Liberal interpretations of passages from
the Christian Scriptures: 1st century CE
Topics covered in this essay:
This essay describes a common liberal interpretation of the beliefs of
the emerging Christian movement in Palestine during the first century
CE concerning life after death. A conservative
interpretation is explained elsewhere on this web
Judaism. There were about 24 Jewish groups
in first century Palestine who held a wide spectrum of incompatible
beliefs. Of these, the Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees were the
St. Paul's writings; 48 to 65 CE. The few "saved"
Christians -- those who believe in Jesus' resurrection -- will go to heaven.
There is no Hell; non-believers simply die and cease to exist.
Author of Gospel of Mark: Circa 70 CE Heaven is for those who do good
deeds. Hell exists as a place of eternal torment with fire and worms for those who are
insensitive to the needs of others.
Author of Gospel of Matthew: 80-85 CE. Heaven is for those who do
good deeds. The torments of Hell are emphasized for those who do not do good deeds.
Author of II Thessalonians: 75-90 CE. All the unsaved will be
killed when Jesus returns.
Author of the Gospel of Luke: 85-95 CE. Heaven is for those who do good
deeds. Hell exist as a place of torment with heat and thirst.
Author of Revelation: 93 CE? Evil people are thrown into a lake of
fire and annihilated. Some are eternally punished.
Author(s) of Gospel of John: circa 100 CE. Heaven is for those who believe
in Jesus' divinity. Hell does not exist.
There were about 24 different Jewish religious/political groups during the time of Christ.
The three main movements were:
The Sadducees rejected the concept of resurrection, because it was
considered of Pagan foreign origin, probably picked up from the Zoroastrian
religion during the Babylonian captivity. The Saducees followed the ancient Jewish beliefs about Sheol
as they existed before Greek influence modified them. They also did not believe in fate, in
demons or in angels. The Sadducees believed that God would reward the righteous and punish
the wicked during their lifetime on earth.
They were in charge of the Temple and its
rituals. They felt that as long as animal sacrifices and other rituals were continued in
Jerusalem, that Israel would flourish without major disasters. After the Roman army
attacked and destroyed the Temple and the rest of Jerusalem in 70 CE, they were bitterly
disillusioned. They ceased to exist as a cohesive group shortly afterwards. By the end of
the 1st century CE, they had essentially disappeared.
The Pharisees embraced much of the recently introduced Greek
Pagan theology. They
believed in resurrection and an associated system of rewards and punishment after death.
They did not expect justice to be achieved on earth. They expected that God
would make certain that everyone received their just deserts in the
future when he established his Kingdom. St. Paul was a Pharisee before
he developed Pauline Christianity.
The Essenes lived in tightly organized communities, either in remote
wilderness areas or within towns. They believed in baptism, a close and loving community,
and a simple lifestyle. They taught that the soul separated from the body and was
resurrected to eternal life. The body decayed. John the Baptist was probably an
at least was educated in an Essene community. Although they were quite numerous and were
widespread throughout Palestine, they are not mentioned in any of the books
found in the official canon of the
St. Paul wrote a series of epistles (letters), starting about 48
CE. Many early
Christians believe that he was executed by Roman authorities in Rome fewer than twenty
later, circa 65 CE.
Paul wrote repeatedly that people of the 1st and
later centuries CE would only attain the Kingdom of God after death, if they had
previously been saved while they were alive on Earth. They attained salvation by believing and trusting in the crucified
and resurrected Christ. He would have disagreed with the later authors of the synoptic Gospels
(Matthew, Mark, and Luke) who emphasized salvation by good deeds and attitudes.
Paul specifically negated the importance of "works." He also would
have disagreed with the
authors of the Gospel of John who said that salvation was through belief in Jesus' divinity,
rather than his resurrection.
He also believed that individuals who engaged in certain prohibited behaviors would
be excluded from heaven. They would "not inherit the kingdom of God."
