There is considerable discussion these days about the nature of hell. Indeed, I have done my share to stir this discussion and also to participate in it. But there also are practical questions we all need to ask, whatever we think hell will be like. What is the point of hell anyway? Whom does Jesus warn about it? What evils elicit his mention of it? Does Jesus, like many preachers and professing Christians today, thunder hell-fire warnings to unchurched sinners: to prostitutes, drunkards and homosexuals? Does he use hell to spur conversions and to bring people to faith? The answers to these questions might surprise us — and teach us something important as well.
Jesus specifically mentions hell (gehenna) just 11 times in the Gospels. You will find his statements at Matthew 5:22; 5:29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47 and Luke 12:5. When we read everything in the Gospels that Jesus said about hell, we find him speaking twice to the Pharisees, warning these rigid and self-righteous morality policemen that God is unhappy with what their teaching turns their converts into and with the hypocrisy of their external-only religion (Matt. 23:15, 33).
Everything else Jesus says about hell is directed to his own disciples. Twice he is encouraging them not to be afraid of those who might oppose them but to be afraid of God who can destroy the whole person in hell (Matt. 10:28; Luke 12:5). Every other time Jesus mentions hell he is warning his own followers not to mistreat or misuse vulnerable people, whether women (Matt. 5:29-30), “little ones” (Matt. 18:9; Mark 9:43, 45, 47) or anyone with whom one might be angry (Matt. 5:22).
What if we used hell the way Jesus did? Would that change the way we use it, whatever we think it will actually be like? Would it change the way we ourselves live and treat others?