“It’s not fair” is an all-too familiar little phrase that children use before they learn that life simply isn’t fair. What begins as a cry for justice turns into a resigned silence – or sometimes even a quest for personal revenge. Of course, we try to explain to them that God will bring real justice… but then they learn the church’s teaching on hell and discover that all sin results in the same punishment. A shoplifter who doesn’t repent will be punished in exactly the same way as a multiple rapist or murderer who doesn’t repent. Like Abraham, we’d love to say to God: “Far be this from you! Surely the Judge of all the earth will act justly?” (Genesis 18:25). We want to shout out to him: “It’s not fair!”
Normal Jewish teaching about hell in the time of Jesus is illustrated in a parable told by a rabbi called Johanan ben Zakkai. He is significant because his forty-year ministry in Galilee overlapped with the time when Jesus was preaching and teaching, and Jesus is likely to have heard Johanan himself tell the parable. Johanan was probably passing on a familiar story, one that Jesus’ listeners would all know.
A king invited all his people to a banquet but did not say when it would start. The wise people put on their fine clothes and waited at the door of the palace saying, “Surely a royal palace already has everything ready.” The foolish people carried on with their work saying, “Surely a banquet takes time to prepare.” Suddenly the king called in the people; the wise entered in fine clothes but the foolish entered in dirty clothes. The king rejoiced at the wise but was angry with the fools. He ordered: “Let those who dressed for the banquet sit and feast, but those who did not dress for the banquet will stand and watch them."
This parable reflected the common Jewish theology that all Jews would go to heaven, but they would not all receive equal honour – the fools didn’t share the honour (ie. the food) that the wise enjoyed.
Hell was an important part of Jesus’ teaching, in fact he taught more about it than any other Jew of his time – the Gospels record forty-five verses on hell, which is a large number when compared with the sixty-five verses on love. Jesus replied to Johanan’s teaching by telling similar parables of his own – people being invited to a king’s banquet, the wise and foolish girls waiting to join a wedding party, and the man thrown out of a banquet for not being dressed properly (Matthew 22:2-14; 25:1-13 and parallels). In each of these, he contradicted Johanan’s well-known parable in one important way: many people are excluded from the banquet – they aren’t ready and arrive too late, after the doors are closed; they decide themselves not to go; or they are thrown out.
Jesus had to speak about hell so much because he disagreed fundamentally about it with almost all other Jews. But Jesus told them that not every Jew would go to heaven and unless they personally repented, they were all going to hell (Luke 13:28). This was utterly scandalous to most Jews.
Many people today are equally scandalized by Jesus’ teaching but for a different reason: the eternal punishment of hell seems disproportionate for all but a few utterly evil people. It is a subject that we do not often hear preached on today – perhaps because it is so offensive to most people.
Jesus was very clear about the fate of those left "outside" the banquet. He said there would be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” – that is, the suffering of hell (Matthew 22:13 – compare Matthew 13:42, 50). He described hell in exactly the same way as other Jews by likening it to a real place called Gehenna where there was everlasting fire and worms. No one thought that this was a literal description of hell because they knew it couldn’t be – they had all been to the actual place: Gehenna was the name of a local garbage dump in a valley south of Jerusalem. Later rabbis said that rubbish was burned there continuously, though the thing it was most remembered for was that it was the place where babies were burned to death as sacrifices on the altars of Molech (2 Kings 23:10). The worms (ie. maggots) were just as literal – they were everywhere among the rotting garbage. Everyone referred to hell as “Gehenna”, because Gehenna was such a ghastly place.
Is the real hell like that – with fire and maggots? If it is, then presumably heaven consists of millions of “mansions” filled with the sound of “harpers harping with their harps” (in the wonderful language of the King James version at John 14:2 and Revelation 14:2). Thankfully these are only pictures or metaphors of something we can’t describe – harp music for eternity sounds hellish to me! The “fire and maggots” terminology was not specially chosen by Jesus – everyone described hell like that. He used the same imagery because he agreed with the ideas it expressed – that hell was an appalling place.
Is the punishment of hell eternal? Some Jews in Jesus’ day thought that most people would spend only a short time in hell. They believed there were three groups of people: the righteous, the evil, and the in-betweens (ie. the majority). The righteous would go straight to heaven and the evil to hell, but the in-betweens would drop to hell, squeal in the fire, and jump up to heaven. This idea didn’t catch on, but it resulted in making other Jews define more precisely what eternal punishment meant. Here’s a very clear description from one of the Dead Sea Scrolls:
The judgment of all who walk in such ways will be multiple afflictions at the hand of all the angels of perdition, everlasting damnation in the wrath of God’s furious vengeance, never-ending terror and reproach for all eternity, with a shameful extinction in the fire of Hell’s outer darkness. For all their eras, generation by generation, they will know doleful sorrow, bitter evil and dark happenstance, until their utter destruction with neither remnant nor rescue.
