What Did Jesus Teach About Hell? Is it eternal, conscious, torment?

November 21, 2011

“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; . . . 46. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25.41, 46 (NRSV)

 Craig S. Keener comments on this pericope in his New Testament Background Commentary in this way:

25:41-45. Some Jewish traditions (like Qumran War Scroll) report that Belial (Satan) was created for the pit; destruction was not God’s original purpose for people (4 Ezra 8:59-60). In many Jewish traditions, the demons were fallen angels (cf. comment on 2 Pet. 2:4). Jewish tradition was divided on the duration of hell; this passage’s description of it as “eternal” was certainly not merely a concession to a universal image in Judaism.

25:46. Eternal life was promised to the righteous after their resurrection at the end of the age (Dan. 12:2). Some Jewish teachers believed that hell was temporary and that at the end some people would be burned up and others released; other Jewish teachers spoke as if hell were eternal. Jesus here sides with the latter group.[1]

This begs the question; what did Jesus believe about what has been labeled the eternal conscious torment doctrine of hell (the Traditional teaching)? According to Keener, and in this particular dominical teaching of Jesus; Jesus held to the belief that hell (or the after-life separated from participation with God through Christ [my gloss]) does indeed articulate that there is a literal hell that involves eternal conscious torment. As the quote from Keener also illustrates, the Jewish context in which Jesus taught as a Rabbi was not monolithic on this doctrine; it is just that Jesus appropriated and taught the strand that articulated that hell fits with what today would be called the traditional view.

In concert with this assessment, none other than The Evangelical Universalist, Gregory MacDonald (aka Robin Parry) holds that the dominical (Jesus’) teaching is consistent with Keener’s perspective; that is that Jesus taught that hell was eternal conscious torment. Note MacDonald,

[G]ehenna was a place of punishment and fire but beyond that was generally left unexplained. When we find Jesus drawing on the idea of Gehenna, we must remember that it was not a clearly worked out concept. Beyond its being a place of fiery punishment for the wicked, the details, if anyone wanted to fill them in, were up for grabs. That said, I think that it is quite clear that Jesus’ contemporaries would not have thought the he was a universalist of any variety. To the traditionalist this settles the case, but I think that there is more to be said. I want to argue, first of all, that none of Jesus’ recorded teachings about Gehenna explicitly affirm the notion that it was everlasting; and nothing Jesus is recorded to have said rules out the possibility that some or all of its inhabitants may at some point come to salvation. I am not trying to show that Jesus taught universalism nor that he taught that those in Gehenna could or would be saved, for he did neither. My aim is the much more modest one of showing that what he did teach does not formally contradict universalist claims. This, of course, does not provide any reason to suppose that a universalist interpretation of Gehenna is biblical without substantive additional reasons for embracing such an interpretation. My second task is to show that we do have such reasons.[2]

MacDonald helps reinforce Keener’s commentary, that indeed Jesus taught the Jewish tradition (amongst the many available, just as there are many available today for Christians—but not viable for most Christians) that there is a literal place in the life after life (to borrow Wright’s quip) known as hell; and that this will be a place that is characterized by final eternal conscious torment.

So this represents the dominical teaching; the teaching that Jesus taught. But this does not serve as a death knell for ‘Evangelical Universalists’; as MacDonald notes. For Jesus, in his context, the teaching that hell was eternal could very well have been “just” for his particular context. In other words, as MacDonald later contends, Jesus’ pronouncement on this topic could have been  to reinforce the severity of God’s judgment; and yet at the same time, not intending to be the last word on it. MacDonald writes:

[W]e should not suppose that, because Jesus did not explicitly teach universal salvation or explicitly repudiate the idea that many people would never experience salvation, universalism is an un-Christian idea incompatible with Jesus’ ministry. If later revelation leads in universalist directions, as I have argued it does, then we need to understand the ministry of Christ in that light. It is the whole canonical story that we examined in Chapters Two to Four that forms the broader theological context within which we must understand Jesus’ teachings about Gehenna, and it is that very context that serves to modify some of the understandings of it common in Jesus’ own day.[3]

For MacDonald, for Jesus not to teach universalism does not mitigate the fact that the whole scope and sweep of the canonical teaching does in fact teach a Christian universalism. We will have to redress this at another time.

