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What the—? HELL. What Did Jesus Say About Hell? (Bonus Section)

SERIES INFO: This series of blog articles will include topics (and bonus sections) I couldn't fit into my book Reintroducing Jesus: Uncovering Jesus of Nazareth in the Misinformation Age.



I have a good friend of over twenty years who respects Jesus and values Christianity’s positive contributions to the world, but he often portrays Jesus as only a social reformer devoid of religious significance. Once this friend said to me over a meal, “Did Jesus even ever mention Hell?” I think he thought the answer was “No.” I answered, “Yeah, more than anyone else in the Bible.” Then, my friend ate for what felt like five minutes in silence.


Undoubtedly, if you read the Gospels, you’ve noticed Jesus mentions Hell several times. For the sake of clarity, before we move on to Hell, let me give you a fly-by of some biblical theology on the afterlife.


DEATH: A TEMPORARY, UNNATURAL STATE


First, death—and being dead—is unnatural to the biblical worldview. Human spirits and human bodies were created by God to be a unified whole, but death entered into God’s good creation with sin at the rebellion of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23). When the spirit splits from the body upon death, this is an unnatural state. This isn’t how God created humans to be.


In the Old Testament, we don’t find a developed understanding of the afterlife concerning Heaven and Hell like we find in Christianity. Instead, there is Sheol, the realm of the dead. It’s not a place of punishment and torment as Hell is understood to be, but it’s not a place of amusement park rides and bounce-houses either. Think of it as a place where the once-living exist as shadows, waiting for the final judgment of all of humanity by God. Overall, it’s the most depressing waiting room you can imagine. Hades is the Greek equivalent of Sheol. So, Sheol/Hades is a temporary holding place for those who have died before the future resurrection of the dead and final judgment.


When Christ returns, a resurrection of the dead and final judgment will take place; the bodies and spirits of the dead will be reunited. Then, those who aren’t God’s people will enter Hell. Those who are God’s people will spend eternity in the new heaven and new earth (Revelations 21–22). Take note, “heaven and earth” is a Hebrew way of saying “everything,” so all of creation will be restored. Jesus is very clear that he will be the one presiding over the final judgment and he is the one who will separate his people (who will go into "eternal life") from those who are not his people (who will go into "eternal punishment") (Matthew 25:31–46) [1].


God’s people won’t exist forever as disembodied spirits in Heaven, but the spirits and bodies of the dead will be reunited and remain as such forever.


This is an amazingly neglected teaching of the Bible within churches. It’s not uncommon for Christians, even those who have spent their whole lives in churches, to think that when Christians die, they go to Heaven and that’s the end of the story. Everlasting life as a disembodied spirit is actually more of an ancient Greek idea than a Jewish or biblical concept. The Old Testament teaches of a future resurrection of the dead (Isaiah 26:19; Hosea 6:1–2, 13:14; Job 19:25–27; Psalms 17:15; Daniel 12:2–3; Ezekiel 37:12–13), and Jesus taught this too. In fact, Jesus bluntly told the Sadducees (who denied the resurrection of the dead) that they’re flat-out wrong and don’t understand scripture nor the power of God! (Matthew 22:29)

To sum up, Hades/Sheol is a temporary place of the dead, and after the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment, all people will either enter eternally into God’s Kingdom in the new creation or enter into quarantine in Hell. So, that means the place called Hell doesn’t exist yet.


HADES VS. HELL


Whenever Jesus talks about “Hell,” the Greek word used in the Gospels is Gehenna. Interestingly, “Gehenna” is derived from the Aramaic and Hebrew languages for the Valley of Hinnom. This valley is near Jerusalem and associated with great evils in the Old Testament era, including idolatry and child sacrifice to the god Molech ( 2 Kings 16:3; 21:6; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 9:26; 32:35). There’s also a popular idea that the valley became a burning garbage dump by Jesus’ day, but archeological and historical evidence doesn’t support this.


Sometimes both “Hades” and “Gehenna” get translated as “Hell,” which confuses things. A topnotch translation will render “Gehenna” as “Hell” and “Hades” as, well, “Hades.” Hell ain’t Hades, and Hades ain’t Hell! Remember, they’re two different places.


The important church creed the Apostles’ Creed has been a standard confession of core beliefs for generations of Christians since early in church history [2]. Though completely orthodox and unquestioned otherwise, there’s one line in the creed that’s debated. The line states that Jesus descended into Hell after his crucifixion. The section of the creed about Jesus reads:


I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit

and born of the virgin Mary.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried;

he descended to Hell.

