This is not truly a book review, but rather a review of a dissertation by Kim Papaioannou that formed the basis for his book The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus. The latter work is next on my list of hell titles. Depending on how much of his dissertation turned into book form, I may be able to work through the book rather quickly.
With that bit of explanation and introduction out of the way, let me state I do not often (if every for that matter) do reviews for dissertations. Given most people do not read dissertations, interaction with such works is typically at the scholarly level, with academics responding to the works of their peers via journal articles or perhaps using information from a dissertation, be it something from the bibliography or statements contained in a dissertation that may be of value for their own efforts.
Why then did I read a dissertation on the places of punishment in the Synoptic Gospels? I suppose such a question is work answering. I came across Dr. Papaioannou’s book while looking other reference material on the subject of hell. Additionally, I noted he was interviewed by Chris Date from Rethinking Hell. After listening to the Rethinking Hell podcast interview and hearing good things about his book, I decided to see if I could look up his dissertation. Thankfully, I was able to locate it rather easily on the internet free of charge. I will provide a link to the dissertation at the conclusion of this review for those desiring to read through it.
Reading about places of punishment at first glance might seem to be a bit of a boring subject. After all, isn’t hell just simply hell? What could there possibly be to learn about what is traditionally thought of as the place of eternal conscious torment for the wicked? Isn’t Scripture quite clear about hell and as such, why write a dissertation on this subject matter let alone read about it? These are all valid questions. I can only speak for myself in that my journey through studying the nature of the final fate of the wicked has presented a resounding response that there is more to this issue than what has traditionally been understand not only in the Synoptic Gospels, but throughout Scripture.
Clarity of terms is vitally important. As such, Dr. Papaioannou devotes his disseration to the investigation of terms such as Gehenna, Hades, the Abyss, and the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Additionally, he provides an excursus on Tartarus given its close relation to the Abyss.
Firstly, a few notes on the writing style of this dissertation. Some might be frightened away from reading a dissertation and that is understandable. Many dissertations are written on very specific, almost minute areas of study for which are frankly not interested. As such, the language of dissertations can be replete with scholarly terminology that is not easily understood except by fellow academics or experts in the field of study being investigated. Dr. Papaioannou, while certainly writing in an academic style, presents the information in a way that is not outside the bounds of anyone simply willing to take the time to absorb the information. He does use original languages when needed which will force those not skilled in those languages to look up what those words mean. Given the ease of use of websites such as www.blueletterbible.org, such an effort is not difficult. Dr. Papaioannou presented his position well, support for his assertions were founded in sound exegesis and examination of relevant material, and his flow of thought is quite notable. I never felt lost in this material or unsure of the point Dr. Papaioannou was attempting to make.
Secondly, Dr. Papaioannou does an excellent job of demonstrating the traditional approach of lumping all the references to the final fate of the wicked (or the dead…more on that in a moment) can be done under the umbrella of the singular term “hell”. Quite unfortunately, this is the methodology of many bible translations. As a result, the reader of Scripture can and does end up with an incorrect understanding of the biblical context. Thus, terms such as Gehenna, Hades, the Abyss, and the oft used phrase weeping and gnashing of teeth are given a meaning not intended by the biblical authors. Furthermore, the Old Testament background from where many of the terms are derived, are overlooked or treated as irrelevant. Dr. Papaioannou seeks to correct this incorrect approach by examining in great detail the history of these terms and most importantly, their use in context within Scripture. To that end, I applaud his efforts to clear up the proverbial fog in this area of study. I especially appreciated his treatment of hades as the place of the dead for both the righteous and the wicked as well as his emphasis on the importance of the bodily resurrection that is required for both the righteous and the wicked to be judged and to receive their eternal reward. Dr. Papaioannou presents a plethora of biblical evidence that presents the necessary OT background for Hades (i.e. the Hebrew word Sheol that is the equivalent of the Greek word Hades). Those who might believe the OT has little to say about this issue will have that assumption rightfully challenged by Dr. Papaioannou’s efforts in this area.
Finally, I appreciated the length Dr. Papaioannou went in working through the parables in the Synoptic Gospels. He did an excellent job of noting the similarities and differences in the various gospel accounts, he noted why those differences and similarities are present, and he provided helpful exegesis and application of the relevant terminology. This is especially notable in his discussion of the phrase weeping and gnashing of teeth. It was quite interesting to see how many of the parables that utilize this phrase are related to the concept of a banquet. This is something I had not noted before and this speaks of the important connection between what it means to be cast out into darkness and what it means to be part of the kingdom of God as it relates to eschatology and the final fate of the righteous and the wicked.
If you are at all interested in an in-depth and helpful study of the biblical terms related to places of punishment in the Synoptic Gospels, I highly recommend this dissertation. To help facilitate finding this work, it can be obtained here.