Whenever trying to understand a text, one first needs to define terms, figure what kind of genre the text is, etc. So many bad errors--often with horrible results--have come about through sincere individuals and groups misunderstanding and misapplying writings from the past. I've already given the horrendous examples of people of faith justifying war in previous blogs so I will skip that.
One of the more sad personal examples is the case of Origen, a great thinker, writer, and interpreter who literally mistook Jesus' hyperbole and mutilated himself. Even more tragic are the parents who try and follow the Bible literally. Several years ago one mother in the United States thought she should follow Abraham--have enough faith to let her baby die from a serious illness, but then God would raise her little one to life.
This terrible evil has happened many times repeatedly. Yet in a counter text of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), one prophet adamantly stated that human sacrifice NEVER was God's will. Scripture is a library of contrary views--not a legal guidebook.
Who knows why, but so many Christian leaders latch on to the worst verses in the Bible, and ignore the overreaching ethical truths. For instance, I was told by our Christian youth leader that God will call us Christians to sometimes commit immoral acts!
What was his basis for this horrendous advice? He said that God had told Hosea to marry a prostitute. In the first place, this leader had misunderstood the book of Hosea in my opinion. Hosea wasn't being called to do anything immoral. In the second, this action of Hosea wasn't some kind of all time moral pronouncement that all followers of God should know God will call them to do what is evil. On the contrary, Hosea married a prostitute to help her and to bring about good.
The first step we need to learn about ancient Middle Eastern thought is that it wasn't primarily logical or rational, but image-based and often given to exaggeration to emphasize a particular point, not usually to make a legal universal standard. To a certain extent this is still true today. Read many Middle Eastern newspapers or websites and you will be astonished by the extreme exaggeration, even heavy diatribe.
Various biblical scholars from William Barclay to James Kallas have pointed to the paradoxical nature of much of biblical literature. Furthermore, the Bible seldom gets philosophical and almost never dwells on the empirical in the Greek or modern scientific sense.
Also, keep in mind that even in the modern West, we often use exaggeration for effect, sometimes very superficially. Many times I've heard individuals say "I'm starving," yet they have eaten not more than 4 or 5 hours previously, and have never been without plenty of food.
When Jesus, in the space of two verses, seems to contradict himself, saying both to fear not and fear greatly, he isn't thinking or talking like a philosopher, but as a prophet, in strong poetic language not legal prose. You won't understand Jesus' way if you are looking for a logical system or a legal code.
Jesus focuses on vivid, even stark, images and extreme hyperbole. Remember at one point he gives a parable where he compares himself to a sneaky thief; in another parable he says disciples should act like an embezzler! What?!
He even compares God to a ruthless unfair judge!! The point had nothing to do with God's true essence. The odd analogy's meaning is that if even a bad judge will help us if we keep pestering him, then surely the God of the whole universe (who is essentially good, true, and just) will help us.
In another story, Jesus talks of God as our loving father, yet speaks of God throwing people into the burning garbage dump of Gehenna. What father would do such an act? NO normal father would ever do that. Only abusive ones. (At first I was going to supply the verses for these comments to verify what I am saying, but then realized that would miss the whole point. I am not trying to proof-text a few verses in the New Testament, but rather to show that we need to approach poetic literature such as the Bible very differently from how modern fundamentalists and skeptics do.)
For instance, consider the "hate" passage. In Luke, Jesus said we must "hate" our parents, our wives, our children, our selves, etc.! But we must read this in context. In the first place, this isn't a call for hatred in the modern sense of active hostility. It's an extreme case of hyperbole. In comparison to our dedication to Ultimate Truth, the Absolute Good--we need to love our loved ones less.
We can see this is so by cross-referencing the same passage in Matthew where the words of Jesus aren't of "hate" but rather "he who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." Either Jesus varied his message or the writer of the Matthew thought he needed to soften the force of the hyperbole because people might misunderstand, as indeed they have and still do.
Some people ask, why didn't Jesus speak in legal code or philosophical moderation? I've even wished at times Jesus would be more reasonable. But Jesus seeks to get behind legality, respectability, the intellect, and even our moderate civility, to our inner self.
He doesn't want "nice" people--such humans often judge, expel, even kill those different from themselves. What God wants are individuals who are committed unconditionally to Truth, Goodness, and Love, ones who reach out to rescue the lost, the despised, the poor, the bad, even the evil people.
For another extreme example consider Jesus's most extreme words. He said if we wanted to be his disciple we need to be electrocuted in our electric chair/asphyxiated in our gas chamber! We need to be hanged. Well, in his case he was referring to a much worse form of execution that included long torture before dying--the Roman method of crucifixion reserved for only the worst sorts of individuals.
Why would Jesus use such extreme words--to some a very revolting and repulsive statement? Well, there's another long blogpost to write in the future:-) Right now, I am only trying to deal with only three words--fear, hate, and Hell.
And, I've only given the background so far.
Also, check out the comment by Ken Schroeder in the responses. He explains all of this from a somewhat different angle but is very clear.
To be continued
In the Light of God,