The third day he rose again from the dead.

He ascended to Heaven

and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.

From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.


The idea of Jesus descending into Hell after his crucifixion is based on an ambiguous, highly-debated passage in 1 Peter 3:18–22. Many argue that the line from the Apostles’ Creed should be left out all together. Interestingly, the Apostles’ Creed is based on an earlier, extremely similar creed called the Old Roman Creed, which doesn’t contain the line about Jesus descending into Hell.


Others, making the same distinction between Hades and Hell that I do above, believe the creed mixes up Hades and Hell like many continue to do today. So, Jesus didn’t descend into Hell, but he likely entered the realm of the dead (Hades/Sheol) when he died on the cross.


But as Psalm 16:10 says, God “will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption,” so Jesus didn’t stay in the realm of the dead long.


ENTERING THE PEARLY GATES


But what about Heaven? you ask.


Now that Jesus has died on the cross for sin, the New Testament certainly teaches that those who are Jesus’ people who die before the future resurrection will have it better in the afterlife than those who aren’t. The apostle Paul writes of yearning to be dead in body so he can be “at home with the Lord” and even of desiring to be away from this physical world to be with Christ, which is “far better” (2 Corinthians 5:1–10; Philippians 1:20–24). In other words, he’s talking about “going to Heaven,” to put it as many modern Christians would. Also, consider Jesus telling the repentant criminal dying along with him on a neighboring cross that “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).


This is what theologians call “the Intermediate State” between earthly life and final judgment. The Intermediate State is where the dead will temporarily stay before final judgment and their final destination. Though the phrase is usually used for those who are followers of Jesus who “go to Heaven,” the same concept applies to those in Hades awaiting Hell.


GETTING INTO THE NUANCED WEEDS


Now, I need to confess that what I wrote above wasn’t totally accurate. Please allow me to introduce some nuance into our discussion. Where the Old Testament speaks primarily of the dead going to Sheol (for example, Job 7:9 and Isaiah 57:9), there are some reasons to think godly people did, in fact, go to a nicer waiting room after death even before Jesus died on the cross.


For one, the renowned prophet Elijah never died, but was carried by an otherworldly whirlwind into God’s presence (2 Kings 2:1, 11). Something similar happened to Enoch (Genesis 5:22–24; Hebrews 11:5). Both Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus and his three closest disciples at a supernatural event called the Transfiguration, which implies these two weren’t trapped in Sheol (Matthew 17:1–8; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36. Also see Matthew 22:31–32). So, it seems at least some of the godly persons of the Old Testament era had it better in the afterlife than what Sheol has to offer [3].


Further, Jesus uses some interesting imagery in a story [4] about a rich man who neglects a diseased beggar dying right outside his front gates. When the rich man dies, he ends up in torment and anguish in “Hades” (not “Hell”). But when the poor man dies, he’s carried by angels to a place of comfort, “to Abraham’s bosom.” With this, a vast chasm exists between the two, and no one can go from one to the other (Luke 16:19–31).


Should we understand this as

(A) there’s both a “bad” and “good” waiting room in Hades/Sheol that existed before Jesus’ death on the cross;

(B) a foreshadowing of the reality of the Intermediate State after Jesus’ death on the cross with the separation of those in Heaven from those in Hades/Sheol; or

(C) Jesus foreshadowing the future reality of Hell after the final judgment...?


Hard to say. Is there an option “D”—all of thee above?


So, all this to say, Jesus had an understanding that there was a temporary place of death called Sheol/Hades, as well as a place he calls “paradise” and “Abraham’s bosom”—places where spirits await the future resurrection and final judgment—and at the final judgment some people will be separated from God's people. (More on this below.)



NOTHING TO LAUGH AT: DANTE'S DIVINE COMEDY


Most people don’t realize how much of their ideas about Hell have been shaped by absolutely nothing from the Bible. The Bible contains nothing about devils making shish-kabobs of you with pitchforks or dunking you in boiling kiddie pools. (By the way, there’s nothing about floating on clouds, playing harps, or becoming white-robed angels in Heaven in the Bible either.)


Much of what people think of when they think of Hell is due to a medieval piece of literature by a nice Italian boy named Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), who like Oprah and Kanye and Denzel has reached a level of fame where one only has to say his first name to know who’s being talked about. Dante’s Inferno was so widely read that its influence on perceptions of Hell is immeasurable, continuing to this very day.


