Jesus on Hell
Beyond history, Jesus speaks of a postmortem existence either with God in blessing or outside of God’s blessing in a state of regret, loss, and forfeiture. Jesus announces to the criminal crucified next to him that the man would be with Jesus in paradise that very day (Luke 23:43). In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus contrasts the beggar Lazarus, who “died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side,” with the oppressive rich man who died and found himself in “hell, where he was in torment” (Luke 16:19-23). Jesus also warns of a day when he will separate the “sheep” from the “goats” eternally on the basis of how people lived their lives in response to him and to their neighbors (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus implicitly builds on certain passages in the Hebrew Scriptures to this effect (Daniel 12:2; etc.), but he makes himself the key agent of eternal judgment.
Jesus teaches that one passes from death into a disembodied intermediate state—either into God’s presence or away from it—and that at some future time this will be followed by Jesus’ own return to earth in final judgment. After this the permanent resurrection of the body will occur.
"For a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his [the Son of God’s] voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29).
Jesus claims to have the authority to render final judgment.
"Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doers’" (Matthew 7:21-23).
Hell on Trial
Such statements by Jesus have led some to reject Jesus as a sound thinker or a moral teacher. Bertrand Russell in his famous essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” is illustrative.
There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.
Russell claims that Jesus demonstrated “vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching.” Moreover, Jesus’ teaching that it is possible to sin against the Holy Spirit such that one is never forgiven “has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world.” A kind person would never have unleashed such worries upon the world. Furthermore, Jesus took “a certain pleasure in contemplating wailing and gnashing of teeth, or else it would not occur so often.” Lastly, Russell claims that the doctrine of hell “put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as his chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partially responsible for that.” If Russell’s charges stand, Jesus falls morally and philosophically. They may be questioned, however.
First, Jesus did not engage in “vindictive fury” when predicting divine judgment. He issues strong warnings at times, but shows no “pleasure in contemplating wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Moreover, after pronouncing seven charges (or “woes”) against “teachers of the law and Pharisees” (Matthew 23:15-32), Jesus laments over Jerusalem for not accepting his offer of redemption.
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing" (Matthew 23:37).
While dying on the cross, Jesus prays concerning those responsible for his crucifixion, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This is not vindictive, but forgiving and compassionate. Rather than being spiteful, Jesus issues warnings precisely because he believes in both heaven and hell. That he warns of eternal loss repeatedly does not entail that he takes any enjoyment in it, any more than a physician enjoys repeatedly warning an asthmatic patient that she will die if she doesn’t stop smoking. If Jesus did, in fact, believe that an eternal sin against the Holy Spirit were possible, it would only behoove him to warn others against committing it (Mark 3:20-30). The fact that some have worried unnecessarily about committing this sin should not be credited to Jesus any more than pathologists should be blamed when hypochondriacs think they have contracted diseases they do not have.
Second, Russell’s claim that the very idea of hell induced generations to cruelly torture others is terribly overstated. We can cite a few Inquisitors who tortured heretics in hopes that early torment might spare them eternal punishment, but this is but a small and deeply aberrational percentage of Christians throughout the ages. The majority of those who purport to follow Jesus have adopted the attitude of warning and invitation with respect to Jesus’ message of redemption, not the practice of torture. Torture is nowhere commended by the Jewish or Christian Scriptures (or any Christian Creed) as a method of conversion or purgation or retaliation.
Third, while some regard the very idea of hell as utterly repugnant, philosophical arguments have been marshaled in support of the doctrine of hell. If one can rationally support the idea of God’s perfect and infinite holiness and justice in relation to the reality of human sin and moral responsibility, the idea of the perpetual punishment of one who rejects God’s offer of redemption is not without warrant. As Milton’s Lucifer put it in Paradise Lost:
So farewell Hope, and with Hope farewell Fear,
Farewell Remorse; all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good. . . .
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.
Moreover, there are biblically tenable and philosophically defensible models of hell that are not vindictive at all.
Jesus articulated a robust metaphysics. He embraced a highly personal theism and God’s dominion over human and cosmic history, a dominion that was entering a new and decisive stage through his own ministry. Jesus was a mind-body dualist, who acknowledged the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. He often engaged the demonic realm through exorcism and healing, and he spoke of Satan, demons, and angels. However, his main focus was always on God and his own mandate “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).