Jesus On Hell
There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment… I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world.
Remember about the sheep and the goats; how at the second coming He is going to divide the sheep from the goats, and He is going to say to the goats: ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.’ He continues, ‘And these shall go away into everlasting fire’... I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as His chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.1
In one chapter of my latest book, Gagging Jesus, I explain that many people would like to gag Jesus to stop him from telling the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats because they don’t like his teaching on poverty. Even those who would like to enlist him as a spokesman for their charitable causes tend to avoid that parable because they are so offended by its teaching on hell. Many Christians confess that this is an area where they feel most embarrassed by Jesus’ teaching and are most tempted to gag him. C.S. Lewis admitted that “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words.”2 More recently, the bestselling Christian author Rob Bell has questioned whether Jesus really said what Bertrand Russell complained about at all:
‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2). So does God get what God wants? How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do, or kind of great, medium great, great most of the time, but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great. Sort of great. A little great… History is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins.3
Jesus talked about hell more than the whole of the Old Testament combined, so we have to ask ourselves why Jesus decided to offend us by talking so clearly and consistently about hell. We have to discover whether we are at liberty to tone down his language as Rob Bell suggests, or whether he talked so much about hell because it matters so much to us all. Let’s draw out five reasons which this parable gives us why Jesus taught so offensively about hell.
First, Jesus talked a lot about hell because he wants us to grasp that it is real. Rob Bell quotes from the third-century works of Origen to argue that Christians have not always interpreted Jesus’ teaching on hell in the same way, but he fails to mention that the Second Church Council of Constantinople declared that Origen and anyone else who tried to water down his teaching was either disingenuous or deluded. It seems odd to me that, while bishops and church leaders and Christian writers often struggle to understand what Jesus means, non-Christians do not seem to share their problem. The atheist philosopher Ray Bradley laughs at the way that Christians seek to gag Jesus on this issue, pointing out that this “would be to suppose that Jesus was either mistaken or misreported. But if Jesus was mistaken, he can’t be divine. And if Jesus was misreported, then the Bible can’t be the true Word of God. A believer has no option, then, but to accept the doctrine of hellfire.”4
Second, Jesus talked a lot about hell because he wants us to grasp how terrible it is. He explains in this parable that hell is “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” – in other words, it is a place which he personally created to be the place of punishment for Satan and his demons. He doesn’t want any of us to be deceived into joining them there because we think that hell simply means nothingness, so he deliberately parallels ‘eternal punishment’ and ‘eternal life’ in this parable. Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest theologians in Church history, noted that:
The phrases are parallel: eternal punishment and eternal life. To say in the same context, ‘Eternal life will be endless but eternal punishment will have an end’ is utterly ridiculous. Since the eternal life of the saints will be endless, the eternal punishment of those who incur it will surely be endless.”5
‘Fire’ may indeed be a metaphor, like ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’, but if that’s the case then it is a metaphor for something unspeakably painful. The eighteenth century theologian Jonathan Edwards observed that “When metaphors are used in Scripture about spiritual things… they fall short of the literal truth.”6 Jesus uses metaphors to describe a hell which is far more terrible than we can imagine.
Third, Jesus talked a lot about hell because he wants us to grasp that our actions in this life have eternal consequence. Rob Bell is right that God gets what he wants, but Jesus tells us that what he wants is a human race which chooses either to love him or reject him. He won’t force himself upon us like a rapist. He woos us and he warns us that our response to him will echo through eternity. Ben Witherington, a professor in New Testament studies and a frequent guest on The History Channel and The Discovery Channel, explains that
Hell in the New Testament is a constant reminder that there is a final accountability for our beliefs and behaviours in this life, whatever the particulars and temperature and durability of Hell may be. It is a reminder that this life is basically the time of decision, and the decisions we make now can indeed have eternal consequences in the afterlife. And, frankly, this is not bad news. It is a part of the Good News that in the end justice as well as mercy, righteousness as well as compassion, and holiness as well as love wins.7
Fourth, Jesus talked a lot about hell because he wants to encourage us that God is just and fair. We tend to cast ourselves as either sheep or goats in this parable and therefore complain about hell, but we need to remember that many people in history have been the victims of injustice whose cause Jesus champions at this Final Judgment. When Pol Pot died in 1998, having never been brought to justice for murdering 1.5 million Cambodians during his four years of rule, The Sun newspaper published a cartoon of him in torment underneath a caption which read, “We hope that Pol Pot is burning in Hell”. When even a British newspaper which is famous for its topless Page Three Girls starts crying out for a God of justice, it should make us think twice about gagging Jesus for his teaching about hell. It was ironic that in the same week that Time magazine focused on Rob Bell’s book with a front cover which asked “What if there’s no hell?” the New York Daily News reported the killing of Osama bin Laden with its own front page which shouted in even bigger letters, “Rot in Hell!” Jesus talked so much about hell because to victims of injustice and wickedness it is actually very good news. The word ‘Hallelujah’ occurs only four times in the New Testament and all of them are in Revelation 19:1-10 when God reveals that he will ensure that justice is done forever.
Fifth, Jesus therefore talked a lot about hell because he wants to warn us that we all need a Saviour. Few people complain that God should send the architects of genocide and terrorist atrocities to hell. We complain that he should send people like us there, but that is precisely what Jesus wants us to understand and fear. The goats in the parable are not people who have committed terrible crimes but simply those who have not done the good which God called them to do. Jesus told this parable in order to emphasise that even the best human beings are not good enough for heaven. He tells us that each of our earthly sins requires eternal punishment because they are sins against the eternal and infinite God – as John Piper reminds us: “Degrees of blameworthiness come not from how long you offend dignity, but from how high the dignity is that you offend.”8 Hell is no more of an overreaction to sin on God’s part than the sacrificial death of his only Son on the cross so that we don’t need to go there. Jesus described the horrors of hell because he was about to endure them in our place and because he doesn’t want us to fool ourselves that his sacrifice is an optional extra for people less respectable than ourselves.
None of this means that Jesus’ teaching on hell is less offensive. It just helps us to understand why we need to let it offend us and change us. It shows us why it is foolish to complain with Bertrand Russell and Rob Bell that hell sounds horrible. It shows why hell is just and necessary and fair, and it even shows us why God’s People see hell as a reason to praise the Lord for his commitment to punish every act of wrongdoing in Revelation 19:1-10. How we react to Jesus’ teaching on hell doesn’t say as much about him as it does about ourselves. It reveals whether we are sheep or goats. It reveals whether we have laid hold of God’s salvation for ourselves.
“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” the Lord asks in Ezekiel 18. “Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? ... For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!”
This blog is adapted from a chapter in Phil Moore’s new book, Gagging Jesus: Things Jesus Said We Wish He Hadn’t, published this month by Monarch Books. Churches buying 20 or more copies for use with Alpha guests, Bible Study groups etc can save 1/3 on the price by ordering from Phil’s books website and typing code THINKTHEOLOGY into the ‘Comments’ field when ordering.
1. Bertrand Russell in his essay ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’ (1927).
2. C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain (1940).
3. Rob Bell in Love Wins (2011).
4. Professor Ray Bradley of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, made this observation during a formal debate in 1994 with William L. Craig over the question “Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?”
5. Augustine writing in 426AD in his seminal work The City of God (21.23).
6. Taken from his sermon “The Torments of Hell Are Exceedingly Great” in Sermons and Discourses 1723-29.
7. He wrote this in a blog on the interfaith website “Patheos” on 16 March 2011.
8. John Piper in Let the Nations Be Glad (1993).