How Important Was “Hell” To Jesus?

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American Christianity is obsessed with Hell. I have often heard preachers justify their copious references to it by saying they are just preaching like Jesus. I’ve even heard them say that Jesus preached on Hell more than he did Heaven. Evangelism strategies, such as The Way of the Master, lead with the question, “If you were to die tonight, would you go to Heaven or Hell?” They claim to be evangelizing like Jesus.

But, was Jesus really the “Hell-fire and Brimstone” preacher we have made him out to be?

I decided to find out the answer. I took out my “red-letter edition” Bible and read every word of Jesus in the gospels to see how much he talked about Hell compared to Heaven.

Hell:

There are a couple different Greek words translated to “Hell” in our English Bibles.

The first is Gehenna. It was a real place—a ravine South of Jerusalem where they burned waste in Jesus’ day. Jesus used it as a metaphor for the kind of judgment that will fall on those who are not a part of his Kingdom.

Jesus only says “Gehenna” in 11 passages. Three are repeats from stories retold in another gospel account. On two occasions Jesus used the word multiple times in a single speech. In total, he used this word around 8 times on 6 different occasions.

The second word is Hades, which is borrowed from Greek mythology. Hades was not originally understood as a place, but as a Greek god who rules the underworld—the realm of the dead. When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (the Septuagint), translators used Hades as a counterpart to Sheol, which was a euphemism for the grave. Both the righteous and unrighteous ended up there (cf. Gen 37:35). Consequently, it would be perfectly reasonable to translate Hades as “death” or “the grave” rather than “Hell.”

Jesus used this word 4 times.

He also used a handful of other phrases and metaphors, such as “eternal fire,” around 10 times.

In total, Jesus spoke of Hell around 20 times. (Less if we remove Hades.)

Heaven:

Jesus usually referred to Heaven as a kingdom, which is (of course) the realm over which a king rules. So, “Heaven” is everywhere Jesus reigns.

So, let’s get to the numbers.

There are 70 occurrences of the word “Heaven” in the book of Matthew alone. Around 65 are from the mouth of Jesus. He used the word approximately 11 times in Mark, 14 in Luke, and 14 in John. Granted, some of these occurrences are repeats. But, we haven’t even touched the other metaphors and synonyms he used for “Heaven.” For instance, John records Jesus using the phrase “eternal life” 15 different times.

That’s not all. We can’t reduce Jesus’ message to the amount of times he used the word “Heaven.” Jesus wasn’t merely speaking. He was doing. He summarized his mission by stating,

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19

He reminds us of the Israelite tradition of JubileeEvery fifty years the people of Israel were to forgive all debts and release all slaves. No matter how much you owed, you were free! Jesus came to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is an eternal Jubilee.

He didn’t come to judge or proclaim that God was disgusted by humanity. He didn’t come screaming, “Turn or burn!” from a megaphone on a street corner. He didn’t even come to ask people if they would go to Hell when they died.

He came to proclaim the good news that the enemy loses, God is King, and he has no ill will for humanity. In fact, he looks upon us with favor.

The Israelites were waiting expectantly for the Messiah to set up God’s reign on Earth. In Luke 17:20-21 Jesus was asked how and when the Kingdom would come. He responded:

“The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

So, every time Jesus …

…forgave the sinner…
…healed the broken…
…gave food to the hungry…
…comforted widows and orphans…
…rebuked the Pharisees’ religion…
…sat at the table with sinners…

…he preached Heaven.

Jesus’ parables reveal that the Kingdom of Heaven is hidden like a seed in the dirt—like leaven in a lump of dough. It is already here—in the places we wouldn’t think to look—and it is growing. We are called to bring this Kingdom to Earth. To manifest it in a world that can’t see it. To follow Christ’s example of good deeds.

What can we conclude from all of this?

In three years of preaching, discipling, and teaching Jesus spoke of Hell less than 20 times. How many times have you or I, or the pastor, or the local evangelist spoken of it in three years?

We have created a distorted view of the gospel that puts escaping Hell as the top priority and central message of Christianity. We have reduced the gospel to a 140-character tweet that essentially says, “You deserve Hell. Jesus died so you don’t have to go there.” We have come to believe people cannot follow Christ unless they are trembling in fear of the wrath of God and the Hell they deserve.

If that’s true, then Jesus was a terrible evangelist.

He was more interested in teaching the world what the Kingdom looks like and showing us how to live as a part of it.

Maybe we should do the same.

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8 responses to “How Important Was “Hell” To Jesus?

  1. Tylor,

    Good post!

    An interesting addition would be the fact that paul never mentions it; not even once in any of his epistles. You would think that if our concept of hell was so important to understand that our New Testament apostle theologian would have at least mentioned it once.

