Doctrine Ch.19 - Hell

Jesus taught a great deal about hell as a place where people were tormented, though the Epistles speak mainly about destruction in hell. When Jesus referred to eternal punishment, did this mean torment or destruction—or both?

“It’s not fair” is an all-too familiar 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. Parents try to explain to them that God will bring real justice, but then they may learn the traditional church teaching on hell and discover that all sin—however big or small—results in the same punishment. According to this teaching, 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 it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25). We want to shout out to him, “It’s not fair!”

       Many people today are horrified by this teaching because eternal punishment in 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. But does it reflect what the New Testament teaches?

5-minute summary

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The nature of hell

Hell was an important part of Jesus’ teaching, and we hear more about hell from him than any other Jew of his time. Jesus had to speak about hell so much because he disagreed fundamentally with Jewish teaching on it. He told his hearers that unless they personally repented, they were all going to hell (Luke 13:28). This was completely opposite from what most Jews believed.

       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 there, so Jesus probably heard Johanan himself tell this parable:

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.”1

       This parable reflected the common Jewish belief that all Jews would go to heaven, but they would not all receive equal honor—the fools didn’t share the honor (i.e., the food) that the wise enjoyed.

       The Gospels record forty-five verses on hell, which is a lot considering that there are only sixty-five verses on love. Some of Jesus’ teaching on hell was appended to parables very similar to the one told by Johanan. He talked about people being invited to a king’s banquet, wise and foolish girls waiting with lamps outside a wedding, and a man being thrown out of a banquet for not being properly dressed (Matt 22:2-10 = Luke 14:16-24; Matt 25:1-13; 22:11-14). 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 after the doors are closed; they decide themselves not to go; or they are thrown out. In Johanan’s version, everyone (i.e., every Jew) is admitted into heaven.

       Jesus was also very clear about the fate of those left “outside” the banquet. He depicts hell as eternal fire, weeping, and teeth-clenching pain (Matt 5:22; 7:19; 8:12, 41, 50; 13:42, 50; 18:8; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30, 41; Mark 9:43, 48; Luke 13:28; John 15:6). These images were not invented by Jesus; they were already used by other Jews, who likened hell to a place called Gehenna, where there was eternal fire and worms. No one hearing Jesus teach would have thought that this was a literal description of hell because Gehenna was the name of a valley just outside Jerusalem that they’d seen for themselves. No homes were built in this southwestern corner of the city because it was where babies had been burned to death as sacrifices on the altars of Molech (2 Kgs 23:10). Later Jewish sources say that smoke rose out of cracks in the ground (which presumably made people think it was the entrance to hell) and that rubbish was dumped there.

       The fire, smoke, and worms (i.e., maggots) were therefore literal, but they weren’t a literal depiction of hell. If hell is literally full of fire and maggots, then heaven is literally full of “harpers harping with their harps” (in the wonderful language of the King James of Rev 14:2). Thankfully, these are only pictures or metaphors of something we can’t describe. Jesus presumably used the same imagery for hell as other Jews because he agreed with the ideas it expressed—that hell is an appalling place.

The duration of hell

Is the punishment of hell eternal? Most Jews in Jesus’ day thought some people would spend a very short time in hell and then go to heaven. An early tradition says:

There are three groups:
one group for eternal life …—these are the perfectly righteous;
one group for shame and eternal contempt—these are the perfectly evil;
the in-between group go down to Gehenna and squeal and rise from there and are healed.2

       We can be sure that this was believed by the vast majority of Jews because even the Hillelites and Shammaites, who normally disagreed with each other at every possible opportunity, both accepted this was true. However, the sect at Qumran who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls disagreed. They said that everyone who goes down to hell is punished for eternity:

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.3

       It is easy to see what they wanted to emphasize: that the punishment of hell is eternal, so you don’t get out of it after a short period. However, the specific description sounds confusing to us because they talk about both torment and “extinction in the fire … until their utter destruction.” They believed in a period of terrible suffering in hell followed by complete and eternal destruction.

       Jesus clearly agreed with them that those who go to hell stay there. He emphasized that there are only two ways, to heaven or hell, and not the third way of possibly leaving hell that other Jews believed in. People were for him or against him, wheat or tares, sheep or goats, inside the feasting hall or outside. There was no middle group of people who stood around the table watching, or who flit down to hell and back. But did Jesus also agree with the Qumran sect, which said that people suffer torment in hell and are then destroyed?

