The Sermon on the Mount is a long section of teaching by Jesus. Four times in this sermon, Jesus warns his listeners about hell. Jesus talked about hell more than he did about heaven. He didn’t always use the actual word ‘hell’. He spoke sometimes by euphemism of ‘outer darkness’ and ‘eternal punishment’, for example. What did Jesus mean? Is hell a real place or symbolic?
Your mental picture of hell will likely depend on many outside influences. It will be a picture drawn by your church background, culture, movies, books. Through Christianity’s history, the concept of hell has changed a great deal – not only its nature, but who ends up in it, and the criteria for them going there. Even now many denominations disagree on this.
In Matthew 5:29 and 30 Jesus says, “It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” The original word in the Bible is ‘Gehenna’.
In Matthew 7:13 Jesus says,“You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way.” The original word in the Bible is ‘apóleia’. It means perish, waste, destruction, cut off. It’s the word used when the woman poured perfume over Jesus and the disciples said, “Why waste such expensive perfume?” That’s why this verse is often translated ‘the way is easy that leads to destruction.’
‘Hades’ and ‘tartaros’ are the two other words translated as hell in the New Testament. Gehenna is found in 12 verses, Hades is found in 10 verses, and Tartaros is found only in one verse, 2 Peter 2:4.
The Old Testament has very little to say about hell. The Hebrew word is ‘Sheol’. It is described as a region “dark and deep,” “the Pit” and “the Land of Forgetfulness” where human beings descend after death. The suggestion is that in the netherworld of Sheol, the deceased, although cut off from God and humankind, live on in some shadowy state of existence. While this vision of Sheol is rather bleak (setting precedents for later Jewish and Christian ideas of an underground hell) there is generally no concept of judgement or reward and punishment attached to it. The ancient Hebrews did not have a developed sense of the afterlife. Judaism still doesn’t. Jewish tradition contains a variety of opinions on the subjects of heaven and hell. Modern Jewish thinkers have generally shied away from the topic. One mystical Jewish view is that hell is a “Supernal Washing Machine” where the soul is cleansed of sin similar to the way our clothes are cleansed in a washing machine. It might hurt, but it’s only temporary.
Jesus never taught that hell is a washing machine.
The verses in the New Testament in which Gehenna is found speak of it as a punishment for wickedness or misconduct. The verses using Hades speak of it as an underworld place, and metaphorically to mean destruction.
The notion of hell in early Christianity likely followed Greco-Roman thought. A very, very few righteous and favoured souls came to a pleasant afterlife while the rest, the vast majority, lingered in a nondescript, shadowy, relatively unpleasant afterlife. Stories of it being a punishment for the wicked, are found in two places. First, in Jesus’ stories extolling the virtue of compassion and selflessness, in which those who did not follow these rules ended up in torment. Second, in Revelation, in which all of God’s enemies end up in eternal perdition. Early Christians did not write extensively on hell and appear not to have taken these stories as literally as many do today.
Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jews when he taught about hell. His ideas were radical and new.
Today I think we still struggle to understand this topic, and often we prefer not to talk about it.
The theology of Hell probably started growing in the 5th century, or perhaps later, in Western Europe. Many changes entered Christianity when it expanded westward, such as a greater emphasis on the priesthood and hierarchy. The great Eastern Church Fathers, on the other hand, were relatively unconcerned with hell.
Hell is in the Bible and Jesus did talk about it, so we cannot ignore it. Understanding hell is part of understanding salvation. What are we saved from? Why do we need saving? What does it have to do with this Good News that disciples are supposed to be telling people?
Jesus believed in a real hell where ‘where the maggots never die and the fire never goes out’. Not only does he say it is real, he says it isn’t temporary. Your worm, the maggot eating your dead spiritual body, will never die. It may be that these undying worms are regrets and fears eating permanently at your mind. They cannot by physical. Whatever they are, Jesus says they are real.
Where the fire never goes out there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Jesus says this twice to emphasise it. The regret and pain is never ending.
Jesus calls hell the place of outer darkness. Jesus is the light, and this gives us a picture of a place so far away from Jesus there is no glimmer of light at all. No moon! No stars! Nothing.
Jesus is teaching of a place without hope or light. It is a place without God that will never end, but lasts for ever.
In Luke 16:24–26 Jesus tells a story of a man named Lazarus in hell that illustrates that it is a place of all five senses. Lazarus is able to think clearly and has memory. He can feel thirsty and hot. He can see and hear and speak. In hell you can feel the maggots eating you, and you know they are eating you. And you know cannot stop them.
There is spiritual life after physical death.
The ancient Jewish view was that all people go to hell after they die. When Jesus told the story of Lazarus, the other person was Abraham. This was the first time that anyone had suggested different levels of afterlife.
The hell that Jesus describes is not a place that God has created for those people whom he wants to punish. He seems to have a traditional Jewish view that it is the destiny of all people.
Many Jewish teachers at the time of Jesus expected God to send a messiah who would rescue his people from hell by endowing them with a resurrection body.
The first followers of Jesus taught that Jesus had gone to Sheol and been resurrected, so now no-one need go to Sheol. Anyone who believed in Jesus could receive a resurrection body on death in this world. This is the good news. You don’t need to go to hell when you die. Because of Jesus, you have a choice.
If you believe in Jesus, you change your destination.
John 3:18 “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son.”
This is not just about after death though. Jesus said he came to establish heaven on earth.
Currently all people are born in hell on earth. We all live in hell on earth, and pass over on death into the spiritual hell. Those who believe in Jesus enter heaven immediately. When they die, they get a resurrection body and live in heaven for ever.
Some people say they don’t believe in hell, but not believing in hell doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Some say that a good God wouldn’t send anyone to hell, but the Bible says you are going to hell and a good God is rescuing you. You don’t deserve to be rescued, but he loves you. So he gave up his son to save you. It’s his free gift.
This is the good news about hell. You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. Jesus can take you to heaven. This is the message we have been asked to share with everyone. Our message is, Please choose Jesus. Hell is real. Only Jesus can save you from hell. Come to Jesus. Believe in Jesus. Follow Jesus.