Inferno is actually one of three parts in Dante’s larger work The Divine Comedy [5]. In this epic poem, Dante travels through Hell, then he (a good Catholic boy) travels through purgatory, and finally he gives a visit to Heaven. Yet, most people are only familiar with the most gruesome part of the story, Inferno, and its nine levels of Hell—where the lustful are whipped around in a tornado to collide midair with each other, the suicides are transformed into bleeding trees, and the flatters do butterfly strokes in a river of human excrement.


Where Inferno is certainly an amazing (and sometimes gross) piece of Christian literature, the vast majority of it is from Dante’s (somewhat twisted) imagination, not the Bible.


When you get down to it, the Bible doesn’t say much about Hell, and much of what is said may be metaphor rather than literal. In fact, when you consider the word Jesus uses—Gehenna—and consider that Gehenna was a literal place on earth (the Valley of Hinnom) where great evil took place, this implies that Jesus was thinking in metaphors, in creative comparisons, to communicate an idea.


So, what can be known about Hell from Jesus’ own words?


WHAT JESUS SAYS ABOUT HELL


He calls it “the fiery furnace,” “the unquenchable fire,” and “the outer darkness.” It’s a place the wicked are “sentenced to” when “cast out,” a place of “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:30, 33, 46; Luke 13:28; Mark 9:43). A phrase Jesus uses repeatedly to describe Hell is that it’s a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12, 13:42, 22:13, 25:30; Luke 13:28); that is, a place of sorrow and rage. He also describes it as a place “where their worm does not die” ( Mark 9:48). I have no idea what that last phrase means, but it doesn’t sound fun. The phrasing Jesus uses echoes the Old Testament:


And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me [God]. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (Isaiah 66:24)


So, what specific details about Hell can we gather from Jesus’ words? Not much. If Hell is a place of both darkness and fire (which would give off light), perhaps these are all metaphors to communicate a big idea—a big idea that Hell isn’t a good place to be. Even if you ignore everything else he says and only consider that Jesus describes Hell as a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” that alone makes it sound like a lousy spot for a visit—let alone a place to stay.


But also notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say it’s a place of barbed whips and medieval torture racks. He doesn’t say it’s the place where Satan commands an army of demonic tormentors. On the contrary, Jesus describes Hell as a place of “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). When you turn to the apostle John’s vision in the Book of Revelation, we find that “the lake of fire” is the final resting place of the defeated Satan (Revelation 20:10). So, Satan doesn’t rule Hell; it’s his prison.


On these same lines, nowhere does Jesus say God is actively torturing the occupants of Hell. God isn’t sticking you with needles from Heaven or hitting your fingertips with hammers from his divine throne. In fact, it seems God will be saddened about anyone being there (2 Peter 3:9; Ezekiel 18:23, 32, 33:11; Isaiah 30:15, 18) [6].


So, we can’t say much about the specifics of Hell with a lot of confidence, but—based on Jesus’ words alone—it’s unquestionable that Hell is a place where those not part of his kingdom are quarantined. And it’s a place of weeping.




[1] Also see Revelation 20:5–6, 14–15, 21:8.


[2] Despite its title, the Apostles’ Creed wasn’t written by the original apostles of Jesus. It appears early in church history, but not that early.


[3] To complicate things more, there also appears to be a special realm that exists right now that serves as a prison for some of Satan’s minions. In 2 Peter 2:4, the apostle Peter calls it Tartarus (which is usually rendered as “Hell” in English translations, adding to the confusion). Also see Jude 6. The occupants of this prison realm may be the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4. Is this “the abyss” mentioned in Luke 8:31?


[4] Though this is usually considered a parable, Jesus never names it as such. With this, the story has some unique elements that make some question whether it’s a parable or not. For instance, Jesus actually names a person in the story, which he doesn’t do in any other parable.


[5] Inferno is Italian for "Hell." For the record, there’s nothing funny about Dante’s Divine Comedy. To be a “comedy” in Dante’s day simply meant that the story has a happy ending.


[6] The opinion of some theologians throughout church history is that those in Hell choose to be there and the suffering and torment of Hell is self-inflicted. I know that opens a can of worms (that do not die)—a can beyond the scope of this article. Romans 1:18–2:14 gives me some of my reasons for holding this view.







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