Shame, Sin, and Death: Communicating the Doctrine of Hell in an Honor and Shame Culture

How ought missionaries communicate or theologize concerning the doctrine of hell in an honor-shame culture? This question has become increasingly relevant as the locus of Christianity has moved away from Western countries in Europe and North America and towards the global South and Far East where some of the largest Christian populations exist in nations like China. Western discourse over the doctrine of hell is saturated with language largely arising from what is often called a guilt-innocence culture of which the West largely consists, and this language is exported via missionaries to these foreign contexts where the concept of guilt is not as compelling of a force as is shame. As a result, many people groups in these countries are forced to think in contexts not familiar to them and so this can serve as an unnecessary barrier to gospel acceptance. 

Therefore, a pressing need has arisen for missionaries and theologians to contextualize the gospel in order to reach people groups living within this socio-cultural framework. Language about hell and the atonement in terms relating to honor and shame has not been expanded upon and unpacked for significance in the life of Christians as it has been for guilt-innocence cultures in the West for over nineteen hundred years despite the biblical authors being clearly concerned about honor and shame. In light of this, my aim will be to demonstrate how an essential doctrine, the doctrine of hell, can be communicated cogently to those people groups within an honor-shame socio-cultural background. This paper will not only help contextualize an important doctrine to those within an honor-shame culture but also assist Western biblical scholars and theologians in understanding this doctrine for the biblical authors and the implications for Christianity today.

First, it is important to determine what defines an honor-shame culture. Jackson Wu argues that, “In broad terms, a person’s ‘honor’ refers to his or her perceived public worth within a relational context… By contrast, ‘shame’ is the ill repute that results when a person has some supposed deficiency or fails to meet the standards prescribed by his or her community. A more colloquial way of talking about honor and shame (in cultures like China) is to speak of saving or losing ‘face.’” (1) For these cultures, status and prestige is determined by the accumulation of honor and the avoidance of shame which is often not limited to individuals but also entire families or “names.” Wu identifies three primary characterizations of such cultures: 1) concern with reputation or “face,” 2) a tendency towards collectivism rather than individualism, 3) the primacy of vertical, hierarchical relationships over horizontal relationships. (2) Cultures can regulate honor and shame through a number of mediums, but they largely can be reduced to two categories: achievement (based on individual merit like attaining a victory) or ascription (based on social position or familial relationships). Honor-shame cultures are primarily concerned with what someone has done coupled with who that person is rather than merely actions like in guilt-innocence cultures. In this way, honor and shame has not only a subjective dimension (feeling ashamed) but also an objective one (shame given via a community). (3)

Further, it is crucial to define what is hell. The New Testament uses mainly two terms to talk about what is commonly described as hell: Gehenna and Tartarus, with the more common being Gehenna. (4) Gehenna means “Valley of Hinnom” where some of the kings of Judah burned their children as sacrifices (2 Chr 28:3, 33:6). Jeremiah referred to this place in his condemnation of Judah as an example of their evil, and he predicted that it would itself a place of condemnation for those deserving of it (Jer 7:31, 19:2-6). While the term Gehenna appears in later rabbinic literature, it also appears twelve times in the New Testament being qualified twice by “of fire” (Matt 5:22; 18:9) and is once paralleled by “the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43). (5) A number of allusions are also made about hell throughout the New Testament as it is described as a place of “eternal fire” (Matt 18:8), “outer darkness” with “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:12), “wrath” (John 3:36), “tribulation and distress” (Rom 2:8-9), “corruption” (Gal 6:8), and as “the second death” (Rev 21:8). (6) Further the inhabitants themselves are described as in poverty being naked and blind (Rev 3:17).

All these analogies communicate the notion that hell is a place of anguish and turmoil and a place in which the inhabitants reside for eternity. As Denny Burk argues, “Because it does not end, the purpose of this eschatological judgment cannot be redemptive or transformative in any sense. It is a recompense for unrepentant sin, not a purging of sin. This leads to the conclusion that the final state of the damned is retributive.” (7) Likewise, Tremper Longman III states that, “The problem of retribution is a huge one in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament… Daniel 12, however, makes it clear that the wicked will ultimately get what they deserve – destruction and shame.” (8) Therefore, while hell can be properly viewed as penal punishment for sin, punishment does not exist without shame. (9) In the same way a person’s sin brings guilt, these dishonorable acts bring shame as hell is not simply a place in the eschatological future but also a present reality (John 3:18). All persons without Christ live in shame before God.

As mentioned previously, the only cogent way to contextualize shame and honor is within a particular community. How can hell as a place of shame be seen as legitimate to a culture which has no knowledge of Christianity or its conception of God and therefore has no sense of shame before him? As John Davis notes, “Honour is local; it cannot be measured or assessed, except very roughly, by an outside observer. Nor can unattached outsiders be assessed readily, for that implies a moral relationship.” (10) Therefore, to describe an honor-shame relationship between an audience and a God they have never heard of, the missionary or theologian must intricately tie the doctrine of creation to the doctrine of hell. Those within an honor-shame culture must develop the conviction that they themselves are within God’s creation and have brought dishonor to it before a doctrine of hell can make sense. Until such a conviction is established, teachings concerning hell and shame will seem foreign to the people groups outside of a Western context who are unfamiliar with the God of the Bible and the Western conception of hell as penal punishment.

