Somewhat on the side, I’ve been doing a slow-going study on the doctrine of hell. Kimbrah, my wonderful bride, was doing some of her reading in Philippians and came across a reference to hell in the translation she was using. But far from a simple word study in Paul’s short letter, when I had a look at the passage I got far more than I bargained for.
Here’s the passage we’re talking about:
Be imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and watch carefully those who are living this way, just as you have us as an example. For many live, about whom I have often told you, and now, with tears, I tell you that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, they exult in their shame, and they think about earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven – and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself. So then, my brothers and sisters, dear friends whom I long to see, my joy and crown, stand in the Lord in this way, my dear friends! (Phil. iii.17-iv.1 NET)
First, the reference to hell. In a few translations that I’ve looked at (e.g. GNT, CEV) verse 19 showed “hell” for απωλεια. Most of the translations, though, have some variation of “destruction.” This is another case, as I’ve been finding more and more, where the doctrine of an eternal conscious torment for those not redeemed or saved—a.k.a. hell—must be placed into the text in order to see the doctrine in there. If you go with the “destruction” translation you at least can dialogue about what that might mean. The assumption that Paul is talking about eternal conscious torment is just that: an assumption. I believe those assumptions are a problem for a man like Dr. Norman Geisler; in a different post in the future I’m going to discuss a couple of articles he put together for his Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, specifically his article on hell (in which he favors eternal conscious torment) and the one against annihilationism, where he clearly stumbled in his argumentation, revealing his assumptions and traditions, not allowing the text to dictate teaching.
Oh traditions! They constantly rear their ugly heads, and yet we are so blinded to the fact we have them. And it’s never us, right? We’re led by the spirit and not our traditions, right?
Paul was not declaring that the enemies of the cross will end up in eternal conscious torment. He said they will be destroyed. That conjures up different ideas than does an eternity of conscious torment. But the question is “What does ‘destroyed’ mean?”
Second, as I read through that passage certain words caught my attention: “But our citizenship is in heaven.” Paul was making a strong point in this paragraph about the true citizenship of those who were “brothers and sisters.” There’s a clear juxtaposition: those whose citizenship is of this world do for themselves, serve for their own good, are enemies of the cross; and those whose citizenship is in heaven serve the Lord Jesus, recognize their bodies are weak and will be transformed, and recognize that Jesus is Lord over all. And if I’m not mistaken, those who are considered “enemies of the cross” are people professing to follow Jesus; to be followers of The Way. They were Christians by name and maybe association (as in joining with the congregation, meeting at the houses, etc.), but their status was not evidenced by their deeds. Or, maybe, their true status was evidenced by what they did.
Consider this thought from Paul: You can call yourself a Christian, a disciple of the Lord Jesus. But where is your citizenship? Who is your ruling authority? Who do you live for? Yourself or the Lord? The world or heaven? This kingdom or His Kingdom? You cannot live for both, and your deeds show everyone exactly which k/Kingdom you are a citizen of.
And third (and this one was a blast to work on) Paul proved himself quite the classicist. I knew of his strength with education and rhetoric, but I am always impressed by his usage of classical mythology. I guess I just haven’t looked into it that much. I’m referring to what he said in verse 19 (which he also mentioned in his letter to Rome):
Their end is destruction, their god is the belly (ων ο θεος η κοιλία) (vs. 19; cf. Rom. xvi.18)
While looking into some of the commentaries on this passage, I got to one of my favorites of yester-year, John Gill. On these words Gill said,
the belly was the god of the Cyclops, they sacrificed to none but to themselves, and to the greatest of the gods, their own belly
Gill was referencing a passage from Euripides’ work The Cyclops. Now, I am not sure if Gill made this classic reference on his own or if he believed Paul was bringing in the fifth century BC imagery. Regardless, I am convinced Paul was drawing on the mythological reference. Vincent’s and Wuest agree; or, that is, I agree with Vincent’s and Wuest. I am fairly surprised more commentaries don’t make mention of Euripides. The Apostle was very familiar with the Greek myths and classical literature. He was writing to Greeks, and about those Christians who held on to Epicurean ways (who believed self satisfaction was the highest goal). I believe having a look at the text of The Cyclops will help us understand what Paul was trying to point out about those “enemies of the cross.”
