Jesus and Hell

I preach the good news of Jesus, including Jesus’ way of radical, nonviolent love. As one might expect, I get some pushback on this. “What about sin?” I hear frequently. “What about God’s judgment?” “What about God’s wrath?”

“What about hell?”

Yes, what about hell? After all, Jesus mentions hell more than anyone else in the New Testament. There’s this handy bit of practical advice, for example: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” Or this lovely bit of encouragement: “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?”

I’ll admit that my first thought when I hear these kinds of questions is that if anyone thinks my idea of love doesn’t include ideas of sin and its consequences, they aren’t listening. More on point, though, is this: if we want to understand Jesus on hell, we need to read these Gospel teachings carefully, in context, across the Testaments.

Most of the time in the Gospels, the “hell” Jesus mentions is “Gehenna.” The other times when Jesus refers to a hellish judgment, ideas of “Gehenna” are probably still in the background.

“Gehenna” is a reference to a very particular place—and it’s not some location under the earth run by the devil and staffed by his demons. “Ge-henna” refers to the “valley of Hinnom,” a small valley running along the south and west of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Gehenna today

I’ve been there—there’s nothing hellish about it at all. Nor was there in Jesus’ day.

Sometimes you’ll hear that in Jesus’ day there was a perpetually burning garbage dump in the Hinnom valley. But that’s not the case. This idea seems to have originated from a Rabbi centuries after Jesus. In Jesus’ day there was nothing hellish about Gehenna at all.

What was hellish about the valley of Hinnom was its history. There are several Old Testament passages that describe the hellish history of Gehenna. They’re all similar, but to get a taste of hell let’s focus in on one of these—Jeremiah 7, starting with 7:31:

And they [the people of Judah] go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I [Yahweh, the Lord] did not command, nor did it come into my mind.

Here we learn three key points about Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom.

1) The fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God.

In fact, 2) God abhorred the fires of Gehenna.

And why did God so despise the fires of Gehenna? Because 3) they were the epitome of senseless human violence, particularly violence against the most vulnerable.

But there’s more to the story of Jeremiah 7. The people of Judah are appealing to their own special status before God, hoping this will save them from foreign invasion. “The temple of Yahweh is here!” they cry—as if that will help them. “Look,” they say, “we offer all the proper sacrifices!”—as if that will make a difference.

But any special status they think they have is an illusion, all their acts of righteousness are irrelevant, because they are “oppressing the alien, the orphan, and the widow, and shedding innocent blood.” They are committing grave injustices against the most vulnerable among them—of which burning their sons and daughters in the fires of Gehenna was the most horrific.

All this explains why the tables turn at the end of the chapter:

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.

Gehenna back in Moloch’s day

It’s a soul-shuddering reference to Jerusalem’s impending doom, the city’s destruction at the hands of the ruthless Babylonian armies. The people’s religiously righteous acts and supposed special status aren’t going to save them.

And all their injustice, all their oppression, all their senseless violence against the most vulnerable? It’s going to rebound against them in equally horrific fashion, until the valley of Hinnom becomes an enduring symbol of God’s judgment on the self-righteous strong who oppress the marginalized weak.

To our three points about Gehenna’s fires above we can now add three more:

4) Gehenna symbolizes God’s judgment, but this divine judgment is not an “angry God directly inflicting violence upon sinners for eternity” judgment.

It’s a 5) “reap what you sow” judgment—if we sow violence, injustice, and oppression, we will reap that violence, injustice, and oppression upon ourselves, in very human, very natural, ways, within human history and not beyond it.

It’s a 6) judgment specifically upon the powerful, those with social or economic or political or religious clout, for the ways in which they oppress and commit violence against the weak, those on the bottom rungs of our social and economic and political and religious hierarchies.

With this background on Gehenna in mind, we can now fully appreciate Jesus’ words on hell in the Gospels.

Jesus isn’t talking about a “literal hell” where unrepentant unbelievers go after they die to be tortured in God’s inferno for all eternity.

He’s talking about the violent consequences of our own violent actions, right here in our lived lives, right here in human history.

