Have you ever wondered why, when one person sneezes, those nearby say “bless you” or “gesundheit”? According to Wikipedia:
There are different theories regarding the origin of this phrase. One idea is that the expression stems from the Middle Ages when the bubonic plague was threatening European health. In this case the person saying gesundheit was actually wishing good health upon themselves, since they may have been infected by the one who sneezed. During this time it was also commonly believed that sneezing made the body vulnerable to evil spirits. Thus another plausible explanation is that gesundheit was a blessing to ward off demons while the sneezer’s body was defenseless.
Superstitions date back as early as ancient Greece (ref. Herodotus, History 440 BC). The soul was thought to leave the body through the nose upon death, so a powerful sneeze was thus considered an ominous event.
The following is a Jewish perspective on the custom: Although not technically part of Jewish law (Halacha), the custom of saying gesundheit, tzu gezunt, labreeyut, or bless you is considered a mannerly custom. It is written in the Talmud that the Patriarch Jacob was the first person to become ill before passing on. Before that, people would sneeze and die. When God infused the soul into man, He “blew it” into Adam’s nostrils. Thus, when it came time for the soul to be returned to its maker, it would leave through the same portal through which it arrived.
I’m not sure about the accuracy of any of these explanations, but if there’s any truth in the association between the nasal passage and death, I find this fascinating. Consider the fantastic little muffled explosion that accompanies one’s suppressed sneeze – in the ancient mind this could be a triumphant act, cheating death, yet it is accompanied by such a strange noise. Imagine what the ancients thought about the souls of the people whose sneezes sounded like angry interjections: “I-HATE-you!”, “Who-ASKED-you!”, “Not-YOU, not-YOU!”
So, is Chan’s argument sound?
Whoa! you say. Right now, you are probably wondering, what does sneezing have to do with whether Chan’s argument is sound?
Please accept my apologies for the written whiplash, but it’s a little game I’m playing, sort of like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. There’s actually method to this madness.
I’ve been reading a lot about linguistics lately for my research project as a UCF student in the Honors in the Major program. It’s amazing how many words are like long lost cousins whose connections goes way back to great, great, great uncle so-and-so. And even if words are not connected by etymology, they are connected by associations. You’ll see what I mean, shortly.
But first, I would like to examine the whether Francis Chan’s argument is sound. Chan’s argument, as is stated in chapter three “What Jesus Actually Said About Hell” of his book, Erasing Hell, is as follows:
Jesus grew up in the world of beliefs described in the last chapter. He would be expected to believe the same stuff about hell that most Jews did. And if He didn’t – if Jesus rejected the widespread Jewish belief in hell – then He would certainly need to be clear about this.
That last line is very important. Better read it again.
In other words, if Jesus did not agree with the view of hell presented in the last chapter, then He would have had to deliberately and clearly argue against it.
In the previous blog in the Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell series, I demonstrated that Chan’s argument is not valid for the following reasons:
1. The conclusion does not necessarily agree with the premise.
2. The premise is too vague, inconsistent, and incomplete.
Since Chan did not provide an accurate assessment of “the world of beliefs” to which he refers, it is impossible to truly test the soundness of his argument. Why? Because the first rule in deciding whether an argument is sound is that it must be a valid argument! There’s no such thing as a sound but invalid argument. This should be the end of the blog, but that’s no fun…
Let’s just suppose, for Chan’s sake, that Chan actually did present a valid argument. Let’s make believe that Chan did not relegate the beliefs of the Sadducees to one brief sentence in the notes section of his book. Let’s pretend that the historian Josephus did not write (in his account called “Antiquities”) that many priests were Sadducees or that Luke did not write that Paul was tried in a religious court that was divided over their afterlife views (Acts 23:6-8). Let’s just set aside, as if irrelevant, the masses of common people who did not fit neatly into religious categories, who are not given a voice in historical religious record-keeping. Readers, I ask that you use your imaginations to create a fictional view of the first century Jewish population, using Chan’s ideas as the basis for a stereotypical “world of beliefs”, a racially profiled version of the first century in which there is a “widespread Jewish belief in hell”.
