What Jesus Says About Hell (and what it means)
When you think of the words that Jesus said you probably don’t give much thought to the things he said about hell. But he didn’t shy away from the difficult topic. He addressed it time and time again. It’s important that we don’t ignore what Jesus said about hell.
However Jesus doesn’t tell us what hell is and who goes there. Rather he speaks in parables and illustrations. It’s not a clear picture, because that was never his point. A major problem arises when people try to pull absolutes out of these stories. Jesus isn’t trying to communicate as a textbook tells us facts. He is painting a picture that uses some artistic liberties. In order to have a better understanding we must give a deeper look at his words.
There’s too many passages on hell to give an in-depth look on each passage. In this article we will look at several of the general teachings and major themes of hell that Jesus gives and a few passages that illustrate them.
Gehenna. The Real Hell On Earth
The word that Jesus uses for hell is Gehenna. Chances are if you read the word hell in the New Testament it’s actually the word Gehenna.
Gehenna was a real place that was just south of the city of Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day it was a city dump in which trash was burned, day and night. However historically it had been the place where Israel went to practice idolatry. Not just the worship of other gods, but they also practiced human sacrifice, often of children. Some of Israel’s darkest moments happened in that valley. It was literally hell on earth. And it’s no coincidence that Jesus chooses this word to describe hell.
Why this is important is many of the passages in which Jesus talks about hell he is using imagery of Gehenna. Those listening would not have thought about hell below the surface. Rather the hell that was just outside the city. Hell to his audience isn’t a far off place that someday some people would go it. It was a literal place they could walk to. And that is a key distinction we need to keep in mind when we look at what Jesus said about hell.
The Lock Is On The Inside
Most people think that hell is the place that God tortures those for not following him. A better picture is that hell is a place of self torment. They aren’t there to be tortured for their sins. They are there because they refused healing for their ailment and now they live in self torment.
The best parable to illustrate this is The Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. If you haven’t read this story you should. It’s fascinating. In this story Jesus paints a picture of two men that lived drastically different lives. First a rich man, that remains unnamed, is living a life of luxury. He has everything the world has to offer. And then there’s Lazarus. A lame (as in couldn’t walk) beggar with sores covering his body. He had nothing, but interestingly enough he gets a name in Jesus’ story.
One day they both die. Lazarus goes to Abraham’s side, aka Heaven. And the rich man goes to Hades, aka hell. This is where it gets interesting…
While in “torment”, an important distinction here, not torture, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him so that Lazarus could dip his finger in the water and cool his tongue. In other words the rich man wants Lazarus to serve him. He hasn’t changed one bit. He still thinks he’s better than Lazarus.
This story paints an interesting picture of hell. We often think of hell as a place with a lock on it. And I think that’s accurate. But the lock is on the inside. God’s not locking the rich man in his place of torment. The rich man put himself there, he chose to go there. The story ends with Abraham saying that even someone rising from the dead will not convince them. It seems even in his place of torment there’s room for repentance. But the offer is refused. Hell is a place that is locked up. But the lock is on the inside. God’s not keeping people in hell; they choose to stay there. They would rather reign in hell than be a servant in God’s kingdom.
EVERYONE is Invited to the Party
One day there is going to be the party of all parties. Jesus paints this picture of a wedding party that will put all other wedding parties to shame. And everyone is invited. But a troubling picture comes into play in that not everyone wants to go. Not only do they decline, but they do it in such extreme ways.
The Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1-14 paints this picture. Jesus takes a direct stab at Israel, particularly the religious of the day. This passage is not a blanket statement of the whole of creation. Rather it is precisely directed at the nation of Israel, God’s people. They were invited to a wedding party. Not just any party but the greatest party of ALL time. What did they do? They tore up the invitations, murdered the messengers, and went back to their lives. This is a picture of the actions of the nation of Israel. This is how offensive their actions were in the eyes of God.
Does this parable apply to those outside the nation of Israel? That’s a great question. Within the context of this story that Jesus told the emphasis is on those that claimed to be God’s people. Certainly, for those today claiming to follow Jesus we should make sure we aren’t making the same mistakes that the nation of Israel made. However the point of this parable is not that those far from God are cast into hell. Rather they are given the opportunity to join God in heaven.