       Jesus’ teaching on eternal punishment is key to the whole issue. Most New Testament references to eternity with regard to hell refer to the length of time that hell and its flames will last (Matt 3:12 = Luke 3:17; Matt 18:8 = Mark 9:43-48; Jude 7), or the length of time that the devil and his angels will be punished (Rev 14:9; 20:10). There are also a few places where eternity refers to the length of time that those who are destroyed will remain destroyed. Isaiah originated the language of worms and fire: “the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched” (Isa 66:24). And Paul said the unsaved “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess 1:9); and “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life” (Gal 6:8; see also Rom 9:22).

       The only verse that unequivocally says that punishment lasts forever is when Jesus gives the moral to his parable of the sheep and the goats: “They will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matt 25:46). This implies that punishment and reward are equal and opposite: one group experiences eternal life and the other experiences eternal punishment. The type of punishment isn’t specified, and the word that is used (kolasis) doesn’t help us to decide which it is. This word is used elsewhere in Jewish literature to refer to physical suffering and also to “destruction.”4 In one place it is even used for both: Wisdom 19:4 describes the “punishment” of the Egyptian army at the exodus, saying that they suffered both the torments of the plagues and destruction at the Red Sea, which “completed” their punishment. Therefore, the wording of this verse doesn’t tell us whether Jesus understood “eternal punishment” to mean eternal torment, or eternal destruction, or perhaps both.5

       Personally I think the solution is that Jesus meant both: the “punishment” was suffering followed by destruction. Elsewhere, Jesus clearly speaks about the terrible torment of hell (Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28). But he also refers to “destruction” (apollymi). This word is sometimes translated “perishing” (e.g., John 3:16, “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”; see also Matt 10:28; 18:14), though even in these places it clearly refers to destruction and not to physical death. The same word is used to describe the way that fire destroys chaff, tares, and trees (Matt 3:10, 12; 7:19; 13:30, 40; Luke 3:9, 17), and the death of rebellious servants (Matt 22:7; Mark 12:9).

       We saw above that Paul refers to destruction in hell, and so do James and Jude (Jas 4:12; Jude 7). They could learn this from Isaiah, which ends with a vision of the valley outside Jerusalem filled with the dead corpses of those who rebelled, along with everlasting flames and worms (Isa 66:24). If Jesus taught that punishment in hell consists of a period of suffering followed by destruction, then he is in agreement with Paul, James, and Jude.

Suffering proportional to guilt

To return to the question at the beginning of the chapter: Is eternal torment fair? Unlike some gruesome rabbis and preachers, Jesus didn’t describe people suffering in hell for millennia, being prodded by toasting forks in boiling feces—images that are found in Jewish as well as Christian works. Instead, he told a parable that implies that suffering will be proportional to guilt. He described a master who returned unexpectedly and found his servants drunk and misbehaving. When the master punished them by beating them, he took into account the amount of each person’s guilt: “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows” (Luke 12:47-48).

       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 a 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. It is a pity that this is the only mention of proportional punishment that has survived from the teaching of Jesus. However, this isn’t surprising, because he wasn’t disagreeing with the accepted teaching among Jews. They already believed that God was just and would punish wickedness proportionately, exactly as Abraham had assumed.

       However, on the topics where Jesus disagreed with the Jews he had to make his point most emphatically. The Jews thought they were all going to heaven, even if they had to “squeal” in hell for a tiny bit first. Jesus had to make clear to them that there wasn’t a “third group” who went to hell first and then heaven—there were only two ways. He also had to emphasize that being a Jew did not guarantee them a place in heaven—they had to personally repent to God.

       Jesus’ teaching about hell is both frightening and fair. Punishment in hell is final—there is no release into heaven after a period of torment; the period of suffering is followed by eternal destruction. However, the amount of torment is proportional to the amount of sin and guilt. His parable makes clear that the amount of guilt is also determined by how much the person knew. This is presumably why the devil and his angels are tormented forever—because they know exactly what they are doing. So we can agree with Abraham: surely the Judge of all the earth will act justly!

1^ Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 153a (
2^ My translation of Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:3 (
3^ Rule of the Community column 4, lines 12-14 (
4^ For the meaning “physical suffering,” see, e.g., 4 Macc 8:9 NRSV: “But if by disobedience you rouse my anger, you will compel me to destroy each and every one of you with dreadful punishments through tortures.” For the meaning “destruction,” see, e.g., 2 Macc 4:38 NRSV: “Inflamed with anger, he immediately stripped off the purple robe from Andronicus, tore off his clothes, and led him around the whole city to that very place where he had committed the outrage against Onias, and there he dispatched the bloodthirsty fellow. The Lord thus repaid him with the punishment he deserved.”
5^ Wisdom 19:4 NRSV: “For the fate they deserved drew them on to this end, and made them forget what had happened, in order that they might fill up the punishment that their torments still lacked.”

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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