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)?   

Only The Suffering God Can Help

“God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.  He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. . . . Only the suffering God can help. . . . the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.”

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Flight Anxiety & Divine Providence (A Comparison of Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism)

Recent downtime in the Atlanta airport (Can you say, “Johnny Football”?) found me running my anxiety of flying through differing theological models of divine providence. Disappointingly, all three of the major models came up short when confronted with my neuroses.  😉

“God could (and might) have eternally predestined this plane to crash and could (and might) personally ensure its destruction.  There is no hope… In fact, God might be the one who ends up killing me.”

“God foreknows whether this plane will crash or not.  If it ends up crashing, God decided not to intervene.  This doesn’t make me feel much better… God knew about it and didn’t do anything!”

Open Theism:
“God doesn’t know whether the plane will crash or not and might not be able to intervene if it starts to.  Well, I guess I can’t blame God… but we’re still going to crash in a fiery ball of steel.”

Of course, as Jessica Parks reminded me via text before departure: “There’s always hope for the resurrection.”  Indeed, thank God for the resurrection of the dead!


The End of Time? – T.F. Torrance

I commented on Ann Jervis’ paper at SBL on “Christ and Time” a few days ago. In her paper, she explained how Christ connects time with life not death. Ultimately, death gives way to life and so there is no end of time, life is lived eternally “in Christ time.”

This week in reading T.F. Torrance’s Incarnation I found another interesting discussion of Christ’s relation to time. Torrance, in my reading, seems to argue for a similar conclusion as Jervis that time is an eternal reality. His argument is working from a different starting point, the incarnation, but he affirms that in Christ’s incarnation the eternal is now ‘in union with time.’ Torrance says, 

…The Christian faith pivots upon the fact that here in time we are confronted by the eternal in union with time…Everything in Christianity centres on the incarnation of the Son of God, an invasion of God among men and women in time, bringing and working out a salvation not only understandable by them in their own historical and human life and existence, but historically and concretely accessible to them on earth and in time, in the midst of their frailty, contingency, relativity, and sin. Whatever christology does…it stands or falls with the fact that here in our actual history and existence is the saviour God.

Torrance even goes so far as to connect God with time (offering an answer to the question asked of Jervis in the session). Torrance says, “The unity of eternity and time in the incarnation means that true time in all its finite reality is not swallowed up by eternity but eternally affirmed as reality even for God.”

One further note from Torrance, I really like how he captures the way we describe God’s activity on earth. He explains that many see it as a divine act in the created world (a view he uses) but he prefers to see it as ‘an eternal act in time.’ He says, It

…is not the perception of revelation divorced from history. Nor is it the perception of history by itself, divorced from revelation, but it is the way we are given within history to perceive God’s act in history, and that means that faith is the obedience of our minds to the mystery of Christ, who is God and man in the historical Jesus.

The connection of not only creator and created but eternity and time in our understanding of God is fascinating. Revelation as the eternal being joined with the temporal is a wonderful way to explore the mystery of God with us.

How many times is enough…

“Do it Again!”

As a daddy of three little boys (7,5,4), I here this every day. And yes at some point it does get old! Leave it to G.K. Chesterton to break it down for me…

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”