In Jesus’ story he makes the statement that they are weeping. Why are they weeping? Because they are in physical pain and torture? Doubtful… They are weeping because they were kicked out of the party of a life time. Is that unfair on their part? No! Remember they are the ones that tore up the invitations and murdered the messengers. They were invited in and they declined, and not with a polite no thank you. They intentionally decided not to go. They willingly said no to the invitation.
Toward the end of the story Jesus paints a picture of the man thrown out. When given the opportunity to repent and receive the proper clothes to join the party, he still remains speechless. He cannot admit to his wrong. That’s a picture of the nation of Israel. And that should stand as a warning to the religious today. Everyone is invited. But some think they can get in on their accord and they cannot.
Separating the Good and the Bad
This is a central theme in many of Jesus’ parables. It looks differently but points to the same thing. Whether it’s wheat and chaff, sheep and goats, or bad fish and good fish. Jesus’ stories and illustrations point to a day where the good is sorted from the bad.
This is a difficult theme in many of Jesus’ teachings. We might be tempted to protest and ask why a little sin cannot remain. But sin is never satisfied with a little. Like cancer it will grow. And no cancer patient would be okay with a doctor removing “most” of the cancer. They would insist on it all being gone. Why? Because cancer is infections and will grow until it kills the body. Sin is the same way. It will not be satisfied until it has killed it’s host. Therefore it must be removed in totality.
Even a little bit of hell cannot be allowed in the new creation. Therefore, it must be removed. Some will protest claiming cruelty. But Jesus makes it clear that everyone has an invitation to the party, to the new creation. Everyone will have the opportunity to receive healing. However some will willfully decline. They will lock themselves outside God’s city and live in self torment rather than God’s Kingdom.
Jesus seems to paint a picture of a future option for repentance. Both in Matthew 22:1-4 and Luke 16:19-31 there seems to be extended grace for those that at first declined it. While in others, primarily those separating passages it seems little option for repentance. When our deadline to repent is I don’t know. But the Bible seems to point that EVERYONE has an invitation. In other words, no one is going to hell that doesn’t willingly choose.
Hell Is Outside the City, Not Underneath
The picture of hell is always outside the city. Not an underground chamber as we often picture it. Hell was not a place that God created alongside earth. Rather it was introduced by the sin of humankind. God isn’t unleashing the power of hell to bring torment, we are. Hell is not an underground chamber that God locks us in. Rather it is our own construct that we build to keep God away from us. Remember, the lock is on the inside.
This is an important distinction. Hell is outside the city because that’s where they wanted to be. There is still an illustration of separation. But it’s outside, not underneath. Jesus makes it clear that people willingly choose to leave the city. Not people that are forcibly locked in a chamber. Hell is not a place people are forced to; it’s a place people choose. It’s a place where they can reign in their own kingdom apart from God’s. They are so close to the life God intended for them. It’s just outside the wide-open gate. But they refuse to enter and live on the outside, in Gehenna. The trash dump. Worship their own god, themselves.
Hell Exists so Creation Can be Restored
The point of all of this is a restoration of God’s creation. The Bible tells the story of creation, fall, and redemption. It tells this over and over again in little stories. But the overarching stories bear the same plot. God created the perfect world, man brought in sin, and God is in the process of redeeming creation to it’s former glory. That means that one day hell will be removed from God’s creation so that creation can be restored. Creation cannot be made new without this happening. Much like cancer it all must be removed.
Everyone is invited into this new creation. But some will decline. Some would rather live outside God’s city at Gehenna. They would rather be their own gods. They would rather reign than serve. They would rather throw their own party. Because God loves them he won’t force them to do anything; it is their choice. So he let’s them go.
What happens to them? Well, I’m out of space in this article. Check out A Better Understanding of Hell (it’s not what you think) for what I think is a better Biblical understanding of hell.
I’d love to hear from you! Drop a comment down below!
When I write I pull from a lot of sources and some of my own thoughts. A few of the ideas of this article stemmed from Joshua Ryan Butler’s book Skeleton’s in God’s Closet. If you haven’t read it I HIGHLY recommend picking it up!
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