On my blog this week I posted about the relationship between annihilationism and cherem, here now slightly edited:
As many are aware, cherem was the command in various books of the OT for the Israelites to kill all living things within a conquered city, all men, women, children and livestock. Cherem was a form of sacrifice, a holocaust, a burnt offering to God.
[Note: holocaust means “burnt offering.”]
As we all know, the cherem texts are some of the most difficult texts in the bible. They make God look like a genocidal monster. Which brings me to the relationship between cherem and annihilationism.
As readers here know, annihilationism is the view that hell isn’t eternal conscious torment but is, rather, the destruction/annihilation of the wicked on Judgment Day. That is, the fire of God doesn’t torture/burn people in hell forever and ever. Rather, the fire of God consumes and destroys the wicked. The wicked cease to exist–that is their punishment–and don’t enjoy the blessings of eternal life.
While I do think annihilationism is a better view than eternal conscious torment, I have a few, pretty big, objections about annihilationism. And the biggest one is this:
Annihilationism is cherem.
And this isn’t hyperbole on my part. I’m not trying to provoke. Defenders of annihilationism themselves point to cherem in the OT as a model for how to understand God’s “consuming fire.”
Annihilationism is cherem. Annihilationism is holocaust.
And that’s why I recoil with a bit of horror at annihilationism. Really? I think. Holocaust is your view of God? The most monstrous texts in all of the bible are the texts you want to build your theology around?
For my part, I believe in the ultimate victory of God’s love–a love that will involve judgment and a moral reckoning. I take the hell passages very, very seriously. I also believe in holocaust.
But this holocaust is the holocaust the Christian mystics spoke about: The holocaust of God’s love. This is the purifying and refining fire of God, the holocaust of God’s love that consumes sin.
The practices of cherem were judged and rejected when the prophets began to reject the holocaust tradition. Or, rather, when the prophets began to radically reinterpret the burnt offering tradition. A reinterpretation that culminates in Jesus. God wants a holocaust of the heart. That is the burnt offering that God desires. That is the holocaust that God will bring upon us.
And besides, except when annis deny a general resurrection (which most don’t deny of course), even the Cherems couldn’t be annihilation in the sense required; so if they point to anything typologically they point to life beyond annihilation.
i.e. physical bodies (and soulish minds) annihilated but eventually resurrected == spirits annihilated but eventually resurrected.
Having been raised in an annihilation tradition (SDA) this hurts… Hurts because it is so right/spot on…
For a long time, as I was transitioning to Universalism from annihilationism, I was haunted by the story of Daniel and those very brave three friends of his. And even in my own tradition, they’ve seen this behavior of king Nebuchadnezzar as a model of “worship me – or I’ll burn you into oblivion.” Of course our God is nothing like king Neb!
Except… When push comes to shove (what is the origin of that phrase anyway?) that’s exactly what this view has God doing! But of course, it’s because we gave Him no other option. He could do no more. He must “let go” those who refuse to respond… And further, He has to have some way to dispose of the bodies it would seem.
So Richard, you are quite right it seems to me.
There is, of course, a way to embrace all the fire and destruction and punishment and destroy texts without eliminating the person absorbing this onslaught… And we know this intuitively don’t we? We say God loves the sinner, but not the sin. (Though even that phrase is not Universally loved)
Yet, we know it in our hearts when our own children embrace actions which we abhor: we eschew those actions – not they themselves… So why not also with God??
But still, annihilation is an improvement upon ECT hell I suppose… And so it remains enshrined in my denomination as dogma, and as truth.
I’ve never been able to take seriously the idea of the absolute snuffing out of humans—at every level of whatever a human is—as a punishment by God, because it never sounded like a usefully much better alternative to the OFB [the oldskool forever-burning] scenario, especially as a tool for “the spread of the good news.” I’ve always thought them almost equally bad ways to end up and I have only rather pathetic sob stories to show for the few times I ever did attempt to employ the threat of “hell” for “evangelistic” purposes.
Most of the Christians I know have been taught an almost Marcionite approach to the Old Testament, dismissing it as… well, old and outmoded and irrelevant, making it easy to justify ignoring it and explaining away whatever parts of it judged offensive or incomprehensible. So the best that ever comes out of difficult passages like the ḥērem texts is their use as a mine for allegories. In the circles in which I grew up, giants (like Goliath) were a metaphor for life’s challenges, both natural and, better yet, supernatural. (This has been difficult for a mythology buff like me, who’s always thought that giants are pretty neat.) The Canaanite nations, the Amalekites and the priests of Ba’al are all easy pickings as representations of demons, sin, addictions, diseases, generational/ancestral curses, people who we don’t get on well with at church or at work, whatever. Until a few years ago my mother is the only person I’d ever met who took these stories seriously enough as history to marvel that the Promised Land was attained, by and large, via a divinely sanctioned conquest of war and genocide. And it has been pointed out that the African and the American Holocausts on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as inside that ocean itself, were inspired at least in part by the fuel of Manifest Destiny doctrines hyped up by Biblical ḥērem rhetoric.