In order for an argument to be sound, all of its premises must be true, and the conclusion must be logically consistent with the premises. We have already established (in our fairy-tale version of the religious views of first century Jews) that Chan’s first premise is true – that there is one overwhelmingly unified view of hell. Furthermore, in order to examine the soundness of Chan’s argument, we must also assume that Jesus disagreed with this overwhelmingly unified view of hell. For the sake of Chan’s argument, we’ve established two (so-called) “truths” upon which we can examine the conclusion of his argument.
Now that we’ve prepared ourselves to accept an invalid argument as valid, we will proceed to test the soundness of Chan’s argument. Does Jesus clearly and deliberately argue against the view of hell presented in chapter two? I thought I was done with chapter two, but apparently, I’m not. The view of hell presented in chapter two is as follows:
1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgment.
2. Hell is described in images of fire, darkness, and lament.
3. Hell is a place of annihilation.
4. Hell is a place of never-ending punishment.
Chan examines the writings of Matthew and Luke to find out whether Jesus clearly and deliberately argues against points 1 – 4, and the references are here, in context, if you would like to examine them for yourselves.
First, I must point out the Jesus never uses the word “Hell.” Even Chan acknowledges this. Depending on what English version of the scriptures you read, you may or may not find the word “Hell”. For example, the authorized King James Version has 54 occurrences, but the New King James only has 32. The most commonly used English translation of the scriptures, the New International Version, has only 14 occurrences of the word. The Young’s Literal Translation, which BibleGateway.com describes as “an extremely literal translation,” does not contain the word once. Why is there so much variation between translations? And as if this weren’t difficult enough, each time you see the word “Hell” or “grave” or “pit” in an English translation, it could be referring to any of the following Hebrew or Greek words: Sheol, Hades, Geena, or Tartaroo. So we have seven different words from three different languages, often being used interchangeably, even though each one has its own specific meaning?! Wouldn’t it be better to examine the Koine Greek, the actual language used when Jesus’s words were recorded, than to use an English translation of Jesus’s words, since translators are so obviously conflicted about what “Hell” might be? Therefore, as I examine the texts the Chan uses to support his claim, I will refer to the Greek, not the English.
The first text Chan uses to support his argument is Matthew 25:31-46. Chan claims that Jesus refers to “judgment day” and writes,
After Jesus looks at the evidence (vv.33-45), He gives His verdict: Believers are awarded everlasting life, while unbelievers are awarded everlasting punishment. Though the word hell (gehenna) is not used here, the concept of hell is conveyed by the phrases “everlasting fire” (v. 41) and “everlasting punishment” (v. 46).1
Do you notice the little number one at the end of that quote? I’ve highlighted it in red for you. It isn’t a typo. It is a reference to the notes section of chapter three in Chan’s book. In other words, it’s something that Chan, for whatever reason, decided not to include in context of his proof. Instead, he refers readers elsewhere for the information. So let’s break away from his quote, and find out what he omitted. Let’s follow Chan’s bunny trail. Here is what I find at the end of the chapter at note number one:
Despite the ESV’s translation, I will be using the term everlasting instead of eternal, because the latter term technically means transcending time, which isn’t the best rendering of the Greek aionios. See the discussion toward the end of this chapter and in note 14 below.
It is reassuring to me that Chan decides to use a different word than the one used in the English Standard Version of the Bible. Why? Because he knows that sometimes translators choose words that are not “the best rendering of the Greek”. Keep this in mind. Always keep this in mind.
So now, we have come to a fork in Chan’s bunny trail. If we go left, we end up at the “discussion toward the end” of chapter three. If we go right, we end up at note number fourteen. I’ll go left first. Here is what Chan writes in the discussion section:
What about the word aionios? Bible scholars have debated the meaning of this term for what seems like an eternity, so we’re not going to settle the issue here.
And now, I’ll go right. It’s rather lengthy, so here is an abbreviated version of what Chan writes in note number fourteen:
The Greek word aionios is an adjective, and it’s used seventy times in the New Testament. The noun, aion, is used over one hundred times in the New Testament. The noun can mean various things such as “an age” or “era” […], “the world”, and the never-ending “age” to come […] The adjective aionios frequently means “everlasting” denoting never-ending time […] a vibrant Jewish concept of the future […]
It is no surprise to me that Chan relegates this important information to different locations in the book. After all, proof that is full of holes really isn’t proof. For the sake of clarity, I would like to incorporate the ideas from the notes and discussion back into Chan’s statement. My words (in Chan’s voice) are in red, Chan’s are in black. Let’s see if his argument still packs a punch, now that we have more information:
After Jesus looks at the evidence (vv.33-45), He gives His verdict: Believers are awarded everlasting life, while unbelievers are awarded everlasting punishment. However, I’m using the word “everlasting” instead of eternal, because “eternal” isn’t the best rendering of the Greek word aionios. Though the word hell (gehenna) is not used here, the concept of hell is conveyed by the phrases “everlasting fire” (v. 41) and “everlasting punishment” (v. 46). Oh, and by the way, Bible scholars have debated the meaning of aionios/everlasting for what seems like an eternity, so we’re not going to settle the issue here.
