Beware the One Who Can Throw You Into Hell

Whenever you get into a discussion about hell Luke 12 will eventually get cited:
Luke 12.4-7
I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Who is this one whom we must fear because he, she or it "has authority to throw you into hell"?

Most people think this is a reference to God. Fear God because God can throw you into hell.

But might this be a reference to someone other than God?

That is N.T. Wright's argument in Jesus and the Victory of God where Wright argues that this is a reference to Satan rather than God (pp. 454-455):
Some have seen 'the one who can cast into Gehenna' 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 circumstance, 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.

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17 thoughts on “Beware the One Who Can Throw You Into Hell”

  1. Either way, the passage progresses in a way that casts out fear. If you want to understand the implications of a reading that says, "Only God has the authority to invoke fear," you have to continue reading the passage to where it says, "Don't be afraid. God has not forgotten even the sparrows." I much prefer this reading. It lends a logical coherence to the passage, and uses a surprising reversal to make a point, in a way that is common throughout scripture. Also, God is described as fearful lots and lots and lots and lots of times in the Bible. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I wouldn't want to go up against that with a bit of speculation about who God is, in this passage.

    On a similar note, I've been reflecting on 2 Corinthians 4:4, in which 'the god of this age' is generally taken to refer to satan. However, there is a minority view that this refers to God. I would make a similar point here: there are lots of passages in which God is clearly said to conceal things, to harden hearts, and to blind people. While the phrase 'the god of this age' is ambiguous, the activity in question is quite unambiguously attributed to God at plenty of other points. I wouldn't want to construct a theological argument about the roles of God and satan on the basis of arguments about either passage. I think we have to arrive at a full-throated embrace of God's love by other means.

  2. Richard, I would be very interested in how you see God's anger. Do you believe that the cross somehow appeased God's anger against men. This is not a gotcha question. I hear both URist and ETCist say that God is angry with mankind.

    If God is not angry then this reads better as being someone other than God, but read under the premise that God is mad I would have no problem with it being God who casts people into Gehenna.

    I personally don't think God is mad, nor has he ever been mad with His creation.

  3. That's a big question. I don't have any one view about God's anger. My "views" are always a constellation of ideas, many of which hang together, some which function dialectically.

    For example, we can start by asking if God can be "angry." To say that God is "angry" is probably idolatrous. So the key would be trying to unpack what the metaphor of "angry" is gesturing toward.

    Another aspect is what, exactly, is the target of God's anger. I agree that God is not angry at humans. God is, rather, angry about sin. The same way a parent is angered and anguished when they see their children act in selfish, violent or self-destructive ways. Any loving anger is directed toward education and rehabilitation rather than against the child's personhood. The anger is, here, a manifestation of love.

    Finally, a part of this is how the death of Jesus might have satisfied God's anger. I've written about this at great length. I tend to agree with 1) Rene Girard's work and 2) the New Perspective work on Paul in thinking about atonement issues.

  4. Good stuff! Really, really good stuff! Are you anxiously awaiting Greg Boyd's upcoming book on this subject as I am? "God reaches into the evil, even takes on the appearance of it (as he does on the cross), then reverses it." seems to be a very good representation of Boyd's thesis.

    In any case, I really like your take on this.

  5. Richard, while I think N.T. Wright is correct that Luke 12:4-7 is referring to someone other than God, I don't think it's Satan; I think it's Rome. After all, the Romans, after sacking Jerusalem and destroying the Temple in 70 CE, threw people into Gehenna (which, as you know, is the underlying Greek word here in Luke 12 for "hell"). (I'm guessing Josephus as the reference for that, but I'm writing a blog comment, not a book, so forgive me for not taking the time to look it up right this minute!)

    Luke 12:4-7 has a very strange pattern to it. "Do not fear" (v4); "fear" (v5); "do not be afraid" (v7). It's as if Jesus/Luke (it's important to remember that Luke is almost certainly written after/in the wake of 70 CE) is saying, you have every right to, and even should be, afraid of Rome, who "has power to cast into Gehenna" (v5), *but* "do not be afraid" (v7) because God knows and cares about even the sparrows and the hairs on your head.

    That's how I tend to read it at least.

