The 18th-century preacher Jonathan Edwards remains one of the most influential hellfire preachers to this day. And it’s easy to see why. Take a moment to objectively consider the vivid imagery from his Sinners In Zion Tenderly Warned:
…the heat of that great fire which will burn the world, will be such as to melt the rocks, and the very ground, and turn them into a kind of liquid fire, so that the whole world will probably be converted into a great lake, or liquid globe of fire, a vast ocean of fire, in which the wicked shall be tossed to and fro, having no rest day nor night, vast waves or billows of fire continually rolling over their heads.
It’s terrifying. It’s compelling. But is it effective today? Based on my own experience, it’s not. In fact, it seems to do more harm than good. But I’m a finite human, and maybe I’m missing something.
So in this series, I’ve been looking into whether the Bible supports the sort of witnessing that involves telling people they’re hellbound. I’m not delving into the existence of hell; I’m assuming there’s something. I’m also not getting into the nature of hell itself. It’s somewhat beside the point here. I just want to know if it’s a good tool.
So, I decided to check into how Jesus talked about hell.
Did He condemn others publically? Turns out He did, but only the religious elite, not the general public.
Did He condemn others privately? Only, it seems, in very specific circumstances, and never in a gossip-like circumstance. Even then, these seemed more rebuke within a relationship or teaching opportunities rather than actual condemnation as we see today.
So Jesus, at least as documented in the Gospels, doesn’t seem to centralize hell to His broadcasted message.
However, since I believe the whole New Testament is inspired by God, I cannot ignore sources other than Jesus, though they too must be interpreted through His teaching. Still, before we issue a final conclusion, let’s look into the other examples of New Testament verses that are traditionally linked to hell.
Note that all verses below are in the NIV.
Let’s start with the epistles, or letters, that comprise a great deal of the New Testament. As a general rule, these were instructive in nature, a leader of the early church telling followers how to live out their faith.
This instructive nature is highly relevant for our purposes here. If the authors ever instruct others to condemn, then we’ve found what we’re looking for. It’s a necessarily high bar. Let’s see what we find.
2 Peter 2:4,9
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment;
if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.
Here we have the singular use of tartaróō in the New Testament, and translators usually just use the term “hell”. I’d suggest reading the whole of 2 Peter 2 to provide a little better context. Here we see Peter mentioning a series of agents who failed to follow God’s plan, each of which faced consequences.
It’s notable, though, that tartaróō is only applied to the fallen angels, despite parallel treatments for an almost exclusively evil world around Noah Sodom and Gomorrah.
Peter falls short of prescribing hell as a consequence awaiting fallen humanity, though the implication that some consequence awaits is clear. So who is he talking about?
Well, if we look into the broader context of the letter, we see Peter is actually speaking about false teachers. He’s rebuking religious folks who are missing the point, much like his Master regularly did years before.
In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.
With his “eternal fire” (aiōnios pyr) reference here, Jude seems to describe those who “give themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion” as being hellbound.
Even looking at the broader context, we see a very condemning tone in general. However, it falls short of prescribing this sort of tone in evangelistic work.
2 Thessalonians 1:8-9
Greek: aiōnios olethros
He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might
I’m hesitant to even bring Revelation into this. It’s a massive book of intense symbolism that really fails to provide much that is unquestionably concrete. This book contains some of the most debated biblical passages of all time.
But to be at least somewhat comprehensive, I’ll mention it here.
they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.
And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
Like with the epistles above, we don’t see anything instructive here. This book has vivid imagery that would leave Jonathan Edwards at a loss for words (and I suspect at times did just that), but it doesn’t prescribe an evangelistic strategy here.
At the beginning of this endeavor, we set forth some basic assumptions we’d carry through this exercise. I think it’d be useful to review them now.
- “Hell” is an English word that doesn’t have a direct translation to Greek. Instead, multiple distinct terms (tartarus, hadēs, and gehenna, each with complete with distinct imagery and symbolism) are used by Jesus and New Testament authors, and translators and theologians alike have often lumped them together as “hell”.
- While some theologians debate the mechanics of the non-heaven afterlife, it is not commonly argued that there is zero biblical support for some negative alternative post-death experience. For the simplicity of our thought exercise, we’ll call such an afterlife experience that is in some way distinct from the sort of eternal communion with Jesus that Christians are expected to enjoy (i.e. “heaven”) “hell”, regardless of the details of said experience.
- Like the end times, there are strong indications that many of the Bible’s statements traditionally attached to hell might not be attributed to such a negative alternative post-death experience. Such debatable passages could not unquestioningly contribute toward a concrete answer.
Avoiding Atomistic Hermeneutics
I’m prepared to consider Jesus’ example alone, but I must remember my purpose here. I’m not trying to defeat an idea using cherry-picked examples from Scripture. I don’t need to project my own assumptions onto Scripture.
I must look at all these situations holistically (in light of each other and the broader narrative of the Bible) not atomistically (on an island by themselves). So with that in mind, what’s the overall impression I see?
I can see a value in answering a direct question honestly and plainly. Jesus did just that. Well, He spoke honestly at least. Plain is a matter of perspective.
We also see a willingness to address hard issues head-on by early church leaders who recognized their own margin for error, provided it was within their own congregation. Paul plainly spoke of this limitation when he wrote, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” (1 Corinthians 5:12 NIV)
As for evangelistic strategy, the root of our question, there’s little prescription in Scripture. Still, there are a great number of examples to follow. We see plenty from Jesus in the Gospels, and we see more earthly examples from early church leaders in the Acts of the Apostles. Many of both include public speaking before strangers, and some of these even include rebuke. But none seem to judge/condemn others to hell without repentance.
Significantly, none even remotely seem to centralize hell as part of that gospel message. If we’re in doubt there, let’s look to one of the first salvation moments recorded in the Gospels in Luke 23:39-42 (NIV):
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence?
We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Is there any evidence that this man had a well-developed, fully-informed understanding of hell? Do we suppose that there was time for a sober teaching and comprehension among those being fatally tortured, and we just don’t have a record of it (despite Matthew, Mark, and Luke each documenting some part of this interaction)?
Some have conveniently argued that this man was a backslider who had previously met all the meticulous requirements of salvation, and this was his moment of repentance. Then the burden of proving a negative falls upon those who would say there is nothing to support that position.
It’s silly. At the end of the day, we have to trust that if such a thing were mandatory, it would be clear. And when we have to get inventive, adding our own jots and tittles to Scripture to substantiate our rigid dogma, maybe we’re missing the point.
And maybe we’re the types that Jesus might publically describe as hellbound.