Thoughts about Hell from Jesus Himself.

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 γέεννα (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“ (”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).  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 2nd 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 ” ταρταρόω (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“ (Thayer‘s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, # 5020).

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,” εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον) it could assist them in modern formulations of this ancient belief if they embraced the practice of both Jesus and Peter in using metaphors.


11 thoughts on “Thoughts about Hell from Jesus Himself.

  1. I’m very pleased you addressed this topic. It also seems to me that interpretations that move from metaphor to some form of non-existence or annihilationism go beyond Jesus’ teaching. Thanks.

    1. Absolutely correct. Jesus’ language is not a metaphor of something that does not exist. It is a powerful metaphor for a serious condition. Embracing metaphor does remove the need to have futile conversations about reconciling “outer darkness” with fire, for example. It also opens options for modern preachers.

  2. Dr. Oster, if you could address a question I have had for a while. You source Louw and Nida’s work on gehenna, and this is the common story I have heard for years. However, I have recently been challenged by a student of someone who has knowledge of the archeological digs around Jerusalem, and his point is that if, indeed, ge hinnom was a smoldering rubbish heap that we would find heaps upon heaps, yea verily scores and multitudes of burned, charred debris in the valley, and that is manifestly not the case (according to this scholar). So, was ge hinnom truly a smoldering garbage dump, or is Jesus referencing a metaphorical prophecy (Ezekiel?, Jeremiah?) whose punch was in the vividness of the imagery, not in the literalness of its fulfillment? We do know that Josiah burned Judah’s idols at the Kidron ravine and defiled “Topheth” which was in the valley of the sons of Hinnom (2 Kings 23) but do we have evidence that this was a place of perpetual, smoldering refuse?

    Thank you in advance for your answer.

    1. Paul,
      I would be delighted to respond, but I need to have a reference to a printed work that advocates that outlook. If you have a section in a printed reference work or a published article in an acknowledged academic journal, etc., then I can read and study it so that I can give it the appropriate response that it surely deserves.
      Thanks for our interest, and I look forward to hearing from you again.


  3. You guys are taking a microscope to look at the trees when you should just take a few steps back and view the forest.

  4. Dr. Oster, I put in a request with my “source” to see if he can get me a direct resource. The question arose during a discussion of how someone many years ago will come up with a theory, which then over time becomes fact, which then is used as a supporting fact for another theory and on and on. We know Jeremiah recorded those words, and we know that Josiah defiled Topheth (2 Kings 23:10), but the question arose – if this particular area was a long-standing location for the burning of trash, would it not be a treasure trove for modern archeologists to excavate for all the bits and pieces that did not burn? It has been a fascinating question and if I can locate any peer-reviewed material (i.e. “scholarly”) I will forward them to you. Thank you for taking the time to consider the question!

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