“Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities,
which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and
pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example
by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.”–Jude 7
Imagine I said to you that Jesus serves as an example of suffering and therefore loving your enemies.
What comes to mind? Would you think I am referring to the NT record of his ministry and death? What if someone argued that the use of the present tense “loving” must mean that Jesus really is loving the enemies with him in heaven right now?
My guess is the majority of people would remember the Gospel narratives of Jesus going to his death so would think the use of the present tense is not an unusual way to refer to his past sacrifice. Even though we were not present when he died, the Gospel narratives are cognitively present to us because we are intimately familiar with those narratives. I think most people would intuitively recognize that simply pointing to the present tense of “suffering” or “loving” would not be sufficient to establish otherwise.
Yet, this is exactly the kind of argument that some traditionalists use with respect to the following statement about Sodom and Gomorrah in Jude 7, “serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” Here are some examples. Matt Slick argues
If we look at the text and analyze what the Greek says, it becomes evident that the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah are presently experiencing the punishment of eternal fire.
In verse 7, Jude says that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (7a) who went after strange flesh (7b) are presently an example (δεῖγμα, deigma, 7c) in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire (7d). Jude knew that the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah were extinguished, yet he chooses to say they are an example of the punishment of eternal fire, which is happening now (present participle). This is because he is using the permanent judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah to illustrate the permanent judgment of the wicked who are presently” undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.”
Notice Slick’s appeal to the represent tense of the participle ‘undergoing’. To his credit, Slick does quote from accepted authorities on the Greek text such as Daniel Arichea and Howard Hatton.
The verb for undergoing is in the present tense, which means that the inhabitants of Sodom are at the moment going through their punishment…The word translated example is literally “sample”; that is, here is an actual case of sinners being punished; this serves both as proof and as a warning to future generations of the reality of divine punishment (note TEV “plain warning”).
He also quotes Bill Mounce, a respected NT grammarian.
“ὑπέχουσαι [from ὑπέχω hupéchō] is present tense, so it might imply a present punishment. However, remember there is no absolute time significance outside the indicative, and this is a participle. So all the tense of ὑπέχουσαι says is that it is undefined in its aspect. However, if relative time is accounted for, since πρόκεινται is present, the linear ὑπέχουσαι would be describing action happening at the same time as πρόκεινται and hence a present “undergoing.” So the suggestion is that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah are currently being punished for their sins, and their current punishment serves as a current warning to us.
A member of the Rethinking Group made a similar argument recently.
… what continues to stick out to me is that Jude switches from the aorist (past tense) participle “having given themselves over to sexual immorality” and [having] gone after strange flesh” to the present tense participle “undergoing punishment.”
As I continue to read the passage, this change is striking. I cannot see any good reason that Jude wouldn’t say “having undergone punishment” if he wanted to refer to a past judgment. There is nothing in Greek to prevent this and everything to expect this. I find no reason for Jude to use the present tense participle instead of the aorist tense which he used immediately before.
It seems to me the most likely conclusion is that Jude is intentionally using the present tense participle to communicate that Sodom is currently undergoing punishment and this serves as an example of eternal fire.
The argument has also made its way into academic journals,
The present participle in the clause δίκην ὑπέχουσαι (“undergoing punishment”) in conjunction with the present tense verb in the clause Πρόκεινται δεῖγμα indicate the ongoing nature of the punishment and thus its particular effectiveness in continuing to serve as an example.
The argument is simply that since the present tense is used then Jude must have had in mind the ongoing punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah as he was writing his letter. However, this assumes the present tense was used because Jude was saying Sodom and Gomorrah were being punished in Hades while he was writing. Douglas Moo helps to explain why this is a false assumption,
Jude concludes, then, that these sinful cities on the plain “serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” Indeed, God’s judgment was spectacular and final. According to Genesis 19:24, “the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the LORD out of the heavens.” Writers contemporary to Jude saw in the topography of the area, with its sulfurous odors, smoke, and terribly desolate appearance, continuing evidence of this awful judgment of God on sin. This is one of the reasons why Jude uses the present tense here at the end of verse, for the cities “serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.”
Moo correctly identifies that the present tense was used by Jude because Sodom and Gomorrah had already come to be regarded as an example of what it is like to undergo divine punishment. This is no assumption on Moo’s part. Kelly is indicative of most commentators on Jude who emphasize “Their destruction (more particularly Sodom’s) became a proverbial object-lesson of God’s vengeance on sin”. I am listing some examples from a range of sources prior to and including the NT era to show why these scholars draw this conclusion.
Isaiah 1:9 If the LORD of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah.
Isaiah 13:19 And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor and pomp of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them. 20 It will never be inhabited or lived in for all generations; no Arab will pitch his tent there; no shepherds will make their flocks lie down there. 21 But wild animals will lie down there, and their houses will be full of howling creatures; there ostriches will dwell, and there wild goats will dance. 22 Hyenas will cry in its towers, and jackals in the pleasant palaces; its time is close at hand and its days will not be prolonged.