Conclusion

The question that I have been seeking to answer through this short piece has been “What did Jesus believe and teach about the view of hell that involves eternal conscious torment; did he teach this view or not?” The result of some cursory (yet I think substantial) musing has been to conclude that Jesus did indeed teach that there is a literal place that has become known as ‘Hell’, and that hell is unfortunately characterized by eternal conscious torment.

This is an important point to establish because it places the burden on those who disagree to disagree with Jesus. Are there ways to do that, and still honor Jesus’ own teaching, and even his person? MacDonald believes that there are, and in fact he thinks he has (found the way).

There are other prominent foci (or focal points) to consider towards helping us understand how to place Jesus’ teaching, in the book of Matthew for example. In other words, there is a strong theological case to be made for a Christian universalism that attends to who God is as Triune Love, full of grace. If God is Love (and he is), then we have to interpret Jesus’ views and teaching on hell through that lens (the lens of the cross, the penultimate expression of his love … the ultimate being his resurrection). MacDonald’s contention to annex Jesus’ teaching to a particular situation he was addressing might have teeth in light of the theological argument; it might leave the door open for a Christian theological reification or classification of hell in ways that might favor something like MacDonald’s Evangelical Universalism. There might be hope. Maybe Jesus didn’t intend his teaching to offer the last word after all; on hell that is.

No matter what, in the end, the conclusion must be that Jesus did teach what some would call the Traditional view of hell as ‘eternal conscious torment’. How one places that, in its ‘universal scope’ is what still needs to be contended with (MacDonald has, I’m still working on it).

My personal conclusion, at the moment, is that Jesus’ teaching on hell should serve as the standard; I see it with ‘universal force’ and thus am not willing, as of yet, to annex it, or particularize it to his specific audience in the 1st century (which would be what MacDonald does, amongst others). I continue to hold to the trad teaching, but I also am willing to hold out that once we are present with the LORD in the consummation that he could surprise us in keeping with his life of grace and love.


[1] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 118-19.

[2] Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006), 144-45.

[3] Ibid, 149-50.

16 Responses to “What Did Jesus Teach About Hell? Is it eternal, conscious, torment?”


  1. Yes, I’d be in the same place as you in terms of conclusions – anchored by the words of Jesus, but open to be surprised. Thanks for this

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  2. Bobby Grow Says:

    Matthew,

    I am glad to hear I’m not alone :-) … thank you.

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  3. kenny chmiel Says:

    AWESOME POST B. I think I come out where you are.

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  4. Duane Says:

    Yeah, me too. To me, if Keener is right, that there was factionalism in contemporary Judaism, then it appears that Jesus firmly placed truth on one side. Otherwise, what are we to do with His picking sides between the Pharisees and Saducees regarding the resurrection?
    I’m quite confident that the only way I would find that God had saved everyone, is if it turned out that every last soul recognized his error and recognized his Savior at the latest, in the last instant of life (whether physically conscious or unconscious) before their brain finally shut down. So, from the moment Hitler pulled the trigger to the moment his brain became a slushy, He had to realize “Oops!”. Plausible. Possible? Only God knows. In the traditional view, “It is appointed once for a man to die, and then the judgement” carries a great deal of weight, and so too with me.
    I’m not offended by the discussion. It’s interesting to toss this stuff around. I also actually worry about the “huddled masses” who appear to have never had opportunity to accept or reject Jesus. I would like to think that come (h)ell or high water, the Gospel (Jesus) was available to every soul.

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  5. Wayne Says:

    Thoughtful and provocative post – I do have a couple of observations:
    1. If we take Jesus’ teachings on the whole – and the life he lived as an expression of the Logos that he was and is – we see movements toward and away from such exclusive, prophetical/apocalyptic language. Somehow we must seek to ascertain in the “blur” of these movements what is Truth. For instance, – it could be insisted that he demands of us that we “hate” father and mother – but, moving into a place of dialectical tension – he demands that we love – even our enemies.
    In one place he paints an “impossible” picture of salvation for the rich – The disciples are astonished – “Who then CAN be saved?” – then Jesus, the “darting illumination” (as Lewis called him*), reverses: “With man it is impossible – But with God all things are possible.”
    2. In your post – and the quotations cited – no consideration is given to the apparently amorphous, shape-shifting word, aionos. After much research, I remain unconvinced that this word must and can only be correctly translated, “eternal”. And if you change that word – in a sense, you change everything.
    Thanks again!
    ———————
    *C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, ch 11, para 13, p 119
    “Yet it is, perhaps, idle to speak here of the spirit and letter. There is almost no ‘letter’ in the words of Jesus. Taken by a literalist, He will always prove the most elusive of teachers. Systems cannot keep up with that darting illumination. No less wide a net than a man’s whole heart, nor less fine of mesh than love, will hold the sacred Fish.”

