Did Jesus preach hell more than heaven?

Heaven and Hell Theology / Biblical Studies Uncategorized

If you have any serious interest in the subject of hell, you will probably have either read or heard someone tell you that Jesus taught more about hell than anyone else in the Bible. In fact, you may also have read/heard people telling you that Jesus preached on the fearful idea of hell as a place of endless suffering far more than he talked about heaven. But if anyone says that this is true, then their problem isn’t theology. It’s maths.

John Walvoord, in his contribution to the book Four Views on Hell says that when it comes to the doctrine of hell in the Bible, “Jesus himself defined this more specifically and in more instances than any New Testament prophet. All the references to gehenna, except James 3:6, are from the lips of Jesus Christ himself…” [Walvoord, “The Literal View” in William Crockett (ed.), Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 19-20.]

Some of the initial rhetorical impressiveness of this observation fades away, however, when we realise that “all the instances” of gehenna, in the Gospels actually amounts to very few. As it is a very Jewish word (a Greek term derived from a Hebrew word referring to the Valley of Hinnom), it comes as no surprise that Matthew uses it most often. But even in Matthew’s Gospel, it appears in no more than four contexts (Matthew 5, Matthew 10, Matthew 18 and Matthew 23). Actually, none of those passages really serve the purpose of teaching about gehenna. That word is used in passing during a teaching on a different subject.

To be fair, the Gospel writers don’t actually have to use the word gehenna to teach about the judgement, so we should also count examples that don’t use that word. But even then, how many examples would we have beyond these four? Bear in mind – it would be cheating to double up by counting the same teaching from two different Gospels (that would be like taking clippings from two different newspapers and then claiming that the same disaster happened twice!). I’ll use Matthew’s Gospel. If we choose only examples where Jesus is actually teaching about hell rather than a different subject, I would set the number at something close to zero. But let’s include examples that appear to refer to the final fate of the lost, even by way of a distant possible analogy in a story. Let’s start adding up.

Some might suggest Matthew 7:19 as an example. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Well, maybe. I’m inclined to think that it’s not even a reference to the afterlife, but to the false teachers in Judaism who are going to be cut out of the kingdom in a judgement culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem. But – in spite of no obvious indicators in the context – let’s say that it’s a reference to punishment in the afterlife. If that’s what it is, then bear in mind that there’s also a teaching here about “heaven,” or rather, a teaching about acceptance in God’s kingdom too. Just a couple of verses later Jesus says “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Next would be Matthew 13, the story of the sower. The wheat represents those who belong to God, and the weeds represent the enemies of God. At the end of the story we hear (verse 30), “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” Notice here that two outcomes are mentioned, a good one and a bad one. If we’re trying to read theologies of “heaven” and “hell” into such outcomes, then they both appear here. In verses 44 and 45 Jesus gives a couple more parables of the kingdom of heaven where only the positive side is mentioned. Then in the same chapter, in verses 47-50, Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a fishing net that caught good and bad fish. The good fish are kept and stored, but the bad fish are thrown away. Jesus says that this is like the way the evil will be thrown into a “fiery furnace.” But since the story describes the fate of the righteous and the wicked, we’d have to say that heaven and hell are both referred to.

In Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast. In the story, assuming (as hellfire preachers do) that the outcomes here are all about heaven and hell, heaven is the main theme, since most of the people in the story get to remain at the wedding banquet. But the king orders his servants to take one guest and “cast him into the outer darkness.”

In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), a teaching on stewardship, three fates are described for three people in the story. Two of the master’s servants, who used what he had given them wisely, are told to enter the joy of their master. The last one is sent “into the outer darkness.” Again, if that’s hell, then heaven has already been mentioned as well.

Lastly in Matthew’s Gospel there’s the story of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46), a well known teaching on doing good to others. At the conclusion of the story, we read of the two types of people, “and these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” If hell is there, heaven is there too.

Let’s see – that’s five examples (these are all the examples that Walvoord uses), plus the four contexts where the actual word gehenna is used, so we have nine in total. For three years of public ministry and teaching, three years worth of sayings to draw on, nine times is not very often, especially when we consider the fact that none of these instances involves a sustained teaching on the subject. I’ve explained elsewhere that when Jesus taught on final punishment, he actually didn’t say about it what many evangelicals believe about it, but let’s not go there now. It’s hardly surprising that we have more references to this subject from Jesus than from any other biblical figure. The reality is, we simply have more teaching from Jesus than we do from (nearly) any other biblical figure. It would hardly be fair, for example, to do a search for a subject in the letters of John and a search for a subject in the Gospels to see who cared more about a subject: John or Jesus! The fact is, I think it’s a fair call to say Jesus taught more about most of the things that he taught about than he did about hell. Showing love to our neighbour, for example, or the importance of concern for the poor and outcast, the way we use money, or even the historical judgement of God that was about to come upon Jerusalem. But there’s definitely no case to be made that the evangelical theology of eternal torment in fire and brimstone can be derived from the clear and frequent teaching of Jesus because he said so much about it. That claim just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

An anonymous writer for RBC ministries tells us – and this is part of their radio broadcast as well – that “Jesus often talked about hell. Actually, he talked far more about hell than about heaven.”