Ezekiel 16: 48 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. 49 Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.
Zephaniah 2:9 Therefore, as I live,” declares the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, “Moab shall become like Sodom, and the Ammonites like Gomorrah, a land possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a waste forever. The remnant of my people shall plunder them, and the survivors of my nation shall possess them.”
3 Maccabees 2:5 You consumed with fire and sulfur the people of Sodom who acted arrogantly, who were notorious for their vices; and you made them an example to those who should come afterward. (NRSV)
Wisdom 10: 6 Wisdom rescued a righteous man when the ungodly were perishing; he escaped the fire that descended on the Five Cities. 7 Evidence of their wickedness still remains: a continually smoking wasteland, plants bearing fruit that does not ripen, and a pillar of salt standing as a monument to an unbelieving soul. (NRSV)
4 Esdras 2: 8 “Woe to you, Assyria, who conceal the unrighteous within you! O wicked nation, remember what I did to Sodom and Gomorrah, 9 whose land lies in lumps of pitch and heaps of ashes. That is what I will do to those who have not listened to me, says the Lord Almighty.” (NRSV)
Jubilees 16:5 And in that month the LORD executed the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah and Zeboim and all of the district of the Jordan. And he burned them with fire and sulphur and he annihilated them till this day just as (he said), “Behold, I have made known to you all of their deeds that (they were) cruel and great sinners and they were polluting themselves and they were fornicating in their flesh and they were causing pollution upon the earth.” 6 And thus the LORD will execute judgment like the judgment of Sodom on places where they act according to the pollution of Sodom..
The Testament of Asher, 7 1 “Do not become like Sodom, which did not recognize the Lord’s angels and perished forever.
Philo, “even to this day the visible tokens of the indescribable disaster are pointed out in Syria—ruins, cinders, brimstone, smoke and murky flames which continue to rise from the ground as from a fire still smoldering beneath”
Luke 17: 26 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. 28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29 but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them 30 — it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed.
2 Peter 2:6 and if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly;
It is important to note that in no place in biblical or extra-biblical literature was Sodom and Gomorrah spoken of in terms of an example of punishment in Sheol or Hades. The point is, all the evidence indicates the past destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was widely regarded as a tangible example illustrating how God destroys the wicked when he judges and punishes them. This means when people thought of Sodom and Gomorrah in the context of divine judgment they naturally thought of the story of the destruction of those cities in Genesis 19.
This brings me back to where we started. Just as saying Jesus serves as an example of loving your enemies would remind any Christian of the passion narratives in the Gospels, so also referring to Sodom and Gomorrah would have reminded Jude’s audience of the original story of the destruction of those cities. In such cases, the present tense is used because people will already have been thinking of the events in the story with which they were familiar. That is, the present tense was used because the OT story of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction was already cognitively present to his audience,
Traditionally, NT grammarians have understood the Greek tense of a verb to convey the time in which the action of the verb takes place. It was the idea that the tense itself had encoded within its form the idea of progression through time. So, if a NT author or speaker used the present tense, he did so because he thought the verbal action was taking place in his present. When I was learning NT exegesis, we were taught that the tenses function as follows.
|Relationship to verbal action in time
|A verbal action that is ongoing in the present at the time of writing or speaking.
|A verbal action that is ongoing in the future.
|Relates to a verbal action that is ongoing in the past
|Undefined with respect to ongoing action
|The action has been completed in the past with implication flowing from that completed act
This looks simple. If the present tense was used then the author this was because the verbal action was taking place in real time, at the time he was writing. This is sometimes called aktionsart. It is the theory that “the verb tenses of Greek are used to convey how an action objectively occurs.” If this is how the present tense functions then traditionalists would be right to point to the present tense in Jude 7 (“serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire”) and conclude that Jude had in mind the present, ongoing punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah in Hades.
That is not the whole story on Greek tenses, though. Advancement in studies on Greek tenses have shown that the tenses themselve relate more to an author’s subjective view of the verbal action than to any objective verbal aktionsart. This is called verbal aspect. I will include a link to an introduction to verbal aspect to assist the reader to understand this feature of Greek tenses. In short, while the aorist tense was used to talk about an event as a whole, the present tense was used when an author was thinking about something from the perspective of someone watching the event unfold. This would be like my statement that Jesus is an example of suffering and therefore loving one’s enemies. I do not mean to use the present tense because it conveys how Jesus’s suffering is objectively taking place in real time. I used the present tense because I wanted to use it as a verbal cue prompting people to think of his past death in a way that puts attention on the story of his suffering and death.
