Now that we have examined every reference to Hell in the NT, we will now synthesize the collective witness and draw some conclusions concerning the NT perspective on Hell and its relationship to human sin.
First, the NT writers employ a variety of vocabulary when speaking of Hell; from Gehenna to Tartarus; from “everlasting destruction” to “night and day torment;” and from “unquenchable fire” to “the lake of fire.” Secondly, there seems to be no conflicting elements concerning Hell in the NT. Whereas one could easily (though wrongly) suggest that there is conflict between Paul and James on the subject of faith and works, there is not even the slightest difference of opinion concerning the NT writers on Hell. As such, many of the individual NT witnesses overlap and in the places where they do not, they seem to fill in the gaps for each other.
Concerning the overlap, Paul, 2 Peter, and Revelation all share a major theme of Hell as vindication from persecution. Another overlap is that of temporality, that is, while not every reference to Hell in the NT mentions a time aspect, those that do always deem it to be unending: “forever and ever,” “everlasting,” “eternal,” and “night and day.” Next, there is a recurring theme of “fire” connected to Hell in the NT and an emphasis of torment and agony is closely linked with these flames. Lastly, there seems to be an overlap between Jesus and James about words, that is, a poor choice of words can incur Hell-fire since this evil speech comes from Hell. As such, only the traditional interpretation of Hell holds water because there is not even a hint of universalism, conditional immortality, annihilationism, or purgatory among the NT witnesses.
On the whole, as already stated upfront, the NT by and large does not speak of Hell very often. This is probably due to the fact that these documents were primarily written to Christians, both communities and individuals. Naturally, then, the NT writers focus upon the positive afterlife for Christians, encouraging them to press forward towards the great and glorious future that God has for his people. Moreover, many of these communities were undergoing great trials and persecutions, and in several of these instances, Hell is used by the NT authors to comfort and assure their hearers that God will vindicate them and punish with Hell those who harmed them.
So at this point, you are probably begging the question, “Well who then goes to Hell according to the NT writers?” By now, I hope that it is clear that according to the NT all of sinful humanity does not go to and is not condemned to Hell simply because they are sinful humans. Rather, the NT across the boards makes clear that the consequence for human sinful actions results in the penalty of death. So if not all of humanity, then who? While this may be a poorly directed question, the NT does in fact pinpoint a variety of specific people who do specific sinful actions that have real potential for gaining a negative afterlife. These include (1) those who worship idols, (2) those who join in Satan’s rebellion against God, (3) those who persecute Christians, (4) hypocritical religious elites, (5) those who cause little ones to stumble, (6) those who speak angrily and insultingly about fellow Christian brothers and sisters, and (7) those who lust sexually.
Now the point of this is not to make this list into a sort of “keep the ten commandments” thing. In other words, this is not meant to lead us to legalistically make sure that we never do any of those seven aforementioned sins, thinking that avoiding them earns us a positive afterlife (As a side note, it really wouldn’t be a bad idea if we amended the seven deadly sins to the list above). Rather, all of this goes to show that Hell is not what all humans innately deserve as sinners as so many today and throughout much of Christian history have espoused. Instead, the NT teaches that the divine punishment for human sin is death.
So let me say this again, “You’re not going to Hell!” At least not for sinning and being a sinner. The consequence for you and me being sinners is that we will die and not live in this present body forever. The incredible good news therefore is that God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, has defeated death and will eradicate death, disease, decay, suffering, evil, hunger, and pain when he raises the dead at Christ’s glorious second advent. Paul put it best when he said, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26).
So what does all of this mean for 21st century Christian preachers, teachers, evangelists, and ministers? On the whole, I think that this means that we need to stop majoring in the minors, and let the main thing be the main thing, that is, stop focusing on the negative afterlife of Hell and start focusing on the positive afterlife of resurrection as the NT writers did.
For preaching, I think that this means that we need to reclaim the proclamation of the resurrection and get a handle on NT eschatology. This could start by a sermon series on resurrection and the end times, and hopefully this would spurn interest among the congregation and help you to integrate eschatology long-term into your preaching. Honestly, I think that many preachers today are simply ill-equipped and ill-informed on eschatology and this often leads to preachers ignoring or shying away for the topic(s) altogether. So, to the preachers, I would say research and get a grip on the end, especially the resurrection. Focus upon the glory that is coming when Christ returns with your congregants, not upon the negative afterlife. This is what Paul did with his congregations and who could say that his preaching and pastoral ministry was ineffective? Some great resources for a starting point are N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope and The Resurrection of the Son of God, and also Ben Witherington III’s Revelation and the End Times and his Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World.
