April 18, 2010

What Jesus Never Said about Hell

I grew up in the church tradition where "narrow is the way" to heaven and "few there be that find it." To put it more accurately, I grew up in church circles dominated by a view that the vast majority of human beings, perhaps more than 99% of the world, will wind up in hell for not "responding to the gospel." This view is presented as Biblical, seen as a significant part of any sermon about the gospel, and used as a key motivation for missions and evangelism. Though Jesus supposedly said more about hell than about heaven, most references to hell are contained in a rather meager handful of "red letter" verses from the mouth of Jesus himself. And despite what he does say about hell, there are some very interesting statements that he does not make—if hell was as important to Jesus as we make it out to be today.

Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, for example, has lots of useful information about how to pray, give to the needy, and fast, along with admonitions not to worry and not to store up treasure on earth. All of which is fascinating and good, but completely irrelevant if the audience is going to wind up in hell. However, he does not couch these useful tidbits with a preface like, "Most of y'all are going to hell, but until you do, here's some advice about your personal finances for your days here on earth," or, "We both know you're going to hell, but let's talk about something else today." If this passage is one of Jesus' most significant messages, as many people believe, then why does Jesus say nothing about eternal punishment for mostto the multitude sitting right there at his feet? Or was he only addressing the few who would wind up in heaven and ignoring the lost causes?

We have no record of Jesus warning the woman at the well about hell, despite her string of relationship misadventures. We have no record of Jesus souring his friendships with tax collectors and winebibbers at all those dinner parties by insisting on changing the topic to God's dissatisfaction with their sinful lives and their pending damnation. No warnings about hell to the other thief on the cross. No intimate pleading with Mary and Martha, or with his own family members, for that matter, about their need to wait until after his death and resurrection and then to be "washed in the blood," lest they burn in eternal fire. Sinners, friends, strangers, or family members; all appear to be spared hearing from the lips of the savior himself the gospel message of salvation from hell.

Now, arguments from silence are problematic. Perhaps Jesus constantly hammered people about hell but the gospel writers glossed over that fact, choosing instead to share with us Jesus' many parables of the kingdom and assorted comments on other topics. But it is curious that we find no Jesus theme of "Repent, ye sinners, or I'll throw ye into hell for rejecting me!" anywhere in the gospels. Very curious, indeed. In Matthew 4:17, we read that Jesus began preaching "Repent," but nothing about hell. In a few other verses, he does warn about hellor warn about two different words that in some translations of the Bible are sometimes translated "hell" but that maybe don't mean the "hell" that we assume today, to be more technically accurate. But these warnings are sometimes in parables, where literal, factual truth may be neither required nor assumed; mainly concern punishment for sins rather than for not being born again; and are primarily directed at religious leaders and others who thought they were already saved. The fact of the unwashed masses going to hell doesn't seem to matter so much, though God so loved the world.

 If hell is the overriding concern, and the reason he came to die on a cross, then why didn't Jesus say that? Why substitute temporal trivia, really, for crucial warnings about the paramount disaster of eternal damnation for billions of souls? Why so many, very inclusive "your father in heaven" statements to the crowds he addressed, as though the audience was already in the family of God? Was Jesus just sharing facts about a precious few other somebodies with the throngs of hell bound listeners, or did he mean that they were the blessed, and destined for heaven?

Now, maybe hell wasn't the point that the gospel writers wanted to stress in their portrayal of Jesus' message. That is possible. But maybe someone else created the "fear of hell" bandwagon, and Jesus never intended for anyone to ride on it. Maybe he never desired the gospel to be shrouded in "Turn or burn" rhetoric. Maybe, just maybe, he had other, more hopeful plans for the billions of people he came to die for, those who we preach are eternally trapped in the fires of hell.

More on this later.


Rick Lannoye said...

You've made a number of many excellent points to show that Jesus did not warn about Hell...and for a very good reason: he didn't believe it exists!

On the contrary, Jesus' teachings about God, assuming he was correct, make Hell impossible!

I've actually written an entire book on this topic--Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There's No Such Place As Hell, (for anyone interested, you can get a free ecopy of Did Jesus Believe in Hell?, one of the most compelling chapters in my book at www.thereisnohell.com), but if I may, let me share one of the many points I make in it to explain why.

If one is willing to look, there's substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: "You don't know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!" Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

True, there are a few statements that made their way into the copies of copies of copies of the gospel texts which place “Hell” on Jesus’ lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death, most likely due to the Church filling up with Greeks who imported their belief in Hades with them when they converted.

Bear in mind that the historical Protestant doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures applies only to the original autographs, not the copies. But sadly, the interpolations that made their way into those copies have provided a convenient excuse for a lot of people to get around following Jesus’ real message.

keo said...

Thanks for your comments, Rick.

I agree with your point about inspiration of the autographs. I'm not convinced, however, that the manuscript witnesses we have are all adulterated when it comes to the question of whether Jesus ever said anything about Hell.

There are other hypotheses that do not necessarily require us to throw out specific verses. He could have been using their own assumptions to make his point or to point out other errors they were making; he could have been using some idiomatic use of "hell;" etc.

Matthew Johnston said...

Hell does indeed exist - to believe otherwise is heretical.

Jesus made numerous mentions about hell....eternal hell.

Matthew 13:42 -
" They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Matthew 25:41 -
"Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."

Revelation 20:15 -
"And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire"

keo said...

Hi Matthew,

Well, I said that Jesus does mention hell -- or at least that our Greek language NT puts a couple different Greek words in Jesus' mouth when telling us in translation what he ostensibly said not in Greek but in his own native language. So, in that regard you aren't engaging my point.

Technically, only two of your three verses contain Jesus' words -- which was the point of the post; the third is John the Revelator speaking. Interestingly, however, none of your three proof texts actually has a word translated "hell." Unless you think all references to fire are actually code words for hell? Matthew 3:10? The next verse, Matthew 3:11?!

Finally, of the two Jesus quotes you have chosen to argue for eternal hell, at least the first (Matthew 13:42) makes no mention and provides no context for us to infer an eternal hell. The second says that the fire is eternal, but not necessarily the punishment for the "nations," and nations doesn't necessarily mean individual humans.

If that's the best we can do in arguing for Jesus' doctrine of hell, then I think my point still has merit: we have a lot of beliefs about hell, and we have a smorgasbord of verses to "back up" these beliefs, but Jesus' actual, contextualized messages develop no broad theme of warning about eternal torment in hell, though the gospels contain many sermons and teachings that he gave to crowds of those who we (the same we) would assume were heading for hell.

Don't you find that even a little curious? Some of our churches preach about hell in every presentation of the gospel, but Jesus' actual messages did not.

As for heresy, well, I plan to present a little church history at some point.