“Hell” Verses in Context
I have heard more than one preacher claim that “Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone.” Has anyone else heard this claim? It is a rather curious claim for two main reasons:
1. It causes many Christians to turn off their brains and stop investigating the issue (because Christians obviously don’t want to argue against Christ, their Lord and Savior).
2. It is NOT TRUE. As a matter of fact, Jesus never spoke of hell as it is currently understood. As we have already seen, the very word “hell” is an irresponsible, misleading translation. Gehenna is rightly translated to the Valley of Hinnom. This is an undisputed fact that any biblical scholar worth their salt knows to be true.
Considering these realities, it is important to examine the contexts of the passages on "hell" that we have just discussed in the previous chapter. I'm sure that you agree that the context of a biblical passage is critical to its interpretation. To truly understand what is being said, we must understand who is being spoken to, how they would have understood what was being said, and why the speaker was addressing them. With this in mind, let’s now look at all of the passages in which Jesus speaks of Gehenna. One thing that you will notice is that He only mentions the word Gehenna 11 times total and only in 3 different contexts. Let’s examine each of these in turn.
Context 1: Encouraging His Friends and Disciples to “Not Be Afraid”
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in
hell(Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna).
But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into
hell(Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna) . Yes, I tell you, fear him.
Now let's look at the context of these passages, beginning with Matthew 10.
“The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!
So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna). Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."
In context, Jesus is encouraging his disciples who He is sending out as his witnesses. He tells them to “proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:7-8). So we know that Jesus is speaking to his followers in this passage, not to unbelievers. He is warning them that they will experience persecution at the hands of the religious leaders who also hated Jesus. This is why He says that “the student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master.” The same religious leaders who called Jesus “Beelzebul” (which referred to Satan), would also be set against his followers. In this context, Jesus is encouraging them to not be afraid of people, who ultimately have no real power over them.
Instead it is God who has true power, not man. For this reason, Jesus is encouraging His disciples to have no fear of man as they serve God and do His work. If there is anyone to whom fear is owed, it is God, who has ultimate power over you. Notice, however, that the passage does NOT say that God will “destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna).” It simply says that he can. In other words, He has the power to do so, but that does not mean that He will. In fact, the context of the passage and the audience Jesus is speaking to make this interpretation nonsensical. There is simply no way that Jesus is telling his disciples to be courageous in the face of human persecution because God is the one who is really scary and who will fry them later! That interpretation is simply ridiculous.
Instead, we see that Jesus, immediately after telling His disciples of God’s power, tells them to not be afraid. Let’s look at this again, remembering that these verses immediately follow the verse that says that God can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
So Jesus is telling us that even though God has all the power and is worthy of reverence and fear, we should not be afraid even of Him, because He loves us. He cares about all of His creation, even sparrows that are sold for less than a cent each. How much more does He care for us, who were made in His image. He numbers even the hairs on our head according to Jesus. In other words, God knows us intimately and cares for us deeply.
Do not be afraid! God loves you! This is actually what Jesus is telling His disciples. This is why they can be courageous and have no fear of man. The only Being with true power truly loves them. Claiming this “hell” verse as evidence that Jesus spoke of eternal fiery torment for anyone and everyone who doesn’t hear or understand the gospel is incredibly ludicrous and obviously ignores the context of the passage.
Now let's look at the Luke 12 passage in context and you will notice the same thing, with some slight variations.
Luke 12:4-7 (NIV)
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell (Gehenna). Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."
Again, we see that Jesus is speaking to His "friends" and that he addresses them as such. Luke also makes it clear that God has the authority to throw them into Gehenna but once again it is not suggested or implied in any way that He will. It is simply clear that God has ultimate authority, not human beings. Also notice that the passage ends with the same statements on God's care for sparrows and His numbering of even the hairs on our head. And once again it ends with the following exhortation: "Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."
Now it must be asked whether Jesus was contradicting Himself in this statement. Didn't He just tell us to fear God, but then in nearly the same breath tell us to not be afraid? Aren't these contradictory statements?
The answer is no, as long as we are willing to consider the purpose of Jesus' words. He is clearly telling us in the passage that God is the only Being worthy of fear, the only One with true power over us. But again, it is clear that we do not need to be afraid because of His great love for us. Saying that this verse is proof that Jesus spoke of eternal torment in hell at the hand of our God (whose profound love of people is clearly described) is nothing short of an abuse of the text and a radical decontextualization of what is being said.
