Divine Violence in Jesus’ Teachings

For people looking to the Bible as an authority for their religious beliefs, its contrary voices are an obstacle. In order to make sense of the conflicting ideas throughout the Bible, readers form ‘systems’ that give them overarching guidelines on how to harmonize everything. This is called ‘systematic theology’. And to impose a systematic framework of any kind on a collection of sixty-plus books is necessarily going to require bending, breaking, or discarding those texts which are contrary to that system. Readers start with their conclusion and filter out evidence that doesn’t conform.

Many progressive Christians today insist a pacifist ethic and universalist eschatology can be found in the Bible, and they freely admit this means they must prioritize some parts of the Bible over the rest. They impose a systematic framework labeled ‘Jesus’ over the Bible. Bending, breaking, and dismissing parts of the Bible that are inconsistent with pacifism and universalism is justified, they believe, because Jesus is the new, better, clearer revelation of who God is and what he is like. Those other parts of the Bible couldn’t see God clearly enough, so of course they fell short. This leads to all sorts of special pleading when the ‘new’ still looks like the old, such as divine violence seen in the Letter of Judah or the Book of Revelation.

Unfortunately, as necessary as it is for Christians to advocate peace, respect, and a bright hope for the future, there is a serious problem with the framework they depend on: Jesus himself teaches that God will execute terrible violence. This cannot be, progressive Christians insist. In direct consequence, the systematic framework devised by Jesus’ followers is used to filter out the parts of Jesus’ message they find inconsistent with a pacifistic universalism. Greek words are reinterpreted. Parables with severe messages have no basis in reality. Condemnations are merely hyperbolic. All manner of special pleading takes place to rescue Jesus from those who find divine violence in his teachings.

The framework labeled ‘Jesus’ takes priority over the actual Jesus.

Biblical texts must be interpreted contextually, not systematically. They are best understood when held in the light of their time, place, language, and social movement. And when the biblical texts containing Jesus’ teachings are held to this same standard, the results are not favorable. While I think it is clear Jesus expected his followers to maintain a pacifistic ethic, divine violence — that is, violence against humanity that originates with God — is integral to his eschatology.

Below, I will survey Jesus’ eschatology in four layers: Mark, Q (material in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark), M (material unique to Matthew), and L (material unique to Luke).

Before we begin, we should lay out the setting of the early first century AD. The Torah is Israel’s law code and covenant with God, and it purports to describe God-mandated punishments, including the death penalty. Biblical prophets claimed God directed violence, both non-fatal and fatal, against people and nations. Apocalypticism rose up in the wake of the Maccabean Revolt, and they believed God would violently destroy their enemies, possibly after raising all humanity from the dead first. By the first century apocalyptic expectations are common, thoughts of violent revolution are stirring, and sectarian movements are growing.

Then Jesus kicks off his career.

Divine Violence in Mark

Eschatology of punishment is scant in Mark compared to the other Synoptic Gospels.

Mark 3.28-29 has Jesus say that blasphemy against the holy spirit — attributing miracles from God to the satan — is an ‘eternal sin’, and the guilty will ‘never have forgiveness’. A penalty is not described, but one is implied.

Mark 8.34-9.1 shows Jesus predict the arrival of the son of man within his contemporaries’ lifetime, saying ‘this adulterous and sinful generation’ will be ‘ashamed’ when he appears, with the implication they will ‘forfeit their life’ because they did not follow Jesus’ teachings.

Mark 9.9-13 indicates that Jesus believed the prophecy about Elijah from Mal 4.5-6 had been fulfilled. The ending to that prophecy suggests that if Elijah’s mission fails, God will punish Israel by ‘strik[ing] the land with a curse’. When Jesus claims that ‘Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him’, he may be implying that Elijah’s mission indeed failed and so that divine punishment was near.

Mark 9.43-48 says people would be better off maiming their bodies than to continue using those parts of their body to sin. This is the first point where Jesus mentions Gehenna, misleadingly translated as ‘hell’.

‘If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Gehenna, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.’

This passage has a lot to unpack.