When the temple of the LORD stood in ancient Israel, it was understood to be where God dwelled with his people. As Habakkuk writes, “But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (2:20), and likewise Jonah, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple” (2:7). The temple was a tangible manifestation of God’s presence with his people, but as some scholars have noted, Genesis 1 can likely be understood within the framework of cosmic temple imagery. This idea does not seem to be limited to Genesis 1 as Isaiah 66 says, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be,’ declares the LORD” (vv. 1-2). A notable proponent of this view, John Walton argues regarding the Isaiah text:

“Here we can see the elements of a cosmos-sized temple, a connection between temple and rest, and a connection between creation and temple. This in itself is sufficient to see that the cosmos can be viewed as a temple… This is what makes day seven so significant, because without God taking up his dwelling in its midst, the (cosmic) temple does not exist. The most central truth to the creation account is that this world is a place for God’s presence.” (11)

This places the hearers within the honor-shame culture right within the story itself. Their actions are not indifferent to a foreign deity; rather, their shameful acts have brought dishonor into God’s creation which can be properly conceptualized as a temple, God’s abode, and the place where he is to be worshiped and lived with in honorable community. Humans have brought shame right into God’s house. 

Also, not only did the biblical authors conceptualize the cosmos as God’s temple, the New Testament authors like Paul believed the very cosmos itself was upheld by God. As Paul writes in Colossians 1, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (vv. 16-17). In this way, a doctrine of God’s omnipresence necessitates that all things are present to him as he is the one who upholds all of creation not just in its past initiation but also in its present existence.

It is further appropriate to mention the hearers’ role as image bearers as well. Humans are not an accident of a process which did not have them in mind; to the contrary, humans are given a distinguished place within creation, or God’s temple, as his image bearers who carry with them profound responsibilities. As Kenneth Matthews argues, the image of God in Genesis 1:26-28 is most likely emblematic not of anything special relative to a human’s essence within the immediate context but rather her role within the larger framework of creation itself:

“Genesis 1:26-28 concerns itself primarily with the consequence of this special creation [(i.e. humanity)], the rule of human life over the terrestrial order, rather than defining the identity of the ‘image.’ In the ancient Near East it was widely believed that kings represented the patron deities of their nations or city-states… The language of 1:26 reflects this idea of a royal figure representing God as his appointed ruler… Our passage declares that all people, not just kings, have the special status of royalty in the eyes of God.” (12)

From humanity’s inception, they have received an honorable position within God’s domain; they have been made vice-regents and royalty to rule over creation and so have a considerable responsibility to care for this creation as hard working, just, and wise rulers. However, instead of functioning as wise rulers and obedient servants before God, humanity has opted to attempt to seize more glory and authority than is their due lot by disobeying God and seeking to be more like him. In this way, humanity has acted wrongfully and instead of bringing honor to their name, humans have only immersed themselves with shame. Commenting on Genesis 3:7, Nahum Sarna notes that the serpent was right in that by eating the fruit, the humans would have insight like divine beings, “But, ironically, the new insight they gain is only the consciousness of their own nakedness, and shame is the consequence.” (13) Therefore, because of humans’ disobedience and the shame which they have brought upon themselves and God’s good creation, they are cast out of God’s presence to live in turmoil and work fruitlessly (Gen 3:17-24). While humans today might possess honor before one another, this honor pales in comparison to the honor and glory that exists in the wake of God before which persons are convicted of their own inadequacy (Gen 3:8, Isa 6:5; Rev 1:17).

In light of these considerations about honor-shame and hell, how ought missionaries and theologians think about the doctrine of hell within an honor-shame culture? It seems obvious to identify hell foremost as a place of shame for those who have brought dishonor to God and his good creation, and shame is brought about by sin. As Jackson Wu argues, “My interpretation… rejects the dichotomy between God’s law and His honor. I affirm that sin is most basically a violation against God’s honor. Law points to merely one social sphere within an honor-shame world.” (14) In other words, law emerges from the more fundamental framework of honor. A violation of law necessitates a violation of honor as it is God’s honor which serves as the blueprint for God’s law. Shame is sin in that it is brought about by violating this law thereby violating God’s honor. As Paul states in Romans, “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law” (2:23). God’s subsequent actions in the face of this offense are similar to that of a family which may cast out a dishonorable son for bringing shame to their name. Breaking the law is a means by which God is brought dishonor, and in order to defend his honor and save face, God deals with the law-breakers and shame-bringers by casting them out of his presence and good creation with the result being that these persons find themselves in hell. In this way, shame is both the fruit and the root of sin. (15)

Therefore, shame does not merely accompany hell in the eschatological future but hell is reserved for those who are presently shameful in their earthly lives. Humans may have honor before one another, but the only hierarch before whom it truly matters to have honor is God because as the creator of all he stands above all other rulers (Ps 97:9). As the proper ruler of the cosmos determined to restore honor and put all things back to its initial good state, God graciously tolerates shameful persons who pollute his abode with dishonorable practices, but he will cast them out of his house and out of the community which rightfully dwells with God (Isa 66:14-24, Rev 20:13-15). This honor-shame dynamic also illustrates why Israel and Judah were inevitably conquered and driven out from their land. As a result of their sin, their shamefulness in how they treated one another (Jer 5:1-9) and abandoned God (Jer 2:5-13) caused the defilement of the land. This defilement brought a communal sense of both guilt and shame before God requiring the expulsion of the people (Lev 18:24-30).