He’s talking about such consequences especially for those who use their power to oppress the weak, who live in wealth in indifference to the poor, who have the means to care for the sick and clothe the naked and feed the hungry but refuse to do so, who rest secure in their status and privilege while committing grave injustices against the vulnerable and the marginalized.

And he’s talking in particular to the uber-religious, the people who think they’re on God’s side because they believe the right things or do the right rituals—but they burden others with moral demands while doing nothing to help them, they focus on minor moral issues while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy and allegiance to God above all other powers that be.

These are sobering words, serious warnings, for every age and certainly our own. But all this is right in line with the good news of Jesus and Jesus’ way of love.

After all, there’s nothing more loving, nothing more like Jesus, than standing in solidarity with the powerless, the stepped-upon, the pushed-to-the-side, and standing up to the oppressive powers that be—whatever the cost to ourselves.

And it is this hell of our own harmful actions and their destructive consequences—our sin and all its death—that Jesus has come to save us from. Jesus calls us to leave behind our damaging, violent ways and follow him in his path of compassionate, inclusive, forgiving, self-giving love. If we don’t do this the result will only be death for ourselves, for others, for the world. But if we do this we will find life, full and flourishing life for all.

This is love. This is Jesus. This is good news indeed.

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5 thoughts on “Jesus and Hell

  1. This post has (understandably) drummed up some reaction. One of these is a very good response from Mark Francois (a fellow pastor-scholar!) who has taken me to task (very kindly) for what he sees as faulty use of background materials, thus drawing some wrong conclusions.

    Here’s his post:
    https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/2017/10/04/yesthe-word-gehenna-really-does-refer-to-hell-in-the-new-testament/

    And here is my response on his post:

    Mark, thanks so very much for your respectful and careful review of my blog post. Both your tone and your thoughts are much appreciated.

    My blog post was trying to describe my view of Jesus’ view of hell (particularly Gehenna in the Synoptics) in the most rhetorically useful way with as few words as possible. If I were to attempt to anchor my view in a more scholarly way, I would do so around four key points:

    1) Gehenna is a reference to the valley of Hinnom, and in particular its ancient association with child sacrifice, which God abhorred. This establishes connections between the Hinnom valley and fire, and also between the Hinnom valley and divine accursedness.

    2) The references and allusions to the valley of Hinnom in the prophets (including both the Jeremiah 7 passage I cite and the Isaiah 66 one you cite) draw on this background but describe God “turning the tables” on those who oppose God’s ways: they who have inflicted the fires of Gehenna on the vulnerable in horrific ways will themselves experience the fires and accursedness of Gehenna when God judges them. This establishes connections between the Hinnom valley and divine judgment. (It also leaves open the idea of this divine judgment being manifest within human history—in fact, I would suggest both Jeremiah and Isaiah saw their oracles being fulfilled this way. It’s not until later apocalyptic strains of Judaism that you get a sharp divide between this age and the age to come with a more “from beyond” idea of divine judgment.)

    3) Because of this background Gehenna in Second Temple Judaism became symbolic of the eschatological judgment of God. The previous point establishes how the Hinnom valley became a symbol of divine judgment in early Judaism; the first point establishes why the Hinnom valley was chosen as that symbol. (As noted in the parenthetical comment in the previous point, it was during this time that apocalyptic developed within Judaism, and most of these apocalyptic strains of Judaism had a sharp divide between this age and the coming age, thus a strong idea of a specific future divine judgment at the end of this age prior to entering the coming age.)

    4) Jesus took up all these ideas; however, he had an inaugurated eschatology that expected the eschatological judgment of God to be manifest within the present age in the present or very near future. (The flip side of this inaugurated eschatology, of course, was his expectation that the eschatological kingdom of God would also be manifested within the present age in the present or very near future.)

    None of these four basic ideas is controversial within biblical studies. In fact, each of these is either the mainstream position within the field or a recognized, viable option. (You can speak more to that with regard to the literature on HB/OT/ANE backgrounds than I, as my PhD is in NT/early Xianity.)