‘Unquenchable fire’ is a common idiom in the Hebrew Bible for national disaster orchestrated by God, and Isa 66.24 mentions this fire alongside the ‘worm that never dies’. Gehenna is the Greek transliteration of Hebrew Ge-Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom, which was located just outside of Jerusalem and is mentioned throughout the Hebrew Bible. Jeremiah dramatized the divinely-mandated destruction of Jerusalem in this valley, calling it ‘the Valley of Slaughter’ (Jer 19). Interpretive Aramaic translations of the Hebrew scriptures — called targums — insert references to the Valley of Hinnom, frequently associating it with death and punishment for violating the Torah. Targum Isa 66.24 identifies Gehenna as the location of the ‘unquenchable fire’ and the ‘worm that never dies’.

The duration of punishment in Gehenna varied widely depending on the source. Targum Isa 65.5-6 says Gehenna will bring a ‘second death’. Targum Deut 33.6 identifies the ‘second death’ as an irreversible punishment following the resurrection, while Targum Jer 51.39,57 identifies it as exclusion from the resurrection entirely. Targum Isa 22.14 and 65.15 follow the first view, and state that God himself will be the one who carries out the execution. Some rabbis believed punishment in Gehenna would range from seven weeks to twelve months before giving way to paradise, while some taught certain people would remain there forever, and yet others believed it was a place of total annihilation. Fourth Ezra 7.36ff teaches that most of humanity will be extinguished by the torments of Gehenna.

Jesus’ threat of Gehenna cannot here be taken in any direction with certainty, but his wording suggests his familiarity with the same tradition behind Targum Isaiah, and hence that his idea of Gehenna is one of endless death.

Mark 11.15-19 shows Jesus explode in anger at the temple in Jerusalem. It has long been recognized that this outburst is sandwiched within Mark 11.12-14 and 11.20-25, where Jesus curses a fig tree for failing to produce fruit (out of season) and the fig tree dies, understood to be prophetic drama implying the temple will be destroyed at God’s behest.

Mark 12.1-12 contains a parable Jesus directs to ‘the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders’ of Jerusalem (11.27). In this story, a vineyard’s owner leases the vineyard to caretakers. The caretakers then murder the owner’s slaves and son. The owner, Jesus says, will ‘destroy’ the caretakers. (Or, he will ‘wretchfully destroy the wretches’, in Matthew’s version.) The religious leaders ‘realized that he had told this parable against them’. The symbolism of the parable is extremely obvious: the vineyard’s owner stands for God, the slaves are people who have been persecuted for serving God, and the son who is sent last of all and is killed stands for Jesus. The result is a parable where God is clearly the executioner of violence against Jerusalem’s religious elite.

Mark 12.38-40 briefly rebukes Jerusalem’s scribes, saying ‘they will receive the greater condemnation’. Punishment varies in severity.

Mark 13 is a passage called the Olivet Discourse. It begins with the disciples lauding the beauty of Jerusalem’s temple, to which Jesus claims the temple will be destroyed. His disciples ask him when this will occur, which prompts Jesus to predict various signs that will precede the temple’s destruction. The prophecy climaxes with Daniel’s abomination of desolation (presumably the time when the temple will be destroyed) and great suffering of the Judean people. Finally, the eschaton arrives with the appearance of the son of man and his angels, which Jesus again says will occur before his contemporaries have all passed away.

The prophecy closely adheres to an apocalyptic format seen in the likes of Daniel, 1 Enoch, or 4 Ezra: watch for these signs, they signal this specific crisis, then the end will happen. The premise of such apocalyptic predictions is that these events were determined by God eons ago, which is how the prophet is able to know what to predict with such clarity in the first place. Because God has predetermined the eschaton, and the violence that precedes it, he is ultimately its cause.

Divine Violence in Q

Luke 3.7-9 (parallel in Matt 3.7-12) has John the baptist rebuke the crowds who come to him as a ‘brood of vipers’ trying to ‘flee from the coming wrath’. He borrows from condemnatory messages in Jer 21.24 and Ezek 33.24, and warns about the ‘unquenchable fire’.

Luke 6.46-49 (Matt 7.24-27) has a parable similar to Ezek 13.8-16, a prophecy of God in which God likens his ‘wrath’ against Jerusalem to a violent storm that destroys a house.

Luke 10.2-15 (Matt 10.15; 11.20-24) has Jesus declare that the day of judgment ‘will be more tolerable for Sodom’ than for towns that reject the Gospel. Jesus here not only affirms the annihilation of Sodom in Gen 19 was an act of God, but that a worse fate waits for those who turn away his followers. He furthers says the towns Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum will be ‘brought down to Hades’.