I raised the issue in a sort of Bible study group of friends once. All that ended up happening is that one of the dudes there said a prayer for me and for my apparently waning faith. Fair enough. He didn’t know that I’d first read this stuff (including the laws about captive war brides and such) by myself for myself when I was about ten years old as part of a personal project to read the Bible from cover to cover. So I’d had some two decades since then to think it over, having by then read through the whole of “the Good Book” 2 more times since those childhood days. And back in those days, at the Christian school I went to, the explanation I was offered for the mandate to slay even the children and infants (I myself was just a kid at the time) was that those kids would be going to a better place, whereas if they’d’ve been allowed to grow up they likely would’ve become just as wicked as their parents. And I accepted this. It was the best—the only—reasoning with which I was presented to temper the stark harshness of the stories just as they otherwise stood, wantonly free of the shackles of commentary or sanitisation.
A part of me calcified and, in hindsight, I believe, this made it easier to take it for granted that people, very many of them, would burn in hell forever and ever as part of God’s just plan for his creatures. It was comforting, however, to know that some “good” had come from the near-extermination of the Canaanites and the Amalekites: the children’s souls had been inadvertently saved! It’s only after having realised that this was essentially one of the reasons for which the Amorites were being described as twisted (iniquitous) that I saw the connection between this explanation and the practices of some of these Canaanites (and later of Israel herself as well). Canaan and Israel also thought that the salvation of their children came about by sacrificing them to God (their conception of God, i.e.).
I suppose that the major difference between the slaughter of the Canaanite and Amalekite minors in Scenario 1 and what the surviving Canaanites and the Israelites later did to their own children in Scenario 2 is that the former did not kill their victims by burning them alive on altars like the latter did. I now can see an obvious correlation between the cults of Molech and the Ba’als in Scenario 2 and the substitutionary atonement theories that I grew up on. In the former, babies apparently got fried alive on giant metal statues which literally swallowed the gods’ offerings into their mouths. In the latter, God sacrificed his own son to himself in order to appease his holy wrath against us sinners so that he wouldn’t have to fry us alive either “mercifully” for an indefinite period of time before extinguishing the spark of life within us, or forever and ever. Except it mostly didn’t work. Most of the nation which God was going to save from its sins by sending his servant to suffer on its behalf didn’t and still doesn’t believe in God’s servant. Worse yet for the world at large. God is still peeved and there will literally be Hell to pay at the glorious and ghastly end of all things. Here God will do exactly the same thing to his lost and wayward children (or his creatures, for those of us who deny God’s fatherhood of all) that he condemned Canaan and Israel for doing to their sons and daughters.
The most basic imbalance I’ve noticed in this is that the metaphor of fire was never employed in a literal sense upon the Lamb of God. In contradistinction to the Noachic, Abrahamic, Mosaic and Jobian animal sacrifices, Jesus’ body never literally burned in fire on account of anyone’s sin. Unless we consider the theory I’ve only recently come across: that Jesus’ soul or spirit actually endured torments in hellfire during the time between his death and resurrection as part of the divine payment plan. (I wonder how far one can push this. Are all those bulls, sheep and goats in hell too, still burning there for the sins of Noah and his descendants?)
This perhaps is founded, at least partly, by a tradition based on the mistranslation of 2 Thessalonian 1:7-10 (esp. v. 9) which has ended up in so many Bibles and frames “hell” as a place outside or away from the presence of God, where he doesn’t have to witness the worst part of the dirty work getting done. (Indeed if such a place could in fact exist—a place where even God himself ceases To Be—it must be the most horrific space there is.)
Before having happened upon perspectives like this, I had always understood the violence involved in Jesus’ death to be somehow necessary, not because God himself required it but because humanity’s inhumanity demands it, and that God (and Jesus himself, in fact, by his own admission in John 10:17-18) allowed it in order for the stripes inflicted by wicked men to heal those same men. Now I’ve often heard that Jesus died for everyone’s sins, even for those who lived before his time but there’s been major cognitive dissonance when that gets qualified by the caveat that most of those for whom he died, especially from before his time, will still end up on the frying pan for a spell or forever.
I’m presently excited, however, about what I think is the actual good news: that Jesus dying for someone, whoever and whenever that person might be, automatically means him saving that someone from destruction in the next life just as much as from the decay engendered by sin in this world. For all the humans and the Nephilim (for those of us who are eager to assume that the Nephilim were somehow only part human) who perished in the Flood, for the menfolk of Shechem who were butchered by Simeon and Levi, and for the Canaanites and the Amalekites, this means that they won’t get annihilated all over again because once wasn’t enough already.
Hebrews 10:5-10 would appear to agree with this, together with other apostolic writings in which the enmity between Israel and her enemies is what gets annihilated, Christ himself is the unbreakable bond of peace among them (Ephesians 2) and debt to God through the law is abolished (Colossians 2:13-14) so that death gets retrenched (2 Timothy 2:8-11).
I currently have no better way of explaining the Bible’s ḥērem accounts other than to perceive Jesus’ death as God’s absorption of all of the world’s violence—whether inflicted by Godkind or by humankind—into himself, because he was the only one that could; and having done that, it was finished.