Having dealt in Chapter Two with what the Jewish beliefs about Hell were that would have influenced Jesus and the writers of the New Testament, Francis Chan moves on to exploring what Jesus actually said about Hell. Chan gives the reader a reminder of what he labels a sobering reality: this is a subject which is not just about doctrines, but about destinies. He urges that anyone who reads the book and is wrestling with what the Bible says about Hell should not let it be merely an academic exercise.
“You must let Jesus’ very real teaching on hell sober you up. You must let Jesus’ words reconfigure the way you live, the way you talk, and the way you see the world and the people around you.”
As I wrote in my last post, Chan’s description of the 1st-century world Jesus inhabited is one in which the Jewish people saw hell as a place of punishment for the wicked after they faced God’s judgment. They described hell with images of fire, darkness, and lamenting; some believed the wicked would be annihilated after they were cast into hell, while other Jews believed hell to be a place of never-ending torment. Given this milieu, Chan notes the importance of understanding that if Jesus rejected these widespread Jewish beliefs in hell, then He would have had to deliberately and clearly argue against them.
Chan is insistent that what Jesus Himself actually said about hell stands in line with the dominant views of hell in His 1st-century Jewish world. He examines Jesus’ teachings on hell using the same three categories he discussed in Chapter Two to demonstrate that Jesus believed:
- Hell is a place of punishment after judgment
- Hell is described in imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament.
- Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment.
HELL IS A PLACE OF PUNISHMENT AFTER JUDGMENT
Chan notes that Jesus used the word gehenna (hell) twelve times in the Gospel, employing imagery of fire and darkness to demonstrate that a horrific place of punishment awaits the wicked on the day of judgment. Chan cites Matthew 25:31-46 as the clearest example of this.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Chan is careful to admit that this is actually an instance where Jesus actually does not use the word gehenna, but that He communicates the concept of hell by phrases such as “everlasting fire” and “everlasting punishment.” The point that is important here is that this is a passage in which Jesus is clear that the wicked will be awarded everlasting punishment on the day of Christ’s return, judgment day. He singles out another instance, in Matthew 5:22, where Jesus does use gehenna passage concerning judgment, stating,
“… here the Judge has the power to sentence you to the “hell [gehenna] of fire” (Matt. 5:22). This is not a vague reference to hell and certainly not a reference to a garbage dump. The legal context of this statement ensures that Jesus is referring to the consequences of judgment day.”
According to Chan, this legal context is the indication that Jesus means that hell is a literal place, where punishment occurs after judgment.
HELL IS DESCRIBED IN IMAGERY OF FIRE AND DARKNESS
Chan moves on to demonstrate that — like his Jewish contemporaries — Jesus described Hell using images of fire and darkness. He turns to the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13.
“Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Matthew 13:30)
Chan notes that this is a verse that doesn’t say much on its own, but comments that Jesus’ explanation of the parable and what He means by the burning weeds is of significance.
“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:40-43)
Chan unswervingly calls these statements of Jesus “terrifying,” and puts forward the image of the wicked being cast into hell — and the weeping that follows — as common belief among 1st-century Jews (an argument he supported well previously). In the light of some of the Jewish writing on hell that Chan shared previously, he is successful in making the case that Jesus is right in line with Jewish thought on Hell. Jesus was using an established vocabulary to communicate a message that no one who heard Him speaking would have had any doubts about: Jesus was speaking of gehenna (hell) as “a place of punishment for all who don’t follow Jesus in this life.” Chan tackles some contemporary stances on hell (and by “contemporary” some would almost certainly say “Rob Bell”) by asserting,
“The hell that Jesus describes here is not a hell-on-earth that accompanies our bad decisions during this life, and it certainly isn’t the never-ending party that AC/DC describes in their song.”
Lastly, Chan gives examples of Jesus’ use of the imagery of darkness to refer to hell as a place of punishment for those of Israel and the nations who do not follow Jesus.
“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11-12)
“Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 22:13)
“And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:30)
HELL IS A PLACE OF ANNIHILATION OR NEVER-ENDING PUNISHMENT
Chan concludes Chapter Three by addressing a seeming dichotomy: Jesus seems in some passages give the implication that Hell will not last very long, while in other places He refers to Hell as a place in which unbelievers are punished with horrifying, agonizing pain that never ends.
