You can hardly swing a cat in the New Testament gospels without hitting a spot where Jesus speaks about hell either directly or indirectly.
This is difficult for most of us simply because the very concept of hell seems so out of character for God and his loving nature.
Yet there it is, presented as a factual reality by the One who never lies. In fact, Matthew alone recorded that Jesus talked about hell at several significant times, including Matthew 5:21-26, 7:13-14, 13:24–30, 36-43, 13: 47–52, 16:13-20, 18:1-9, 22:1-14, 25:14-30, and 25:31-46.
What Are We to Do with That?
Discuss it, I think. Try to understand better what it is and why it is — even while admitting that we can never fully know God’s purpose on this subject.
To that end, let’s look at some of the things Jesus himself said about hell in the Gospel of Matthew and try to answer a few questions people have asked.
Matthew 5:21-26 seems to say that any angry outburst will send me straight to the “fires of hell,” regardless of whether I’m Christian or not. What am I supposed to do with that?
Matthew 5:22 does quote Jesus as saying that anyone who is angry toward another has committed a sin equivalent to murder and is “in danger of the fires of hell.”
This seems extreme and is difficult to reconcile with other statements of grace and forgiveness that Jesus made. In that regard, Bible scholar and teacher Warren Wiersbe offered this insight:
Other theologians see Jesus making a reference here to humanity’s first murder — Cain’s killing of his brother, Abel, as recorded in Genesis 4.
Cain’s criminal actions weren’t simply preceded by his jealous anger toward his brother — that is to say, his anger didn’t simply lead to the act of murder.
Rather, the act of murder actually began in Cain’s sin of “malice that is nursed inwardly.” The killing of Abel itself was the final, outward expression of the murderous intent that Cain had already been nurturing within himself, out of public view.
It may be that it’s in this sense that anger, unchecked, becomes equivalent to murder. Just as the seed of a rose contains all the DNA of a full-grown rose bush, it’s possible that anger is the sinful seed that contains all the DNA of murder.
Jesus thus strongly encourages his hearers to deal immediately with anger toward others — pursuing reconciliation and forgiveness without delay.
In this peaceful pursuit, the sinful seeds of anger are rooted out and rendered ineffective in a person’s life.
First, in the parable of the wheat and weeds, and then in the parable of the fishing net, Jesus seems overly preoccupied with the concept of a literal, fiery hell. Is that really something to worry about? (Matthew 13:24–30, 36-43, 47–52).
Is Hell a Literal, Fiery Place?
This is one of those questions I dislike answering just because I hate my conclusion. I can make no claim for understanding God’s “why” behind hell, nor the specifics of the experience of it.
C. S. Lewis said of hell, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specifically, of Our Lord’s own words.”
We can’t just ignore that Jesus spoke frequently about hell — and that he seemed to view it as a literal, fiery place.
The Greek word used for “hell” in Matthew and the New Testament is gehenna. It was a symbolic reference to a literal place: the Valley of Hinnom, located just south of Jerusalem.
In times of ancient kings, this valley was where some Israelites detestably murdered their children in sacrifice to idols.
In Jesus’ day, this gehenna was basically a large garbage dump that was always smoldering, where “the maggots never die and the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:48).
Here the city’s refuse mixed with the corpses of condemned criminals, burning to ash and completely abandoned. This is the hell that Jesus described.
As to whether that hell is “purely a mental existence” or “a world or reality,” Lewis refused to speculate except to say, “It will be as actual as — as — well, as a coffin is actual to a man buried alive.”
My friend and scholar, Len Woods, also offers this sobering insight, which seems a fitting way to end this section of commentary:
“Hell — not simply the word but the terrible truth it represents — ought to cause us sleepless nights. The biblical descriptions of a place of unquenchable fire (Matthew 5:22), utter darkness (Matthew 22:13), and ceaseless, restless torment (Revelation14:10-11) are horrible beyond words. Even if one regards these images as symbolic or metaphorical, the reality of hell is infinitely worse than we can grasp for this one reason: Hell is the logical destination for those who want nothing to do with God.”
Do “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” always refer to hell, or are there other interpretations too? (Matthew 25:14-30).
Well, let’s see…
The Greek phrase translated as “outer darkness” in the NLT is skotos to exōteron. That phrase is exclusive to Matthew’s gospel and shows up three times: Matthew 8:12, 22:13, and 25:30.
In every instance, it’s a record of Jesus talking, and all three verses are references to hell. Interestingly, every time he says “outer darkness,” Jesus also pairs it with “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
“Weeping” by itself obviously has multiple uses and applications in the New Testament, but when combined with the Greek brygmos tōn odontōn, “gnashing of teeth,” that phrase appears seven times in the New Testament, again always spoken by Jesus.
Again, in every usage, “weeping and gnashing of teeth” refers to an eternal hell, often combined with a description of fire in a place of “outer darkness.”
Seeing the consistency with which this image of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is used, does make one think.
We typically assume this is an allegorical, sensory/emotional view of hell. But since Christ described hell this way every time, we must wonder if he was, perhaps, giving us a literal peek into that awful, painful place.
It’ll be best, I think if we never have to find out.
What Does it Mean That Hell Was Prepared for the Devil and His Demons?
Most agree that Jesus’ reference to “the eternal fire” in Matthew 25:41 is speaking of what the Apostle John will later describe in Revelation 20:10 as a “lake of fire” — the final destination for Satan and his allies.
With that perspective, I think Pastor David Platt says it best (italics his): “Hell is not a place where the Devil torments sinners; hell is a place where he is tormented alongside sinners.”
A. Lukyn Williams was a New Testament scholar who lived during the 1800s. In a commentary on these verses, he points out that a majestic kingdom inheritance for the righteous (the “sheep” in this parable) was in God’s plans for us at the earliest moments of creation (Matthew 25:35).
By contrast, “eternal fire” was an afterthought, fashioned after creation specifically for the devil and his demons. “It seems as though,” Williams observes, “there was no proper place for man’s punishment; there is no book of death corresponding to the book of life.”
This feels tragic to me; it indicates that God’s first intention was, from the beginning, extravagant blessing and reward. The blight of eternal punishment was something that needn’t ever have existed but for our participation in Satan’s sin. Williams finally concludes:
“How to reconcile this destiny, which seems inconceivably terrible, with God’s mercy, love, and justice, has always proved a stumbling-block to free thinkers. It is, indeed, a mystery which we cannot understand, and which Christ has purposely left unexplained. We can only bow the head and say, ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’” (Gen. xviii. 25).
There’s much more to study, of course, but this is a starting place at least. Hopefully, it will encourage you to conduct your own deeper exploration of the gospels to discover, think through, and better understand what Jesus said about hell.
“What Did Jesus Say About Hell” is adapted from Bible-Smart Matthew: Q&A for the Curious Soul by Mike Nappa © 2023 Nappaland Communications Inc. Published by Rose Publishing, an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. Discover more at Bible-Smart.com.
For further reading:
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/wacomka
Mike Nappa is a practical theologian known for writing Bible-Smart: Matthew and “coffee-shop theology” books. He’s a bestselling and award-winning author with millions of copies of his works sold worldwide. An Arab-American, Mike is proud to be a person of color (BIPOC) active in Christian publishing. Visit Mike’s Bible-Smart blog at Bible-Smart.com.