point come to salvation. I am not trying to show that Jesus taught universalism nor that he taught that those in Gehenna could or would be saved, for he did neither. My aim is the much more modest one of showing that what he did teach does not formally contradict universalist claims. This, of course, does not provide any reason to suppose that a universalist interpretation of Gehenna is biblical without substantive additional reasons for embracing such an interpretation. My second task is to show that we do have such reasons.[2]

MacDonald helps reinforce Keener’s commentary, that indeed Jesus taught the Jewish tradition (amongst the many available, just as there are many available today for Christians—but not viable for most Christians) that there is a literal place in the life after life (to borrow Wright’s quip) known as hell; and that this will be a place that is characterized by final eternal conscious torment.

So this represents the dominical teaching; the teaching that Jesus taught. But this does not serve as a death knell for ‘Evangelical Universalists’; as MacDonald notes. For Jesus, in his context, the teaching that hell was eternal could very well have been “just” for his particular context. In other words, as MacDonald later contends, Jesus’ pronouncement on this topic could have been  to reinforce the severity of God’s judgment; and yet at the same time, not intending to be the last word on it. MacDonald writes:

[W]e should not suppose that, because Jesus did not explicitly teach universal salvation or explicitly repudiate the idea that many people would never experience salvation, universalism is an un-Christian idea incompatible with Jesus’ ministry. If later revelation leads in universalist directions, as I have argued it does, then we need to understand the ministry of Christ in that light. It is the whole canonical story that we examined in Chapters Two to Four that forms the broader theological context within which we must understand Jesus’ teachings about Gehenna, and it is that very context that serves to modify some of the understandings of it common in Jesus’ own day.[3]

For MacDonald, for Jesus not to teach universalism does not mitigate the fact that the whole scope and sweep of the canonical teaching does in fact teach a Christian universalism. We will have to redress this at another time.

Conclusion

The question that I have been seeking to answer through this short piece has been “What did Jesus believe and teach about the view of hell that involves eternal conscious torment; did he teach this view or not?” The result of some cursory (yet I think substantial) musing has been to conclude that Jesus did indeed teach that there is a literal place that has become known as ‘Hell’, and that hell is unfortunately characterized by eternal conscious torment.

This is an important point to establish because it places the burden on those who disagree to disagree with Jesus. Are there ways to do that, and still honor Jesus’ own teaching, and even his person? MacDonald believes that there are, and in fact he thinks he has (found the way).

There are other prominent foci (or focal points) to consider towards helping us understand how to place Jesus’ teaching, in the book of Matthew for example. In other words, there is a strong theological case to be made for a Christian universalism that attends to who God is as Triune Love, full of grace. If God is Love (and he is), then we have to interpret Jesus’ views and teaching on hell through that lens (the lens of the cross, the penultimate expression of his love … the ultimate being his resurrection). MacDonald’s contention to annex Jesus’ teaching to a particular situation he was addressing might have teeth in light of the theological argument; it might leave the door open for a Christian theological reification or classification of hell in ways that might favor something like MacDonald’s Evangelical Universalism. There might be hope. Maybe Jesus didn’t intend his teaching to offer the last word after all; on hell that is.

No matter what, in the end, the conclusion must be that Jesus did teach what some would call the Traditional view of hell as ‘eternal conscious torment’. How one places that, in its ‘universal scope’ is what still needs to be contended with (MacDonald has, I’m still working on it).

My personal conclusion, at the moment, is that Jesus’ teaching on hell should serve as the standard; I see it with ‘universal force’ and thus am not willing, as of yet, to annex it, or particularize it to his specific audience in the 1st century (which would be what MacDonald does, amongst others). I continue to hold to the trad teaching, but I also am willing to hold out that once we are present with the LORD in the consummation that he could surprise us in keeping with his life of grace and love.


[1] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 118-19.

[2] Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006), 144-45.

[3] Ibid, 149-50.

Hard To Believe, Grin and Bear It … The Cross That Is

I am currently reading through the Gospel of Matthew, and I wanted to pause a moment and reflect on a particular pericope. The passage is this:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 25. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 27. For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and WILL THEN REPAY EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS. `Matthew 16.24-27

I simply want to reflect upon this passage (i.e. so this is not an exegetical analysis or anything; instead, this is an exercise in relational reading with a theological twist).

First of all it seems that Jesus is setting the bar rather high, isn’t He? If I were to read this passage in isolation from the rest of Scripture’s teaching—if I were stranded on a desert island with only this pericope—I might think that my only hope for salvation and being a disciple of Jesus would be that if I was somehow able to discern what in fact losing my life for Jesus’ sake meant; and then actually losing it. Thankfully I have the rest of the context, and just prior know that Jesus just spoke of His cross, and how necessary it is for Him to accomplish His purpose. I then know that as a follower of Jesus I can only do what he has called me to do because He has done it first and even for me. In fact in verse 23 Jesus scolds Peter for not achieving what in our passage He says that all of his disciples must do; Peter failed, as I am sure each of us fail; daily! I think Jesus is setting the bar so high, the one that He calls us to in our passage, the one that the Apostle Peter himself failed to meet in the verse prior, that He is pushing us further into Him and His cross; in a sense saying that our cross is nothing without His cross. That we could never carry our own cross; if we try, we will fail like the Apostle Peter, and the cross will become something to avoid instead of something to bear. So Jesus, when He calls us to take up our crosses is calling us back to His cross.

Maybe what I just said softens what Jesus is saying too much. Maybe what He is saying is that in fact we had better lose everything, take up our crosses, and follow Him. If we don’t do this, whatever “this” is, we will fail to be His disciples; we will fail to be one of His saved ones. Maybe Jesus is saying that my cross is a certain code of moral habits that I need to perform daily in order to be one of His disciples. Maybe I need to stiffen my upper lip, and recognize that Jesus’ teachings are Hard To Believe. That if I really want to be a genuine follower of Jesus, that I will grin and bear it; the cross that is!