Galatians 5:19-20 includesthe following behaviors: "fornication,
uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths,
factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like." (ASV)
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 states that: "neither fornicators, nor idolaters,
nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with men, nor thieves, nor
covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God."
(ASV) [The two behaviors listed after adulterers are controversial. The
American Version translates these as "boy prostitutes, practicing homosexuals."
Their footnote defines the latter as referring to men who sexually abuse boys. So, both
the victims and the victimizers would not inherit Heaven.
Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-14 about the rapture. This
passage contains a precise description of Jesus returning towards earth during Paul's
lifetime. The dead who had been saved will rise out of their graves and rise through the
air towards Jesus. Those saved Christians who were still alive then would rise to
meet Jesus in the sky. The second coming of Jesus did not happen in the middle of the 1st
century CE, as Paul expected. Many conservative Christians believe that it will happen in
future. Liberal denominations and most mainline denominations have not included
the rapture in their belief system.
Paul taught that after death, all saved believers would be judged by Jesus and be
rewarded according to their deeds, good and bad, while they were alive on earth. This
implies that everyone who enters heaven will not be treated equally:
2 Corinthians 5:10: "For we must all appear before the
judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done
while in the body, whether good or bad."
Romans 14: 10-13: "...For we will all stand before God's
judgment seat...each of us will give an account of himself to God."
St. Paul apparently did not believe that the unsaved are resurrected after death and
taken to Hell for eternal torture. He implies that the fate of the unsaved is to die and
cease their existence. The best known passage expressing this belief is probably:
Traditionally, the church has taught that this gospel was written by person
by the name of Mark. However,
very few current theologians hold this belief. The author is unknown.
"Mark" comments about the danger of eternal damnation for anyone who
blasphemes against the Holy Spirit. God may never forgive the individual. She/he may be
eternally damned. Unfortunately, the author does not precisely specify what form the damnation might take.
Mark 3:29: "But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost
hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation." (KJV)
He describes Hell as a place of eternal torment and torture. It is a place of eternal fire, where worms are continuously present.
Presumably, the fire is hot enough to cause considerable pain, and the worms eat the flesh
of the residents of Hell. He repeats the passage three times for emphasis:
Mark 9:43-48: "And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is
better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the
fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not
quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt
into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be
quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye
offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one
eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the
fire is not quenched." (KJV)
This appears to be the earliest reference to Hell (as we currently know it) in the New
Church tradition names Matthew, the tax-collecting disciple, as the author of this
Gospel. There appears to be no real evidence to support this. Essentially all liberal
theologians regard the author as unknown.
"Matthew" lays great emphasis on Hell. He incorporated the passage
from Mark 9:43-48 into his gospel at Matthew 5:29-30. He also adds some new passages:
Matthew 10:28: "And fear not them which kill the body, but are
not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body
in hell." This passage would seem to imply that an individual would not
spend eternity in Hell, but would be annihilated after residing there
for a while.
Matthew 13:40-42: "As therefore the tares are gathered and
burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send
forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and
them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing
and gnashing of teeth." This, and the following passage could be interpreted
either as sudden annihilation or as eternal punishment.
Matthew 13:49-50: "So shall it be at the end of the world: the
angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them
into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."
Matthew 23:33: "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can
ye escape the damnation of hell?"
Matthew 25:30: "And cast ye the unprofitable servant into
outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." The darkness
seems incompatible with the fire of Hell mentioned elsewhere in the Gospel.
Matthew 25:41: "Then shall he say also unto them on the left
hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his
angels:" This passage also could be interpreted as sudden annihilation, or as
eternal torture of the individuals thrown into the fire.
Liberal theologians are divided over the authorship of II Thessalonians. Verse 3:17
states that Paul is the author. However, religious liberals assert that internal evidence
shows that the epistle was
probably written 10 to 25 years after Paul's death by an unknown person.
In 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10, the author describes how Jesus will return to earth in a
blaze of fire and inflict vengeance on the great majority of humanity. Those who "do
not know God and do not obey the gospel" will be "punished with
everlasting destruction." This presumably means that nonbelievers who
are on earth at Jesus' second coming will be annihilated:
killed and never again be conscious.