Luke 11.47-51, Jesus says his contemporaries will ‘charged with the blood of all the prophets’, suggestive of divine punishment. Matt 23.29-36 expands the accusation, questioning whether the ‘brood of vipers’ will be able to ‘escape being sentenced to Gehenna’.

Luke 12.4-9, though containing a message discouraging fear of God, yet says God has authority to ‘kill’ and then ‘throw into Gehenna’, implying this is the fate of any who deny Jesus. The version in Matt 10.26-33 says God ‘can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna’, borrowing from Isa 10.18, a passage in which God orchestrates the destruction of Assyria for threatening Judah.

Luke 12.42-46 tells a parable of a master who finds one of his slaves abusing others under his charge. The master ‘will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know’, suggesting to readers that the master is a symbol for Jesus at his second coming. The master returns and ‘cuts to pieces’ the abusive slave. Matt 24.45-51 places this parable after the Olivet Discourse, stressing the identification of Jesus as the returning master, who will ‘cut [the abusive slave] to pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’.

Luke 13.24-27 takes the teaching of the ‘narrow door’ and says a time will come when the door is shut for good. Matt 25.1-13 tells this teaching in the form of a parable, and has it follow the previous parable after the Olivet Discourse, indicating that one’s place at the judgment is final.

Luke 13.28-30 (Matt 8.11-12) says ‘there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ at the arrival of the kingdom, and sinners will be ‘thrown out’ into the ‘outer darkness’.

Luke 14.16-24 has a parable of a ruler inviting people to a feast, but everyone he invites declines. The ruler decides to gather others, vowing that none of the people originally invited will be allowed to the feast. The version in Matthew 22.1-10 is right after the parable of the vineyard, so that ‘the chief priests and Pharisees’ are identified as the guilty party. In this version, the invitees kill the messengers, so the ruler ‘destroyed those murderers and burnt their city’. Following the symbolism of the Mark 12 parable, the message here is how God orchestrated Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70.

Luke 17.22-37 has Jesus compare the judgment the son of man brings to how God destroyed everyone on earth except Noah’s family, or how God destroyed everyone in Sodom except Lot’s family. For Jesus to invoke those stories to describe how the son of man’s judgment will unfold is one of the clearest exhibitions of divine violence in Jesus’ teaching.

Luke 19.12-26, Jesus delivers another parable, of a ruler who returns to his slaves at an unexpected time and punishes the one who failed in his duties. Matt 25.14-30, embedded in the end-times focused block of Matt 24-25, once more stresses the master’s real identity as God or Jesus by making the punishment explicitly eschatological: the ruler commands the slave to be thrown into the ‘outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’.

Divine Violence in M

Matt 5.21-22 again warns of ‘the fire of Gehenna’.

Matt 13.24-30 contains a parable, in which Jesus describes a field of wheat that is sabotaged by its owner’s enemy, who plants weeds throughout it. The owner instructs his slaves to wait until the harvest, at which time they will pull the weeds and burn them. Jesus interprets the parable in 13.36-43 that the weeds are evil people, the harvest is when the son of man will finally appear with his angels, and the burning of the weeds is when the son of man commands the evil people to be burned in ‘the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’. Another parable in Matt 13.47-50 happens the same way, and even concludes with an identical warning.

The parable of the feast in Matt 22.1-10 is extended in 22.11-14: when a man shows up to the wedding without the appropriate attire, the king orders his punishment. The wording used in Matt 22.13 is nearly identical to Greek fragments of 1 Enoch 10.4-5 from Codex Gizeh.

And he said to Raphael: ‘Bind [δησον] Azael feet and hands [ποσιν και χερσιν], and throw him into the darkness [βαλε αυτον εις το σκοτος].’
Then the king said to the slaves, ‘Bind [δησαντες] him feet and hands [ποδας και χειρας]. Throw him out into the darkness [εκβαλετε αυτον εις το σκοτος] outside.’

Azael is bound up, and the other fallen angels are likewise imprisoned within the earth. This punishment lasts indefinitely until they are finally thrown into the fire in the final judgment; this ‘abyss of fire’ is ‘torture’ that will endure ‘forever’ (1 En 10.11-14). The full Book of Enoch is a composite work, written in stages over several centuries, but its ideas of final judgment are that it is either eternal torment or annihilation. Jesus used the same language as 1 En 10.4-5 and doesn’t leave any loose threads.