So, let me make sure we are all on the same page here. Chan would have us believe Jesus is teaching that Hell is a place of punishment after judgment, described in images of fire, darkness, and lament, and it is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment, based on an English translation that isn’t the best rendering and relying almost entirely on a particular word that scholars have never been able to agree upon?
Another problem I have with this proof text is that Chan refers to Matthew 25:31-46 as “judgment day” and the judgment is supposedly about people being believers or unbelievers. While it is obvious that some type of judgment is taking place, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the judgment is equivalent to the modern understanding of “judgment day” in which everyone who has ever lived either goes to Heaven or Hell. According to Ephesians 2:8-9, people are “saved” by grace through faith and NOT by works. Consequently, if this particular judgment to which Chan refers is about believers’ everlasting Heaven or unbelievers’ everlasting Hell, then why is it that the basis for this judgment is works? The judged are being judged on whether they demonstrated kindness to others. Wouldn’t “kindness to others” be considered “works”? If people can be “saved” by being kind to others, then why does Chan preach the faith of Christ as our only salvation? And where in this text does it say anything about people being “believers” or “unbelievers”? According to the text, the nations are being separated in the same way that a shepherd might separate his sheep and goats. That puts an entirely different spin on this judgment, because nations have within their borders both believers AND unbelievers.
For the sake of brevity, I will not continue to analyze every single proof text Chan offers. But I will highlight some other important information from the notes that Chan should have included within the context of each proof text, because in each case, this information sheds doubt on his argument:
Many times the idea of entering the kingdom [of God] refers to something that happens in the present.
In Isaiah’s context, the worm doesn’t die as it eats the flesh of dead bodies. There’s nothing in the context that says the souls of the dead are still being tormented. The images of worms feasting on unburied dead people emphasizes the shame of defeat.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) says that the rich man goes to “Hades” while Lazarus goes to “Abraham’s bosom” (NASB). Hades here should not be confused with hell. […] this is a parable, and so we shouldn’t press the details too far. Jesus uses the parable in this context of Luke to confront the social structures of the day, not to teach us about the afterlife.
New Testament scholar William Barclay also says that kolasis “originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial [intended to correct or improve] punishment.”
[In reference to first century Jewish literature using the word “kolasis” as “punishment”…] these texts have been edited by Christians.
I don’t think that it is good practice for Christian authors who write apologetic books to assign important (but discriminated against) information a place in the back of the bus. I suppose that for an author to include it in the notes section is better than not including it at all, but it is very misleading to people who just read the book and believe the “experts”. Chan’s words convey a sincere desire to carefully examine the doctrine of eternal torment in hell, but the structure of his book demonstrates a bias toward belief-threatening information.
Now, back to the sneeze. Remember the goofy blog intro that seemed to have nothing to do with this blog series?
In the paired terms “sound” and “argument”, “sound” is an adjective that came from the German word “gesund”, which means “healthy.” The post-sneeze comment, “gesundheit” is a gesture of good will toward the one who sneezes, that he or she will be in good health, that the sneeze is not a sign of some serious illness (or death).
I like to think that by tying together not-usually-related ideas, creating associations, it will help readers to be reminded of the spiritual significance in our everyday comings and goings. In this case, my hope is that when a coworker, friend, family member, or stranger sneezes, and someone says “God bless you” or “gesundheit”, you will be reminded of these questions: Is Chan’s argument spiritually healthy? or is Chan’s argument serious spiritual illness? Does Chan’s argument produce life or death?
In closing, please note that this is the first of two blogs examining the soundness of Chan’s argument in chapter three of his book, Erasing Hell. And, God bless you 🙂
Next blog in this series: Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Jesus Didn’t Get the Memo