Luke also copied large portions of text from the Gospel of Mark and
incorporated them into his gospel. He chose to soften
3:29 by deleting the reference to eternal damnation. He deleted the entire
description in Hell in Mark 9:43-48. But he added one passage that was
not in Mark: the parable of the rich man and the beggar.
While alive, the rich man ignored the needs of a starving beggar, Lazarus. After death,
the beggar was carried by the angels to Abraham, while the rich man ended up in Hell.
was tormented by the heat and lack of water. He begged Abraham to send Lazarus to
dip the tip of his finger in water and cool the formerly rich man's tongue. Abraham turned
down the request on the basis that there is a physical barrier, a gulf, between
hell. Also, Abraham implied that the rich man was getting what he deserved. (Luke
It is worth noting that the rich man did not end up in Hell because we was not
"saved" through belief in Jesus. He was condemned to Hell because he had not
helped the poor. As in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, Matthew records that Heaven is for
those who have committed good works and have good attitudes,
or who have accepted poverty and followed Jesus. Matthew
appears to know nothing about being saved through belief in Jesus' resurrection or
The book of Revelation almost did not make it into the official canon.
Again, religious conservatives and liberals take opposing views on this book:
Conservatives generally believe that it was written by one of Jesus'
disciples, John. It was this belief that convinced the early church
to reluctantly include it in the Bible. They view much of the book as predicting
events that will unfold in our future.
Few religious liberals agree with John's authorship. They conclude
that its actual author is unknown. Most believe that the book describes many dreadful
events which the author expected would happen in his immediate future. The purpose of the
book was to stiffen Christian resolve in the face of pressures by the
Roman Empire to introduce compulsory emperor worship.
The author views the true Church as
being composed of those who have refused to worship the emperor, and have
threatened with or
experienced martyrdom. He describes a God consumed with anger and the need to take
vengeance against those who have given into the pressure to conform. This is a very
different picture of God than we see described in the synoptic gospels. There is no love
for one's enemies. There is only bitterness, hatred, and a desire for revenge. Some
references in Revelation which deal with Hell are:
Revelation 14:9-11: "And the third angel followed them, saying
with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his
forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is
poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with
fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb:
And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day
nor night..." The author appears to be describing an endless torture
scene, with angels and Jesus present either as observers or as officials
who are directing the torture. Their precise role is unclear.
Revelation 20:10: "And the devil that deceived them was cast
into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall
be tormented day and night for ever and ever."
Revelation 20:12-15: "And I saw the dead, small and great,
stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the
book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the
books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death
and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man
according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the
second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the
lake of fire."
Revelation 21:8: "But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the
abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars,
shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the
second death." (KJV)
The first reference implies that eternal torture without ceasing is reserved for
those who have worshiped the beast - who may have been the Roman emperor.
The third and fourth references are particularly interesting. It mirrors the last
judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46. In both cases, the entire human race is judged on the
basis of their deeds during their lifetime. Those who have done good works go to heaven;
those who have been uncharitable towards the poor are punished. They appear to face
immediate destruction and annihilation in the lake of fire; there is no eternal torment
for them. Judgment is made on the basis of their good and bad works, not on their belief in the divinity or
resurrection of Jesus.
Many liberal theologians believe that the Gospel was not written by Jesus'
disciple John, but that part
of the book was composed by an unknown author or authors. A later person edited the book
and added additional text in order to make it conform to church belief at the time.
"John" has many references to heaven being
attained by Christians who believe in the divinity of Jesus. Belief in Jesus' crucifixion
and resurrection are not required, as Paul wrote.
The author of John does not mention Hell. One can infer that he believed that it did
not exist. For this and other reasons, the gospel of John is believed by religious
liberals to have been written by early Christian(s) who followed a very
different religious tradition than did the authors of the synoptic Gospels.