As I noted in part 1, references to Hell are somewhat scant in the New Testament. Lots of allusions to judgment, punishment, wrath, etc., but seldom with the term Hell attached. Paul never uses it. It appears nowhere in the Johanine corpus. In fact, outside the synoptic Gospels, the word appears twice (James 3:6 & 2 Peter 2:4). In later posts I’ll get at the broader eschatalogical judgment, but for this post specifically, I want to dig into what the gospels say about Hell. I want to run through the 11 references where Hell is named in the gospels (The ESV has 12, as they render “Hades” in Matthew 16:18 as Hell, but we’ll exclude that one; see part 2 to see the distinction).
Ok, so here goes. Since 7 of the 11 references (if you take into account parallels from different gospels, we’re down to 7, then take passages where the word happens more than once as one, we’re left with 4 really) are in Matthew we’ll save that for last. First let’s peak at Mark and Luke (again, not one use of the word Hell in John).
Mark’s 3 references to Hell all come from chapter 9 (verses 43, 45 & 47). This passage is paralleled in Matthew (5:27-30 and again in Matthew 18:9) but slightly different. There, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking about lust specifically, but still uses the idea of eye gauging and hand amputation as better than Hell, and then in 18:8-9 Matthew tells us Jesus uses the same words when encouraging the disciples to avoid temptation. Here’s how it looks in Mark 9:42-49:
42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be salted with fire.50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
That’s all we have in Mark’s Gospel. So what can we conclude here? At first glance, one would say, ok Hell is a real place (yes, it is a real place- a valley just outside Jerusalem- see Part 1). The phrases “go to hell” and “thrown into hell” seem to suggest that it is somewhere you go; a spatial “place” with boundaries. But we are throughout the New Testament called to be “in Christ”- obviously not a geographical location, but a spiritual state of existence. So, we can’t say for sure from this that Hell is an actual physical place. We can’t reject that notion, but it isn’t absolute.
Secondly, we should take note of this: “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” This looks like Hell is eternal punishment. But Jesus doesn’t say, you burn and are tortured forever. Just that the fire is forever. And what does Jesus really mean by this? Is he referring to actual fire and worms? Well, worms would presumably not survive in this unquenchable fire. Perhaps we should read worms and fire as symbolic images. Perhaps the folks thrown into hell aren’t literally burning and covered in worms forever. Perhaps it refers to an irreversible shame and destruction. We have to at least consider that possibility. But we’ll get to annihilationism in another post.
And is this literal fire? Elsewhere, we see judgment being a casting into darkness. Fire by nature gives off light and heat. So either the darkness or the fire (or both) is metaphorical of something else. In 2 Enoch 10:1-2, we read:
AND those two men led me upon to the Northern side, and showed me there a very terrible place, and there were all manner of tortures in that place: cruel darkness and unillumined gloom, and there is no light there, but murky fire constantly flameth aloft, and there is a fiery river coming forth, and that whole place is everywhere fire, and everywhere there is frost and ice, thirst and shivering, while the bonds are very cruel, and the angels fearful and merciless, bearing angry weapons, merciless torture, and I said:
‘Woe, woe, how very terrible is this place.’
Fire, darkness and frost co-existing… hard to imagine. Can God suspend the natural phenomena? Sure. God could create a place which is full of fire, but still dark and cold. But it would cease to be fire in the sense we know it.
On the surface it seems straight forward, but perhaps we can’t uphold the traditional understanding of Hell… at least not with Mark 9 alone. Eternal conscious torture and fire is not explicit here.
So what can we conclude from these verses?
1. Hell is something to be avoided. You should be willing to give your right eye to keep away form Hell. Literally. Physical injury here and now is less agonizing than the judgment to come. Whether fire and worms is literal or not isn’t the point. The point is, it’s awful.
2. How you live matters when the time comes for God to decide. I am not suggesting works righteousness. But it’s clear here that being drawn into sin has consequences. We should avoid sin at all costs.
Really, that’s it. Hell sucks- even more than losing a limb. Sin matters. That’s about all we can truly conclude from this.
So, on to Luke; the one mention of Hell here is in 12:5. Here’s 12:4-5a:
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.
