Evangelical Christians around the world are rethinking the traditional doctrine of hell as unending conscious torment, and a number of the most respected Bible scholars, teachers and preachers have publicly stated that they do not believe that the traditional view is biblical. For more on that, visit my website at www.EdwardFudge.com/written/fire.html for a variety of multimedia materials, most without financial charge. But that is not what I want to talk about today.
Whether you think of hell as a fire that torments, a fire that consumes, or a fire that purifies, set that thought aside for the time required to read two paragraphs, and think with me about some other questions. Is escaping hell your primary motive for trusting and following Christ? Is it a motive in the preaching recorded in Acts? Whom does Jesus warn about it in the Gospels? Outsiders or his followers? Notorious sinners or religious leaders? What evils elicit his mention of it? Does Jesus thunder hell-fire warnings to prostitutes, dope addicts and low-life criminals? The answers to these questions might surprise us — and teach us something important as well. Jesus specifically mentions hell (gehenna) only 11 times. You will find his statements at Matthew 5:22; 5:29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47 and Luke 12:5. The Greek word translated “hell” is not used anywhere else in the Bible except once in James, speaking of the potential evil of the tongue.
Every time Jesus is reported using the word “hell” in teaching, he is talking either to his own disciples or to the Jewish religious leaders known as Pharisees. Twice he encourages the disciples not to be afraid of people, who can do limited harm to them, but to be afraid of God who can destroy the whole person in hell (Matt. 10:28; Luke 12:5). All the other times Jesus mentions hell to his disciples he is warning them not to mistreat or misuse vulnerable women (Matt. 5:29-30), “little ones” (Matt. 18:9; Mark 9:43, 45, 47) or the object of one’s anger (Matt. 5:22). As for as the Pharisees, Jesus warns these rigid and self-righteous morality policemen that God does not approve of their hypocrisy, their external-only religion, or their clone converts (Matt. 23:15, 33). What if we used hell the way Jesus did? Would it change the way we use it now? Would that be a good thing or bad?
The point of Hell
There is considerable discussion these days about the nature of hell. Indeed, I have done my share to stir this discussion and also to participate in it. But there also are practical questions we all need to ask, whatever we think hell will be like. What is the point of hell anyway? Whom does Jesus warn about it? What evils elicit his mention of it? Does Jesus, like many preachers and professing Christians today, thunder hell-fire warnings to unchurched sinners: to prostitutes, drunkards and homosexuals? Does he use hell to spur conversions and to bring people to faith? The answers to these questions might surprise us — and teach us something important as well.
Jesus specifically mentions hell (gehenna) just 11 times in the Gospels. You will find his statements at Matthew 5:22; 5:29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47 and Luke 12:5. When we read everything in the Gospels that Jesus said about hell, we find him speaking twice to the Pharisees, warning these rigid and self-righteous morality policemen that God is unhappy with what their teaching turns their converts into and with the hypocrisy of their external-only religion (Matt. 23:15, 33).
Everything else Jesus says about hell is directed to his own disciples. Twice he is encouraging them not to be afraid of those who might oppose them but to be afraid of God who can destroy the whole person in hell (Matt. 10:28; Luke 12:5). Every other time Jesus mentions hell he is warning his own followers not to mistreat or misuse vulnerable people, whether women (Matt. 5:29-30), “little ones” (Matt. 18:9; Mark 9:43, 45, 47) or anyone with whom one might be angry (Matt. 5:22).
What if we used hell the way Jesus did? Would that change the way we use it, whatever we think it will actually be like? Would it change the way we ourselves live and treat others?