Do we gloss over teaching on hell? David Instone-Brewer takes a look at what Jesus has to say on the subject.
We don’t speak much about hell, do we? We warn people about other dangers like scams, icy roads, health risks – but not hell.
I suspect we are embarrassed about hell because the idea of eternal torment for every sin from rape to pilfering is self-evidently unfair. Perhaps the torment suffered by ‘minor’ sinners is limited, but even a constant water drip is unendurable over a long period, let alone for eternity.
Surprisingly, most of the Bible’s teaching on hell is from Jesus. The Gospels contain roughly 66 verses specifically about love and 45 verses specifically about hell, so it was a major theme for Jesus. A lot of this was his response to a relatively new doctrine that was being taught. This doctrine was not recorded in the Gospels – probably because it was so well known – but with that background knowledge, we can understand Jesus’ vehement rebuttal.
Jesus’ listeners believed that all Jews went to heaven – apart from a few utterly evil Jews who would go to hell because, in God’s eyes, they were gentiles (they believed all gentiles went to hell). But a debate had arisen because of this belief. If all Jews went to heaven, what was the point in obeying the commandments? Would the majority of Jews who weren’t really evil but weren’t really good either have the same reward as the really good – the most obedient Jews?
JEWISH IDEAS OF HELL
Two groups of Pharisees, the Hillelites and Shammaites, loved to debate such things and we have a record of their conclusions a few decades before Jesus’ ministry. For once they agreed on something. They said there were three groups of Jews: the utterly evil who go to hell; the really good who go to heaven; and the majority in the middle. This third group go to hell, scream in the flames for a short while, and then go to heaven having been punished.
Another view was that this third group went to a second-rate heaven. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai taught this in Galilee. He was there for 20 years at roughly the same time as Jesus, so they probably met each other. He is famous for a parable which is very similar to Jesus’ parable of the banquet.
Yohanan’s parable went like this: ‘A king announced a surprise banquet and told everyone to be ready to come. The wise people got dressed and waited, but the foolish carried on working in their fields. When the banquet doors were suddenly opened, everyone came in, but the foolish didn’t have time to change. The king was angry when he saw their dirty clothes and told them to stand and watch while the wise ones enjoyed the food.’
JESUS’ SHEEP AND GOATS
When we contrast this with Jesus’ parables, we can see Jesus’ different emphasis. He said that those who came in dirty clothes were thrown out (Matthew 22:2-13). And he was very clear that they went to hell, because the king said: ‘throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (v13). In other words, he stressed that the not-so-bad Jews were going to hell.
Jesus was equally scathing about the idea that the not-so-bad went to hell for a short time before residing permanently in heaven. He repeatedly taught that there are only two ways, never three. You can be for God or against God, wheat or weeds, wise or foolish, wicked or faithful etc. There is no middle group. Matthew records the parable of the sheep and goats as Jesus’ parting shot. The only crime attributed to the goats was their failure to help people in poverty and in prison. The sheep go to their ‘eternal life’, but the others go to ‘eternal punishment’ (Matthew 25:46).
This phrase ‘eternal punishment’ is the foundation for most church teaching on hell: sin is punished by eternal torment. Unfortunately this doesn’t take into account Jesus’ full teaching which is far more nuanced. Jesus said that hell is eternal, but added two other important details: torment is proportional to culpability, and those in hell will perish in destruction. At first, these three aspects can appear to be contradictory, so preachers tend to focus on one and ignore the other two. But there’s no need to pick and choose – John Stott and John Wenham showed that all Jesus’ teaching on hell fit together, as we’ll see.
The word ‘perish’ (Greek apollumi) means ‘to die’ or ‘to be destroyed’, as in my favourite verse, John 3:16: they ‘shall not perish but have eternal life’. It is used similarly in Luke 13:3: ‘unless you repent, you too will all perish.’ The clearest description of its meaning is in Matthew 10:28: ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy [apollumi] both soul and body in hell.’ The concept of destruction in hell is plainly part of Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus also teaches proportional punishment. In his parable of the dissolute servants (Luke 12:45-48), a master returned unexpectedly, finding that his chief servant had opened the wine store and all the servants were drunk. He punished the chief servant with ‘many blows’, but punished those who’d followed his example with ‘few blows’ because they weren’t so aware that it was wrong. The imagery of the parable is clearly talking about hell: ‘The master…will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers’ (v46). It teaches that God is a fair judge who assigns proportional torment in hell.
Fitting these three teachings of Jesus together is surprisingly easy when you look at the Greek for ‘eternal punishment’. The word ‘eternal’ is the same as in the phrase ‘eternal reward’ – so certainly means ‘for ever’. It is another dig at those who thought the middle group stayed in hell for a short period. But does ‘eternal punishment’ mean ‘eternal torment’ or ‘eternal destruction’?
THE CONCEPT OF DESTRUCTION IN HELL IS PLAINLY PART OF JESUS’ TEACHING
The word for ‘punishment’ (kolasis) is used for either in Jewish writings: ‘punishment by torment’ (eg 4 Maccabees 8:9) and ‘punishment by death’ (eg 2 Maccabees 4:38). It can also mean both together, as in Wisdom 19:4 where the Egyptians are tormented by the plagues and then punished by perishing in the sea.
Jesus’ teaching fits together in a similar way: ‘eternal punishment’ consists of torment followed by destruction – like a combined sentence of hard labour followed by execution. And this is an eternal sentence – no one gets out for good behaviour.
Jesus talked more about hell than any preacher of his time. He was determined to warn his fellow Jews that they weren’t necessarily going to heaven, and that many gentiles would get there (Matthew 8:11-12). But unlike other Jewish preachers, Jesus offered a way of salvation: he would take the blame for those who repent, and thereby save them from hell.
A doctrine about hell being everlasting torment for all sinners is (to most people) self-evidently unjust and disproportionate. But this does not take into account the totality of Jesus’ teaching. A murderer will suffer more than a thief – but they will both receive an eternal death sentence if they reject Jesus’ offer of forgiveness.