    This means I actually agree with much of what you’ve said about additional backgrounds beyond Jeremiah. (Though I do think you’ve wrongly denied the “fire” of Isaiah 66 as an allusion to the “fire” of child sacrifice. Why the “fire” reference in Isaiah 66? Because “fire” was connected to the Hinnom valley historically. God is turning the tables on all who oppose him, all those who oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, etc. as both Jeremiah and Isaiah describe).

    Where I see my view going beyond the mainstream is in my insistence on:
    a) applying the idea of “inaugurated eschatology” in a way that blurs the beginnings and end points of eschatological events (e.g. judgment, resurrection, kingdom, new creation)—though I think NT eschatology warrants this approach;
    b) applying Jesus’ inaugurated eschatology not only to his general eschatology but also his personal eschatology (e.g. not just seeing general divine judgment manifest in the cross or in 70 CE but also seeing personal divine judgment manifest within lifetimes or generations)—though I think this is simply being consistent across all his eschatology;
    c) applying a “reap what you sow” notion of divine judgment (an idea from Jewish Wisdom tradition) to both his general eschatology and his personal eschatology—though I think this makes sense of Jesus’ Wisdom/sage tendencies as Rabbi; and
    d) reading the fantastic and often bizarre imagery of apocalypticism in a thorough-going non-literal fashion (which doesn’t mean nonreferentially—it’s true, just not literally true, including the way “eternal fires” are described and how directly God is described as casting people in fires)—though I think this consistent non-literal reading fits with most if not all of the NT writings’ use of apocalypticism.

    These are the scholarly underpinnings of my more rhetorical blog post in as concise a form as I can put it. All of this, of course, would require a lot more to establish or explain fully.

    Let me reply also to one or two other specific points you made, if I may (don’t want to weigh down your blog post with lengthy comments!). First, you’ve chosen the one example of Jesus’ use of Gehenna that is the most problematic for my thesis, Matthew 5:27-30. Right before this Gehenna is threatened for anger, but that whole section gives a series of very “this-worldly” consequences for anger in parallel to the Gehenna consequence, and the point is avoid anger in order to avoid violence—all of which supports my thesis. The passage in Matthew and Mark on treating children well otherwise being in dangers of the fires of Gehenna supports my idea of Gehenna as the consequence of injustice on the vulnerable. Jesus’ denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 leads right into Matthew 24’s prediction of the Temple’s destruction because of “this generation”—which supports my thesis, too.

    The Matthew 5:27-30 is the one that really seems on the surface not to fit the thesis. However, as feminist scholars have taught us, “Pay attention to texts written only to men—there’s something important going on there for women.” And indeed that’s the case here. This is a command to men about how to treat women—not to pursue lustful thoughts about them, nor to expect them to change their dress, but to demand of yourself to reshape your desires and the actions that grow out of them. The result when this doesn’t happen, whether brazen lust or actual adultery? Almost certainly the degrading of women, the shaming of women, even their shunning or execution—while the man likely goes scot free. In other words, even in this passage there are power dynamics and abuses going on—it’s not just in our private thoughts engaged in our private sin, in danger of being condemned by God to our private hell beyond death.

    I’d love an ongoing conversation if you’re up to it, though I can’t guarantee I could keep up my end of the conversation consistently!

    Thanks again, Mark, and all best,
    Michael

  2. jerry botkin

    I’m sorry but I just can’t accept that if what you have written is correct that the mass murderer of all those innocent people in Las Vegas is in the presence of Jesus right now just partying it up with the ones he killed. “Absence from the body, present with the Lord” only applies to those who have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ. The murderer is with the rich man in Hades being tormented night and day as Luke 16 says. Have you ever read 2 Thess. 1:6-9? It says that the Las Vegas murdered will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power. Please don’t read into the Bible. Just read what it says and believe it. May Christ be glorified forever and ever!!! Jerry

    1. Hi, Jerry. Thanks for your thoughts. Let me share a few thoughts in response.

      First, I haven’t said anything about the Las Vegas murderer in this, nor have I said anything about murderers like him “in the presence of Jesus partying it up with the ones he killed.” What an abhorrent idea.

