N.T. Wright on Matthew 10:28 – Satan or God?

An important question: who is Jesus referring to in Matthew 10:28 – God or Satan?

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your heard are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

As I surveyed my classes today (we are studying the Gospel of Matthew), a good 90% of my evangelical students quickly declared that Jesus was referring to God.  The small handful of students who suggested that the reference was to Satan were then pleased to know that they were in the company of none other than Tom Wright.

Wright states the following in JVOG:

“Some have seen ‘the one who can cast into Gehenna (from Luke’s wording of this passage) as YHWH, but this is unrealistic.  Jesus did not, to be sure, perceive Israel’s god as a kindly liberal godfather who would never hurt a fly, let alone send anyone to Gehenna. But again and again – not least in the very next verse of this paragraph – Israel’s god is portrayed as the creator and sustainer, one who can be lovingly trusted in all circumstances, not one who waits with a large stick to beat anyone who steps out of line. Rather, here we have a redefinition of the battle in terms of the identification of the real enemy. The one who can kill the body is the imagined enemy, Rome. Who then is the real enemy? Surely not Israel’s own god. The real enemy is the accuser, the satan.”

and discusses this passage in his Matthew For Everyone commentary by saying:

“Why would Jesus tell his followers not to be afraid, then to be afraid, then not to be afraid again, all in the space of a few sentences?

Jesus believed that Israel was faced in his day by enemies at two quite different levels. There were the obvious ones: Rome, Herod, and their underlings. They were the ones who had the power to kill the body. But there were other, darker enemies, who had the power to kill the soul as well: enemies who were battling for that soul even now, during Jesus’ ministry, and who were using the more obvious enemies as cover. Actually, it’s even worse than that. The demonic powers that are greedy for the soul of God’s people are using their desire for justice and vengeance as the bait on the hook. They people of light are never more at risk than when they are lured into fighting the darkness with more darkness. That is the road straight to the smoldering rubbish-tip, to Gehenna, and Jesus wants his followers to be well aware of it. This is what you should be afraid of.  

At the same time, to balance that fear – and indeed to outweigh it altogether – we have one of Jesus’ most striking promises about the detailed love and care of God, not only for every one of his creatures, but for every hair on their head.

It’s important to be clear at this point. Some people think that when Jesus urges us to fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell, he is referring to God himself. But the point here is the opposite. God is the one we do not have to fear. Indeed, he is the one we can trust with our lives, our souls, our bodies, everything.”  

As far as I can tell, not many other interpreters agree with Wright besides Ben Witherington III (see this post).  I can understand the exegetical argument for seeing God as the reference: “Rather than worrying about the limited power of the Roman/Jewish authorities, we should worry about the unlimited power of God, who loves us and desires us to follow him but will disown us if we are unfaithful [see v. 32-33].”  However, I do worry that this interpretation is also (whether explicitly or not) contingent on foreign assumptions outside of the text [such as spiritual hierarchy and the inner-workings of hell].

I think Wright makes cogent points as well: his interpretation is consistent with the immediate literary context [Beelzebub is mentioned in previous pericope (v. 25), the Synoptics do portray Jesus as identifying Satan as the real enemy behind Rome, and Jesus consistently describes the Father in more “flattering” terms].  Likewise, the progression of commands could be seen as fairly awkward or confusing if Jesus is referring to God: “Don’t fear murder from Roman/Jewish leaders. Do fear God who can murder you more completely. But don’t be afraid because God loves you and will take care of you.” Which is it? Should the disciples be afraid of God because he can destroy them in hell or should they not be afraid because he intimately loves and cares for them?

I’m still not sure what I think is the best exegetical decision.  But I often worry about the evangelical tendency to reduce all actions/characteristics to God (and effectively ignore the free agency of persons working against God’s will).  My fear is this:

What are the consequences if we mistakenly attribute characteristics/actions to God that are meant to be given to Satan and the Powers?

There seems to be a knee-jerk interpretive tendency in evangelicalism to eliminate any other genuine wills/agencies in creation. I think this is a reflection of the fact that there resides deep in the conscience of evangelicals a haunting fear of dualism (positing a cosmic struggle between equal gods of good and evil). However you slice it, though, the story of the gospels (and indeed the entire canon) makes no sense outside of some sort of legitimate and genuine struggle between God and the forces of evil.  We must be careful that in our efforts to avoid dualism (an effort I heartily affirm), we do not attribute characteristics/actions to God that should more properly be attributed to Satan.  This is a problem that at least goes back to the oral/written tradition of David’s census (cf. 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21) and continues to this day (see the different interpretations of “natural disasters” such as tornadoes or disease between reformed and arminian/open theist camps) with various texts [cf. 2 Cor. 4:4].

Obviously, the devil is in the (exegetical) details (no pun intended). So let’s start with Matthew 10:28. What do you think?

 Is Jesus referring to God or Satan as the one who can “destroy both soul and body in hell” (and why)?   

14 thoughts on “N.T. Wright on Matthew 10:28 – Satan or God?

