The Fires of Hell
One episode in the Gospel of Matthew helps bring into focus what the New Testament means when it speaks of "scandal" and the need to avoid it if possible. In this story, Jesus' disciples demonstrate how poorly even they understand his message by jockeying for position among themselves. Jesus rebukes them with what seems to be an extended non sequitur on the subject of scandalization:
At this time the disciples came to Jesus and said, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" So he called a little child to him and set the child in front of them. Then he said, "I tell you solemnly, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And so, the one who makes himself as little as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Anyone who welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But anyone who scandalizes one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone around his neck. What terrible things will come on the world through scandal. It is inevitable that scandal should occur. Nonetheless, woe to that man through whom scandal comes! If your hand or foot is a scandal to you, cut it off and throw it from you! Better to enter life maimed or crippled than be thrown with two hands or two feet into the endless conflagration. If your eye is a scandal, gouge it out and cast it from you! Better to enter life with one eye than be thrown with both into the fire of hell." (Matt. 18:1-9)The first thing to notice is how the disciples' lapse into mimetic rivalry evoked from Jesus a discourse on scandal and scandalizing. As I said, it seems at first a non sequitur. From the mimetic point of view, however, it is the perfect response. Jesus recognized his disciples' anxiety about their relative social standing for what it was: an indication that they were becoming "stumbling blocks" for one another. They were becoming envious and rivalrous.
Ironically, Jesus here uses imagery that is scandalous in the conventional sense of being shocking in order to stress the dangers of scandal in the scriptural sense of something that arouses envious, covetous, or rivalrous desire. The image of gouging out one's eye or crippling oneself in order to avoid a dangerous possibility is so hideous, in fact, that there is no chance that it would be taken literally. At the same time, it dramatically underscores the scope of a danger of which Jesus' disciples remain oblivious. Here, however, it is only Jesus who understands the depth of the problem of mimetic rivalry. Only he had been to the desert. Only he had realized that the sower of discord dispenses satanic forms of camaraderie, and that all the kingdoms of this world owed their coherence to this satanic alchemist and his accusatory recipe for turning discord, into harmony.
In the passage, Jesus uses two terms in speaking of the result of scandalization. In one verse he speaks of "endless conflagration" (my translation). Like all conflagrations in which the Bible takes an interest, this conflagration is no doubt a metaphor for violence. It is endless, obviously, because the violence cannot be effectively terminated. In other words, it is apocalyptic violence. The sacralized violence that had always been humanity's instrument for terminating the deadly reciprocities of ordinary violence would be undermined by the Cross, and, during his lifetime, the man who was murdered on it implored his followers to avoid the scandals that led to reciprocities of rivalry and violence. What Jesus realized was that the only alternative the world would one day have to "endless conflagration" would be the renunciation of the highly flammable mixture of envy, rivalry, jealousy, and resentment for which the word "scandal" is a virtual synonym.
The other term Jesus used in this passage to warn against the effect of scandal was the Greek term here, as elsewhere, translated as "hell." The Greek word is gehenna. The word has a literal as well as a symbolic reference. It refers to the garbage dump located in New Testament times southwest of Jerusalem. For better or worse, the smoldering fires that burned there "endlessly" gave the later Christian notion of "hell" its most enduring metaphor. The deeper meaning of this passage surfaces, however, when we learn that gehenna was the Greek term that translated the Hebrew "valley of ben-hinnom" (the place where idol-worshiping Israelites had engaged in child sacrifice), the term that Jeremiah has used as a synonym for cults of human sacrifice generally. Seen against this larger scriptural backdrop, therefore, Jesus' warnings become anthropologically intelligible.. He sees rivalry leading to scandal, and scandal leading either back into the worst forms of cult sacrifice (gehenna) or, in a world whose sacrificial resources have been exposed and destroyed, to the endless conflagration of apocalyptic violence. In this passage, astonishingly, Jesus responds to the most familiar and seemingly innocuous forms of scandal -- the disciples' petty rivalry for social status -- with the direst of warnings about the dangers of human sacrifice and catastrophic violence. Either the passage is illogical or it is coherent at a level deeper than the one at which human behavior and its consequences are usually reckoned. Deciding whether it is one or the other is not a matter of idle curiosity. We live in an age in which we are encouraged from cradle to grave to maneuver for social or economic advantage vis-a-vis others. If Jesus' rebuke to his disciples is not a clumsy mistake on his part or on the part of Matthew, then we flout his warnings about the need to avoid scandal at our peril.