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)?