I suppose it’s a very Stoic sounding approach: Let’s just stiffen our upper lip, “man up” and admit the awful truth: Hell features more strongly in the teaching of Jesus than heaven. The trouble is, assuming that by “hell” we mean the fate of the lost and by “heaven” we mean the fate of the saved (a rather misguided way to use language if you ask me), it’s clearly false that Jesus referred to hell more than to heaven. Remember that for virtually every reference to hell that we just saw in Matthew’s Gospel, it was coupled with a reference to the fate of the people of God as well (the same applies to the use of gehenna in Matthew 18). So the count is already about even when we add up those contexts that refer to hell. But there are plenty of other texts that refer to the wondrous fate of God’s people as well. The list of examples in the beatitudes of Matthew 5 alone would tip the scales heavily. Then we have the treasures in heaven that await us in Matthew 6, in others Gospels we have the party thrown for the returned prodigal son, the promise that we have eternal life and will be raised up at the last day. The reality is, Jesus said very little about “hell” indeed, and certainly more about what he came to give us.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 22 comments… add one }

  • Joey January 5, 2010, 12:27 am

    Dang it Glenn! I wanted to be the first one to point this out! I guess he who snoozes, loses.

    I’m kidding though, you probably noticed this long before I would have even cared about it. But I have taken notice of the folly of that evangelical cliche, and needless to say though, I think you are right on the money.

    Of course, we know that Jesus did teach eternal torment because he says you go to Hell ;)

    (I get very sarcastic at 3:30 am…)

  • MrTipsNZ January 5, 2010, 8:10 am

    Good post Glenn and a nice reminder on the two sided coin nature of the issue.

    At the end of the day, I guess one needs to pull back and realise that the most important thing is that there are two eventual outcomes: not necessarily how much one or the other was focused upon. Because Christ talked about both as definite realities available to choose between.

  • Lem January 5, 2010, 12:57 pm

    Nice post. I’m glad you mentioned that one of those passages might not even refer to eternal destinies at all, but to imminent temporal judgment on Israel. In fact, Jesus may have spoken far more on Israel’s judgment than on the final Judgment Day (but I haven’t counted to be sure.) For example, when Jesus presents the dichotomy between “repent or perish” in Luke 13, he’s clearly referring to temporal judgment on revolutionaries, yet most people read “perish” as go to hell. (Even if Jesus was talking about eternal destinies, “perish” is hardly a code word for “eternal torment.)

  • jonathan robinson January 5, 2010, 4:31 pm

    Good stuff, it is annoying though that the view that adds the most extra content to the biblical metaphors “perish,” “gehenna,” etc, gets to be called the literal view. There is nothing literal about it. It should be called the “pointy tailed devil and brimstone” view. ;-)

    Also a good warning about the dangers of exegesis by numbers.

  • Glenn January 5, 2010, 4:48 pm

    Quite right Jonathan. I really liked the comment made by Clark Pinnock in that same book when responding to John Walvoord:

    [A]lthough adamant about taking biblical language literally and willing to rest his entire case on this approach to interpretation, I do not see much evidence of him taking the Bible literally. After all, symbols of perishing and dying predominate in Scripture when the subject of the destiny of the wicked is discussed … .Walvoord even cites texts which speak of hell as death and destruction, but these do not seem to register on his mind. I guess that the traditional paradigm simply blocks and filters out the contrary impression these texts create when they are allowed to speak. How far from being consistent literalists are!

    I couldn’t put it better myself.

  • Kenny January 6, 2010, 6:38 pm

    Good post Glenn. I have heard the claim that Jesus preached more about Hell than about Heaven espoused quite a bit even by prominent Evangelicals whom I respect, and I’m always left scratching my head and wondering how they are figuring that. I suspect it’s just one of those baseless sayings that gets tossed around enough that often even the best of people accept it uncritically.

  • Scalia January 7, 2010, 1:50 pm

    What do you make of the verses about the worms that never die? Are they not examples Hell in the NT?

  • Glenn January 7, 2010, 4:17 pm

    Scalia, actually that’s a quote from the Old Testament, in Isaiah 66. There it is a description of enemies having been slain, and their corpses are being consumed by worm and fire. That quote in Matthew is one of the references to gehenna that I included in my count.