  6. It's interesting here that Jesus, in one paragraph, tells us to be afraid, and yet, not to fear.

  7. Richard have you ever read Andrew Perriman's suggestion that this is best thought of as Rome (simliar to the argument Adam makes below).... Curious how you see the strengths or weaknesses of his argument.

    "The judgment of gehenna is meant to evoke Jeremiah’s horrifying vision of the dead thrown from the walls of the city into the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (Jer. 7:30-33; 19:6-8). Other images have the same frame of reference: the burning of the weeds by fire at the close of the age (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43); the discarding of the bad fish (Matt. 13:47-50). The bodies of the unrighteous that are perpetually consumed by worms and fire (Mk. 9:48) are not the dead being consciously tormented in “hell”. They are the unconscious corpses of those who rebelled against YHWH, which remain unburied outside the city as a sign to all of the stark reality of God’s judgment against his people (cf. Is. 66:24). The thought goes back to Deuteronomy 28:25-26: disobedient Israel will be defeated in battle, will become a horror to the kingdoms of the earth; “your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for all beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away” (cf. Ezek. 23:46; Ps. 79:1-2; Jer. 7:33; 16:4; 19:7; 34:20)."

  8. You can also see more of Andrew's argument on this here:

    and here:

    Thanks Richard...

  9. Fear, and respect, yourself.

    You are the one who has the power to throw yourself into Gehenna, onto the cosmic trash heap, a failed experiment, a broken, forgotten residue of humanity.

    That's a riff more than an interpretation. I don't really know what Jesus meant in that passage.

  10. Thanks. I will be reading what you've written. I've explained wrath as the way a parent might act toward a son who played too close to the highway. A whipping is better than getting hit by a dump truck. My wrath is an extension of my love.

  11. Maybe the moment we realize we are afraid is the only moment in which we are able to fear not.

  12. I heard a sermon on TV by Joel Osteen on sunday that was a lot more comforting than this here exposition based on NT Wright (Jesus and y’all seem to be saying something like, ‘don’t worry about that guy over here with the knife, worry about that guy over there with a gun!). Osteen’s take was more like, ‘don’t worry, be happy, God’s got your back with a bazooka!’ (what Joel lacks in scholastic rigor he makes up for with twinkle and smiles). Anyway, these verses in Luke 7 always seemed to be a bit of a mash up of a bunch of disparate sayings by Jesus to me, which makes any sort of syllogistic exegeses very problematic. In any event, digging deeper into “the context” here just seems to make things worse. I mean, in this scenario sparrows are trapped, sold, killed, and eaten, but they (and we) are supposed to take comfort in the fact that God keeps a running tally of the carnage every day? (or does he subcontract that out to the Germans who are really good at that sort of thing?). And just how many butchered sparrows equals one dead human being anyway? And how does any of that make me feel any better at my child’s funeral? And is Wright really trying to base an argument on the devil, sparrows, and lakes of fire, on what is “realistic?” Seriously, if I’m in hell does it really matter how I got there? I sorta like Richard’s approach (with a bit W. Benjamin thrown in?) that his "views are always a constellation of ideas, many of which hang together, some which function dialectically.” Of course if I end up in hell because of all my dithering and lack of fundamentalist conviction then Richard and Osteen better be right there with me! I would really like to know what Willy Brown of the previous post has to say about all of this. Sounds like Willy knows something about what it might mean to know the he is being *seen* by God, rather than just counted by the man. Much obliged.

  13. This is a link to the interview Tommy Everard mentions (I think). In any case, if you head over to you'll find a lot about it. You can search for "Crucifixion of the Warrior God" or "Cruciform Hermeneutic" and you'll find a lot of posts by Boyd on the topic.

  14. I think our limited perceptual interpretation of reality seriously hinders our ability to fully understand a lot of scripture and what God means behind it. I know enough to know I know nothing about it. But I trust in the Word. And when He says "to be absent from the body is to be in the presence of the Lord," I'm led to believe that my next encounter post mortem will be the next encounter described in the book, the great white throne judgment. I don't disagree that this world is filled with darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth, that's the curse of sin. But having faith according to the word that was given to me, I will trust in death being the end of life in this world, until it's recreated without sin. God bless, friends...

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