Matt 23.15, Jesus says the scribes and Pharisees ‘make the new convert twice as much a child of Gehenna as yourselves’, necessarily meaning Jesus saw the scribes and Pharisees as condemned to Gehenna.

Matt 25.31-46 has more Enochian influences appear, in a scene of the final judgment reminiscent of passages in 1 En 37-71. These chapters are the final addition to the Book of Enoch, dated to a time period just a few decades before Jesus came on the scene. The chapters depict a figure — identified as the ‘chosen one’, the ‘messiah’, and the ‘son of man’ — seated on a throne by God in order to preside over the final judgment, with special focus on the messianic son of man condemning ‘the kings’ and ‘those who rule the earth’.

And he sat on the throne of his glory, and the whole judgment was given to the son of man, and he will make sinners vanish and perish from the face of the earth. And those who led the world astray will be bound in chains, and in the assembly place of their destruction they will be confined; and all their works will vanish from the face of the earth. And from then on there will be nothing that is corruptible; for that son of man has appeared. And he has sat down on the throne of his glory, and all evil will vanish from his presence.

—1 Enoch 69.27-29

The ultimate origin of the picture is Dan 7.9-14, but 1 En 37-71 makes several departures; in Dan 7, the son of man is not identified as a messiah, does not sit on God’s throne, and does not cast judgment. It may be that the author of 1 En 37-71 has blended Dan 7 with texts such as Psa 2, where God exalts his messiah and gives him authority to destroy ‘kings’ and ‘rulers of the earth’. However, Matt 25.31-46 departs from Dan 7 in the same way, combining the same messianic elements of 1 En 37-71 with his own teaching that people will be judged based on how they interact with his followers (cf. Matt 10.23,40-42).

After Matt 25.31 sets the scene, Jesus describes the punishment that will come upon condemned sinners:

‘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” [...] And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Jesus establishes two fates for the people under judgment: it is either life, or it is punishment in fire. Each is directly stated to be ‘eternal’. A growing response in recent years in universalism is to argue over the Greek words used, κολασιν αιωνιον, and how they should be translated. ‘Eternal’ (αιωνιον) should be translated as ‘of the age’, and ‘punishment’ (κολασιν) as ‘chastisement’. Meaning: sinners will be penalized with a corrective sentence that takes place in the age to come.

No ancient text uses αἰώνιον in this way. The adjective always describes the perceived duration: something that is perpetual, something that endures through the ages. In a word: eternal.

The word κολασιν is ambiguous at best; it does refer to ‘punishment’, but it does not alone indicate the nature of that punishment. This noun is used in LXX Jer 18.20 (a trap set for Jeremiah by his enemies), and Ezek 14.3-7 (an obstacle leading to destruction), 18.30 (death for sinners), and 43.11-12 (penalty preceding Israel’s ability to rebuild). The verb form, κολαζω, is used in the Old Greek of Dan 6.12a (death in a lions’ den) and in Acts 4.30 (Jerusalem’s religious elite persecuting Christians). As we can see, κολασιν and κολαζω can refer to both redemptive and retributive punishment, but always ‘punishment’ nonetheless. The verb form is used one more time, in 2 Pet 2.9. This is in context of final punishment, which makes it extremely important for us here.

Judah, 1 Peter, and 2 Peter are a trio of Christian texts that owe much of their eschatology to 1 Enoch. The letter of Judah borrows from 1 Enoch extensively, and even quotes 1 En 1.9 directly. Jud 6 and 2 Pet 2.4 both summarize the punishment of the fallen angels in 1 En 10, which we read before.

Jud 7 states that the punishment of the angels is an ‘example’ of the ‘punishment of eternal fire’ (πυρος αιωνιου).

Meanwhile, 2 Pet 2.9 says the fate of the fallen angels is to be ‘kept under punishment [κολαζομενους] until the day of judgement’.

We already saw that the intermediate fate of the fallen angels in 1 Enoch was perpetual darkness, followed by a final punishment of unending torment in fire. Neither of these are corrective or redemptive, but both come from the command of God. The vocabulary Judah and 2 Peter use to describe 1 Enoch’s vision of ultimate punishment is the same vocabulary Jesus uses to describe his own vision of ultimate punishment.

