Breakfast Club: Jesus and the Doctrine of Hell

“I like Jesus. But I don’t like the rest of the Bible’s emphasis on judgment and hell.” This is a rather common view today. However, it reveals a lack of real interaction with the Jesus of the Bible. In the New Testament, Jesus spoke more often and more graphically about hell than any one else. I hope to show that, while our aversion to the unpleasant doctrine of hell is understandable, the preaching of the doctrine of hell and judgment is absolutely necessary to (1) knowing God’s love well and (2) loving other people well.Jesus teaching on hell

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus speaks graphically of the reality of hell.

42"And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. 43If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. 45And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48where    " 'their worm does not die,       and the fire is not quenched.'

In this passage, Jesus speaks clearly, directly about the reality of God's judgment and hell. He graphically warns that if anyone cause one of his disciples, “little ones”, to sin – to experience spiritual shipwreck – a quick drowning would be preferable to the fate that deserves; that it would be better for them to have a millstone placed around the neck (like a collar) and experience an immediate death. This rather grotesque picture serves as a foil to set off the greater severity of the actual punishment merited. 

Jesus states that it is better to take sin so seriously that one dismembers oneself (that one cuts of their hand or foot; that one plucks out their eye), and enter eternal life than to have two hands, two feet, and two eyes, but be thrown into hell. As one commentator puts it, “The metaphor of amputation could hardly be more shocking; this is a matter of ultimate seriousness. Nothing less than eternal life or death is at stake” (R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark). Perhaps more shocking still is Jesus’ description of hell.

The word Jesus uses for hell, gehenna, was used in Jewish apocalyptic literature for the ultimate place of punishment of the ungodly. The language “where the fire is not quenched” probably refers back to the origin of the word gehenna in the Valley of Hinnon where the fires of Jerusalem’s refuse dumps burned continuously. So the use of gehenna would have symbolized a place of refuse and fire.

Even more graphic is Christ’s use of imagery of judgment from Isaiah 66:24: “their worm does not die.” In Isaiah the clause describes the dead bodies of God’s enemies envisaged as decomposing and burning on the battlefield. As a burning garbage dump the maggots existed aplenty, feeding on the carcasses and the flame kept smoldering and burning. This is awful, fearful language, gruesome and grotesque; this is spiritual ruin in the starkest terms. These are the words of Jesus!

My thesis is that the biblical teaching - Jesus teaching - on God’s holiness and righteous judgment and the reality of hell, are important for the Christian church to uphold, preach and teach for two reasons: first, they are the only way to know the reality of the personal, sacrificial love of God; second, they help Christian’s to love others well. Let’s consider these in turn.

Knowing God’s love

The Christian doctrine that the personal God is love, that he loves the world, and demonstrated his great love for the world in sending his son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sin is unique to the Christian faith. No other religion, no other philosophy, tells a story of Divine love remotely close to the Bible’s story of a Personal-Infinite God who gives his most precious treasure – his own son! – to bear the judgment and punishment our sins deserved. On the cross, we see the Love of God most radically displayed: Jesus, out of love for sinners, bears their sin (becomes sin) in their place, and experiences the judgment of hell, separation from his Father, the wrath of God. Our sins were placed on Christ as a collar around his neck and he was cast into the sea of God’s holy judgment and wrath.

Water down the doctrines of God’s holiness, of judgment, of hell, and you remove the Christian’s knowledge of the pursuing, sacrificing, never-ending love of God for her. Thus, it should not surprise us when Christians and churches who speak of only the love of God and never preach and teach about the cost of that love in Christ suffering God's judgment and tasting hell for us, are not electrified and transformed by that love. Without the doctrine of judgment and hell, the doctrine of the love of God becomes mere sentiment and meaningless platitudes. But accompanied by the “bad news” of the judgment of God and the reality of hell, the love of God for sinners demonstrated on the cross becomes the most amazing, electrifying, life-changing reality in the world!

Loving People Well

In this passage in Mark, Jesus teaches that sin has social consequences; that all sin, to some degree or other, effects others. Our sins of commission (what we do that we shouldn’t do) effect people; for example, when we respond in angry, bitter ways toward our spouse (or our children, or friends, etc). Our sins of omission (what we don’t do that we should do) also effect people: for example, when we should be loving and nurturing to our spouse (or our children, or friends, etc.). 

No one sins in a vacuum. Moreover, our sin against people deserves the very fire of hell. That is the essence of Christ’s warning. How would Christ's teaching about the social consequences and the weightiness of our sin help us in loving others well?

Christ calls his followers to the utmost sensitivity to the weightiness and reality of his sin in two ways. First, in our sin against others we are hurting those who belong to Christ! Second, our sin against others (and against ourself) deserves the very judgment of God and the fire of hell! If, as his disciples, we take Christ's words seriously, we should be so committed to Christ and care so deeply for his “little ones” that we are doing everything we can, with the help of God, to root out the destructive sin patterns in our life.

So, on the one hand, We can't be apathetic towards our sin patterns. On the other hand, because as Christians, we know that Jesus bore God’s wrath for our sins in our place, and that there is now no condemnation for us who are “in Christ” (Romans 8:1), we are given the incredible emotionally and psychological freedom to both see the weightiness and consequences of our sin (Christ had to die in our place on the cross they were so heinous!) and to begin to take seriously – and work on! – the ongoing sin patterns in our life that hurt others. In short, we should be learning to love people well!

In conclusion, instead of creating a harsh and judgmental people, the doctrine of God’s judgment and the reality of hell, should create a people who are electrified and being changed by the knowledge of God’s personal and costly love for them; and who are taking seriously, repenting of, and rooting out the sin patterns in their life that hurt others!