Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell: “Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth” as Paideia in Matthew and the Early Church

Written by Meghan Henning Reviewed By Gregory E. Lamb

Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell by Meghan Henning (Assistant Professor of Christian Origins, University of Dayton, Ohio) is a well-researched, well-written work, which argues that Matthew and the early church utilized the biblical conception of “hell” and its vivid afterlife imagery as paideia or “Greco-Roman education” (p. 44). This work is a revision of Henning’s Ph.D. dissertation (2013) at Emory University supervised by Carl R. Holladay and Adela Yarbro Collins (pp. vii–viii).

Henning conspicuously places her goal, thesis, and methodology in the opening pages of her work. Henning’s goal is “to determine how the concept of hell functioned within early Christianity” (p. 10). Henning’s thesis explains the early Christians’ pedagogical use of “hell” as a rhetorical conduit for ethical conformity to the mores of the nascent Christian communities:

We will demonstrate that whether or not “hell” contains the kernel of the Christian message, it was viewed by ancient Christians as a useful vehicle for communicating the message. As a vehicle for educating early Christians, a better understanding of the rhetoric of eternal punishment can provide invaluable data about the attempts of early Christians to establish, fortify, and expand their fledgling communities (p. 3; cf. pp. 140–45).

In terms of method, Henning works with the primary sources in a straightforward, (mostly) chronological manner, tracing the progressive development of the concept of hell from the Hebrew Bible to Christian apocalypses and church fathers. The author focuses particularly on the “rhetorical orientation and cultural milieu” of these sources (p. 11).

Structurally, Henning’s work consists of a preface, eight chapters, seven appendices (which are essentially lexical and thematic analyses that serve as reference charts or to fill lacunae from the preceding chapters), an impressive twenty-one page bibliography, and useful indices for ancient sources, modern authors, and subjects. Chapter one serves as Henning’s prolegomenon to “the history of hellish rhetoric” (p. 1). Chapters two through five trace the chronological development of “hellish rhetoric” through the Hebrew Bible, Greek and Latin literature, Jewish apocalyptic literature, and the NT. Chapter six investigates the “pedagogical role of eschatological judgment, eternal punishment, and the afterlife in Matthew” (p. 138). Finally, chapters seven through eight explore the “pedagogical function of hell in the early Christian apocalypses and the early church,” and conclude with “the landscape of hell and the cultivation of early Christianity” (pp. 174, 224).

There is much to commend in Henning’s work: it is well-structured, concise, and deals chiefly with the primary sources. Overall, Henning’s thesis is compelling in that the kerygma of “hell” in the early church (as today) served as an eschatological warning of impending judgment to those not obeying or conforming to biblical teachings. Henning’s investigation is helpful in that it shows the powerful effects of the ancient authors’ use of ekphrasis (descriptive language appealing to the readers’ imagination) and enargeia (“vividness”) in the church’s preaching about hell (p. 156). By using vivid eschatological imagery that would have been familiar (or at least somewhat familiar) to his audience, Matthew effectively utilizes the rhetorical devices of ekphrasis and enargeia to create “an emotionally moving picture of eschatological judgment,” and to reinforce specific “ethical” and “cultural boundaries” of the nascent Matthean community (pp. 162–63,168–69). Henning cites Clement of Alexandria (Paed. 3:12) in support of her thesis: “For punishments and threats are for this end, that fearing the penalty we may abstain from sinning” (p. 224). However, for Clement to note the pedagogical praxis of the early church in its preaching of eternal punishment is altogether different from saying that hell does not exist as a literal place of eternal punishment—as Henning alludes to throughout her work (e.g., Henning’s comments on pp. 231–32).

As good as Henning’s work is it is not without faults such as typographical errors (e.g., “imported bluntly into own [sic] world,” p. 232). Despite her subtitle, Henning spends relatively little time exploring the afterlife imagery in Matthew, and this work is devoid of any detailed exegetical/syntactical analysis of biblical texts. Thus, it seems that the focus of Henning’s writing shifted throughout this project. However, the primary flaw of this work (albeit, not the focus of Henning’s thesis) is that Henning sees a bifurcation between the world(s) of the “ancient authors” and the twenty-first century that seemingly necessitates the striking of “the words ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ from our vocabulary” (p. 232). Baldly stated, if Henning’s eschatological presuppositions are correct, then there is no real, eternal punishment for humanity’s sin, and, therefore, Jesus’s atoning, substitutionary sacrifice on the cross was superfluous. So too, the deaths of countless Christian martyrs throughout history.

In sum, Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell reveals the complexity in contemporary approaches to eschatology and the parables of Jesus. Although Henning’s eschatological presuppositions are problematic (at least to this reviewer), she does argue her thesis well. Ultimately, this work is a must-have for serious students of the afterlife imagery of the Bible, Second Temple Literature, and later Christian writings.

Gregory E. Lamb

Gregory E. Lamb
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, USA

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