American talk show commentator and journalist Charlie Rose recently interviewed Bono (on Public Broadcasting Service, May 2013), lead composer and singer for the band U2 (22 Grammy Awards). The lengthy interview and conversation touched on many topics and issues, with one segment focused on the religious impetus for Bono’s life and music. In this context Rose brought up the issue of Catholic bi-focal concern with both doctrine and benevolent works. In the ensuing conversation there was a stated contrast between church doctrine and Christ wanting to aid the poor of the world. In that setting Bono said, “Christ never speaks of judgment except once, it is how we deal with the poor, it’s that thing in as much as you treated the least of these you treated me, in Matthew.”
Please, send this man a Bible.
Even if Bono meant (and I don’t think he did) that Jesus spoke only once about those who would be punished for indifference toward the poor, his count is off. The story of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” (Lk. 16:19-31), for example, would certainly belong in the same list as the Matt. 25 text to which Bono referred (Matt. 25:31-46). I think that Bono was intending to say that Jesus spoke of the final judgment of humanity only once.
For certain, the judgment that Bono referred to in Matt. 25 is not some generic judgment, but rather the final judgment which Jesus himself associated with hell; “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’” (Matt. 25:41). So, let’s see if Jesus spoke only “once” about hell, as Bono stated. A look at concordances of the NIV (2011), ESV (2001), NASB (1995), NRSV (1989), NIV (1984), NKJV (1982), and ASV (1901) reveals about a dozen references to hell in the Gospels (some are Synoptic parallels) and each of them comes from Jesus himself (=red letters).
Bono is obviously creative, influential, wealthy, compassionate, gifted, and a bellwether of much popular Christian sentiment about Jesus. He has also brought tremendous blessings to Africa. Bono, nevertheless, has missed it significantly on this important issue of Jesus’ teachings about God’s judgment, including hell.
This popular sentiment about Jesus and God’s judgment advocated by Bono and others resonates with an increasingly large group of younger Christians whose views about the teachings of Scripture are sometimes the result of listening to Impressionistic preaching and teaching rather than contextual Bible study. This Impressionistic approach can obviously leave one with the impression that Christ spoke only once about God’s judgment. It is important on this issue that all of us pursue and follow a Christ based upon the canonical Gospels rather than a culturally appealing “social activist, guru Jesus” derived from cherry-picking the Gospels.
In addition to the approximately twelve occurrences of the term hell found on the lips of Christ, he also employed a host of other terms to convey similar ideas. These other terms include “cast into outer darkness,” “weeping and gnashing of the teeth,” “cast into the fire,” “the Son of Man will come to repay everyone,” “eternal fire,” “eternal punishment,” and others. Those who are audacious enough to follow the Christ of Scripture, whether our surrounding culture endorses it or not, could embrace a new strategy in approaching this controversial issue. Might not a modern disciple of Jesus receive more spiritual benefit from trying to discern and appreciate how and why Jesus relied upon this uncomfortable teaching in his own ministry rather than attempting to marginalize or deny it? It doesn’t seem to be asking too much of followers of Christ to have his spiritual perspectives and Kingdom values instilled into their hearts.