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  6. Bobby Grow Says:

    @Wayne,

    2) I am aware of the amorphous nature and fluidity and semantic relativity of all language not just aionos. So then, the next question is how does the exegete determine which part of the semantic range should be used in deciphering the intention of the word being used? The answer of course is context, context, context. Context of usage determines meaning. So then, that’s why it is important, as I highlighted with this post, to develop and understand how 1st century Jewish usage of such words and concepts would have been understood. I think given that context, there really is no question which way we should understand Jesus’ teaching on Hell as eternal conscious torment. Your only way around this, is what I underscored in the post by appealing to Robin Parry’s work on Evangelical Universalism; and I’m not buying that. I think the stronger case for a Evangelical Universalism flows from an approach that J.A.T Robinson articulated; i.e. starting with a theological discussion of the nature of God. That’s why in my conclusion to this post I said that I am willing to be surprised in the eschaton on this by God. But as the Text stands I don’t think anyone can dogmatically hold that Jesus, himself, believed or taught that hell was not eternal conscious torment … that moves beyond the particular context of Jesus’ teaching and his situadedness within Second Temple Judaism.

    1) I don’t disagree that dialectic should be used as a hermeneutical methodology. But the passages you cite, I don’t think require the kind of dialecticism that you attribute to them. When Jesus said to ‘hate’ he obviously, per the parallel passage in Matthew was referring to a priority of relationship using hyperbole … so this does not, I think, require an appeal to dialectic or illustrate that in the way you suggest. But, yes, I do agree that the God of the Bible in Christ is the God of the possible impossibility; amen to that!

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  7. Wayne Says:

    Believe me – I deeply appreciate even the fact that you replied to my post, and your erudition is obvious. But let me take exception to your exceptions :), if I may:

    1. There seems to be a bit of circular reasoning going on here – since Jesus used the word “eternal” he must be placed within that tradition that held to eternal conscious torment. To me, that begs the question, for the very reason that “eternal” is not definitely the translation demanded by what we really know (from the text OR the context).
    Per your citation, “Jewish tradition was divided on the duration of hell” – If Jesus was a member of the ECT tradition, then I wonder, for instance, why the word aidios* wasn’t used to convey that with greater precision? Is it absolutely outrageous to consider the the Greek word (which is inherently limited in terms of time*) – was used to “hint” at Jesus being a member of the temporal punishment school? I don’t know – but it seems an open question to me.
    2. While I see the great benefit of understanding Jesus in terms of second temple Judaism, insofar as Jesus “theologized” – will we allow for any degree of creativity in this passage – perhaps a somewhat new and nuanced prophetic picture of the judgment to come? Or are we bound by some sort of hermeneutical pre-commitment to fit him precisely into one “school” or another?
    3. I know I paint with a large brush – but, it occurs to me that there are some things that can’t be seen if we are too “close” (woods for trees, etc.) – and it just might be true that it can be legitimately said that there is a sense of dialectical tension writ large over the teachings of Christ. I don’t wish to disparage our heavily modern/western techniques of doing scholarly work – but, some things are so large they cannot be perceived by too close of a reductionistic analysis. The passage in question (Matthew 25:46) cannot be used to unequivocally say “Jesus (simply and only) believed and taught eternal conscious torment”. That may be true – but, in my humble opinion, it remains open to question.
    4. “Context” is a word that can be used to cover a multitude of hermeneutical sins. It IS incredibly important and non-negotiable. But I have heard “context” used to sweep away any and every grounds for the possibility of a universalistic hope – even in the Pauline corpus. Taken to far, it would be like a heart surgeon insisting he must exhaustively understand the physiology of the entire human body before he could proceed with a life-saving heart transplant. If the “context” exhausts our epistemological resources – the finality of our interpretation on one verse has to remain somewhat tentative – especially when a word like aionos -which inherently leans heavily toward a limited time-frame – is used – and translated “eternal”.

