Schwager on “Doubling of Sin and Hell”

An excerpt from Raymund Schwager’s Jesus in the Drama of Salvation: Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption, New York: Crossroads, pages 63-69.

Doubling of Sin and Hell

According to the great faith-tradition of Israel, the rejection of a message from God does not leave people just as they were before. Rather, the negative decision has an effect on the one who makes it and, with repetition, leads to obduracy. The Egyptian pharaoh fell prey to it in the face of the repeated requests and demands of Moses (Exod. 5-11). The proclamation of Isaiah, as was explicitly noted, had the same effect (Isa. 6:8-13), and Jeremiah also met increasing, obstinate resistance. Must not rejection of the message of God’s kingdom have resulted in a similar or an even more definite hardening?

The idea of an intensification of sin is frequently found in the synoptic Gospels, even if it is presented by means of a whole range of images, which may be an important indication that we are dealing with a broad tradition. There is the word-picture of an impure spirit, which leaves a person, but because it cannot find a place it returns to its original “house,” which has in the meantime been cleaned up, and brings with it seven other spirits, who are even worse than itself. From this comes the conclusion: “Thus in the end it will be worse for that person than at the first. So it shall be likewise with this evil generation” (Matt. 12:45). If the verbal image makes a direct reference at the end to the present “wicked generation,” then it is at least being emphasized by the evangelists that the proclamation and impact of Jesus upon “this generation” has led to an intensification of their disastrous situation. He began with driving out demons and cleaning up like new many a devastated “house.” The rejection of his message may have been connected with relapse and may have effected a worsening of the previous condition.

The parable is introduced in Matthew on the grounds that it is not given to all to understand the mystery of the kingdom of God. To this surprising utterance is immediately added a reason which to our ears is not only just as surprising, but downright repugnant: “For to whoever has will more be given, and that in abundance; but from whoever does not have, even that will be taken away” (Matt. 13:12). Does not this measuring with a double measure, which is elevated to a principle of conduct, directly contradict the behavior of Jesus, who devoted himself to sinners and outcasts and who took on precisely those who have nothing in the eyes of God? Before we venture to a judgment, we must first of all take note that the saying that is repugnant for us turns up in two other places with almost the same wording. The double measure is found on the one hand in the parable of the money entrusted by the master, where the one who has only one talent has even this taken away from him and given to the first one who already has ten talents (Matt. 25:14-30; see also Luke 19:11-27); on the other hand it is mentioned in Mark in connection with a warning of Jesus about human judgment. Precisely this connection may offer the best help for a deeper understanding. The warning runs: “Take heed what you hear! By the measure you give it will be measured to you, and more will be added. For to whoever has will more be given, and from whoever has not, even that will be taken away” (Mark 4:24-25). Jesus begins his appeal with the warning to listen carefully to what is to come. So it seems to be about something that one can easily miss. He than stresses that it is people themselves who set up the measure by which it is allotted to them. Being judged does not involve an arbitrary laying down of punishments by a higher authority, but rather the measure which individuals use for themselves determines what is bestowed on them, and how. The saying of Jesus is valid in the positive and negative sense, as becomes clear above all through his further warnings against judging: “Judge not that you be not judged! For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt. 7:1-2). Judging is a dangerous thing, in which one can easily get caught, for those who condemn another lay down the measure which will be applied to them. So it is always individuals who determine the measure according to which something happens to them, whether it be for good or for evil.

This image is found also in the parable of the money entrusted by the master. In this, the first two servants are praised by their master because they acted in a way appropriate to the gifts which they had received. The entrusted money did not remain with them unfruitfully, but it led to a doubling. The third certainly did nothing wrong, but he buried the talent that he had received. In rendering his account, he justifies his strange action by using what he thinks he knows of his master: “Master, I knew you to be a harsh man; you reap where you did not sow and gather where you did not winnow. So I was afraid, and I went and hid your money in the ground” (Matt. 25:24-25). The master in his judgment does not correct the picture that the servant has drawn of him, but he uses it precisely as a norm by which he judges the behavior of his servant: “You knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I did not winnow? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, so when I returned I could have received what was my own with interest” (Matt. 25:26-27). The master judges his servant only according to that picture which the servant himself has made of him. In the slightly altered version of Luke, the master actually says explicitly: “I will condemn you out of your own mouth” (Luke 19:22). The first two servants acted in accordance with the experience that they had of the master. They received from him and were led to increase what they had received. But the third had his fixed picture of the master, which could no longer be altered even despite the fact that he received a talent. Thus he acted according to the norm and the picture that he already carried within himself, i.e., according to the picture of a strict master, who had to be feared. Because he did not let go of this picture — despite the talent he had received — he was judged according to it. In his defense before the master he laid down the measure by which he was measured and by means of which he lost again what he previously received. The whole incident with the three servants is finally summed up by the master in the words: “For everyone who has, to him will be given and he will have in abundance; but whoever has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matt. 25:29). The context shows with unusual clarity that by the double allocation no arbitrary arrangement from outside, favoring the rich over against the poor, is meant. Those who have are those who see that they have received and who by this grateful recognition become capable of receiving yet more. Those who do not have are those who refuse to recognize what they have received as such, who make for themselves a harsh picture of the giver and trap themselves in the role of self-defense. They become thereby less and less capable of receiving and fall into a mechanism of obduracy.

