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Jesus and Hell

The second of my two boxes today from the new edition of my textbook.  This one of even more pressing importance: what did Jesus think of hell?


Another Glimpse Into the Past

Box 15.8  Hell in the Teaching of Jesus

Jesus sometimes indicates that on the Day of Judgment sinners will be cast, unburied, into the most unholy, repulsive, God-forsaken place that anyone in Israel could imagine, the valley known as “Gehenna.” He says, for example that it is better to gouge out your eye that sins or amputate your hand and enter the kingdom maimed than to be tossed into Gehenna with eye and hand intact (Matthew 5:29, 30)

Gehenna is obviously serious.  But what is it?   The word is often mistranslated in English Bibles as “hell” (e.g., in the NIV and the NRSV; see Matthew 5:22, 29, 30).  But, Gehenna is not “hell” in the modern sense of a place (inside the earth) where sinners are tormented forever.  Then what is it?

To find out, you will need to belong to the blog.  You’d better find out!  Who knows what might happen otherwise!  So why not join and put your soul at peace?

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Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise?
The Value of Eyewitness Testimony



  1. Avatar
    jhague  October 31, 2018

    Do you think these are Jesus’ words or written to appear to be his words?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 2, 2018

      I think he probably did talk about Gehenna, yes.

      • Avatar
        Mbabazi Fred  January 2, 2019

        Thanks for the great job Bart . We love you .

  2. Avatar
    fishician  October 31, 2018

    I know you like the NRSV: why did they choose to use the word “hell” since it is not really a suitable translation of Gehenna? In your new book I assume you will address how the word “hell” came to be used in many translations?

  3. Avatar
    JohnKesler  October 31, 2018

    “It is the worm and the fire that never die, not the person.”

    The never-dying fire was discussed in another blog entry; you think that it needs to be eternal to continually torment Satan. But in what sense does the “worm” (maggot?) never die? Since we know that the Gehenna-was-a-garbage-dump explanation is too late to have been on Jesus’ mind, what would the worms feed on after all sinners have been incinerated?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 2, 2018

      That’s one eternal worm…. (OK, seriously, I don’t think he’s talking about immortal worms, but about the fact there will always be worms there.)

  4. Avatar
    Apocryphile  October 31, 2018

    It’s fascinating to me how every culture I’m aware of has some concept of a soul or substance that survives physical death (in Jesus’ view, for the “righteous” only), or in ancient Hebrew thought, surviving only to experience a drab existence in Sheol. In Middle Eastern cultures, the preservation, or at least burial, of the body was (and still largely is) very important, presumably to make possible the soul’s eventual reunion with it easier(?) But whether or not the soul is reunited with a physical body, or whether or not it is destroyed for the unrighteous (Egyptian parallels here), it seems everyone has one, at least for a time. Even Eastern religions have this concept of a life force that is particular to the individual, whether it is “recycled” through reincarnation or eventually absorbed into a universal “Brahman”.

    Personally, I think this belief in an individual soul of some sort is intrinsic to all humans, and can’t be explained simply through cultural contacts alone. Whatever else we know, we know first and foremost that we are conscious beings, and we also sense that there exists something which is greater than us and connects us all.

  5. Avatar
    blclaassen  October 31, 2018

    This makes sense in the context of a Jewish Jesus who wouldn’t have the more modern Christian concept of Hell as a place of eternal torture. I have to wonder if this carries at its roots the early Christian belief of two separate gods – the evil Creator god who made the Earth as a trap for lost souls, tearing his people to pieces for disobedience, and the loving father of Jesus who wanted to save us from the first god. After all, eternal torture is not “punishment” with the goal of correction, it is pure sadism which would not put Jesus’ God in a favorable light.

  6. Avatar
    godspell  October 31, 2018

    Jesus isn’t concerned with punishment. Punishment doesn’t change anything. He just wants the negative personalities removed from the mix. People who are honest, peaceful, and compassionate are always going to be at a relative disadvantage with regards to those who are selfish violent liars. And since he believes the way to the Kingdom is to be not just ordinarily decent, but exceptionally so–putting them at even more of a disadvantage–he wants to believe that God will arrange things so that behaviors that would normally be disadvantageous will be made advantageous. Virtue will no longer have to be its own reward. And the fact that such people practiced such virtue when surrounded by its antithesis will make them all the more worthy.

