A reader emailed me a question about how Jesus viewed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:
“when it comes to sodom and Gomorrah it seems that Jesus affirms this event as literal in Matthew 11:23 and Luke 17:29. But if this is the case it seems as if Jesus is affirming genocide of a large group of whole cities.”
Let’s begin with the passages in context and then I’ll offer some thoughts.
20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
26 “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.
28 “It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. 29 But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.
First, let’s address the questioner’s concern that these actions would constitute ‘genocide’. At this point, I think the questioner is conflating genocide with mass killing. The destruction of Sodom does reflect an instance of mass killing but mass killing is a different act than genocide: Genocide involves the attempt to destroy a racial, religious, and/or cultural identity as such. And while that act may involve acts of mass killing it is not defined by them. For example, the firebombing of Dresden (which I reference in Jesus Loves Canaanites) was an act of mass killing and, I think, a clear crime against humanity. But it was not a genocide given that the intent was to demoralize and defeat the German army, not to destroy Germanic identity as such.
But even if we take genocide off the table, it is certainly troubling enough when the act is reframed as mass killing. So what should we think of Jesus referring to a past and future act of mass killing?
To begin with, we should deal with this question: does the fact that Jesus refers to the destruction of Sodom require the reader who accepts Jesus’ divinity to believe that the event occurred? I don’t think so. In any case like this, we need to distinguish the teaching from the incidental form of the teaching. Imagine, for example, that a coach is warning his team about the rigors of their upcoming wilderness training camp. He says, “We’re going to have you complete a daunting set of tasks that are going to make Frodo’s quest to destroy the ring to look like child’s play!” Note that the coach’s point is not to teach about the historicity of Frodo’s quest but to give an illustration of the rigors of a future wilderness training camp. By the same token, when Jesus appeals to the past example of Sodom, his point is to warn about future judgment. And this point remains relevant whether or not the judgment of Sodom literally occurred given that the point is to invoke Sodom as a symbolic representation of terrible judgment.
Okay, but don’t we still have Jesus warning about a future act of mass killing? It is at this point that I would suggest we need to add a grain of salt to our interpretations because we are dealing here not with historical events but rather with eschatological events. The point is not that there will be acts of mass killing in the future but rather that there will be a future judgment. The Sodom judgment is invoked as a symbolic representation of that judgment, but the actual form it would take may be very different. For example, one common view of eschatological judgment is that it involves God turning people over to their own sinful and self-destructive desires (cf. Romans 1:24).
It is also important to note that this is an ancient theme in Scripture. For example, it has been noted that the flood narrative (Genesis 6-9) should be read as God pulling back and allowing the chaotic primal forces (e.g. the waters above and below) to return, thereby enveloping the world into chaos. In other words, it is less about God actively judging than God withdrawing and allowing the rebellious forces of creation to experience the consequences of their own self-destructive spirals.