Context 2: Emphasizing the Seriousness of Sin and Everyone’s Need to Deal With It
Mark 9:42-50 (NASB)
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell (Gehenna), into the unquenchable fire, [where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell (Gehenna), [where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.] If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell (Gehenna), where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Notice that this passage by itself contains 3 (out of 11) references by Jesus to Gehenna (mistranslated as hell). As a reminder, every time Jesus mentions “hell” he is speaking of Gehenna which is the Valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem. The word “hell” has so much associated mythology that it is worth being reminded of this fact. To Jesus' hearers, this was an actual place, an unclean dump associated with the burning and decomposition of refuse and bodies. It also called to mind national judgments that had occurred in Israel’s past, for this was a place where the Babylonians had cast many bodies after invading and destroying Jerusalem. We will discuss this in more detail later.
With this in mind, let’s now consider what Jesus is actually saying and who He is speaking to.
First, it is clear that He is speaking to His disciples in a house in Capernaum (Mark 9:33). This is the audience, not crowds of unbelievers. In this context, Jesus states that it would be better for someone to be drowned in the sea than to cause "one of these little ones who believe to stumble." It is clear in both this passage and in the parallel passage in Matthew 18 that He is speaking of children when He says “little ones.”
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea."
Now some people will argue that this must be referring to eternal hell, because of the graphic language being used. But this is not at all the case. Remember, in this passage Jesus is emphasizing the seriousness of sin with strong imagery. He may be saying that it would be better for you to die than to harm a child. This makes sense given Jesus' perspective of the kingdom of heaven, in which selflessness was of paramount importance. In other words, in the kingdom of God, we must be others-centered, rather than self-centered to the point that we recognize that death is preferable to a life that harms others. The interpretation that eternal torment is the only thing worse than being drowned is a self-centered interpretation that ignores the effect of one's sin on others. In this context, Jesus is clearly speaking to believers (his disciples) and making it clear that living in a way that misrepresents the gospel, and influences children to do wrong, is worse than death.
It could also mean that God will severely punish those who harm children and cause them to stumble. Remember, I am not arguing that God won't judge or punish wickedness. It is clear that He will. This does not mean, however, that the punishment must last forever. In fact, we will shortly see that the Bible never claims that any person will be punished forever in the original Greek. Nevertheless, God takes it seriously when someone harms one of His children. This should not surprise us at all. We too take crimes like child abuse very seriously, and expect that perpetrators of said crimes be punished. Considering that Christ is speaking to His disciples, this warning seems to be of particular importance for those who claim to follow Christ. In other words, hypocritically harming children, while claiming to follow Christ, is particularly offensive to God and merits severe chastisement. When God justly punishes people who have dealt wickedly with His children, the fiery ordeal that they will need to go through to be cleansed of their sin will not be pleasant.
As we will soon see in the section on symbolism, fire is indeed symbolic of purification throughout the Bible. Since we will examine this in detail shortly, I won't spend a lot of time on it right now. Suffice it to say, fire is almost always used to denote cleansing and purification throughout the Bible. This is also the common significance of salt in biblical texts. Consider the following:
The Lord said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy. You shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you. It shall be most holy for you.
In this passage, Moses is being given a recipe for making a holy ceremonial incense.
Seasoning with salt seems to be a requirement for making it pure and holy.
2 Kings 2:20-22
He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have healed this water; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” So the water has been healed to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.
Notice that Elisha used salt as a symbol of healing and of restoration to the spring so that it would no longer bring death but instead life.
Jesus also used salt to represent his followers and the healing and light that they would bring to the world.
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."
Notice that Jesus is using His metaphor that His followers are the salt of the earth as a companion to his metaphor that they are the light of the world. In both instances, his followers are shown to be tools that God uses in his redemptive plan to show the world who He is and heal its inhabitants. We bring purity, goodness and light to the world when we follow Christ.
Let's look at one final example:
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
Again we see salt being used in a positive light, indicating pure, gracious, healing speech that shows wisdom.
Now, in case you aren't sure why I've gone on this "salt" tangent, let's
connect this understanding of salt back to Jesus' final statements in the
passage in which He is discussing Gehenna. Notice that He ends
His discussion of Gehenna in Mark 9 with the following statement:
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what
will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.
You see, both salt and fire symbolize purification, healing and holiness. And everyone will experience the process of being "salted with fire" or made pure and holy by God's sanctifying fire and salt. When people reference this passage as evidence for eternal pain and torment in hell, they absolutely ignore the fact that Jesus makes it clear that everyone will experience this process of being salted with fire. So the question that Jesus is leading you to ponder here is whether you'd rather let sin take root in you and spread throughout your entire body, contaminating you like a malignant cancer, or get rid of each sin that makes you unclean before it can corrupt you further.
The apostle James gives us a good picture of what this process of corruption looks like.
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
Notice the process, beginning with temptation which left unchecked becomes sin, then grows up to lead to death. Which will it be? Will you pluck out your sinful eye now, or wait until your entire body is debilitated by the spreading cancer of sin? If you do the latter, you will experience the death and destruction that sin brings and a far more difficult purifying judgment.
