The Descriptions Jesus Uses for Hell
Jesus spoke of hell more than anyone else in the Bible. He referred to it as a place of “outer darkness” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12). In other words, all the joys that we associate with light will be withdrawn, and all the fears that we associate with darkness will be multiplied. And the result will be an intensity of misery that makes a person grind his teeth in order to bear it.
Jesus also refers to hell as a “fiery furnace” where law-breakers will be thrown at the end of the age when he returns. “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” (Matt. 13:41–42). He calls it “the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22), “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41), “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43), “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46).
This last description—“eternal punishment”—is especially heartrending and fearful because it is contrasted with “eternal life.” “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” In this contrast we hear the tragedy of loss as well as suffering and endlessness. Just as “eternal life” will be a never-ending experience of pleasure in God’s presence, so “eternal punishment” will be a neverending experience of misery under God’s wrath (John 3:36; 5:24).
Hell Is Not a Mere Natural Consequence of Bad Choices
The word wrath is important for understanding what Jesus meant by hell. Hell is not simply the natural consequence of rejecting God. Some people say this in order to reject the thought that God sends people there. They say that people send themselves there. That is true. People make choices that lead to hell. But it is not the whole truth. Jesus says these choices are really deserving of hell. “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to [that is, guilty of, or deserving of] the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22). That is why he calls hell “punishment” (Matt. 25:46). It is not a mere self-imposed natural consequence (like cigarette smoking leading to lung cancer); it is the penalty of God’s wrath (like a judge sentencing a criminal to hard labor).
The images Jesus uses of how people come to be in hell do not suggest natural consequence but the exercise of just wrath. For example, he pictures the servant of a master who has gone on a journey. The servant says, “My master is delayed,” and he “begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards.” Then Jesus says (referring to his own sudden second coming), “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 24:48–51). This picture represents legitimate and holy rage followed by punishment. Jesus will “put” (θήσει) him with the hypocrites.
Jesus told another story to illustrate his departure from the earth and his return in judgment. He said, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. . . . But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us’” (Luke 19:12, 14). When the nobleman returned in his kingly power to reward those who had trusted and honored him with their lives, he punished those who rejected his kingship: “As for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me” (Luke 19:27). Again the picture is not one of hell as a disease resulting from bad habits but of a king expressing holy wrath against those who rebuff his gracious rule.
Fear Him Who Can Destroy Both Soul and Body in Hell
This is why Jesus said, “Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). The fear he commands is not fear of hell as a natural consequence of bad habits, but of God as a holy judge who sentences guilty sinners to hell. This command to fear God as a holy judge seems discouraging at first. It seems as though following Jesus means leading a life of anxiety that God is angry with us and is ready to punish us at the slightest misstep. But that is not what Jesus calls us to experience as we follow him.
It seems amazing to us, perhaps, that immediately following his warning to “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” Jesus says something designed to give us deep peace and full confidence under God’s fatherly care. The very next sentence goes like this: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29–31).
In the same breath Jesus says, “Fear God who casts into hell” and “Do not fear because God is your Father who values you more than the sparrows and knows your smallest need.” In fact, the all-providing fatherly care of God is one of Jesus’s sweetest and most pervasive teachings:
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? . . . Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (Matt. 6:26, 31–32)
God Is to Be Feared, and God Is to Be Trusted
How does Jesus mean for us to experience these two truths about God—he is to be feared, and he is to be trusted? It won’t do to simply say that “fear of God” means “reverence for God” rather than “being afraid of him.” That does not fit with the words, “Fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:5). Of course, it is true that we should reverence God, that is, stand in awe of his holiness and power and wisdom. But there is also a real fear of him that can coexist with sweet peace and trust in him.
The key is that God himself is the one who removes his wrath from us. Our peace does not come from our removing the God of wrath from our thinking, but from his removing his wrath from us. He has done that by sending Jesus to die in our place so that, for everyone who believes in Jesus, God’s wrath is taken away. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Jesus said, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up [on the cross to die], that whoever believes in him may have eternal life [not wrath]. . . . Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:14–15, 36). When Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), he was experiencing the wrath of God’s abandonment in our place—for he had never done anything to deserve being forsaken by God. And when he said finally from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), he meant that the price of our salvation—our deliverance from God’s wrath and into all God’s blessings—had been paid in full.
The reason we do not live in the discomfort of constant fear is because we believe.
Jesus had said that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28), and now the full ransom was paid, and the work of absorbing and removing the wrath of God was finished. Now, he says, everyone who believes has everlasting fellowship with God and is fully assured that the wrath of the Judge is gone. “He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
What then is left to fear? The answer is unbelief. For those who follow Jesus, fearing God means fearing the terrible prospect of not trusting the one who paid such a price for our peace. In other words, one of the means that God uses to keep us peacefully trusting in Jesus is the fear of what God would do to us if we did not believe. The reason we do not live in the discomfort of constant fear is because we believe. That is, we rest in the all-sufficient work of Jesus and in our Father’s sovereign care. But at those moments when unbelief tempts us, a holy fear rises and warns us what a foolish thing it would be to distrust the one who loved us and gave his Son to die for our anxiety-free joy.
Hugging God’s Neck Takes Away Fear
One illustration has helped me see how this experience works. When my oldest son Karsten was about eight years old, we went to visit a man who owned a huge dog. When we opened the door, the dog looked at my son almost eye to eye. That’s a fearful prospect for a little boy. But we were assured the dog was harmless and that he really liked children. After a while we sent Karsten to the car to get something we forgot. As he ran across the yard, the dog gave a deep growl and loped up behind him. The owner leaned out of the door and called to Karsten, “You better just walk; he doesn’t like it when people run away from him.”
A huge dog that loves children but does not like people to run away from him is what God is like. If we will trust him and enjoy him and throw our arms around his strong neck, he will be everything we ever hoped for in a friend. But if we decide that there are other things we want more than him and turn to run away, he will get very angry. Jesus said this as clearly as we could wish in Luke 19:27, “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.” Fearing God means fearing the terrible prospect of running away from the merciful, all-providing, all-satisfying reign of King Jesus.
Hell Means That Sin Is Unfathomably Serious
Jesus’s command that we fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell teaches us to see sin as more serious than we ever dreamed. The reason so many people feel that eternal hell is an unjust punishment for our sin is that they do not see sin as it really is. This is because they do not see God as he really is. When Jesus tells us what he will say to those who are going to hell he says, “Then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:23). They are workers of “lawlessness.” That is, they break God’s law. Sin is against God first, then man.
Therefore, the seriousness of sin arises from what it says about God. God is infinitely worthy and honorable. But sin says the opposite. Sin says that other things are more desirable and more worthy. How serious is this? The seriousness of a crime is determined, in part, by the dignity of the person and the office being dishonored. If the person is infinitely worthy and infinitely honorable and infinitely desirable and holds an office of infinite dignity and authority, then rebuffing him is an infinitely outrageous crime. Therefore, it deserves an infinite punishment. The intensity of Jesus’s words about hell is not an overreaction to small offenses. It is a witness to the infinite worth of God and to the outrageous dishonor of human sin.
The Precious Gift of Fear
Therefore, give heed to Jesus’s clear command to fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Hear it as a great mercy. What a wonderful thing it is that Jesus warns us. He does not leave us ignorant of the wrath to come. He not only warns. He rescues. This is the best effect of fear: it wakens us to our need for help and points us to the all-sufficient Redeemer, Jesus. Let it have this effect on you. Let it lead you to Jesus who says to everyone who believes in him, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
This article is adapted from All That Jesus Commanded: The Christian Life according the Gospels by John Piper.
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