Matt 25.41 says the ‘eternal punishment’ of sinners is ‘the eternal fire [το πυρ το αιωνιον] prepared for the devil and his angels’. Jesus was operating within the same apocalyptic paradigm as 1 Enoch, if not borrowing from it directly: the son of man will condemn sinners to a punishment of eternal suffering in fire.

Divine Violence in L

Compared to the others, Luke is far more concerned with a reversal of fortunes, rebuking the religious elite while proclaiming a message favorable to women, the poor, the sick, and non-Judeans. Punishment is not much on his mind.

Luke 13.1-5 warns that those who do not repent will suffer a fate similar to Galileans whom Pontius Pilate killed, or people who died when a tower of Siloam fell. The text is ambiguous, but the certainty behind Jesus’ warning for repentance, suggesting some people may be ‘worse’ than others (or perhaps will meet equally severe ends) implies that God is involved in dispending judgment.

Luke 16.19-31 gives the famous parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus, being ill, poor, and hungry, is taken by angels to a place of comfort when he dies. The rich man, however, is left to Hades, where he begs for even a drop of water because he is ‘in agony in these flames’. The common argument is that this parable doesn’t depict any reality, it’s just a story warning people to take seriously their moral duty in life to care for the ill, the poor, or the hungry. Does a moral lesson that carries such a warning, however, have any weight to it if the consequences it warns about won’t actually happen? Although within this parable’s world the resurrection has not yet happened (since the rich man’s family continue in their sins blissfully unaware of their brother’s afterlife suffering), it still assumes an intermediate fate for sinners that God has decided should happen: ‘agony’ in a ‘place of torment’.

Conclusion

Christians who follow a pacifistic, universalist interpretation of Jesus, insist that he is different from his contemporaries, that he attributes redemptive chastisement to God and not violent punishment, and that he teaches the end of all humanity is salvation. While Jesus certainly instructs his followers to maintain a pacifistic ethic, treating everyone around them with kindness and charity, there is nothing in his eschatological teachings that indicates a universalistic finale.

Universalism tells us that Jesus moved contrary to the violent eschatology of his time, but every step of the way we see how divine violence was integral to his apocalyptic expectations. He uses the exact same language as the Hebrew Bible’s prophets. He uses the exact same imagery as the apocalyptic writers of his time. A universalist reading of the Gospels simply cannot be achieved without special pleading.

The Book of Daniel was written during the Maccabean Revolt. Its author belonged to a community he called ‘the wise’. Throughout the book, Daniel, also called ‘wise’, never responds to threats of persecution with violence. Instead, he remains pacifistic precisely because he trusts that God is in command of all kingdoms of the earth, raising them up and striking them down. For the author’s community, the stories about Daniel were instructive; they were to mirror him by remaining peaceful during the Maccabee’s revolt. The wise among Israel believed that, in the end, God would directly intervene on their behalf and slay their persecutor, Antiochus Epiphanes. They did not need to exact vengeance because God would do it for them. The righteous who had wrongly been slain would be resurrected to ‘eternal life’ and made like stars, while the evildoers who got away with their sins would likewise be raised to life and punished with ‘shame and eternal contempt’ (Dan 12.2-3).

Jesus, also an apocalypticist, taught an eschatology that was largely the same. Even if readers try to peel back L, or M, or Q or Mark in hopes of finding a pacifistic, universalist Jesus, it can’t be done. Regardless of which might be the earliest witness to his teachings, all four layers exhibit an apocalyptic Jesus who taught that the wicked would be punished in fire. Regardless if their punishment was to conclude with their extinction or was to continue without end, it was irreversible. Nothing in any of the eschatological texts of the Gospels permits readers to think Jesus taught that those who suffered the final punishment would eventually transition over to eternal life.

Jesus may have taught his followers to maintain a pacifistic ethic, but this is because he, like the author of Daniel two centuries earlier, believed God would exact a righteous punishment on the wicked and the disobedient. Again and again his eschatological parables conclude with the punishment, destruction, or torment of evildoers. Not once is this violence executed by God shown to be corrective or redemptive. The end of the unrepentant sinner was to be the eternal fire of Gehenna.