Why would Jesus talk about hell?

Sep 13, 2017 by

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Jesus talked about hell more than all the other Bible authors combined. Hell is mentioned explicitly 23 times in the New Testament, and in 16 of those times, Jesus is the one who utters the words.

He pronounces “eternal fire and punishment” as the final destiny of persons who see the hungry and give them nothing to eat or see the sick and don’t care for them (Matt. 25:41-46). He warns that those who give into sin are in danger of “hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:42-48). Normally when all the flesh is consumed, any maggots die; but the decomposition in hell never ends — their worm does not die. Normally something on fire gets burned up and the fire goes out, but in hell the burning never ends.

Why would Jesus — the Lord of love, the author of grace — talk about a fate that horrible?

Our minds tend to go toward worst-case answers:

  • Jesus was not as compassionate and wise as us.
  • He allowed the brutality and barbarism of his day to rub off on him.
  • Or maybe he himself never spoke threats of hell, but over-zealous followers put them in his mouth.

But there are also best-case answers available:

If we choose evil, we cannot enter the heavenly city.

Out of respect for human dignity, Jesus does not force his values on us — does not force us to behave as residents of heaven behave, to love God with all our being and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. So if we reject the values of heaven, we must go to the “other place.”

C.S. Lewis wrote: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it” (The Great Divorce). Henri Nouwen wrote: “God is love and only love. In God there is no hatred, desire for revenge, or pleasure in seeing us punished. God wants to forgive, heal, restore, show us endless mercy, and see us come home. But just as the father of the prodigal son let his son make his own decision, God gives us the freedom to refuse God’s love, even at the risk of destroying ourselves. Hell is not God’s choice. It is ours” (Bread for the Journey).

Misery is the out-working of a choice against God and for self.

The agony of hell-fire may be a metaphor for something infinitely worse than fire. We see that self-centeredness brings misery in the long run. The more self-absorbed and self-focused a person is, the more they tend to grumble, complain and blame others. Relationships break down. Even physical well-being lessens. If we see that amount of misery in this short life, imagine these souls in a billion years. As we start out, we are distinct from our grumbling mood. We may even criticize it in ourselves and wish we could stop it. “But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine” (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce).

Jesus’ images of horror and agony may simply be a description of a chosen path of sinful selfishness going on forever, on a trajectory toward abject misery. Jesus, more perceptive and wiser than any other prophet or teacher, was more aware of this danger than any other. And so he in compassion warned us of it more than any other.

Harold N. Miller is pastor of Trissels Mennonite Church, Broadway, Va. He blogs at Interacting With Jesus, where this post first appeared.

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  • Charlie Kraybill

    Harold N. Miller’s Jesus: “Love me and accept me, or you’ll be condemned forever. Your choice.”
    Anabaptist leader Hans Denck’s Jesus: “God wants us to love our enemies and to show compassion and mercy towards each other; it follows, logically, that God does not contradict those attitudes in his own dealings with us.”
    The Marginal Mennonite Society’s Jesus: “Everybody who’s ever lived gets a seat at the celestial banquet table. No questions asked.”

    • Harold Miller

      I join you in rejecting the Jesus you characterize as “Harold N Miller’s Jesus”! That Jesus sounds petty and vain. The Jesus in the Gospels says “feed the hungry, care for the sick, for those are the behaviors of the Age to Come.”

      If you would like more help to catch the spirit of what I’m saying (perhaps not!), here’s a quote from Miroslav Volf (an internet PDF, “Christianity and Violence”):

      …the power of evil rests in great part in the fact that the more one does evil the thicker the shield becomes that protects the evil from being overcome by good. The book of Revelation rightly refuses to operate with the belief that all evil will either be overcome by good or self-destruct. It therefore counts with the possibility of divine violence against the persistent and unrepentant evildoer. Those who refuse redemption from violence to love by the means of love will be, of necessity, excluded from the world of love.

      How should we understand this possible divine violence? In the context of the whole Christian faith, it is best described as symbolic portrayal of the final exclusion of everything that refuses to be redeemed by God’s suffering love. Will God finally exclude some human beings? Not necessarily. I called the divine “violence” “possible.” For it is predicated on human refusal to be made into a loving person and therefore to be admitted into the world of love. Will some people refuse? I hope not…

  • Berry Friesen

    There is a fundamentalist way of thinking about the life of faith that zeroes in on the afterlife as the point of it all. Jesus provides the fix for that problem. Charlie and his wishful MMS seem to lean that direction.

    Then there is an Earth-centered way of thinking about the life of faith that starts with the grim reality that we are in deep trouble as a human species. The point of it all is that Jesus provides a way out of that deep trouble. Harold seems to lean that direction, especially in the last two paragraphs of his essay.

    I am persuaded by the Earth-centered approach to understanding Jesus. As for an afterlife, I’m pretty agnostic about the details. But I find bizarre Charlie’s thought that in heaven, God will make people participate in a way of life they despired while living on Earth.