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Thoughts about Hell from Jesus Himself

Photo of Rick OsterRick Oster | Bio

Rick Oster

A highly respected teacher at Harding School of Theology for over 40 years, Dr. Richard Oster helps prepare students for work in Christian ministry (and a smaller number for doctoral studies elsewhere) by teaching courses in New Testament Greek and courses in the content of the New Testament. These courses include Acts of Apostles, Pauline letters, book of Revelation, NewTestament Theology, and historical and cultural backgrounds of the NewTestament. He is also an expert on ancient Ephesus. 

There are obviously so many channels from which one can learn about the concept of the afterlife. Many world religions teach the concept of a painful afterlife, often deriving the idea of a painful condition due to a life of immoral living and/or the stultification of God. I have treated the idea of the portal into the underworld/afterlife elsewhere. We have likewise looked at some of the ancient pagan beliefs about post-mortem existence. In my own experience it has been a real help to be led by the hand, by Christ himself, through the labyrinthine conceptions about Hell.

Recently there seems to be an increase in those who would deny or marginalize the doctrine of Hell, ironically by referring to Jesus’ himself. In addition to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, the site “Red Letter Christians” also seems to prefer authors who desire to discredit the concept of Hell.

Consider the following by Christian Piatt,

“Does hell exist? Perhaps. But the God of my understanding – the God revealed to me by the life and teachings of Jesus – is a God that seduces us, beckons us toward love, toward light. It is not a kingdom governed by fear and the avoidance of pain, but rather a kingdom in which the hungry are feed, the weak are empowered, and the desperate find hope.” [; March 24, 2014]

It is understandable that Christians do struggle with the doctrine and teaching about Hell, but it is certainly disingenuous to state, or even suggest, that the doctrine of Hell was remote to the piety and teachings of Jesus.

How foolish to suggest that Jesus did not employ the idea of fear to motivate others.

Matt. 10:28 – Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Luke 12:4-5 – “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!

The following texts patently depict a situation that everyone would fear.

Luke 13:27-28 – “But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.”

Matt. 22:11-14 – “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Matt. 25:30 – “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Luke 16:23 – “In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.”

Luke 16:28 – “For I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

The truth is that Jesus himself uses the term and concept of “Hell” more than any other figure or author mentioned in the New Testament and does not hesitate to employ fear and dread in that context.

A beneficial aspect of Jesus’ teaching for me is to realize that the term traditionally translated “Hell” comes from a Greek term that Jesus already uses in a highly metaphorical sense. Jesus is the one who taught me to think about this issue in terms of metaphor and symbol, rather than literally. The Greek term Gehenna, always rendered “Hell,“ is derived from a Hebrew phrase meaning “Valley of Hinnom,” a ravine running along the south side of Jerusalem and a place where the rubbish from the city was constantly being burned.“[i] When Jesus spoke of “Gehenna,” he certainly did not think that this location on the south side of the temple mound was the literal location of “Hell“ and post-mortem punishment. Rather, this site of constant burning provided an apt illustration or metaphor for Jesus‘ purposes of instilling trepidation and sorrow into his audience. Jesus believed in the reality of “Hell,“ but knew that the use of well-known metaphors was the proper way to point to its pain. Rather than attempting to literalize an experience that can only be spoken to us mortals through metaphors, Jesus employed a term that was well known to anyone who visited Jerusalem.

This metaphorical approach to the teaching of Jesus on this topic certainly gives the modern interpreter some latitude in explaining and teaching this idea. In the book of II Peter 2:4, Peter himself follows Jesus‘ model even more dramatically, by using the idea of Tartarus derived from Greek legends. Peter clearly did not feel bound to the same topographical location in Jerusalem that Jesus employed for metaphorical purposes. The older Greek lexicon by Joseph H. Thayer comments on this term tartaroō, that it points to a place ”regarded by the ancient Greeks as the abode of the wicked dead, where they suffer punishment for their evil deeds; it answers to the Gehenna of the Jews.“[ii]

For those who can trust their vision while reading the Gospels, there is no doubt that Jesus talked about ”Hell,“ especially with conviction when teaching about the Kingdom of God. For those who hold to the historic, orthodox conviction that an eternal punishment awaits those not received by God (Matt. 25:46; ”into eternal punishment”) it could assist them in modern formulations of this ancient belief if they embraced the practice of both Jesus and Peter in using metaphors.

[i]”γέεννα,“ J. P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Geographical Object and Features, # 1.21, p. 6).

[ii]Thayer‘s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, # 5020.