Imagine two friends, Fred and Sam, chatting about a recent event in Fred’s life and some of his concerns regarding proper Bible teaching. Fred has recently left his local church due to his perception that the preacher there is getting soft on the doctrine of hell.
Fred: “You know, Sam, I agree that it’s important to talk about love and forgiveness and all of that, but this pastor talks way more about these nice sounding parts of the Bible than he ever does about hell or judgment. We’ve got to remember that Jesus actually talked more about hell than he did about heaven!”
Sam: “Fred, I do think we need to be careful not to water down the Bible, and that we need to try to emphasize things in accordance with how they’re emphasized in Scripture, but do you really think Jesus talked more about hell than heaven?
Fred: Well, the pastor who led me to Christ, used to say that often in his sermons, and after having read through the Gospels for myself numerous times over the years, I’m pretty sure he’s right.
Sam: Fred, it’s interesting that you brought this topic up because I recently did an in depth study of the Gospel of Matthew with our church-planting team and we traced several themes and ideas through the entire book (I’ve actually got my notes right here). When we came to the topic of hell we were surprised that there were really only four contexts where Jesus uses the word Gehenna (the Greek word translated as “hell” in English). These are found in Matthew chapters 5, 10, 18 and 23. One of these four passages has a parallel in Mark (9:43-47) and one of them has a parallel in Luke (12:5). Apart from those, there is no other mention of Gehenna anywhere else in the Gospels or in the entire New Testament (with the exception of one verse in James 3).
Fred: I don’t know, man? I’m positive there’s more teaching on hell than that in the Gospels.
Sam: Well, we started with the word Gehenna since it is the most explicit term, but yes, there are some other passages that do seem to talk about the final judgment even though they don’t specifically use the word “hell”. Yet, I think you’ll be surprised to see how few there are.
We only found six possible examples, and what’s fascinating is that each of these is coupled with a teaching about heaven. The first two are in Matthew chapter 7. Starting with verse 13, we read, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.” and in verse 19, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Destruction and fire here are both often interpreted as referring to hell, but if this is true then Jesus also, at least mentions heaven following each of these examples (i.e. the way that leads to “life” in verse 14 and the possibility of “acceptance in God’s kingdom” in verse 21). In other words for each possible reference to hell, there is at least one mention of heaven.
The third example is the story of the sower in Matthew 13. The wheat represents those who have trusted in the Messiah, and the weeds represent those who reject him. The conclusion found in verse 30, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” shows two outcomes, a favorable one, and a tragic one. So if this parable is an illustration of the final judgment then both heaven and hell are in view. This pattern repeats itself in verses 47-50, the parable of the fishing net that caught both good and bad fish. Here too there are two destinies, one for the righteous and one for the wicked, a mention of heaven joined with a mention of hell.
Fred: So Christ talks just as much about heaven as he does about hell. I can accept that, but this pastor is still talking way more about the positive side of things.
Sam: Well, actually I wasn’t quite finished… in Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus tells the story of the wedding feast. In this parable, once again both heaven and hell seem to be in view. The majority of the guests get to remain at the wedding banquet and forever experience the joy of God’s presence, while the king orders his servants to take one guest and “cast him into the outer darkness.”
A few chapters later, we come to the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Here, the two individuals who acted as wise administrators of their master’s resources, are told to enter the joy of their master, and the last one who failed to act in faith is sent “into the outer darkness.” The first two receive eternal blessing and the other is sent into the darkness of hell.
There’s one more, the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. This parable concludes with two groups of people experiencing two separate fates, “and these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” So once again, a mention of judgment is followed by a mention of heavenly blessing.
So think about it, Fred, in the massive amount of teaching that we have in the 28 chapters of Matthew, there are only four contexts in which Gehenna is specifically mentioned plus these six passages we just looked at that seem to speak of the final judgement in hell, and as we have seen, most of these also contain a reference to heaven. This makes the count about even, but if there were only a couple passages that talked exclusively about the fate of the righteous the scales would easily tip toward heaven.
Fred: So are there any that just talk about heaven without mentioning hell? I’m pretty sure there are at least a couple.”
Sam: Yes, you’re right, there are. And actually more than just a couple. Between the future blessings described in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 and the passage about storing up treasures in heaven in Matthew 6, heaven definitely emerges as the winner in the Gospel of Matthew. Then in the other Gospels we have the angels rejoicing in heaven, the party that the father throws for his returned prodigal son (likely a picture of heaven), the promise that we have eternal life and will be raised up at the last day, Jesus telling the thief on the cross, “today, you’ll be with me in paradise!” and numerous other examples. I should also say that I believe heaven is a much richer and fuller concept than simply describing the fate of the righteous, and in passages like Matthew 6:9-10 (the Lord’s Prayer) we see that heaven refers to the presence of God and the reality of his reign and rule that is able to break into our lives even now. But for the sake of clarity and time I’ve tried to stick with the examples that fit with the more popular, afterlife-understanding of heaven.
Fred: To be honest, Sam, I’m realizing that maybe it just sounded very serious and spiritual for me to stiffen my upper lip, as it were, and just admit the fact that Jesus talked more about hell than heaven. But it seems you’re right. He definitely talked a lot about what he came to give us.
Sam: Jesus did talk about hell and judgment and we need to think hard and serious about these topics but in proper perspective. We need to make sure that our theology of hell is not being shaped by pop-culture or even by tradition but by what the Bible actually says. We must be willing to go where the texts lead. It’s fascinating that no one in the Bible ever asked anyone else the question: “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven or hell?” And yet that is how so many have been taught to evangelize.
I would say that the point of the Gospels and of the entire Bible is Jesus. Most of all, we want people to come to know Jesus and to live for Jesus out of love for him. Not simply seeing him as “fire-insurance” or as a means to an end that is heaven, but to see him as the means and the end. He is the greatest reward. To be with Jesus is to experience heaven. Heaven is the place where God dwells, where his presence is known and enjoyed. So we should pray that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Yes, we should know what we are being rescued from, and unbelievers should know what continuing on in their rebellion against God will lead to, but we can’t stop there and, as we’ve just seen, that’s not where Jesus seems to land either.
Fred: So should I go back to my church? I was thinking about maybe joining your church plant instead. But you’re just as watered down as my old pastor 😉
No, but seriously, what do you think?
Sam: There are legitimate reasons to leave a church, which I’d be happy to talk about another time, but I think you should at least go back and listen some more in light of what we’ve talked about today. If you still have concerns, be sure to talk to the leaders about them before making a decision to leave and make sure you thoroughly search the Scriptures before dismissing something he says.
Fred: Thanks for your time, my friend. And I’m going to keep looking into this as well. I mean, what about the epistles and Revelation? 🙂
Sam: The epistles and the book of Revelation certainly speak into this topic* but that will have to be a conversation for another day. In the meantime, I’ll be praying that God gives you wisdom in all of this and please know that I’m open to any pushback you might have.
Fred: Thanks, Sam. We’ll continue the conversation soon!
*A small statement was edited out from this article after its publication because, although a true statement, it needed more nuance than what the length and intent of the post allowed. – The Editor