    To wish eternal pain on the goats would be an act of hate, and Jesus believes we have to get rid of the hate and anger inside of us in order to be worthy of the Kingdom. Only a goat would wish such a thing. A sheep would only wish these people would mend their ways–and respond to their evil with good.

    However, he himself is not perfect. He sees how life could be–and how it is. He knows who is responsible. Natural disasters, plagues, earthquakes, famines, floods–just part of life. We should feel no more resentment for this than the lilies of the field or the birds of the air. This is merely a testing ground for the Kingdom. And nobody was ever promised a perfect life when they were born.

    But human evil is unique in all of nature–to behave as if your fellow beings are only there for you to exploit and torment, even when you don’t need to do so in order to survive–that is something that enrages and frustrates him. Such behavior not only harms the good people–it tempts them to abandon the path they’ve chosen, go against their natures. Evil begets evil. They drag others down with them.

    Therefore, even though it is in a sense a contradiction of how he tells us to be, he wishes this much harm upon the goats–that they know one moment of anguish, as they realize they have doomed themselves to destruction, have led themselves to slaughter. But then they will know peace. And the world will be tormented by them no more.

    Though I don’t know for a fact this is exactly what Jesus envisioned (we can’t know that), and he may well have had other ideas about what would happen to the goats, I don’t find this vision the least bit hard to understand.

    It is a great temptation.

  7. Avatar
    PBS  October 31, 2018

    Good article. Thank you, Dr. Ehrman.

    Many (perhaps most?) who hold the predominant Eternal Conscious Torment View of Hell (ECT) do so on the basis of the alleged evolution of the term “Gehenna.” While they admit that Gehenna referred to national judgment in the OT, they argue that during the Intertestamental Period (IP) Gehenna came to be understood as individual eschatological judgment (e.g. from works like 2 Esdras).

    (Question p. 1): So are we to accept the notion that non-canonical /non-inspired writers of the IP discovered the true nature of the afterlife and yet none of the inspired OT writers ever did? (this would even include the NT writers if we do not assume they meant ECT when they spoke of Gehenna).

    (Question p. 2): What is your assessment of this primary argument of the ECT camp?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 2, 2018

      1. In the OT Gehenna usually just refers to a valley owned by the sons of Hinnom. It was a place of human (child) sacrifice, and so took on nefarious connotations; 2. I think they are precisely wrong. I deal with the matter in my new book (almost finished!) on where the ideas of Heaven and Hell come from.

  8. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  November 1, 2018

    What a great paradigm shift – no eternal damnation for unfortunate sinners, only annihilation. A major weapon removed from the verbal arsenal of fire & brimstone preachers. It never made sense anyway – a finite life on earth punished by unimaginable torture for infinity.
    A convenient later addition to Christian theology?

  9. Avatar
    caesar  November 1, 2018

    What about weeping and gnashing of teeth? Doesn’t that imply at least a conscious afterlife, even if it’s finite?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 2, 2018

      Yup, people are *extremely* upset when they see they are headed for a painful destruction.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  November 2, 2018

        why do you think that ?

        1) there is no clear indication that the gnashing of teeth is related to their expectation in IMMANENT “PAINFUL DESTRUCTION”, rather gnashing of teeth is usually portrayed as recognition of PRIOR un-requitable errors. it seems to me

        2) Don’t those who commit suicide actually refute this. their preference being annihilation as opposed to continual pain and/or regret which they imagine will never abate (e.g. Judas)

        • Bart
          Bart  November 4, 2018

          Why do I think people headed for painful destruction are extremely upset? I’m not sure what you’re asking. Why does someone who knows he is going to be burned at the stake tomorrow morning find that upsetting?

          • tompicard
            tompicard  November 4, 2018

            the text gives no indication that their anguish is due to their expectation of being burned up tomorrow (or the next day).

          • tompicard
            tompicard  November 4, 2018

            Ok i guess matt 13:42 indicates that the gnashing of teeth will be IN the fiery furnace,.

            Other verses say the gnashing of teeth will be due to being in outer darkness,
            another passage says the gnashing of teeth will be merely because the person isn’t invited to the same venue as Abraham. etc, etc

            the only point in common in all these ALLEGORIES is the regret of the sinner has at his past foolishness. (ie you are taking it too literally)

      • tompicard
        tompicard  November 3, 2018

        . . . IMMINENT “PAINFUL . .”