Now I think it is critical at this point to be clear that Jesus is not really advocating self-mutilation in this passage, nor in the parallel passages that discuss this topic (Matthew 5 and Matthew 18). Rather, he is using powerful, symbolic imagery to clarify the destructive power of sin in our lives. If left unchecked, it will ruin us. Most people, whether they advocate for an eternal hell or not, would agree that Jesus doesn't expect us to literally destroy our bodies to get rid of sin.
But this is also where the hellfire advocate runs into interpretive problems. The reason for this is that many insist on taking the parts about unquenchable fire and immortal worms literally instead of figuratively like the rest of the passage. One has to flip flop from literal to figurative interpretations several times in the same passage. It would be far wiser and more biblically consistent to recognize that Jesus is using symbolic imagery and take the meaning of this imagery from other biblical texts that use the very same imagery. It would also be smart to recognize that Jesus is being very clear that the process of being salted with fire and having our sin destroyed in Gehenna is true for every person, including His followers.
With this in mind, is it even possible that He is referring to eternal hell?
I think not, because if so, everyone is going there!
Now, the one thing that is probably still causing some problems for people is the fact that the fire is said to be unquenchable. I will address this in more detail later (in the section on symbolism) but for now we will just briefly mention that the fact that a fire is unquenchable does not mean that it never stops consuming a particular fuel item. Also, the worms don't die as long as there's flesh to eat. The fact is that both worms and fire cease to consume an item once it is fully consumed. In context, it is the sinful flesh that is being consumed. And no one can stop God from completing this work. His unquenchable fire will succeed in healing all people, whether through the piecewise sanctification that we undergo as Christ's followers, or the anguish of the lake of fire for those who choose to allow sin and wickedness to corrupt them thoroughly.
The same expressions and imagery (of removing sinful body parts prior to the malignant spread of sin) that are used in Mark 9 are also used in Matthew 5. In this section of Matthew, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is saying that He came to fulfill the law. He then clarifies that truly living righteously is not a manner of apparent external obedience to the law, but rather of the heart. In this context, he says that lusting after a woman means that you have committed adultery in your heart, and follows that with the imagery of removing one’s eye and one’s hand rather than having his entire body become unclean. This clearly has the same meaning as it did in Mark 9. The only addition in this section of “hell” talk is found in Matthew 5:22. Let’s look at the entire section, which is dealing with the sin of hatred toward other people.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 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 (Gehenna) of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Again, in context, Jesus is emphasizing that external obedience to the rule to not murder does not excuse you in God’s sight. If you are angry with and hate your brother, you earn judgment. It is a matter of your inner being, your heart, because “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (Samuel 16:7). This is where Jesus mentions Gehenna, followed by the sage, practical advice to get reconciled with one another. This is more important than performing a ceremonial religious rite of offering sacrifice. In other words, reconciliation is more important than religion.
So what does Jesus mean when He says that “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell (Gehenna) of fire?” He is clearly saying that judging another person and hating them earns you judgment from God. In His day, the phrase “you fool” was an expression of utter contempt and hatred toward another person. It seems to have been an expression akin to declaring them completely worthless. Such judgments are unbecoming of God’s servants and indicate a heart that is unclean and in need of God’s cleansing fire. So, in context, Jesus is telling His disciples to love people with purity of heart and to purge from themselves the tendency to judge others harshly or be unforgiving.
There is one final contextual observation that is worth discussion. In the Matthew 18 version where Gehenna is discussed, Jesus immediately afterward teaches the parable of the lost sheep. Let’s look at Jesus’ words now:
“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal (aiōnion) fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell (Gehenna) of fire.
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. ”
So, in context, Jesus is once again making in clear to His disciples that it is critical prevent the corruption of sin from spreading inside of them. And His reasoning for this is made clear as he connects it to the effect that sin has on children, who will inevitably imitate them. It is not God’s will that any of them perish. And he makes it abundantly clear that God’s heart is to earnestly seek every one of his children, for “we all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). Notice that God goes after the lost, even if 99% are safe and sound. We all start out as children, and God loves us all and wills that 100% of us are saved. In case you don’t believe that God views us all as His children, examine the following verse carefully.
Malachi 2:10 (ESV)
Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?
Here Malachi connects God’s Fatherhood to the fact that He created us. He is using this fact as motivation to be faithful to God. Even if we are disobedient and unfaithful, He is still our Father and we are His children. He will seek us and find us because that is His “good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
This is the context of Jesus’ reference to Gehenna in Matthew 18. It is not about a God who hates most of humanity and wants to punish them eternally. It is about a God who loves everyone and rejoices when He restores those who are lost. Sin must be destroyed in us so that we can be fully reconciled to Him. It is better to do it now and be used by Him as His ambassador to the world, rather than allow it to spread and cause destruction in the lives of others, incurring His judgment.