Stanley Porter, one of the pioneers of studies in Greek verbal aspect, explains it like this,
The analogy of a parade proves useful. If I am a television correspondent in a helicopter flying over the parade, I view the parade in its immediacy from a vantage outside the action as ‘perfective’; that is, in its entirety as a single and complete whole. If I am a spectator standing with others along the side of the road watching the parade pass by in front of me, I view the action immersed within it as ‘imperfective’; that is, as an event in progress. And if I am the parade manager in corporate headquarters considering all of the conditions in existence at this parade, including not only all the arrangements that are coming to fruition but all the accompanying events that allow the parade to operate, I view the process not in its particulars or its immediacy but as ‘stative’; that is, as a complex condition or state of affairs in existence. For example, in Rom. 8.11 with ἐγείραντος (aorist), 2 Cor. 1.9 with ἐγείροντι (present), 2 Tim. 2.8 with ἐγηγερμένον (perfect): each verse uses a different tense-form to refer to the same event, the raising of Christ. The use of each depends upon the author’s contextual emphasis.
…verbs function in Greek as indicators of the speaker or writer’s view of a particular action, regardless of how that action might ‘objectively’ have transpired in the real world or ‘when’ it might have transpired. The verb tenses grammaticalize (i.e. represent a meaning by selection of a particular verb tense-form) this subjective viewpoint through the category of verbal aspect.1 Greeks were still able to make reference to various times of the day or night and to distinguish kinds of action, but they did so by using a variety of indicators, with verb tenses as only one factor in establishing the temporal context.”
The point is not that the present tense itself is not used to express the idea of progression through time. Porter draws attention to how the Greek tenses were used to express something about the author’s subjective perspective of the verbal action. It is not a simple case of the present tense itself being used because it relates to what is objectively in time as the author was writing. The way an interpreter can detect progression in time in the use of the present tense involves much more than recognising the author used verbs and participles with the present tense form. Porter is at pains to emphasize this as he frequently revisits this point.
… in Greek the temporal ordering of events is not measured in relation to a fixed point (absolute time), but by the relations established among the involved events with regard to each other and to the context. This relating is achieved by a variety of indicators available in the language (e.g. use of temporal adverbs, such as νῦν, τότε). In other words, elements other than verbal aspect (context, for example) are the primary conveyors of temporal information in Greek. This applies in the case not only of the non-indicative mood forms, but of the indicative mood as well.
A variety of contextual features (often called deictic indicators) must be analyzed to establish temporal values: references to person, place and time, and discourse features.
The last of these appear to be the most significant … The interpreter’s task is to consider all of the relevant information—including verb tenses, discourse type and so forth—before deciding when an event is to be conceived of as occurring.
This all means the traditionalist argument that the present tense of “undergoing” shows Jude was saying Sodom and Gomorrah were actually being punished as he wrote his letter is based on an outdated view of NT Greek tenses. Traditionalists must identify other factors demonstrating their interpretation of Jude 7 is accurate. The only traditionalist I have seen attempting to buttress the present tense argument this way is Bill Mounce. After stating he believes the present tense conveys the idea that Sodom and Gomorrah are currently undergoing a punishment he says,
How could they be a present example? The historical descriptions of the traditional location of Sodom and Gomorrah certainly serves as an example to all who see it, and smell it. Wisdom 10:7 says, “Evidence of their wickedness still remains — a continually smoking wasteland, plants bearing fruit that does not ripen, and a pillar of salt standing as a monument to an unbelieving soul” (in Kelly, 259). You could even translate πρόκεινται as “are serving” to make the point clear.
Here is the problem with this. The example Mounce uses from Wisdom 10:7 refers to evidence of the past destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is one of the texts I quoted above when I pointed out that it was widely regarded as a tangible example illustrating how God destroys the wicked when he judges and punishes them. It is not evidence that anyone, including Jude, thought that the people of the twin cities had connected that destruction to their current suffering in Hades. It simply highlights that when an author pointed to Sodom and Gomorrah they were reminding their audiences of the story of the demise of those cities. It was a way of making them think about that story. As such, it meant that as they thought about that story it would be serving as a current example to them. Pointing to the present tense of the word behind “serve” does not change this, Rather, it is like my example of Jesus swerving as a current example of suffering and therefore loving your enemies.
Mounce lets the cat out of the bag in another way when he says this,
Jude writes, “just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve (πρόκεινται) as an example by undergoing (ὑπέχουσαιa) punishment of eternal fire” (ESV).
ὑπέχουσαι is present tense, so it might imply a present punishment. However, remember there is no absolute time significance outside the indicative, and this is a participle. So all the tense of ὑπέχουσαι says is that it is undefined in its aspect.
Since the participle “undergoing” is a participle then its aspect is undefined even though it is in the present tense form. This means the use of the present tense of “undergoing” itself cannot in and of itself bear the weight for the claim that Jude had in mind the current suffering of Sodom and Gomorrah in hades.
In no way does noting Jude’s use of the present support this claim.
If traditionalists are responding to conditionalist exegesis of Jude 7 and all they have is an argument from the present tense, then the appropriate response is to ask them what else they have got to offer. If all they have is an argument from the present tense then they have nothing.