    Thanks again for engaging me on this!
    —————–

    *Helena Maria Keizer – Life Time Entirety. A Study of AION in Greek Literature and Philosophy, the Septuagint and Philo
    Ilaria Ramelli, David Konstan – Terms for eternity: aiônios and aïdios in classical and Christian texts

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  8. Bobby Grow Says:

    @Wayne,

    Who art thou? Please tell me before we go any further. I sense and can appreciate your erudition as well; so … who art thou? I will engage what you have offered, further; but only if you answer my question ;-) . [I just like to know who I am talking to once we get beyond 1st comments]

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  9. Bobby Grow Says:

    Wayne, never mind; I know who you are, and I am honored (humbled) that you have spent any time at all interacting with me. I will respond to your points, which are good ones; I’ll be back later :-) .

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  10. Bobby Grow Says:

    @Wayne,

    1) What makes you think that the text or context does not demand the trad interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on this? Robin Parry (as my quotes in the body of the post demonstrate) thinks that Jesus would have been understood as a ‘traditionalist’ (to speak anachronistically).

    2) Yes, I think we can and should allow for interpretive creativity; but then this could end up being just as circular as you suggest about the trad view in your point #1. I.e. why can’t the creative nuanced interpretation be the trad interpretation ;-) ?

    3) I still sense that Jesus’ teaching was quite clear in his original context on the ETC view of hell. It is true, granted, that there is some semantic ambiguity in the word aionos, and aidia would have been a more clear cut way to go (but I don’t think we want to engage in what DA Carson has called the technical language fallacy on this either). And so, this is why my conclusion, in the body of the post leaves open my willingness to be surprised by God.

    4) You’re right, for sure, Wayne on context being used too quickly sometimes (too easily). I agree, context still requires an orientation; I take the orientation of Scripture to be Jesus and the Godself revealed in Christ. And so again, this is why I am willing to ultimately be surprised by God according to his life of grace and love revealed in Jesus Christ (John 1.14). But, I still hold, at the moment that the text, pace Jesus’ teaching, teaches Eternal Conscious Torment (unfortunately). I just can’t get over that, Wayne. Thank you for your patience :-) .

    You are Wayne K. Clymer (http://evangelicaluniversalist.blogspot.com/ , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayne_K._Clymer); right? I am honored to have you here at the blog, Wayne. A man of your stature, and faithful witness to Jesus Christ over the years is a great testimony, and of great encouragement to me! Thank you, Wayne! Blessings!!

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  11. Wayne Says:

    Bobby – there are times (increasing in ratio to ones longevity) when one wishes to be someone else – and right now I wish I were Rev.Clymer – and could be deserving your admiration and respect. But, alas – as “one born out of due time” – I am the least among the reverends :) .

    My name is Wayne Fair. I am 57 years old, husband for 37 years to Patricia, father of four – grandfather of 10. I have an M.Div from Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), pastored for several years in the PCA, but am currently “tent making” as a computer programmer at the University of Alabama.

    And – by simple theological calculus, you can tell the trajectory of my journey has taken me somewhat off the beaten path of my (former) tradition.

    I would genuinely love to answer the questions you posed to me – if (after this humbling disclosure of my true, nondescript identity) you still want to continue the dialogue.

    Irregardless of this -please know how much I appreciate your “balance” – as well as you depth. So many of the issues you engage with desperately need someone with your vitality and incisive skills to raise questions – offer alternatives – all the while with openness and epistemic humility. Thank you!

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  12. Wayne Says:

    I have read (with admiration) Dr. Parry’s book. But I do not capitulate to the ETC translation without a bit more resistance. As briefly as I can put it, when a word has what could be called a “natural” usage – the context will have to controvert that usage to make me demur from that usage/meaning. It’s really very simple – and I hope I am in fact not being simplistic. But, as I have said before, if you change the meaning of that word “everything changes” as far as the implications of the text in question are concerned. But, the word aionos is conditioned by that which it alludes to. To quote D. Bloesch,

    “Heaven, like hell, is eternal, and yet we should remember that the Greek words aidios and aionion do not mean ‘endless’ so much as ‘agelong’ or ‘belonging to the ages’. They refer to the quality more than to the length [of time]…” (pg.229 Essentials…v.2)

    The upshot of all of this (and I could drone on!) is not that my position “demands” the NON-trad interpretation – but that we may have to withhold judgment – and remain agnostic as to whether the text can actually yield any definitive or final interpretation.

    Consider this sentence – “some were given the payment of punishment – the others, the payment of life”. The point here is simply that the word “payment”, while the same word – carries very different nuances in relation to the words which they modify.