For teaching, I think this means that there is a great deal of correction that needs to be done in our thinking about the afterlife, especially about people’s final destinations. It seems that the faith of many Christians today is founded upon this belief that Hell is the punishment for sin and Jesus saves them from Hell because they have asked for forgiveness for their sin. So in order to avoid being iconoclastic, teachers need to approach correcting these wrong views with a spirit of gentleness and must tread lightly. This should be done in small doses taking baby steps, especially for those that hold to this worldview. Moreover, there needs to be more research, writing, and lectures upon the resurrection and simply eschatology in general at Christian universities and seminaries. More courses need to be offered on eschatology at our Christian institutions that train pastors and evangelists.
For evangelism, I think that this means that Hell should stop being the motivation for evangelists to preach the gospel and it should stop being the motivation for people to receive Jesus Christ as Savior. First off, the NT evangelists never proclaim the gospel from such motivations and actually never even mention Hell in their gospel kerygma. What is more, people who receive the gospel in the NT never become Christians because they are afraid of going to Hell. Honestly, this “scare-the-Hell-out-of-you” tactic is based upon fear and fear does not cultivate and foster the kind of commitment and devotion that we want Christians to have for Christ. In actuality, it creates bad disciples and often results in evangelists leaving their converts hanging who don’t know what to do after they have “gotten saved.” Not only that, but this fear rhetoric of scaring people into doing something is unethical and manipulative.
Furthermore, far too often, evangelism today that uses Hell sounds more like bad news than good news: “You have sinned against God, therefore you deserve Hell. Jesus died for your sins to save you from Hell. Therefore, ask him to forgive your sins and he will save you from Hell.” This approach really makes humans out to be monsters who are too lost, too depraved, and too sinful to resemble anything good, godly, or ethical. It misses the first two chapters of Genesis which says that humans were created in and bear the image of God. These chapters indicate that humans, even in their sinfulness, have worth, value, and a capacity for good because they are God’s image. So I think today evangelists should stop spending so much time and effort trying to convince people of the bad news – that they are sinners and are going to Hell (which is not even true according to the NT) – and should rather focus upon a much more compelling narrative, namely, the glory that comes at the eschaton; resurrection glory and the new creation. This is what the NT evangelists focused upon and should be what evangelists today seek to emulate.
For ministry, I think that this means that pastors need to stop treating and thinking about people like they are worthless, hopeless souls destined for Hell and eternal damnation. This is degrading and does not appreciate the image of God in each person. Also, this means that pastors should stop with their agendas of trying to get people saved from Hell. Instead, they should invest in a real relationship with that person and really get to know them. As Paul said to the Thessalonians, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us” (1 Thess 2:8).
Overall, this NT theology of Hell should lead us to stop focusing so much on Hell in our preaching, teaching, evangelism, and ministry not the least of which because it was not a focus of the NT writers. Not only that, but it is extremely rude and offensive for unbelievers to have someone who doesn’t know them tell them that they are sinners who are going to Hell. Honestly, it does more harm than good. While many who do this may do so out of a desire to be committed to the truth, it is actually not true and turns so many people off to Christianity today in the 21st century. Perhaps this “worked” somewhat in the past three centuries, but it will not work today. So let us make the main thing the main thing again. That is not to say that we ignore Hell and never talk about it. But it means that we should talk about it in the same way and same frequency that the NT writers did. The main thing for the NT writers is that death will be defeated by God when he raises the dead at the resurrection when Christ returns. Let us therefore resurrect anastasiology in the 21st century!
Theological Addendum: What about them?
Perhaps you may be wondering at this point, “what about those people who have never heard of Jesus?” or “what about those who have, but rejected him?” While these are very good and complex questions to answer, the honest truth is that the NT does not directly address these questions. We therefore have the difficult task of wrestling with these issues by using the implicit inklings of the Bible on said subjects. Let us first consider the unevangelized who have never heard of Jesus. Giving consideration to all of the references to Hell in the NT, nowhere does it mention the unevangelized going to Hell. Revelation 20:11-15 does however speak of how all will be judged by Christ according to what they’ve done in this life, whether good or bad with some going to the lake of fire and others being spared by God’s mercy having their names written in the book of life. Some call this the “Final Judgment” or more specifically in Revelation “the Great White Throne Judgment.”