      My blog post is focused on how we understand Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, especially the Synoptic Gospels and especially what he means by “Gehenna.” Like all Scripture, we need to read these teachings carefully, in context, and across the two Testaments. My blog post is an attempt to do that related to the Synoptic Gospels’ descriptions of Jesus’ teaching on Gehenna and related concepts. This isn’t “reading into the Bible” what we want; it’s reading the Bible as it was written, as much as is possible for us to do so.

      Ironically, in fact, by putting the Las Vegas murderer into passages like Luke 16 and 2 Thess 1, you’re reading him into the Bible! He’s only there if you put him there—assuming he parallels the rich man in the Luke 16 story, or that Paul in 2 Thess 1 is talking directly about people just like him. But each of those passages needs to be read carefully, in context, and across the Testaments, if we want to first figure out what they were talking about in their time before we attempt to figure out what they mean for ours.

      “May Christ be glorified for ever and ever!” Amen! The Christ who is Jesus of Nazareth, who both lived and taught the love of God and neighbour and enemy, who died rather than kill, who died with forgiveness on his lips, who thus died to free us from all evil powers, and who was raised from the dead by God in vindication of all he was, did, and taught — may this Christ be glorified for ever and ever!

  3. Brian

    Good article. The problem of Hell torment only arises when accepting the immortality of the soul – it has to go somewhere.
    However, many Christians believe that death is a perpetual sleep/ unconsciousness and that our only hope is resurrection to judgement & then being made immortal.
    This destroys the idea of perpetual torment.
    As you have clearly shown, the Hell (Gehenna) Jesus speaks of was where people had burnt their children & had become the city dump. It is not a place of perpetual torture. Thanks.

  4. Alan Monk

    As one who is apt to read the Bible more literally – not always and I’m not ever dogmatic about it – I found this most enlightening.

    However, I find it annoying that we can’t get consistency in translating the different references into the same English words. It seemed far fetched to me that Gehenna, Valley of Hinnom and Topheth all referred to the same thing but when I looked at it closely, it appears that you are quite right.

    The sins at Topheth is a concept that has gripped me in the past few years. I have always thought that our current generation needs to take particular note of God’s vehemence towards the sacrifice of children in those days. Just like the days of Manasseh right through to Jeremiah’s time, there was a veneer of respectability that was attached to remaining mostly aloof to what was, in fact, truly deplorable. And we who outwardly profess faith are the same way today: complacent and even complicit. You quickly surrender your place of prestige and respect if you passionately or actively fight this culture that tolerates the death of children (amongst all the other oppressions and depravities) in honour of our current god of Mammon and Materialism.

    The only differences between then and now is the name of the idol; that more children are dying and, that instead of receiving the warnings from (human) prophets, we have the warnings of God’s only begotten son. I’m with Chris Hedges on this: we’re at the precipice of one of the darkest times in history. Babylon might be like a walk in the park compared to what lies ahead of us… unless we get a Josiah to replace the current billionaire in the White House!

    So ya, to see that, in the NT, Jesus was referring to Molech when he referred to Gehenna reinforces my concerns for this day and age.

    To go from one cheery thought to another…(Hey, don’t blame me – you started all this judgement and hellfire stuff!!)

    I won’t start a new church over it but… I also have this notion that “hell” is just our chosen independence and separation from God…and all the love, beauty, complexity, mystery, that He/She created… and we are left to fend for ourselves to create a world out of our own knowledge and abilities. Of course our pride has mislead us. All that we understand is not nearly enough to say “let there be light” or escape the loneliness and a terrifying boredom in a universe that is centred only on ourselves. The magnitude of our sin is pretty well immaterial… it is the fact that we are choosing to be separate from God and when we die, we continue to be separate. The Las Vegas shooter might catch a glimpse of some surprisingly high profile church personalities on the way down.

    Ok. I’ll try to end happier… it doesn’t have to be this way! We can change. We can be better. We’ve done it before and we can do it again. C’mon church! Let’s stop trembling behind the apron strings of the power brokers of this fallen world. Take your attention away from the little Christian empire builders (as per Galatians) Let’s believe the Bible! Let’s listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd and be the voice that speaks boldly and with the great power of the Holy Spirit that has been given to us! For the sake of the much loved people in this self centred and crumbling world, let’s get serious! We have a calling and we are, I believe, the last hope!

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