    Cheers,

    Billy

  2. Ben,

    You didn’t actually respond to anything Tylor wrote. You responded to what you think he was thinking when he wrote it. The whole point here is that Jesus didn’t speak about “hell” in any sense of the word that modern people like you are thinking about. Judgment is obviously there, but if you don’t take the context of said judgment into account, what’s the point of reading about it in the first place?

    And yes…I actually think that a lot of missionaries got a lot of things wrong. To imply otherwise is to suddenly add a whole new category of “authority” to the way we look at life. Now the lives of missionaries and martyrs are infallible and inerrant in their witness? That doesn’t gel. Can you think of any other people in church history who got a lot of things wrong? Hmmmm….

    What’s the point of studying context, history, etc. if we don’t allow what we learn to influence us in any way? You can crow about the Bible all day long, but if you read it honestly, you can’t always come to these standard conclusions. Read the Fathers. Read people who wrote before the Reformation. Not everyone sounds the same.

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  4. Thank you for the honest critique. How would you say my points of reference are flawed? My intention was to show that Jesus was far more concerned with the Kingdom than with scaring people out of Hell. I believe I presented indisputable evidence of the way Jesus evangelized. In all sincerity, I just want to be like Jesus and follow his example. How can it be harmful for nonbelievers to hear the truth? And why would I reconsider what I’m saying, if what I am saying is the truth?

    I don’t believe that knowledge of Scripture will lead tender souls astray. It is far better for a person to know the truth about Jesus’ teachings than to be filled with the fear-tactics of modern evangelism strategies, which are nothing like what Jesus actually taught.

    • Tylor:

      Thanks for such a quick response.

      As you know, what an author says is said in a context. To understand an author, it is wise to also understand his environment, the “story” he is in.

      I am not unaware of the book “Love Wins.” I am aware of the extensive blog-versations and such that were had about Rob Bell’s little book. I know it suddenly became oh-so-vogue to give detailed studies of the word Gehenna, to do crass number crunching on Jesus and Hell, to delve into what Hades/Sheol meant and so forth. We also heard much about how this was really nothing new, cuz you see George MacDonald, John Stott, Origen, early church fathers…so yeah! In your face Calvinists!

      What should be clear is that this sort of theologizing has a purpose: the purpose is to shake the sheep’s confidence in what they have been taught Scripture says through vain sophistry, so that they will be spared all this ponderous “urgency” (Michael Spencer called it “wretched urgency”) about missions and evangelism. Don’t get me wrong, this is a tendency all Christians have, and I am the chiefest of sinners in this area. I write as one who has experienced and done the things I denounce here. Don’t let this come across as sanctimonious or holier than thou–I totally understand where you’re coming from.

      The end result of this teaching is to say that, at the end of it all, those souls who have died taking the Gospel to the nations, those who have sacrificed all rather than renounce Christ as the only Saviour, those who were fed to lions–are all idiots. Why didn’t they realize that Jesus really didn’t mean all that stuff about eternal fire–the kingdom is just here and now. Everybody will eventually get there, what’s the hurry? We can all live comfortable lives, being acceptable to the New York Times and pretending to be missional as an excuse to go to hipster bars and look cool–for, uh, engaging the culture of course.

      What you say about Jesus preaching the Kingdom is quite right–but it is obvious you have a broader purpose–you’d rather leave out Hell and Judgment altogether. Kings are men who wield swords–and not for nothing, as Saint Paul says. There will be consequences for resisting the rule of King Jesus. Heralds of King Jesus will warn people about those consequences.

      Perhaps the cramped fundamentalism you grew up with did truncate the Gospel to nothing more than fire insurance–the fact remains that the historic Protestant Reformed Catholic faith has always taught that the Bible applies to all of life, and that the Church, through Word and Sacrament, works to redeem all of life. The martyrs knew this quite well, which is why their witness gave us Christendom. The answer to your troubled upbringing is to expand it and build upon it, not reject it outright.

      • Yea, that’s not my intention or attitude at all…but you can think whatever you want. Also, seeing how you brought Rob Bell into it and somehow inferred that I think missionaries and martyrs are useless, I’m guessing you may have some pent up frustration that you are projecting on to me. I literally have no idea how you got those things from this post.

        Anyway, I really don’t think people will be led astray by seeing what Jesus did and didn’t emphasize in his ministry.

  5. Tylor:

    Your points of reference are faulty. You should compare how often Jesus speaks of Hell to how often others in the NT or OT spoke of it. You will conclude that Jesus spoke of Hell more than any other.

    Are you so sure that you are not using your knowledge of Scripture to lead tender souls astray? Please reconsider what you are doing here, for their sake and for yours.

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