Jesus' Parables for Disciples
Excursus 3: Did Jesus Believe in Hell?by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Hieronymus Bosch (Dutch painter, c. 1450-1516), "Hell" (after 1490), Palazzo Ducale, in Venice, Italy. Larger image.
If you were to listen to the popular mind about hell, you'd think that it was an invention of the church to keep people in line. That the religion of Jesus is much too loving and forgiving to send people to hell. The facts are different. Jesus says more about hell and eternal punishment than anyone else in the entire Bible. The teaching comes from his own lips and we must take it with utmost seriousness.
Some word confusion tends to cloud the issue. There are two Greek words that are translated by "hell" in the King James Version.
The first Greek word is Hadēs, "(originally a proper noun, god of the underworld), then the nether world, Hades as place of the dead."1 Here are the occurrences of the word Hades in the Gospels:
"And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths (Hadēs). If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day" (Matthew 11:23; similarly Luke 10:15).
"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it" (Matthew 16:18)
"In hell (Hadēs), where he was in torment, [the rich man] looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire' " (Luke 16:23-24)
The other Greek word is geenna, Gehenna, "'Valley of the Sons of Hinnom,' a ravine south of Jerusalem. There, according to later Jewish popular belief, God's final judgment was to take place. In the gospels it is the place of punishment in the next life, 'hell.'"2 Here are the references to Gehenna in the gospels:
"But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell (Gehenna)." (Matthew 5:22)
"If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Gehenna). And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Gehenna)." (Matthew 5:29-30. Similarly 18:9 which uses the phrase "fire of hell")
In the parallel passage, Mark's gospel spells it out further: "... hell (Gehenna), where the fire never goes out." (Mark 9:43, 45, 47)
"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna)." (Matthew 10:28; similarly Luke 12:5)
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell (Gehenna) as you are." (Matthew 23:15)
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"You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell (Gehenna)?" (Matthew 23:33)
Of course, in this short article I haven't analyzed Jesus' use of Hades and Gehenna. But I think that even a cursory reading of the gospels indicates that Jesus believed in the existence of hell as a place of fiery torment for those who had sinned.
- Hadēs, BDAG 19.
- Gehenna, BDAG 190-191.
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