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.
For three years of public ministry and teaching, three years worth of sayings to draw on, nine references to hell is not a lot!
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 references to hell is not a lot, 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.
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46 thoughts on “Did Jesus preach hell more than heaven?”
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…)
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.
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.)
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.
Quite right Jonathan. I really liked the comment made by Clark Pinnock in that same book when responding to John Walvoord:
I couldn’t put it better myself.
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.
What do you make of the verses about the worms that never die? Are they not examples Hell in the NT?
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.
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.”
Yeah Joey, I assume a lot 🙂
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.
No, Hell is eternal. At the end of the ‘Parable of the Unforgiving Servant’, Jesus used what can be known in linguistics as an Intentional Paradox to let us know the eternity of torment that awaits those who don’t come to Him.
“In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” Matthew 18:34.
The master (or “Lord”, in this parable and in many other parables representing Himself) gave this punishment with an impossible escape to represent how the torment in hell is forever (since you can’t pay back money while you’re being tortured until you pay back that money, which you can’t pay back since you’re currently being tortured.)
Chris, I think your strategy of basing a doctrine of eternal torment on this parable is not good practice and I’m not persuaded by the argument.
But the point of this post is that Jesus (based on what the gospel writers told us) did not speak about hell more than he did about heaven.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
John, nobody alive today heard Jesus preach. We will simply have to be content with what is recorded in the New Testament.
That’s interesting about the term “second death” Dave. Is that covered in Fudge’s book?
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.
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.
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.
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
“The fact YHWH speaks more of hell than heaven ”
It’s not a fact.
So because Jesus spoke of it (hell, really the lake of fire), less we should give it less attention. The FACT remains there is eternal judgment for the unbeliever Revelation 20:11-15. Revelation 21 & 22, well that’s for disciples of Christ the ONE TRUE GOD ONLY.
Erin, Jesus spoke about the lake of fire even fewer times than he spoke about Hades or Gehenna. In fact as far as we can tell he never even mentioned it once.
It’s interesting that so many are trying to mitigate the impact of Hell by counting the times the term is used. The Bible is clear that the end result of unbelief in Jesus is Hell, a perpetual torment beyond what anyone can conceive. When evaluating eternity, please recognize that the alternatives are crucial.
“The Bible is clear that the end result of unbelief in Jesus is Hell, a perpetual torment beyond what anyone can conceive.”
Chris, if you do a serious study of what the Bible actually says, paying special attention to the actual terms used (in the original languages) and what those terms refer to (e.g. Gehenna), then you will find that your statement above is clearly false. I suggest including in your study the biblical view of man being mortal, not immortal.
I appreciate that you are trying to bring some balance to
the statement that ‘Jesus talked about hell more than heaven’
and what you are trying to do in your article Glenn,
but there are a couple of things I would like add:
When scholars tell us that Jesus spoke more of hell than heaven, they include ‘The Revelation of Jesus Christ’ or parts thereof in their statistics:
Revelation 1:1 The R̲e̲v̲e̲l̲a̲t̲i̲o̲n̲ ̲o̲f̲ ̲J̲e̲s̲u̲s̲ ̲C̲h̲r̲i̲s̲t̲, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John….
Hence, it can be said that Jesus used/gave the term ‘lake of fire’ etc…
????????, throughout Scripture, there is an underlying ‘warning’ about hell or missing the mark, i.e:
Galatians 5:19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity…… hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness……and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
This could statistically be read as a NT reference to heaven, yet the spirit of the text is certainly a warning against those things that will take us to hell.
Here again, ‘hell’ is not mentioned but it is a serious warning to avoid hell:
Matthew 18:3 “Truly I tell you,” He said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Unfortunately, in this self-centred era, where the Church is continually preaching ‘how God loves you sooo much’; and at the same time, we dumbdown the reality and seriousness of sin & hell, because afterall, our God wants us to focus on love not hell, your article feeds into the popular Universalist beliefs in the Church.
We now have masses of Christians around the world, living a rather hapless Christianity(including things mentioned in Galatians 5:19 above) but believing that have total eternal security. Because God loves them so much and they made a ‘decision for Christ’ years ago 🙁
Neil, I think that when people say that Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone, they are talking about the Gospels, and not about the book of Revelation.
But even if we throw in the book of Revelation, that book refers to the Crown of life, too (and other salvation-related things), so I don’t see that this move will switch the balance.
Regarding your second point, it doesn’t really undo any of what is said here, because “Jesus spoke about hell more than heaven” is used as an independent argument: The fact that Jesus would skew his teaching to be more about hell than heaven, some say, shows us something. My point here is just that the premise is a false one. Jesus did not do this. Whether, as you suggest, Scripture overall is more interested in hell than in eternal life (which I do not think is true), is another matter.
So question: Where do people like Hitler, Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden go if they have NOT repented before death. Do ALL evil humans go straight to a heavenly place of goodness, no matter how they lived their lives here?