The understanding which we have achieved concerning the haves and the have-nots leads us back to Jesus’ speech about parables which is introduced and justified by the saying in question (Matt. 13:12 and parallels; see also Mark 4:25). The parables therefore set in motion a double process. Whoever sees becomes through them even more seeing; and whoever is blind becomes obdurate through them. The parables attempt to open up a new vision of those everyday things which are in themselves recognizable by everyone, but which not all see. Jesus made his new teaching clear from everyday experience also in other connections. He justified the demand for love of one’s enemy from an experience which is accessible to everyone, but from which normally no lessons are drawn, or quite different ones: “for he [the heavenly Father] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and he sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Looking at the sun and the rain could teach people something crucial, as also looking at the birds of the sky, which do not sow, and at the lilies of the field, which do not work (Matt. 6:26, 28). From the experience of how God cares for them, people ought to learn to let go of their own cares and trust the heavenly Father. Similarly with the experience of the sower, the weeds among the wheat, the mustard seed, the leaven, the buried treasure, the pearl of great value, and the fish net thrown out into the sea (Matt. 13:1-53). All these experiences of everyday life can, when they are read correctly, give witness to the kindly Father, his proximate coming and dealings with people. Even if the new community in the kingdom of God contrasts completely with the old laws of the human world, it is however not something unrealistic. It only needs a new look to see signs of it everywhere in our everyday world. If people defend themselves against this new vision of reality, if they remain in their old positions of fear and self-defense, then they necessarily defend themselves also against what Jesus brings. Thus they lock themselves even more into their old world and give themselves up to a process of judgment, which runs according to self-chosen and stubbornly defended norms. Hence the parables lead those who hear them, and yet do not hear, into a process of self-induced hardening of heart (Mark 4:10-12 and parallels).

The connection sketched out between the goodness of God in his dawning kingdom and the harsh words of judgment is confirmed in an impressive manner by the parable of the unforgiving servant. The master in this parable sets at the outset no condition for his servant, to whom he remits a gigantic debt without any return deed, and links with his action only the expectation that the fortunate man in turn treat his fellow servants in accordance with the experience that was granted to him. But this expectation is not fulfilled, and the servant, who had to pay nothing back, clings slavishly in his dealings with his fellow servant to the old norm of payment and repayment, so he is called back and made to explain himself: “and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:33). The debt already remitted to him is now counted against him again. The master, who at the beginning was pure goodness, behaves after the servant’s refusal precisely according to the norm which the servant — despite his experience of generosity — applied in his treatment of his fellow servant. As the servant had his fellow servant thrown into prison, “till he should pay the debt,” so the master gives him over to the torturers “till he should pay all his debt” (Matt. 18:30, 34). Jesus concludes the parable with the clear application: “So also my heavenly Father will do to each one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35).

A similar teaching is found also in Luke directly following ,Jesus’ warning: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful!” (Luke 6:36). Certainly, the positive precedent is emphasized here, but precisely in this way it becomes clear that the dramatic process of doubling and intensification comes from the picture of God and the experience of God: “give, and it will be given unto you… ” (Luke 6:38). Giving sets off an overflowing positive dynamic, while condemnation and ingratitude result in the opposite dynamic, which leads to complete self-absorption. This is why people should not fear judgment, despite their weakness, as long as they take notice of this one thing: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; release one another from debt, and your debt will also be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).

Wherever people are ready to forgive and to receive there they will be given more, and they will become ever more able to give themselves. Wherever they are not ready to receive, and remain trapped in the norms of payment and repayment, there they will lose again even what they have received, and they hand themselves over to a process of judgment, based on repayment and payment down to the last penny. As each of us is a debtor, no one can endure this process; the demand for repayment becomes ever greater and the end of this escalating process can only be hell. Thus the unmerciful creditor ends up with the “torturers” (Matt. 18:34), and in the parable of the money entrusted by the master the third servant is thrown out into “outer darkness.”