The communal aspect reveals another part of hell’s severity. Hell is not merely anguish and material poverty (as opposed to the richness often accompanying the language describing those a part of the new creation), hell is also relational poverty. As previously mentioned, honor-shame cultures value names and are more collectivistic than individualistic. Hell as separation from God’s presence places shame on the inhabitants in that it alienates them from the community where the head is the one, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:15). This is another theme which permeates the first few chapters of Genesis. In the same way that Adam and Eve lost their dignity and honor by seeking to be gods, humanity in Genesis 4:1-11:9 sought to define morality and accumulate honor on their own terms leading to their debasement. Instead of maintaining their innate dignity as rulers, humans sought to live in a manner unworthy of their titles and so live in constant strife against one another (Gen 3:16; 6:5). Those who refuse to follow the Messiah reject the honor which he has sought to restore to humanity and so be restored to enter God’s presence as honorable people (John 17:22). As Wu notes:

“God justifies those who seek God’s ‘face,’ who glorify Him above all, regardless of ethnic-national identity. Because of their allegiance to Christ, they share Christ’s honor. Furthermore, they are called to endure Christ’s shame with him… Justification inherently serves our collective identity. It is less about ‘me’ and ‘God’ and more about ‘us’ and ‘God.’ However, the ‘us’ is redefined in relationship to Christ.” (16)

As opposed to the fate of those in hell, the fate of those in Christ is to abide in community with fellow heirs where these inhabitants are restored to their initial status as rulers and vice-regents with God (1 Cor 6:2-3). Jesus is not ashamed to call these people brothers because by his atoning death he has brought honor to them all (Heb 2:11). To the contrary for those in hell, they are ashamed of Jesus and his honor which he achieved through the shame of the cross which is why he remains ashamed of them in his return to judge the world (Luke 9:26).

Conclusion

The doctrine of hell, while often hard to swallow, ought not be hard to comprehend, especially for those whose culture neatly aligns with the Bible’s teachings about salvation and judgment. In their attempts to reach people groups around the world, Christians ought to not neglect the unique socio-cultural framework these people groups are living in especially if they desire to abide with them for any period of time. Without changing the heart of the gospel and neglecting its important points, Western Christians must make crucial doctrines like hell palpable to their hearers so that they may understand its dynamic in honor-shame as well as its dynamic in guilt-innocence. Not only will recontextualizing the Bible assist in evangelizing other people groups but it will also help Western theologians think through key Christian commitments with more clarity and even help engage better over these issues within their own culture.


(1): Jackson Wu, “How Christ Saves God’s Face… and Ours: A Soteriology of Honor and Shame” in Missiology: An International Review 44, no. 4 (2016): 376, accessed January 15, 2020, https://eds-a-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.samford.edu/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=0&sid=baed5f5f-2603-4713-bdb9-08b1f82cf250%40sdc-v-sessmgr03.

(2): Ibid.

(3): Ibid., 377.

(4): Often scholars might include “Hades” as another word for hell as this is how the KJV translates it, but this is probably best understood as a reference to the place of the dead apart from any eschatological understanding of judgment. See Edd Rowell, “Hell,” in Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1991), 368.

(5): Ibid.

(6): All Bible verses are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise quoted.

(7): Denny Burk, “Eternal Conscious Torment,” in Four Views on Hell, ed. Preston Sprinkle and Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 26.

(8): Tremper Longman III, Daniel, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 304.

(9): While penal substitution is clearly not the only model of the atonement arising from Western theology, it is the more prominent concept in evangelical circles. A form of satisfaction theory would work well here also.

(10): John Davis, People of the Mediterranean: An Essay in Comparative Social Anthropology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977), 78, quoted in John K. Chance, “The Anthropology of Honor and Shame: Culture, Values, and Practice” in Semeia 68 (1994): 145, accessed January 15, 2020, https://eds-b-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.samford.edu/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=923ddad9-3ba1-42db-afa1-0ab36225451c%40pdc-v-sessmgr03.

(11): John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 84-85.

(12): Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A of The New American Bible Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996) 168-169. It is worth noting that while the image of God within Genesis 1:26-28 may not make any particular commitments concerning a human being’s ontology within the immediate text itself, what it does commit to (i.e. humans being made vice-regents over creation) may carry with it certain presuppositions about human ontology. In other words, humans can properly function as rulers only because of their characteristics as persons which may include the capacity for reasoning, communication, free will, a sense of morality and the divine, etc.

(13): Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis of The JPS Torah Commentary, ed. Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 25.

(14): Wu, 378. Emphasis his.

(15): Ibid.

(16): Ibid., 381.

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