  • Joey January 7, 2010, 9:03 pm

    Glenn, by “that quote in Matthew” (regarding the undying worms), you’re referring to the passage in Matthew 18 that appears to record the same speech as Mark 9:48, albeit without the worm reference, right? I only raise this question because the undying worms reference is in mark, not Matthew, and it might not be clear to some what you meant by “that quote in MATTHEW.”

  • Glenn January 7, 2010, 10:55 pm

    Yeah Joey, I assume a lot :)

  • James Rea January 8, 2010, 11:50 pm

    It’s odd the number of times that ‘destroy’ or ‘destruction’ are mentioned by Jesus and NT writers in relation to the fate of the lost, which then becomes everlasting torture as the dominant theme regarding ‘hell’. I have no problem envisaging a fire that is eternal, or smoke rising which is eternal, but then not making the jump that the lost inhabit this environment forever.

    But then, it’s easier if you don’t see scripture teaching an eternal component that survives death to go immediately to its eternal destiny. Destruction or eternal life after a post-resurrection judgement makes far more biblical sense to me.

  • Brandon Marone January 9, 2010, 11:46 am

    N.T. Wright has discussed this extensively in his book Surprised by Hope. He states that Jesus probably did not even refer to the Final Judgment/general resurrection at all but that it was the apostles who put two and two together, so to speak, and came to the conclusion that there had to be a second coming and, thus, resurrection based on Jesus’ own resurrection.

    Jesus’ reference to Gehenna was, according to Wright, a reference to the state of Jerusalem after the Romans conquer it.

    It all makes sense, which is why I have adopted a preterist perspective and left my former premillenialist view. Thank you for this post.

  • Dave January 9, 2010, 4:21 pm

    Agreed, Brandon Marone. N.T. Wright is helpful here.

    A few caveats though: I don’t think we can discount any reference in the Gospels to the resurrection. There is John 5 to consider.

    Plus, Matthew 10:28 mentions the destruction of body and soul in Gehenna, as opposed to just the extinguishing of temporal life. While certainly not a verse supporting the traditional view of hell, it’s hard to reconcile with the destruction of the Jerusalem.

    (N.T. Wright is a bit contradictory on this. In “Jesus and the Victory of God” he indicates that all of the judgment passages are about Jerusalem’s judgment. In “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” however, he does suggest Jesus spoke of resurrection and Final Judgment.)

  • Dave January 9, 2010, 4:23 pm

    On a side note, here’s something that rarely gets mentioned, and this thread is as good a place as any to bring it up:

    The term “second death,” as seen in Revelation, is found in other Jewish literature of the time. In all cases it clearly means annihilation – except in one case, where, strangely, it means the soul traveling upward from the body.

    So take that, traditionalists.

  • John January 12, 2010, 1:43 pm

    Did you ever actually hear Jesus preach?

    If not you have no idea whatsoever re what he may have preached.

    Meanwhile his entire life and teaching can be summarized in the calling to love God with the strength of ones entire being, and then on that basis, to practice self-transcending love in all relationships at all times.

    There is nothing whatsoever about either heaven or hell in that great calling and discipline. Certainly nothing about hell.

  • Glenn January 12, 2010, 5:51 pm

    John, nobody alive today heard Jesus preach. We will simply have to be content with what is recorded in the New Testament.

  • Glenn January 12, 2010, 5:52 pm

    That’s interesting about the term “second death” Dave. Is that covered in Fudge’s book?

  • Andrew Thomson January 17, 2010, 6:30 pm

    Hi Glenn, try pages 301 to 307 in Fudge’s book, The Fire That Consumes. Or at least, that’s the pages in the 1989 print.

  • Charles E. Rent May 17, 2010, 1:15 pm

    Kudos Glenn,

    Like you, I have heard the claim that Jesus spoke more of hell than heaven for my entire christian lifetime (40 years).

    But, after I had completed reading through the Bible the first time, that claim just didn’t ring true.

    So, eventually I did my own count and found that heaven is mentioned many more times by Jesus than hell (or any similar description thereof).

    And, actually, … it only makes sense.

    Why would Jesus, the Lord of Life, speak more about what is, at best, a perversion of life, … more than he would speak of the fulfilled life in Him ?

    I’ve seen the claim in books … and I’ve heard it from from some very genuine christian leaders. I haven’t asked my pastor yet, but I assume it’s just one of those statements that gets passed around without much analysis.

  • John Wallace September 3, 2013, 4:20 am

    Check out my examination of Jesus’ take on Heaven and Hell on http://www.johnsramblings.com/2013/02/did-jesus-really-speak-more-about-hell.html

    I hope you enjoy.

  • plateshutoverlock November 16, 2013, 5:54 am

    The fact YHWH speaks more of hell than heaven speaks volumes of his character.
    This is another stake in the corpse of my belief in YHWH

  • Glenn November 16, 2013, 3:25 pm

    “The fact YHWH speaks more of hell than heaven ”

    It’s not a fact.

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