Jesus and Hell: Understanding Images of Doom in the Gospel Writings (Part One: Introduction)

According to an old joke, a priest, a rabbi, and a liberal Protestant minister are having a discussion in hell. At one point, the rabbi asks the priest, “What did you do to get sent here?”

“I was a ‘whiskey priest,” the priest responds. “I just couldn’t give up the booze. What about you?”

“I just couldn’t give up my ham sandwiches,” says the rabbi. Then he turns to the liberal pastor and asks, “What about you? What did you do to get thrown into hell?”

At this point the pastor becomes angry and insists, “There’s no such thing as hell. In fact, I’m not the slightest bit warm!”

I tell this joke, not to pick on liberal Protestants (I have been one much of my life), but to make an important point: people are very good at denying realities that are painful or uncomfortable. This is especially the case when it comes to painful spiritual realities.

While many Christians today say they don’t believe in hell, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s a very prominent idea in the New Testament; and it’s not just in the book of Revelation – indeed, the majority of the biblical references to hell are found in the Gospels, in words attributed to Jesus Himself. Here’s a sample of some of the things Jesus said (or is believed to have said) about hell:

“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. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched” (Mark 9:43-48).

“And these (the wicked) will depart into eternal punishment, but the just into eternal life” (Matt 25:46).

“The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all snares and all who work lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:41-42).

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tortured, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in great pain in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good, and Lazarus in like manner evil; but now he is comforted here, and you are in pain. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us” (Luke 16:22-26).

These are scary words, to be sure! But what exactly do they mean? Over the course of church history, Christians have tended to interpret texts like these in one of three ways.

The most popular understanding of hell has been that of everlasting conscious torment (ECT), of hell as a place or state where sinners are punished endlessly for their wickedness. While many have softened this by describing the pains of hell in terms of eternal separation from God (rather than a place where God actively punishes people), the image of eternal suffering has nonetheless persisted in the minds of most Christians.

A small but significant number of Christians, however, have seen hell in a different way – not as a place of everlasting torment, but as total annihilation of both body and soul. In this view, those who go to hell don’t experience conscious suffering, but are simply erased from existence.

Yet another group has seen hell in a third way – as neither everlasting punishment nor annihilation, but as a process of purification where the wicked are slowly but surely reconciled to God. (This is similar to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, but expanded to allow for the salvation of all).

Which of these views is most biblical? Which one corresponds the most to what Jesus was trying to say? Is there yet another way to understand hell, beyond what most Christians have thought? Just what the hell is hell? A deeper look at the Gospel texts will make things clearer.

(Coming Next: Jesus and Hell, Part Two: What the Hell? (The Meaning of Jesus’ Infernal Imagery)


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