I’d always been taught to read eternal conscious torture into Mark 9:42-50.
I say it like that on purpose because I approach scripture differently these days than when I was younger. I have the, “benefit”, of having had nearly my entire model of the universe come crashing down in my early 20’s so when I spend time in scripture now, while I am intimately acquainted with the traditional teaching on pretty much every passage, I make my best attempt to approach scripture with fresh eyes. I actively try to strip out any previous understanding of a passage in order to see something new. These days my approach to scripture is a tension between the desire to honour those who’ve come before me while being open to the same type of bravery Luther exhibited when he wrote the 95 theses. I want to learn from those who came before while being open to new understandings of scripture that cause my revelation of God to expand.
There’s no way I’m going to be able to cover every angle on the state of 1st century Palestine so I’m only going to go into what I feel is needed to show you what I’ve been seeing in this passage of Mark’s gospel.
In 1st century Palestine, the people of Israel were under brutal Roman occupation. The Pharisees were desperate for the Messiah to come because they believed he’d be a military leader who would deliver them from the Romans. They believed that the Messiah wasn’t showing up because there was too much sin amongst the nation of Israel. Further to this, they believed that if the nation of Israel could stop sinning for just one day, the Messiah would come and set everything right with the world, dealing in recompense, revenge and retribution.
They were also operating with an understanding of righteousness based on what they perceived in scripture (read Deuteronomy 28). Their understanding at the time was that if you had an illness or if you were poor it was evidence that you were sinful. In an attempt to get the Israelites to stop sinning, they came up with an additional set of rules which were more strict than what God had commanded. Essentially, to make it easier to understand, God set the speed limit at 60 and the Pharisees were concerned with people going 61 so they set the speed limit at 30. Surely nobody would go 61 if the speed limit were 30 right? Still, the Messiah wasn’t showing up to fight the Romans so this must have meant the people of Israel were still just too sinful to be delivered.
Their society was set up in such a way as to cut off anyone who they even perceived to be sinful. If they cut the cancer of the sinful people out of their community, maybe the Messiah would come then. Don’t these sinners know it’s their fault the Messiah isn’t coming to kill all the Roman oppressors? So, in order to make the national body clean they broke community with anyone who was considered sinful. This included prostitutes, tax collectors (helping the Romans in their occupation), people with skin conditions (the translations use one word for many different skin conditions), people with birth defects, people born blind, people who’d fallen on hard times, people who were poor, widows, orphans, slaves, etc.
Part of why Jesus’ teaching was so profound is that He came and turned the entire concept of righteousness on its head.
So we catch up with Jesus in Mark 9 where He’s saying, “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.” The traditional teaching on this passage wants me to believe that Jesus came to this ultra-legalistic society saying, “Listen guys, you need to know that sin is ferociously serious and you guys really need to take it more seriously because hell.”
Here’s the thing: right before this passage, in Mark 9:38-41, Jesus’ disciples come up to Him and say, ‘Yo, we caught somebody casting devils out of people using your name and we were like, dude, you are not allowed to set people free like that. Only we’re allowed cos we’re super important and nobody knows who you are.’ Jesus tells them not to stop this kind of thing and responds with, “… whoever is not against us is for us”. The disciples were too steeped in the concept of, “Us vs. Them”.
Then He launches into the passage where He talks about cutting your foot off and cutting your hand off and gouging your eyes out.
I was walking down the street one day and I was listening to music and possibly looking up when I tripped over an uneven piece of sidewalk and stubbed my toe. I stopped walking, grabbed my hurt toe to feel for injury and then when I was satisfied I wasn’t bleeding, I limped on. I heard Holy Spirit say to me in that moment, “If your foot causes you to stumble…”
I saw the ridiculousness in this passage and there was a totally different light on it. I went back and reread it four hundred times and I’d like to suggest to you that Jesus wasn’t telling people that they needed to take sin even more seriously. I’d like to suggest that He was using metaphor and sarcasm to show human beings how ridiculously far off the mark their society had gone.
In scripture, the metaphor of a body is often used to describe a group of people. Concerning genuine, authentic community, the way God created it, this particular human society had become one where it wasn’t a bad metaphor to say that if they stubbed their toe, their response was to cut it off. Why? Because they believed that it was more important to have a, ‘righteous nation’, than to care for the hurting and vulnerable among them.
For me, the argument that this passage concerns eternal conscious torture falls down when I get to Mark 9:49. If, ‘everyone will be seasoned with fire’, then surely it’s not talking about hell. I’m not aware of any theologian who thinks everybody ends up in hell. Then He talks about salt losing it’s saltiness. It’s like He’s saying that the vulnerable parts of our bodies are what makes life interesting, the vulnerable members of our communities show us what we’re really made of. He finishes with, “Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.”
What I see in this passage is not a God who calls us to toughen up and live better by trying harder but a God who knows how He created people and understands that people are designed to live better within an environment of authentic community. Within authentic community where people are allowed and encouraged to display their most authentic selves, warts and all, they can actually receive the love they so desperately need. It’s within an environment where people are loved that their character begins to change towards the nature of God. Authentic, vulnerable, loved community is where the fruits of the Spirit grow.
If you see someone in your community who is having issues with sin, it’s just how you know your body has a stubbed toe. How do we deal with our bodies when there is a wound? We pay extra special attention to the wounded part, we rub it to ease the pain, we check it out to see how much damage there is, we bandage it and maybe we limp for a while until the wound is healed. We don’t make things harder for a broken toe, we make things easier.
Have salt in yourselves. Be in genuine community with humans. Destigmatize sin. Be at peace with one another.