Does Jesus endorse the sort of public condemnation we often see in “evangelistic” efforts? This category contains everything from tracks with cartoonish torment to classical art with sadistic tendencies. It covers the streetside preachers shouting into microphones that abortionists are going to hell and that the random stranger walking next to you is, too.
Generally, my experiences with such things have driven me further away from God more than they’ve pulled me to Him. I’ve heard similar impressions from so many others, I just start to question efficacy.
And where better to look than Jesus? We’ve already looked at how Jesus taught using the terms hadēs and gehenna (the Greek words He used that are typically translated as “hell”), and I’ve had difficulty seeing Him set a precedent. With few exceptions (which we looked into over the last couple weeks), His teachings were usually in private settings or (interestingly) condemnation aimed at the religious experts.
But Jesus loved teaching in parables, rife with symbolism and the sort of subtleties that the Holy Spirit can work wonders with. Without a doubt, many of these are associated with hell, so let’s take a look here.
The Olivet Discourse
Perhaps the most significant teaching on these matters comes as Jesus teaches from the Mount of Olives. Referred to as the Olivet Discourse, these teachings come on the heels of Jesus’ unambiguous condemnation of the Pharisees, as we covered earlier when we read about Jesus’ use of gehenna.
The greatest amount of the Olivet Discourse is found in Matthew, from 24:1 to 25:46, but Mark (13:1-37) and Luke (21:5-36) also record it. Matthew notes the transition well in 24:1,3:
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings.
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately…
So Jesus is in a public setting, but he’s being prompted by his disciples in a private teaching. As we follow His warnings about the temple’s destruction and the uncertainty of His return’s timing, there’s no indication of a change of scenery. So as Jesus teaches the parables of the Ten Virgins, the Bags of Gold, and the Sheep and the Goats (with its “weeping and gnashing of teeth”) as well as His ominous words about the place of eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, He does so in explicitly private conversation with his closest disciples.
The Centurion in Capernaum
Jesus uses similar ominous tones when confronted with a Centurion with great faith. In Matthew 8:10-12, we see His response:
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.
I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.
But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
This time, though, we’re dealing with a public setting. In fact, the phrasing might indicate it happened just inside the city entrance. Despite the public setting, though, this was in response to an individual who prompted Him.
Furthermore, it’s not explicitly stated that he’s referring to hell, despite traditional associations. Instead, this is a moment of awe at the faith of a Gentile in the context of a healing work.
This fails to condemn individuals to hell, and it further fails to present hell as a central theme to the gospel.
The Parable of the Weeds
While speaking to a crowd, Jesus tells the story of a man whose field was sabotaged by an enemy who planted weeds among his wheat. “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned,” the man was to instruct his harvesters according to Matthew 13:30.
Many have argued that this reflects hell. After all, Jesus later explains that the weeds represent “the people of the evil one” planted by the devil. “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age,” He explains in verse 40.
Then he foregoes the metaphor entirely in Matthew 13:41-42 (NIV):
“The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.
They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
At first glance, this might seem like a good indicator that Jesus supported this sort of heavy-handed public teaching. However, it’s crucial to note that between the vague parable and the detailed explanation, the Lord “left the crowd and went into [a] house” (verse 36). Here in this private setting, at the prompting of his inner ring, he provided further explanation.
In fact, he had deliberately avoided speaking with such specificity to the crowds (verse 34). This is a point which Matthew seems to belabor, even providing an explanation as to why He used parables so deliberately when in public(vv. 10-17).
Far from an endorsement, this is closer to an example of Jesus choosing to not go the hellfire route than anything.
The Parable of the Net
This private conversation with the disciples also includes another teaching moment using the parable of the fisherman’s net. As seen in Matthew 13:47-50:
“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish.
When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.
This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous
and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.””
Repent or Perish
In my quick survey of the New Testament, Luke 13 has by far the most familiar language for our subject matter. Here we find Jesus actually making the following statement (Luke 13:5b):
“Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
That sounds pretty close to “turn or burn”. Admittedly, Jesus is saying such people will be destroyed or killed (apollymi), not sent to gehenna or hadēs. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s assume he’s speaking figuratively and is describing hellbound people. Have we found the example we’ve been looking for?
If we look at verse 1, we see that “there were some present at that time” who were actually asking Jesus a specific question involving a mix of religion, politics, and cultural tension (a mix we modern Americans should be familiar with).
Taking things further back, we see Jesus indeed most recently speaking to a crowd (12:54), but that’s also following Him speaking to just the disciples in a public setting (12:22). If the intended audience seems a little confusing to us, we can take comfort in that we’re not alone. In 12:41, Peter asks for just such a clarification.
In reality, though, it appears that this public setting was primarily instructive of His followers, both the immediate twelve disciples and those who stopped to hear His teaching. In particular, in the 13:5 statement is directed at those who seem to assume others to be facing divine judgment. In other words, it’s another sect of religious folk (possibly the politically active followers of Judas of Gamala, later mentioned in Acts 5:37) trying to get this new Prophet to confirm His alignment with their ideas. Instead, He turned it back around on them specifically.
So despite the seemingly “turn or burn” language, we still don’t have what we’re looking for.
If I’m going to be honest, I was a little disappointed here. I entered this project with assumptions but a secret hope that my assumptions would be challenged. So far, there had been some seemingly close calls, but nothing quite lined up. And here we had the language. We even had the public setting. I just can’t stretch this to the point of endorsement, even to a degree.
What we do see, though, is a willingness to speak in frank terms when prompted. And we see a willingness to meet the religious elite head-on. It’s nothing we haven’t already seen Jesus do with Pharisees in many other places, but it’s noteworthy that He didn’t just pick on the Pharisees.
I might have missed some, but I think this has been pretty thorough. Jesus just didn’t practice the sort of hellfire broadcasting I saw with Clara on our vacation.