One Final Point on this Context
At this point, I think it is critical to address one stumbling block that people will experience in the Matthew 18 passage before we move on. Many people may have noticed that in the translation that I used above, Jesus refers to the fire of Gehenna as eternal (aiōnion). For this reason, many assume that God’s judgment lasts forever. There are two very important observations that you must be aware of to rightly understand what is actually being said.
1) The word aiōnion does not mean eternal. This is a poor translation of the word as we will very soon show. In subsequent chapters, you will see incontrovertible evidence from primary sources (both biblical and extra-biblical texts) that prove beyond any reasonable doubt that this word usually does NOT mean eternal, and can only mean eternal when modifying an eternal noun (i.e. God Himself).
2) Even if the word did mean eternal (which it usually does not), there is no reason why someone would need to spend eternity in it. Lake Tahoe, for example, has been around for a long time, is still around, and will continue to be around for the foreseeable future. This does not mean that if someone pushes you into the lake that you are bound to remain in it for as long as it continues to exist. You could get out on your own, or in a better analogy, someone could help you out. In the same way, even if the fire of Gehenna were eternal, there is no reason why God would be powerless to save people from it, especially since He clearly has stated that His will is for none of His children to perish. He wants to rescue all of us and He has the power and sovereign ability to accomplish what He wants.
Context 3: Criticizing the Religious Leaders
The final two references to Gehenna (The Valley of Hinnom) are found in Matthew 23. The entire chapter is devoted to criticizing the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. Specifically, Jesus condemns their hypocrisy, the fact that they did not practice what they preached, their lack of love for others, and the fact that they made it difficult for others to enter the kingdom of God. Let’s now look at Matthew 23 to see the purpose of Jesus’ references to Gehenna.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell (Gehenna) as you are.
“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets. ’So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell (Gehenna)? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
It is clear from this passage that Jesus is censuring the practices of the religious leaders of the day who focused on externalities rather than justice, mercy and faithfulness. He makes it clear that their works were unrighteous. They were focused on accumulating wealth and gaining prestige, rather than on loving people and loving God, which Jesus says summed up the Law and the Prophets. Instead they were like whitewashed tombs that looked good on the outside but inside were full of dead men’s bones, and everything unclean. Gehenna, it must now be recalled, was also a place of uncleanness where dead things decomposed. Therefore, when Jesus claims that the Pharisees make converts “twice as much a child of hell (Gehenna) as [they] are,” He is clearly referencing that they teach others to be unclean in the same way. In other words, they teach people to be hypocritical, judgmental, unloving, and wholly focused on superficial obedience to tradition, rather than devoted to deep love of God and others.
In Jesus final reference to Gehenna in this passage, Jesus says the following: “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell (Gehenna)?” Notice also that in this same paragraph, Jesus says that these religious leaders will persecute His followers and be judged, and that “all this will come on this generation.” This is good support for the idea that the judgment of Gehenna that Jesus is referring to in this context was in fact the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, which would have been experienced by those of His generation. This event resulted in the deaths of over a million people according to Josephus (The Wars of the Jews VI.9.3). Undoubtedly, many of these bodies were left unburied in the Valley of Hinnom where they were burned and decomposed in the manner alluded to by Christ. It is inevitable that the religious leaders that Christ was censuring (that were still living at the time) were part of this judgment.
But if you read carefully, you will notice that this passage doesn’t end with condemnation. At the end of this pronouncement of judgment on the Pharisees and teachers of the law, Jesus says “Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” The utter destruction and desolation of Jerusalem is not the end. Instead, the passage ends with Jesus’ pronouncement that they will not see Him again until they say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” In other words, these religious leaders will see Christ again and have a change of heart, recognizing Him for who He truly is! These Pharisees and teachers of the law, for whom Christ reserved his most scathing critiques, will come to faith and understanding. They, along with everyone else will be redeemed, for “at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
So now we have seen the contexts of every single reference to “hell” by Christ! Every single one! Not a single one discusses eternal conscious torment. Not one! So the simple fact of the matter is that Jesus never talked about “hell” as it is traditionally understood.
He did speak of judgment in the Valley of Hinnom, in three contexts. As a review, here they are:
1. Encouraging His disciples and friends to have no fear because of God’s great love for them.
2. Encouraging us to get rid of sins before they have the chance to grow and contaminate us thoroughly.
3. Criticizing the hypocrisy and motivations of religious leaders who were concerned only with appearance rather than the substance of God’s law, which is love.
So the next time you hear someone tell you that Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone, you can gently correct this misconception and teach them the importance of reading Bible verses in context, rather than isolating verses from their contexts and twisting them to say something that Jesus never intended.
And now that we’ve established a right understanding of the word "hell", we must address the burning question that everyone familiar with the doctrine of hell is asking. Doesn’t the Bible say that punishment of the wicked is eternal or everlasting? We will address that critical question in the next chapter.
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