  1. For a number of reasons, I have never been convinced by Wright’s argument on this point. I think (Matthew’s) Jesus is referring to God in this text (and that the same is true for Luke’s Jesus). For one, the juxtaposition of God as loving father and God as judge is hardly restricted to this passage. Furthermore, to me it seems like a rather strange idea that Jesus would actively exhort people to fear Satan and attribute such power to Satan, whereas the exhortation to fear God is widespread in various Jewish texts. Are there other Jewish texts or early Christian texts that actively EXHORT people to fear Satan? If there are, I think that this would strengthen Wright’s argument. Finally, does Wright also think that Satan is in view in Matthew 5 where there is no hint of Satan in the context? See 5:29 “And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 “And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell. Ok. I had better get back to inserting Greek characters into my most recent translation. Thanks for raising a good question here! And apologies if I’ve been too argumentative in my tone…

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    1. I would have to disagree with you in your lack of fear of Satan. Yes, God is the creator who controls this universe. However I think it would be silly to not fear Satan. Satan is a spiritual being that exists in REAL life. He is present in this Earth and constantly is trying to steer Man away from God which for a Christian is one of the things that I would be most fearful about. And to address your other statement: “it seems like a rather strange idea that Jesus would actively exhort people to fear Satan and attribute such power to Satan”. You have to realize that Satan was an angel with all of the attributes that come with that position. Once he fell those powers weren’t just stripped away from him in some kind of cosmic court hearing. He retained all of his attributes and powers. I would think it wise to fear any spiritual being. Fear being respect and knowing the potential that each and every spiritual being has.

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      1. I think Satan is definitely a pretty menacing (though weakened/defeated) figure in the Gospels. There’s NT precedent for warning statements like this: 1 Peter 5:8. Again, I am sometimes worried that we are so concerned with avoiding dualism that we cannot make the same statements that the NT does.

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    2. Wayne (correct?),
      Thanks for your comment. Not too argumentative at all! I appreciate your engagement with the question!

      I def. think that Luke’s context of this passage lends itself easier to reading “God” as the reference.

      I also agree that the “fear of YHWH” tradition is a plausible Jewish background to the exhortation. As to other texts about fearing Satan, I can’t think of any Second-Temple texts off the top of my head (although it wouldn’t surprise me with the rise of apocalyptic literature). As for early Christian texts, the strongest I can think of is 1 Peter 5:8.

      Not sure what Wright would say about Matthew 5, I’d guess that he doesn’t see a reference there. The emphasis of that warning does not appear to be on the agent which throws into hell, simply on the result. It might be worth noting that Wright’s interpretation of Gehenna is probably a key part of his interpretation. As you can see in his Matthew for Everyone, it almost seems like he interprets the general idea of “soul being destroyed in Gehenna” as adopting a violent-Kingdom stance (which is satanic) which will lead to being destroyed in Gehenna by the Romans (70 A.D.).

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  2. I’m curious as to the meaning of the word “fear” in this context (fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell) as compared to it’s use in “Fear not, therefore…” I don’t know Greek, but I do know that sometimes two different words with different meanings sometimes get translated into the same English word and nuance is lost. Does anyone know if these are the same words in Greek? I’ve always understood “fearing” God not to be the same as “being afraid of” him.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. All three occurrences (“fear not” and “fear” in v.28 and “fear not” in v. 31) are actually the same word (and same exact form) – phobeisthe. The only difference is that the first occurrence in v. 28 and the word in v. 31 are preceded by a negative particle.

      I think there may be something to a Jewish background behind the command to “fear” – something in line with “fear of the Lord” (which I would agree does not perhaps mean the same thing as “being afraid” always connotes). However, clearly to “be afraid” of people who can kill the body is actual, negative fear. Perhaps it is a play on words?

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  3. Matt10.28 tells us to fear God – He is the only one with the power and authority to cast into hell.
    Shouldn’t we differentiate between fearing God (good) and fearing punishment (bad)? We should fear God, because this keeps us from doing the things that will land us in hell – following the flesh etc (there are many fearful scriptures), and spur us onto doing the things that please God. If we do this we will have no cause to fear punishment. I think this is the outcome of being perfected in love that 1Jn4.18 talks about, that will cast out all fear (of punishment).

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      1. I think scripture tells us we are to be motivated by both love and fear: certainly love (eg 1jn4.19); also fear (eg 2cor5.9-11)

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  4. Which JVOG is this quote from? Do you know if Wright addresses his view on this issue elsewhere? I think it’s an interesting question, and there definitely seem to be negative implications in interpreting this passage wrong. Just trying to be sure I understand Wright’s position as completely as possible. Though as of now I disagree with him. We’re told many times in the Bible to fear God and how that’s a positive thing to do. Nowhere else, to my knowledge, are we instructed to fear the dark forces…that alone doesn’t make Wright’s position wrong, but it seems to place his argument on the weaker ground.

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  5. i always remember that it is God,i am considering in questions being addressed.Satan or man,can only do what God allows them to do.they are limited,God is not.Satan can deceive us and tempt us,but he cannot send anyone to hell.Our bodies can be destroyed or killed,because of the Fall,but ONLY God can give or take away life.Whatever happens now, is temporary, that is why Jesus said “do not fear…” because if you are a believer, you should know that He is greater than he(satan),who is in the world. It is God that has the power to save your soul,and to power to send your soul to hell. So it is Him,that you need to fear. Whatever God allows remember that is according to His will and purpose.(Romans 8:28). If satan could kill anyone by his own strength,he would kill us all.

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