How does the bible approach this subject in your determination?
Please e-mail me on this at: firstname.lastname@example.org. As I may not find my way back to this particular article. THNAK YOU
All those who have ever died are in the grave until the resurrections occur. All people’s spirits return to God the Father at death, but people’s souls and bodies go to the grave. Hence, they have no conscious awareness-soul sleep. I say resurrections plural because at Christ’s Second Coming, those throughout history who died”in Christ” will be resurrected to help Christ rule during the millennium. Scripture speaks of a 2nd resurrection at the end of the millennium, when the rest of the dead are resurrected. This resurrection is when the Hitlers of the world and all others are resurrected into a world Christ has been ruling for what many scholars believe has been a thousand year period.
No one has mentioned Luke 16, and the story (not a parable) of Lazarus. Here is the rich man’s statement, a testsmony, if you will, that hell is real, and hot, “And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.” I mention this because of the tangent toward no literal hell the comments. I suggest to anyone searching for these truths, to concentrate solely on God’s Word. Who cares what men or women think about what God said? Let Him show you Himself.
Perambulator, please use your real name.
As for the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus – if you’re going to include that in the count of passages that mention hell, you have to also included it in the list of passages that refer to the good place (think of where Lazarus goes, not just the rich man). So the story doesn’t help the claim that Jesus preached on hell more than heaven.
If one does not believe in a literal place called Hell and that Jesus warned of this horrific place as did his disciples I believe one is taking a text out of context and making it a proof text. I think getting caught up in how many times Heaven or Hell is mention matters not the fact that they are mentioned is enough. And to not believe in a literal place called Hell says to me that you not only rethink hell but erased Hell all together. And if there is no Hell then the devil must be rejoicing for he will never nor will his followers ever suffer a second for all their rebellion and rejection of who God is and what Jesus his son did at Calvary. Time and space will not permit me to further this teaching . But I would hate to know I told people that there was no real place called Hell and they end up there because they believe your misleading on this subject that stands as a strong warning for all who practice a life of sin and leave this world to face the eternal God and judge of all souls.
Whatever Greek words are used, and I have heard all the arguments, the concept of the wrath of God, the judgement of God and a place of terrible suffering are made abundantly clear in Scripture.
Universalism is now very common in modern Evangelical Church and modern man tries to find a way around the Justice of God. Of course most deny that they believe a form of Universalism when they argue these things, but as you allude, what they argue for is the non-existence or mild form of hell.
The root problem seems to be that they do not know the God of the Bible in all His holiness, power and hatred of sin.
Mark, I have said a lot elsewhere in blog articles and in the podcast about what the Bible teaches about hell.
My point here is that a popular slogan, that “Jesus taught about hell more than about heaven,” is false. You won’t want to support false slogans, would you?
The Bible clearly teaches that Hell is an eternal place and virtually all civilizations throughout history had a very similar concept, just like Heaven, there is no difference between the eternal nature of those, and many things that have been revealed in Scripture would not make sense otherwise, like the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus as well as the degrees of reward and punishment in Heaven and Hell. The spiritual part of men is immortal as it is made in the Image of God, he is the God of the Living. Whether someone agrees or not with eternal Hell is another issue which is primarly coming from fear of their own guilt. Trying to reinterpret scripture in other ways for the sake of making someone feel more comfortable is wrong and shows the sinful nature that desperately tries to hide because it is afraid of the truth, although it is difficult to grasp how being eternaly in hell is more fearful than ceasing to exist which is the worst outcome of all. If the truth of Hell is challenging to the faith of someone then they clearly never wanted the truth in the first place, because they are more comfortable living in lies, man’s opinions change all the time but the Word of God is always the same and everlasting.
The concept of annihilationism is another failed attempt to reinterpret the bible based on fallible opinions of men that hate the truth, just as the misleading interpretation that Noah’s Flood was local instead of global as the Bible clearly records in history, although the first one comes from fear and the second comes from a false religion called naturalism.
Those fears come emotional abhorrence and noncogent philosophical objections. The arguments you mention, to be fundamentally misconceived. Old Testament involve destruction of the people concerned in the sense of the termination of their earthly lives. The most fundamental failing of your argument is the failure to appreciate that everlasting existence is not the same as everlasting life. The damned in hell have everlasting existence but not everlasting life. The damned, even if they have physical life, having been resurrected, do not have zōē. They are, in fact, spiritually dead and will remain so forever. So, of course, eternal life is available only through Christ and is therefore conditional upon repentance and faith. Until annihilationists grasp the fact that a person can exist forever and yet be spiritually dead, they will fundamentally misunderstand New Testament doctrine on immortality.
Hi Yuki. Thanks for sharing your opinion. Unfortunately, it was not accompanied by any evidence, so I can’t discuss the case you offered.
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