This section of Erasing Hell is one in which it seems that the voice of Preston Sprinkle could possibly be rising above Francis Chan’s, as there is a very scholarly exploration of the precise meaning of Greek words and grammar. Chan believes this is beneficial but acknowledges that it may be more technical than some might be used to. He leads into this discussion of Greek grammar with the following:
“In almost every passage where Jesus mentions hell, He doesn’t explicitly say it will last forever. He speaks of torment, and we get the impression that hell is terrible, that it’s a place to be avoided at all costs, but He doesn’t clearly tell us how long it will last.
Jesus’ most suggestive statement–perhaps His only statement–about the duration of hell comes in Matthew 25. In this passage, Jesus speaks of the final judgment that will take place at His second coming (v. 31). The sheep (believers in Jesus) and goats (unbelievers) are divided in two camps, and Jesus decides who’s who based on what they’ve done in their lives. The sheep have served Jesus by clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and so on, while the goats did none of these things. Jesus then gives His verdict:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ ” (v. 41)
Jesus reviews their behavior on earth and finds convicting evidence for their condemnation (vv. 42-44) and then concludes:
‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (vv. 45-46)
The vital point Chan wishes to make revolves around the phrases everlasting fire and everlasting punishment. Those who believe that Hell is of limited duration, he states, argue that the Greek aionios kolasis which is translated “everlasting punishment” does not meant that punishment is without end. Rather they argue for aionios meaning “a period of time,” with kolasis being a horticultural term referring to “pruning” or “trimming.” Here Chan is very deliberately going on the offensive against Rob Bell’s Love Wins, in which Bell stated:
“An aionios of kolasis. Depending on how you translate aionios and kolasis, then, the phrase can mean “a period of pruning” or “a time of trimming,” or an intense experience of correction.”
The argument of Bell and others, Chan relates, is that the purpose of this pruning or correction is to improve something — in this case, to correct the wicked of their ungodly behavior until they have ceased to be wicked. According to this, Jesus is referring to a time of correction that will result in those who suffer punishment being eventually saved. In Rob Bell’s view, this then refers to “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God.”
Chan is honest enough to admit that this is an appealing argument, on the basis that it appears to reconcile the love of God with the bleak statements Jesus makes about hell. However, Chan refutes the argument on the basis of kolasis in no way referring to correction, only to punishment. He gives three reasons for this, the first being that in the three other appearances of the word in the New Testament, it refers only to punishment. Kolasis as used in Jewish literature of the first century refers to punishment.
Secondly, the everlasting punishment referred to is the same location as “the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” in verse 41. This being the case, Chan notes that to argue that unbelievers endure a time of suffering for a period, which results in salvation, then the same must be true for the Devil and his angels. Chan labels this as a huge stretch, especially in light of Revelation 19-20, where it is stated that the Devil and his angels will be tormented forever and ever. Chan contends that Jesus is actually saying that unbelievers will share the same fate as the Devil and his followers. In other words, unbelievers will be tormented forever and ever.
The third reason Chan presents for kolasis referring to punishment instead of correction is that in other verses or passages in which Jesus refers to hell with phrases such as “the fiery furnace” or “everlasting fire,” He is speaking of a place of retribution, a place where sinners receive the punishment for their sins. He does not speak of correction, notes Chan, in other passages such as Matthew 13:41-42 and 49-50. He observes that the consensus of biblical commentators from diverse theological backgrounds, using diverse translations of the Bible (in numerous languages), translate kolasis as meaning “punishment.”
Chan’s final thoughts for Chapter Three contain his recognition that while he strongly favors the argument that Hell is everlasting, he is not ready to claim that with complete certainty. He concludes with this fervent admonition:
“We are bound by the words of the Creator, the One who will do what is right. The One who invented justice and knows perfectly what the unbeliever deserves. God has never asked us to figure out His justice or to see if His way of doing things is morally right. He has only asked us to embrace His Word and bow the knee, to tremble at His word, as Isaiah says (66:2)”