Having covered the remarkably few mentions of Hell in the other Gospels, we now turn our attention to the book of Matthew. In stark contrast to the other Gospels, Matthew seems absolutely chock full of Hell. This, in itself, raises an issue: if an understanding of Hell is so important, and Jesus’s mission on Earth was to help people avoid it even at the cost of his own life, why do the other Gospels barely mention it? Perhaps it was that the different writers had different purposes or different audiences in mind and wrote according to those guidelines. Perhaps it was this flaw in the earlier documents that Matthew was trying to correct in his writing. There are clues we can follow to try and unpick this dilemma. To borrow a tool from my Christian academic past, it would be helpful to identify who wrote this Gospel, who his audience was, and what his intention might have been. Establishing these facts will shed light on some of the difficulties raised by the text.
First, it would seem obvious that Matthew wrote Matthew. However, it is completely unprovable, if not highly unlikely, that the Gospels were written by those whose names they bear. The Matthew in question is understood to be the tax collector named within the gospel narratives. He would have been a Jew by race but considered a traitor as he served the hated Roman empire, whose presence was a slap in the face to those who believed that Israel was God’s promised land to the Jews for all time. An occupying force was, essentially, blasphemy. To be a Jew and serve that occupying force was to place oneself at odds with God and therefore out of fellowship with the rest of one’s race. But let’s be clear, the book does not mention its author in any way. Attributing authorship to Matthew was a later tradition and is completely unsupportable. What we do know is that the “book” was written around 80 to 90 AD, with some scholars placing it several decades later, by a Jewish man who had a foot in both the Jewish and Greek world. Given these facts, if Matthew was (roughly) 20 years old in the gospel narrative, and if Jesus was crucified around 30 AD, even the earliest date of writing in 80 AD would mean Matthew would have to be at least 70 years old at the time of writing, which was fairly unusual in those days. Not impossible, but pushing the boundaries of likelihood.
So coming to the second and third considerations; who was the author’s audience and what was his purpose, it seems clear that the author was very keen to show Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament expectation for God’s messiah. There are parallels to Moses throughout the book and many references to the Law among other things that would have appealed to a majority Jewish audience. In short, this work was written for Jews. But not just any Jews. There is a great deal of Greek influence on this document as well. I feel this is where much of the understanding of Matthew’s treatment of Hell can be understood. As we have already covered in previous posts, there is no direct understanding of Hell to be gained from the Old Testament. How, then, is this very non-Jewish idea of conscious, eternal torment suddenly so prevalent in the teachings of a heavyweight contender for the role of Jewish messiah? That will be revealed in due course. For now it will be sufficient to point out that Israel was the crossroads of the ancient world and any religious movement, over time, would be altered by the wide variety of different beliefs it mixed with.
The mentions of Hell in Matthew can be roughly divided into two categories: those that seem to mention Hell by name and those that merely allude to it. In order to make sense of them I will group them together along those lines and make some observations.
First, those passages that seem to mention Hell by name. I will simply quote them here with the words translate “hell” having their original Greek words in parenthesis next to them. As you read through them, it is only necessary to remember that Gehenna was the valley outside of Jerusalem where the trash was dumped and burned and that Hades was the Greek concept of the realm of the dead and need not carry any idea of suffering.
Matthew 5:22 – 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.
Matthew 5:29-30 – If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell (Gehenna).
Matthew 10:28 – And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna).
Matthew 11:23 – And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
Matthew 16:18 – And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell (Hades) shall not prevail against it.
Matthew 18:8-9 – 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 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.
Matthew 23:15 – Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell (Gehenna) as yourselves.
Matthew 23:33 – You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell (Gehenna)?
What becomes clear is that the Hell mentioned in these verses is not a place anyone would intentionally choose, per se, but is not the eternal fiery torment we have all been threatened with. Garbage, decay, and death are what are being referenced here, not a pit of molten agony. The second group of verses, those that mention Hell in a sideways sort of way, are harder to dismiss but not impossible. It is helpful here to remember that Jesus’s preaching was about his Kingdom and how one becomes part of it. It may be helpful to think of the Kingdom in terms of a party that everyone want to be invited to, rather than one half of a Heaven vs. Hell decision that anyone would be stupid turn down for fear of the other option. Many of these verses can be easily dismissed as saying “you really don’t want to miss out on the Kingdom because it’s gonna suck outside.” That’s my simplified interpretation anyway. Again, I quote the verses now, this time with simplified definitions from online Bible study resources or my personal observations in parenthesis.
Matthew 7:13-14 – “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction (utter destruction, ruin, loss, perishing), and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Matthew 7:21-23 – “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (no indication of the alternative environment, only that you won’t be included in the Kingdom)
Matthew 8:12 – While the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (in context, this sounds a little like Jesus getting annoyed with people and lashing out, perhaps “hissy fit” is a bit irreverent but not totally inaccurate)
Matthew 13:41-42 – The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (…perhaps at the sense of loss or being left out, not necessarily eternal pain)
Matthew 13:50 – And throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (see above)
Matthew 25:41 – “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (the fire is eternal and the angels may well abide there forever but that is not to say that people will)
Matthew 25:46 – And these will go away into eternal punishment (correction, chastisement, punishment, torment, perhaps with the idea of deprivation), but the righteous into eternal life.”
The point of all of this is that, while Matthew contains more references than the other Gospels, the mentions of Hell in this book do not point to the concept of Hell we have all endured our entire lives. The concept is ill-defined if vaguely unpleasant. The question remains, however, how did this concept work its way into a Jewish sect? I believe the answer boils down to a concept that the modern evangelical preacher rails against on a regular basis: syncretism. OK, that word might not be used in the pulpit, but the concept surely is. According to Wikipedia, syncretism is “the blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation of beliefs from unrelated traditions into a religious tradition.” In other words, Israel being at the crossroads of the empire led to a merging together of ideas from different faiths into the new Jewish sect of Christianity. It became a handy tool to move people toward a faith that was relatively unremarkable amongst the “marketplace of ideas,” and a way to scare the faithful into fidelity. In that way, Hell serves much the same purpose today, as many more people stay loyal to Christianity due to a sense of fear or dread than they do out of love and devotion. The stick, ultimately, is more effective than the carrot.