If you are unaware of the story you should become familiar with it. Odysseus and his men, after the siege at Troy, were at the cave home of the Cyclops, Polyphemus (known via Homer’s Odyssey, while in The Cyclops he is unnamed). Polyphemus was a child of Poseidon and deity in his own right: “Did they not know that I am a god and descended from gods?” (Eur. Cycl. 231) Polyphemus found Odysseus and the crew and was getting ready to have a human feast. After Odysseus did some pleading in hopes of getting Polyphemus to change his mind, the child of Poseidon said,
Little man, the wise regard wealth as the god to worship; all else is just prating and fine-sounding sentiments. As for the headlands where my father’s temples are built, I pay them no heed. Why did you bother to put them in your speech? And as for Zeus’s thunder-bolt, I do not shudder at that, stranger, nor do I know any respect in which he is my superior as a god.. . . When Zeus sends his rain from above, taking my water-tight shelter in this cave and dining on roasted calf or some wild beast, I put on a feast for my upturned belly, then drinking dry a whole storage-vat of milk, I drum on it, making a din to rival Zeus’s thunder.. . . The Earth brings forth grass willy-nilly to feed my flock. These I sacrifice to no one but myself—never to the gods—and to my belly (γαστρι τηδε), the greatest of divinities. To guzzle and eat day by day and to give oneself no pain—this is Zeus in the eyes of men of sense. As for those who have passed laws and complicated men’s lives, they can go hang. For my part, I shall not forgo giving pleasure to my heart—by eating you. Guest-presents you shall have—you shall not blame me there—guest-presents of this kind: fire to warm you, salt inherited from my father, and a bronze pot, which when it has reached a boil will clothe your ill-clad bodies nicely. Now go inside in order that you may stand around the altar of the god who dwells within and give me sumptuous entertainment. (316-46)
Pay close attention to what Polyphemus was saying, and how the point or moral might be worked out in what Paul was discussing. The mighty cyclops placed himself on par with Zeus and even his own father (creator), Poseidon, by virtue of Poseidon being Zeus’ brother: “nor do I know any respect in which he is my superior as a god.” He gave sacrifices to himself, never to the other gods, and namely to his belly, “the greatest of divinities.” But don’t minimize that last part because of the translation. The word for “divinities” is the word for deities or gods.
That is exactly what Paul was talking about: “their god is the belly, they exult in their shame, and they think about earthly things.” These “enemies of the cross,” professing Jesus with their mouths but exposing their Epicurean lifestyles with their works, were like Polyphemus:
To guzzle and eat day by day and to give oneself no pain—this is Zeus in the eyes of men of sense.. . . For my part, I shall not forgo giving pleasure to my heart
Paul’s audience, at least a good portion of them I believe, would have understood the connotations of his reference to those who indulge their bellies. Knowing a bit more of the context and background now I can grasp better who and what Paul was talking about. Also this is further evidence that a good handling of the history and mythology and legend of other cultures helps in communicating with those cultures; that it is good and even necessary to read texts that are not in The Bible in order to have better dialogue and growth. It’s okay. God’s cool with that. Paul used non-inspired, non-scriptural sources to make points and give exhortations.
This was not the only time Paul used a Euripides reference. In Bacchae, Dionysus told Pentheus “I would sacrifice to the god rather than kick against his spurs (κεντρα λακτιζοιμι) in anger, a mortal against a god” (Eur. Bac. 794-5). And (at least as far as Luke recorded), while retelling his conversion story to King Agrippa, Paul said, “When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? You are hurting yourself by kicking against the goads (κεντρα λακτιζειν)’” (Ac. xxvi.14). The key here is what Paul (Luke?) did not mention, namely the last phrase of Dionysus: “a mortal against a god.” The mortal (Paul) was trying in vain to fight against a god (Jesus).
I know for a fact that there are many Christians who do not like the idea of non-Christian, non-inspired texts being quoted and used in the inspired text of Scripture. Many of them will deny it, say this sort of thing is simply incorrect. When I see something like this I find myself more enraptured by the Scriptures. The text is more real to me, more genuine. Real people in real situations using their skills, education, smarts, abilities, whatever it is, and communicating the good news about Jesus.