Now keep in mind the context here: this is after Christ’s return (19:11-16), the overthrow of the Beast and False Prophet (19:17-21), the Millennial Reign of Christ and the Church (20:1-6), and the final overthrow of Satan (20:7-10). These people who are being judged then seem to be folks who were not Christ followers in this life, given the fact that Jesus’ followers are said to have shared in the “first resurrection” in 20:1-6. So it seems then that the unevangelized may be one possible group of people being mentioned here in Revelation. If so, then the fate of the unevangelized seems to be left up to chance, that is, however one lived in this life determines where he or she goes in the next. In other words, it depends on how a person responded to the light that was given to them and how they sought after and lived out that truth and goodness. In a nutshell, all are responsible and held accountable for what they know and how they lived in accordance to that knowledge. So while the NT may not explicitly flesh out all of the details of what happens to the unevangelized in the afterlife, it seems best to understand from this passage in Revelation that some will be condemned to Hell (the second death) and some given mercy to life (the second resurrection), all of this hinging on what they had done in their lives (20:12).
Now what about those who reject the gospel? Do they go to Hell? Again, in assessing all the references to Hell in the NT, not one of them condemns people to Hell for specifically rejecting the gospel. However, we should not make an argument from silence here regarding this (i.e. just because the NT doesn’t explicitly say this, doesn’t mean it’s not true – there are many important issues that the Bible does not address that we know are true). In addressing this complex question, I think that we must consider two important factors. First, we must consider what gospel we are talking about: Is this the gospel of the forgiveness of sins? Of being saved from Hell? Of the kingdom of God? What gospel? The term gospel today means different things to different people. What I am most concerned with is what the NT authors meant by the gospel – euangelion. While I cannot delve deeply into this here, the gospel in the NT includes the forgiveness of sins, the in-breaking kingdom of God, the righteousness of God, the resurrection of the dead, and the new creation. Note that the NT does not espouse that “being saved from Hell” is an element of the gospel which many today believe to be the end all, be all of the good news. My guess is that many people reject “the gospel” today because of this latter “brand” of the gospel which is far removed from the euangelion of the NT. If people reject this, then I don’t believe that they are rejecting the Trinity, because this is not the gospel according to the NT. However, if they in fact reject the NT gospel, this may very well send them to the lake of fire, though we must consider the other factor before jumping to conclusions.
The second factor to take into account is how the gospel was presented to them: Was it presented in a loving and compelling way, or was it done in fear and a manipulative way? In the NT, fear and manipulation are never how Christians evangelize; rather, they always proclaim the good news with love and they attempted to do so in a compelling and rhetorically convincing way. So all things considered, I would suggest that whether rejecters end up in Hell or not depends on what gospel they heard and how it was presented to them. Below I have summarized four possible scenarios concerning this:
|NT Gospel||(1) Hell
||(2) Determined at Final Judgment|
|Not NT Gospel||(3) Determined at Final Judgment||(4) Not Hell|
Considering scenario 1) if they rejected the NT Gospel proclaimed in a loving, compelling way, then these people will likely experience a negative afterlife in Hell. Considering scenario 2, if they rejected the NT gospel proclaimed with fear tactics and manipulation, then I think that God will determine this at the Final Judgment. This second scenario is somewhat of a 50/50 middle-ground seeing that one part of the preaching was right but the other was not. Considering scenario 3) if they rejected a non-NT gospel proclaimed in a loving, compelling way, then I think that their fate will be determined by the Final Judgment. Like scenario 2, number 3) is also a 50/50 middle-ground seeing that one part of the preaching was right but another was wrong. Considering scenario 4) if they reject a non-NT gospel proclaimed with fear tactics and manipulation, then I think that these people will likely not experience the negative afterlife of Hell.
I believe that these people have a special place in the heart of God, people who have been misinformed about Jesus and the gospel and to a degree have been “abused” by perhaps well-meaning Christians with the name of Jesus and God. How can people who have been abused by the name of Jesus and wrongly informed about the Gospel be expected to receive Jesus and the NT gospel lest they be told the truth by someone who truly understands what the NT Gospel is and are skilled in presenting it in love and tact? I think given these circumstances that God will have great mercy on these people when they go through the Final Judgment, and most likely not send any of these people to Hell.
Overall, I believe that only God knows who will and will not end up in Hell, though this does not mean that he has failed to give us answers through Scripture of who will and who will not. Certainly, the NT speaks strongly about who will incur Hell-fire as I have detailed in the above study. However, God has not made it our job as Christians to go around telling people “You’re going to Hell.” Rather, he has made it our job to testify to the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection and all of what that means for the world and those who follow him. Together may we preach the Gospel in a loving and compelling manner to a desperate and dying world that needs to hear the good news that Jesus has defeated the punishment for our sin, namely, death.