Again we see “cast into hell”. The same sort of framing of location. But we can certainly conclude here that physical death is never worst case scenario. Hell is something much worse. Again, what we see in this side note reference to hell (the real issue Jesus is addressing is to be encouraged in the face of the Pharisees’ judgments) is simply that there is consequence for rebellion against God. In this passage, Jesus is explicit talking not about sin in general, but about choosing consciously to be identified with Jesus. Failing to do so will result in Jesus’ refusal to advocate for you. Oddly enough though, in verse 10 Jesus tells us that speaking against the Son of Man will be forgiven… wait… Jesus just said he will deny those who deny him… then says they’ll be forgiven? Speaking a word (in this context he’s talking about being brought before the authorities) publicly against Jesus will be forgiven? Hmm… what are you up to Jesus?
Ok, now on to Matthew. We already referred to three of Matthew’s references to Hell (5:29-30 & 18:9) when discussing Mark 9, and Luke 12:5 is paralleled in Matthew 10:28. This leaves us with 3 references (5:22; 23:15 & 23:33) unique to Matthew. So, let’s get to it- Matthew 5:22:
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
First, an important textual note- several manuscripts read “everyone who is angry with his brother without cause“. If this is an insertion or not is for the manuscript experts (i.e. not me) but I think we can see how it fits. Anger is not evil in and of itself. Even God gets angry. It’s what we do with anger that’s the problem. When anger turns to malicious attack, you have a problem. If your anger gets out of hand, it leads to hate. Hate is a serious problem (just read 1 John). Insults leave you liable to the council- i.e. human discipline. You have to face people to give account for your words. But when you start throwing out nasty comments, and resort to name calling, like “Raca!” (often translated “fool!”- raca is an Aramaic term, very derogatory, from the word for empty- hence empty headed=fool- but Albright & Mann note is common in Rabinnic literature, and may mean “rebel” [Matthew Anchor Bible 26. New York: Doubleday, 1971. p. 61] whatever the case it’s a nasty word to sling at a brother) you are in deep trouble with God. You put yourself in the way of gehenna or “fiery death” as Albright & Mann prefer to Hell.
Ok, so, God doesn’t like insults. Watch your mouth is essentially what we have here (see James 3:6). Nothing else really of note, except once again, we see fire.
Matthew 23 is the source of the remaining references to Hell (gehenna). Matthew 23 is a rant against the Pharisees- the “Seven Woes” as it is known. Jesus is ripping into these guys publicly (the audience is “the crowds and his disciples”; 23:1) for their hypocrisy. Hell is mentioned twice in this rant, verse 15:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
and then verse 33:
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?
Here we don’t get much data about hell… except maybe that it’s full of Pharisees. “child of hell” is an interesting term though. Jesus condemns the Pharisees for blocking the gates to the Kingdom and being no part of it themselves. They seek to get recruits, but then teach them to be as stern and evil as they are, moreso even. They produce disciples even more self-righteous and belligerent than they are. Child of hell though… a person born out of a place of human sacrifice and ultimate evil. These guys aren’t just missing the point, or making mistakes along the way, they are the product of the worst kind of behaviour imaginable. It is possible that this phrase has shades of 1 Samuel 2:12- the reference to Hophni and Phineas as “sons of Belial”- a derogatory name meant to convey their level depravity and disrespect for holy things.
Now, verse 33 gives us even less. Simply put, these guys are so set in their ways, they may never get out. They are part of an age-old pattern of rejecting God’s messengers of repentence. But these guys decorate the shrines to the prophets, thinking they honour them, but still continue in the pattern of rejecting the Word. Sometimes the one most likely to experience Hell, is the one certain he won’t.
That what Jesus’ first followers were lead to share about the times Jesus talked about Hell by name (gehenna, for Hades see Matthew 11:3; 16:18; Luke 10:15 & 16:23). So, what does Jesus tell us here? Here’s the rundown:
1. Hell sucks.
2. Avoid it at all costs.
3. Fire is the best way to describe it… perhaps there is actual fire, or something like fire. If it isn’t actual fire, the closest thing on earth to compare it to is fire.
4. There may be worms.
5. Hell and sin are interconnected. How you live matters. Sin puts you at risk. Stay away from sin.
6. Your words are a big deal- they may have eternal consequences. Watch what you say.
7. Pharisees are at an especially high risk.
Well… now what? What do we do with this? Can we really hold to absolute opinions on hell when this is what we’ve got to work with? When we look into judgment, wrath, eschatalogical punishment and all those fun things you’ll see that things don’t necessarily become clearer. Things are still murky.