The sayings of judgment and hell, insofar as they are related to a new situation in the proclamation of Jesus, are not in opposition to the message of the dawning of the kingdom of God, and there is no regression because of them into the old norms of retribution, but rather they show how radical the basileia’s call to conversion is. Only with the judgment sayings does it become clear what decision people are faced with and how disastrous the old and apparently proven “wisdom” of retribution finally is. Jesus’ call to conversion is consequently not first of all about better obedience to one or the other commandment, but about the choice between two visions of the whole of reality and between two basic ways of behaving. Does a person accept the invitation to the king’s wedding feast, and thereby take over God’s new standard (the wedding garment), or does the person persist in former activities and ways of behaving, which necessarily set off a process of self-judgment? If someone becomes involved with that God proclaimed by Jesus and made available to experience through his parables, his healing, his driving out of demons, and his treatment of sinners, then there opens up for that person a world with new “rules of the game.” However, the empty formula of a declaration of belief in the words of Jesus is not sufficient for this step (see Luke 6:46); (1) what is decisive is whether the new standard of God’s action also determines one’s own actions toward one’s neighbors.

The negative dynamic of judgment can also be made clear from the dispute that Jesus had with his opponents over the driving out of demons. The Pharisees could not dispute the fact that he drove them out, but they tried to put Jesus’ deeds in a completely different light: “Only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, does he cast out demons” (Matt. 12:24). If Jesus had claimed to act only by the power of his heavenly Father, his adversaries wanted to uncover a very different force at work behind him, a satanic one. The accusation demonstrates how two completely opposite visions of reality confronted each other. Although Jesus had appealed for an end of condemnations, this process still continued against him. The accusation of conspiring with the highest of the devils betrays the fact that in the judgments and charges of his enemies a satanic dimension was involved (for in their view Satan had still not fallen from heaven). The Old Testament proclamation of violent judgment has consequently become radicalized through the basileia message of Jesus and transformed into the New Testament drama of the satanic and of hell.

What we have discovered so far can again be substantiated by a control test. K. Erlemann attempts in a comprehensive study to present the picture of God which emerges from the synoptic parables. (2) In so doing, he neither distinguishes between the parables of the kingdom of God and the parables of judgment, nor does he pick up the clear utterances where Jesus speaks in the synoptic Gospels of self-judgment. Hence he comes to the following conclusion:

The picture of God in the parables is stamped with unresolved tensions owing to antithetical ideas: reward according to work versus reward out of kindness; wrath versus compassion; universalism versus particularism; invitation versus exclusion, (partial) generosity versus unrighteousness, fulfillment versus “crisis,” marriage festival versus judgment, adhering to Israel versus surrender of prerogatives to others. Now one aspect, now the other is emphasized, depending on the question posed and the situation. (3)

If these tensions, correctly noted by Erlemann, really remain unresolved, as he himself says, and if it cannot he clearly defined in what situations one or the other aspect stands out, then the systematic theologian, the preacher, and even the reader are finally at the mercy of arbitrariness. It seems to depend purely on themselves which trait in the picture of God to bring out or what alternation between the different pictures to choose. The doctrine of God thereby loses its inner coherence. In the trinitarian and christological problematic, theologians and the ecclesiastical profession have not resigned themselves simply to leaving “unresolved tensions” as they are. Why should things be different for questions of justice, judgment and anger, and also necessarily for the question of redemption? The consequences would in every case be very great. Reference to the work of Erlemann is therefore very helpful in order to make clear that the choice of the dramatic model does not derive from some arbitrary fashion. The central question which is at stake is rather whether one wants to resign oneself to an unresolved tension of opposing aspects in the picture of God, or whether a dramatic scheme, and with it a solution to the logical contradictions, can be successful. Whether this is possible will be answered only from the viewpoint of the end of the drama. But before we pass on to the next act, we still have to consider an important interim question, which is crucial above all for the problematic of the connection between the person of Jesus and the judgment on sins. This problematic comes together in the phrase “Son of Man,” by which Jesus characterized himself according to the manner of speaking of the evangelists.


1. See Bultmann (1964), 163.

2. “As far as I know, no comprehensive exegetical work on the picture of God in the Gospels has yet been produced — apart from the contribution of R. A. Hoffmann” (Erlemann [1988], 24).

3. Ibid., 279.

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