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.