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.

Exclusively Jesus, Inclusively All

Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the only way to the Father, the only gate for his sheep (John 14:6; 10:7-10). But Jesus also has “other sheep who are not of this sheepfold” (John 10:16).

There is “no other name” but Jesus “by which we can be saved” (Acts 4:12). But the altars of other religions, the poets of many cultures, the very rhythms of the earth, can point us to the Creator “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:23-28).

If we “confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead we will be saved” (Rom 10:9-10). But Jesus’ “act of righteous obedience leads to justification and life for all” (Rom 5:18).

Jesus is supreme over all things, for “all things in heaven and on earth have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:15-18). But “all things, whether on earth or in heaven,” have also been “reconciled through Jesus” (Col 1:19-20).

The Bible is filled with tensions like these, even right within the same biblical book or passage—like the examples above. On the one hand are radically exclusive claims about Jesus and God’s salvation through him. On the other hand are radically inclusive claims about the world and its salvation through Jesus.

Christians have often turned to one extreme or the other, either radical exclusivism or radical inclusivism. The extreme exclusivists see nothing good in other religions—only explicit Jesus-confessors can know God’s presence or experience God’s salvation. The extreme inclusivists see nothing all that unique about Jesus or Christianity—there are many paths to experiencing God and the life God desires for us.

But if we are going to be faithful to Scripture we need somehow to hold both of these truths together: both the radically exclusive claims Scripture makes about Jesus and God’s salvation through him, and the radically inclusive claims Scripture makes about the world and its salvation through Jesus.

This is, in fact, one of the most pressing theological questions for us as Christians today. We live in a religiously plural world. We are increasingly aware of other religions and their truth claims, and most of us rub shoulders regularly with people who adhere to other religions. The upsurge in aggressive or even violent religious extremism—whether Muslim or Christian or even Buddhist—gives added urgency to all this. We need to figure out how to live together within a diverse global village, which means in part facing head-on the question of how the truth claims of Christianity relate to those of other religions.

So how do I understand these things? How do I hold together both the exclusive and the inclusive claims of Scripture regarding Jesus and salvation? Here’s some of my current thinking.

I believe Jesus is unique. I believe Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, uniquely embodying God in the world. I believe that Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection offer us the clearest and fullest picture of God and God’s will for humanity that there is. I believe that through Jesus God deals decisively with human sin; through Jesus God makes right all that has gone wrong in the world because of the many ways we harm one another and the rest of creation. I believe that the way of Jesus is the only way to true life—justice, peace, and joy—for us as individuals, for us collectively as a human race, even for all creation.

This is why I am a Christian, and not a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu or atheist or anything else. This is also why I seek to proclaim the message of Jesus and live out the way of Jesus in such a way that others are encouraged to follow Jesus also, and to follow Jesus ever more faithfully. (Whether I always succeed at this is another matter…)

However, I am not convinced that the way of Jesus is entirely unique to Jesus. Many of the particular elements of Jesus’ message and example, such as “love your neighbour” or the Golden Rule or equitable justice or nonviolent peacemaking or nonviolent atonement, are reflected in many ways throughout various religious and non-religious traditions. These are simply the best instincts of humanity, seen most directly in Jesus but not exclusively in Jesus.

This should not be troublesome to Christians, it seems to me. If all humans are created in the image of God, and Jesus is the image of God—if Jesus is not just “true God” but also “true human,” the fullness of what it means to be “human”—if God’s kingdom Spirit does indeed “blow wherever it pleases,” and God’s presence is everywhere throughout the earth—if all these things and more like them are true, then one should expect elements of the way of Jesus to be found in various religions, cultures, and societies throughout history and around the world.

All this means that I can and will gladly point people to Jesus and say, “Come, let’s follow Jesus together, because he is the true Way that leads to life.” I believe following Jesus together in a community of Jesus-followers is the best way to learn and experience this “true Way that leads to life.”

But this angle on things also allows me to say a glad “Yes!” when I see elements of the way of Jesus or other truths that ennoble humanity reflected beyond the Christian tradition, in anyone’s life. I don’t even feel the need to “Christianize” those things, or to convert those people to the religion known as “Christianity.”

As for the question most Christians want answered—“Who will be saved in the end?” or, as I might phrase it, “Who will experience flourishing life in God’s fully restored creation?”—well, thankfully, that’s up to God. Jesus answered that question with an enigmatic challenge in return, essentially saying, “Different people than you might expect, with plenty of surprises for all. Just make sure you yourself are striving to follow my narrow way” (Luke 13:22-30).

I’m of the hopeful variety, trusting in God’s rich mercy and abundant love and persistent patience. After all, “God desires all people to be saved” (1 Tim 2:3-4), and we are assured that “in the fullness of time God will indeed gather up all things in Christ Jesus, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10).

Exclusively Jesus, inclusively all.