Having looked at the Old Testament’s treatment of Hell, or rather the lack of Hell in the Old Testament, I will now turn to the New Testament. Investigating the teaching on Hell in the Gospels is the next logical step in that the Gospels not only physically come first in the New Testament, but also because the teachings directly from the mouth of Jesus, if we suspend our disbelief long enough to allow this, are the platform upon which the rest of the Bible, and the Christian faith, are built. At this point there are a couple of things I feel I must repeat for clarity and emphasis. First, I am not a Christian theologian, preacher, or teacher of any stripe seeking to present an alternative view of Christianity that is more warm and fuzzy, less fear-based, and easier to accept than the traditional version. I am a former Christian academic and minister that has walked away from a confusing and damaging faith that dominated the first 40 years of my life. It is this point of view that I bring to bear upon Christianity and Christian theology now from the other side of the fence, seeking to help those who have similarly deconverted or those who are secretly questioning their faith, afraid to air their questions out loud. Second, in this series on Hell, my goal is to destabilize the traditional teaching on the subject by going direct to the source and showing it for the unsupported coercion device that it is. I do not believe in the authority, infallibility, or inerrancy of the Bible, I am simply using it to establish the fact that there is no warrant to be terrified of Hell. To me that is the point of this series; the fear of Hell has brought more people into the Church and kept them there, quiet and submissive, than the promise of Heaven ever did, or ever could… which might actually be the point in the doctrine of Hell if you think about it. Breaking this particular shackle allows people to ask questions they would be too afraid to ask otherwise and sets them free to explore, following wherever their path of discovery takes them.
Now, before we look at specifics in the various verses supposedly teaching about Hell in the Gospels, it would be very useful to remind ourselves that the word “Hell” itself appears nowhere in the original text of the Bible. The word, like a good many other things in the practices of Western Christianity was stolen directly from Norse paganism, along with Santa Claus, Winter Solstice celebrations, and Christmas trees. The words that actually appear in the Scriptures and are now translated as “Hell” are Sheol, Hades, Gehenna (and its variations), and Tartarus. Sheol is simply the Hebrew concept of “the place of the dead” or simply “the grave.” Hades was (ahem) “borrowed” from the Greeks and is the underworld, named for the god in charge of that realm, and is largely interchangeable with Sheol. Gehenna refers to the “Valley of Hinnom”, a valley just outside Jerusalem used as a garbage dump where people burned their garbage. It is especially important to note that, with these first three words, there is no inherent meaning of punishment or torture. Tartarus, on the other hand does speak directly of the part of the Greek realm of Hades where evil is actively punished. However, Tartarus is used only once in the entire Bible, in 2 Peter 2:4, and speaks of the prison that holds demons awaiting judgement. There is no mention whatsoever of the presence of humans.
So, what does the New Testament say about Hell in any of its forms? I saved myself the legwork, just as I have before, and Googled verses on Hell, compiled them into a list, removed duplicates and irrelevant passages, and compiled the Gospel verses on the subject which I will share below along with my thoughts. I am well aware of the order in which the books of the New Testament appear. I will cover Mark, Luke, and John first as Matthew has by far the most to say on the subject and I want to cover that in depth, in a separate post, after dealing with the other three.
One note before jumping in though, it strikes me as very strange that, aside from Matthew, the Gospels have so little to say about Hell. If the vast majority of humanity was destined to eternal, conscious torment and the God that put the universe in motion for the sole purpose of saving people from that fate (there’s a whole other logical question to be asked there, but for another time) chose to walk the earth in human form in order to speak to people from his very own heart and mind, wouldn’t Hell be first or second on the list of stuff to talk about? As it is, Mark has only one single passage that alludes to Hell, John deals with it in a sideways manner, and only a handful of times, and Luke offers little more except for a parable that has more to do with dislike of the rich than of eternal destinations. Simply put, why didn’t Jesus spell it out, with detail, on every occasion he could?
Mark’s lone mention of Hell is chapter 9, verses 43-48.
And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’
The difficulty with this is that Mark (or whoever actually wrote this), being the earliest of the Gospel writings, was perfectly happy to give us this instruction and no more. From this we learn nothing. Bearing in mind the words for Hell here would only allude to “death” in the minds of its original hearers, this could simply be a warning that our actions can have negative consequences, sometimes even to the point of an embarrassing death and lasting shame staining people’s memory of us. The last line about the worm and the fire being everlasting tells us absolutely nothing of the eternal state of the dead man, only that death is permanent.
Moving on to John, we get three passages that amount to warnings about judgement but with no real clarity on the consequences.
John 3:16-18 – For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
John 3:36 – Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
John 5:28-29 – Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
Three verses, one mention of “condemnation,” one mention of God’s “wrath,” and one mention of “judgement.” Seeing as an all-knowing God would know that John 3:16 would become the most famous, most-remembered verse in the Bible, wouldn’t a strategic placement of some other important information nearby be prudent? Apparently now.
In Luke, we get a bit more information. We start to get a bit more of the Hell we are all used to, however, it is useful to remember that we should read what the text says, think of how it would have been understood by the original audience, and be careful not to read our pre-conceived idea back onto it. I will give the first three verses and make some short observations on each before dealing in more depth with the final passage.
Luke 3:17 – His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” At most, we can say from this that God will destroy, or allow to be destroyed, those who do not follow him. As noted earlier, the nature of the fire is mentioned, not the duration of the punishment. This could just as easily mean non-believers will die and be thrown on the trash heap to be burned, ceasing to exist.
Luke 10:15 – And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. Hades = destroyed. The city will suffer for rejecting Jesus. No eternal conflagration required.
Luke 12:5 – But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! God is able to bring complete destruction, no eternity required.
Luke 16:19-31 – “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. … Luke 16:24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ This passage presents an interesting development in the theology of Hell. We seem to have here a representation of the afterlife with both reward and punishment, reward for the downtrodden, fire for the unjust. But there are problems here too. If Hell was not a concept taught by Jews of the time, why is this story not openly questioned by the crowd? Like, “wait a second Jesus, could you explain this a little more?” The issue is either resolved by a) realizing that the Jews of the time had integrated a measure of Greek mythology into their belief, meaning that either Judaism had been wrong in the past or it had gone wrong now, b) that the story was a parable about how God looks upon people’s behavior, not their social standing, or c) this never happened and the story was added in later to support the Church’s fear-based proselytizing. In any case, this story tells us nothing concrete about what we should believe about Hell.
The heart of the Christian faith was originally about love, peace, and the promise of eternal life. Those things just weren’t enough to make this small Jewish cult stand out from the crowd. I believe that the doctrine of Hell was adopted, or stolen from other nearby religions, as a handy way of drawing and keeping a crowd. The “Good News” is infinitely more attractive when it is juxtaposed against eternal, conscious, torment. But creating it, adopting it, or simply misunderstanding it doesn’t make it more true. It is unsupported by the very faith that birthed it, and I look forward to picking it apart further in the near future.