    • Avatar
      godspell  November 2, 2018

      It’s not an afterlife, though. Even those who enter the Kingdom aren’t really in the afterlife, because they haven’t died–going by what Jesus is reported to have said, they may never die. How can there be an afterlife without death?

      Nor is there afterlife for the goats, because as the sheep have been granted eternal life, the goats have been granted eternal death–oblivion, not torment (Buddhists say that oblivion is the goal all living beings should seek, but Buddhists are weird).

      They just have a short period of anguish and (perhaps) remorse, as they are forced to recognize that they and they alone have been the authors of their destruction. That if they had not lived lives of selfishness, lust, and violence, for the purpose of having a better material existence than those around them, they could have lived forever in a happy realm where everyone is equal and at peace, and nobody needs to exploit anyone else.

      To which I suppose some might say they don’t see the point of such an existence. I suppose that might be the point. 😉

  10. Avatar
    markdeckard  November 2, 2018

    As a person exploring Universalism as a more unified theory on the afterlife, I would be interested in how you synthesize the gehenna/annialation verses with the eternal punishment (aionios kolasis) ones.
    Also do you grant creedence to the objection to aionios as meaning forever vs age lasting?
    Thank you sir.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2018

      I’ll try to lay that out in my book, but I don’t take a stand there on the (debated) meaning of aionios.

  11. Avatar
    Tricia  November 3, 2018

    Is there any evidence that Jesus supported the idea of a bodily resurrection at some later time? Where did that idea come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2018

      Yes, he clearly did (see Mark 12:18-27). He got it from the popular views of his time, that are “apocalyptic” in their orientation, views that started up within Judaism about 200 years earlier and were widespread in his time. (Search for “apocalypticism” here on the blog.)

      • Avatar
        Tricia  November 4, 2018

        I’ve always seen this passage as Jesus’ clever way to avoid the Sadducees attempts to trap him. They didn’t believe in an afterlife (as you know) and by setting up the many wives scenario they figured he’d be cornered with absurdity. But he sidestepped it with, what I see, as an interesting glimpse into continuing life–there is no marriage. Also, I’ve always thought verse 27 (He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living) actually again is showing that people continue on–that Moses and Abraham and Isaac continue living. This response doesn’t really support holding them in a state of non consciousness for some future mass resurrection.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 5, 2018

          It’s hard to know how to interpret that part of it, I agree. But my point is that he did think there was to be a future resurrection (somehow)

          • Avatar
            Tricia  November 7, 2018

            The “somehow” of that resurrection is something that I’ve spent a lot of time and thought on. And that’s resulted in the ebook, “Can Reincarnation and NDE’s be Christian?” It traces the spiritual impulse behind OT passages and Hebrew words into some of the arcane (and doctrinally misapplied) statements that Jesus is quoted as saying in the Gospel of John.

  12. Avatar
    truthfirst  November 28, 2018

    Bart, interesting though your article is, perhaps you can let me know how “annihilation” squares with other NT verses that tell us “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). Jesus we are told says, “EVERY ONE will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49). And the fire will try every man’s work 1 Corinthians 2:13-15. Obviously, these are not meant to be taken literally, but it seems to me there is a sort of purification process that ALL must go through that burns up the “chaff” in us so in the end God reconciles ALL. Several NT scriptures show this. Moreover, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and 1 John 4:7 informs us that God is love. What say ye?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 28, 2018

      My view is that the NT does not have one consistent portrayal of what happens at the end. There are certainly hints of universal salvation, especially in Paul. And lots of indications of future annihilation (“consuming fire” is a fire that destroys what it burns, for example).

      • Avatar
        truthfirst  November 28, 2018

        Thank you for your prompt reply. I agree that the NT does not portray one consistent and uniform presentation of what happens at the end. However, perhaps some credence could be given to the application of “progressive revelation” wherein God can change and even abolish his law as he sees fit with the last disclosures having precedence. I concur that “consuming fire” is a fire that destroys what it burns. But it’s clearly a metaphor showing that God will burn up all works that are combustible in us. Paul makes it plain that the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. And if a man’s work is made of incombustible building blocks, he would receive a reward. But if any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.

  13. Avatar
    craig@corbettlaw.org  January 7, 2019

    Saw this and was reminded of your latest work. Shelby Spong interview.

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