We can see that they definitely believed that the punishment of hell was eternal and Jesus agreed with this. Even though there is only one verse in the gospels where he clearly said that punishment is eternal (Matthew 25:46), it doesn’t mean that he didn’t teach it – he just didn’t need to emphasise this aspect because most Jews already believed it. Jesus also alluded to eternal punishment by frequently using the terminology in which this teaching was normally expressed (see, for example, the language in the above quote from Qumran). Throughout all strands of the gospels he spoke about “fire” which he described as “eternal”, and he constantly referred to “weeping and teeth-clenching pain” (Matthew 5:22; 7:19; 8:12, 41, 50; 13:40; 18:8; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30, 41; Mark 9:43, 48; Luke 13:28; John 15:6). By using the familiar terminology that his listeners associated with descriptions of eternal punishment, Jesus showed that he affirmed this teaching.
What kind of punishment happens in hell? Is it eternal torment or eternal destruction? In other words, is hell like a sentence of permanent imprisonment or is it like a sentence of execution (which is equally permanent)? The word 'punishment' (kolasis) in Matthew 25:46 can refer to 'torment', or 'destruction' (eg. 2 Maccabees 4:38) or both (eg. Wisdom 19.4 where the 'punishment' of the Egyptian army includes both the torments of the plagues and destruction at the Red Sea). So it isn’t obvious how to translate exactly what Jesus meant here. You could argue that 'fire' has the function of destroying trash, so that hell must be a place where evil is destroyed. But you could also argue that the flames are special ones that inflict pain without destroying, so that hell must be a place of eternal torment. These arguments merely demonstrate how careful we have to be when basing conclusions on metaphors.
Some theologians say that Jesus meant 'eternal torment' and others say he meant 'destruction' (ie. annihilation). Both groups are right. The gospels often refer to the terrible torment of hell (Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28), but they also refer to 'destruction' (apollumi) which is also translated 'perishing' – for example, “whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16; see also Matthew 10:28; 18:14). The concept of 'destruction' in hell is also found in the rest of the New Testament – for example, “they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9; see also Romans 9:22; James 4:12). Both interpretations of 'eternal punishment' can be true if the punishment of hell involves torment followed by destruction (though it means that the torment suffered must be for a limited time). Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t have been surprised by this dual aspect of punishment, because the Jewish passage quoted above similarly spoke of "terror” followed by “extinction” and “doleful sorrow” followed by “utter destruction”.
How long are people tormented in hell? Unlike some gruesome rabbis and preachers, Jesus didn’t speak about those in hell spending millennia being prodded by toasting forks in boiling faeces. Instead he told a parable which implies that suffering will be proportional to guilt. He said: a master returned unexpectedly and when he found his chief servant drunk and other servants misbehaving, the master punished them. Different servants received different amounts of punishment: “The servant who knew his master's will and did not do what his master wanted will be beaten with many blows. But the one who did not know, and did things deserving punishment, will be beaten with few blows" (Luke 12:47-48). Jesus was clearly talking about hell, because they were also “assigned a place with the unbelievers” (verse 46).
This amazing parable tells us not only that suffering in hell will be proportional to the amount of evil committed, but also that it will be proportional to how much the person understood about right and wrong. If they definitely knew their actions were wrong, they will suffer more than if they merely acted thoughtlessly and without deliberation. For the Jews this kind of teaching was utterly scandalous because it suggested that Jews (who knew the most about what God wanted) would be punished more than the Gentiles! But Jesus was absolutely clear: the Jews would not go to heaven simply by being born Jews.
Jesus’ teaching about hell was both frightening and fair. Punishment in hell is eternal – there is no release after a period of torment because it also involves eternal destruction. However, the amount of torment is proportional to the amount of sin and guilt, because the person who did what they knew God had forbidden was considered more guilty. The devil and his angels, who know exactly what they are doing, will be tormented for eternity (Revelation 20:10), but most humans are much less evil.
God is infinitely less simplistic in his judgement than some theologians are. He takes account of how much evil we commit and how much we know about it – ignorance is, at least, a partial defence before God. This means that God’s justice is more sophisticated and fair than any human court can be. In the end, we can agree with Abraham: Surely the Judge of all the earth will act justly!
© 2012 David Instone-Brewer
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