    I believe that just as Paul “absorbed” certain stoic notions into his expression of the Gospel – so Jesus was as likely to modify established positions toward the end of preaching the Kingdom of God, and the consequences for not embracing that Kingdom.

    Regarding your second point – I agree – but the operative word is “could” – not “demands”.
    To the third point – the technical language fallacy (as I understand it) would seem to involve trying to ascribe a meaning to a word (through the amassing of citations from other contexts) that is otherwise and typically foreign to it. The context – historical, textual or otherwise, just doesn’t seem compelling to me to relinquish the “natural” (and ambiguous) meaning of aionos.
    One big problem I have with the translation of aionos to the word “eternal” is that it in no way reflects the ambiguity of the word “aeon”. “Eternity” just means “eternity” – whatever the context. “Age” (like the Hebrew word “olam”) could be as brief as a life-time (even briefer in the LXX where Jonah is in the belly of the fish for “olam”) or much, much longer. But it still has a “horizon” circumscribing it.

    Finally, thank YOU for your patience! My “orientation” is (obviously) still evolving – but, I hope it preeminently reflects God overarching redemptive purpose in Christ:

    “For God had allowed us to know the secret of his plan, and it is this: he purposes in his sovereign will that all human history shall be consummated in Christ [summed up in Him], that everything that exists in Heaven or earth shall find its perfection and fulfillment in him.” Eph. 1:10 Phillips

    Thanks again, Bobby!

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  13. Bobby Grow Says:

    Hi Wayne,

    As I said ;-) , I am honored and humbled to have you here (even if you’re not Wayne Clymer ;-) ). Thank you for letting me know a little more about you, I appreciate that!

    I am a fan, in general, of Bloesch; that quote is helpful, but of course not decisive! I actually think though that the Tradition should carry more weight for you than it apparently is. I am not willing to simply move too quickly past that as if it doesn’t matter or have anything of exegetical significance to contribute to this.

    It is true that aeon has relative significance per its durative value; but if it is relative to God’s life (or the shadow side of God’s life, so to speak), then that seems to suggest to me that it should indeed, theologically interpreted, carry with it the idea of un-ending (or eternal, like Paul’s ‘everlasting destruction’).

    Anyway, I am more open to this than many who are trad, Wayne; and I just might have the tension that my friend Jason Goroncy describes (for his chapter in Parry’s edited book) as present in PT Forsyth’s view on this issue. Thanks for engaging this with me, as well; in a thoughtful and irenic manner.

    Blessings, Bobby.

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  14. Wayne Says:

    Somewhere between “There is nothing new under the sun” and the Puritan, John Robinson’s observation, “the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.” must lie wisdom. Please don’t misunderstand me – on the occasion that I do still get to preach, I do NOT preach Universalism. As one Barth (not Karl) once said, “Anyone who doesn’t hope for universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass.” And, believe me – the Tradition (by which I take you to mean Protestant, Reformed?) weighs heavily upon me.
    By taking the side of a larger Hope (in my comments posted here) – I do so only provisionally with the desire that as I dialogue I will understand better. In no way do I dismiss the fact the the vast majority of minds far more capable than my own have come down decidedly on the side of eternal, conscious torment for those who failed to minister to the brethren of Christ (to put it very literally and in the context of the passage at hand).

    The single most thorough, scholarly study I have seen on aionos is Helena Maria Keizer’s “Life Time Entirety. A Study of AION in Greek Literature and Philosophy, the Septuagint and Philo”. The last sentence of this book states, “… the following description of Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation of aion makes a good finishing point for now: “Aeon designates temporality, that which occurs within time.” As I have said before, my major “beef” with the verse that heads this conversation and 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is that the word “eternal” always means “eternal” – while “age” is inherently ambiguous – and IF that ambiguity were in our translations, I contend that our “Tradition” and theology would be – at least – slightly different. The most fundamental meaning of a word – even if elastic enough to accommodate myriad nuances – should be preserved. I am (pretty?) convinced that “eternity” does violence to that – and hence, ultimately, to our theology.

    Finally, thanks so much for referring me to the Goroncy/Forsyth chapter. I have just requested it from our library here at the U of A.

    Thanks again, Bobby – for the engaging debate!

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  15. Bobby Grow Says:

    Thank you, Wayne.

    I will have to check out Keizer’s study at some point; thanks for the reference to that! I am glad that you will be reading that chapter by Goroncy; I still need to read the whole of the book too.

    When I say Tradition, I am referring to the ecumenical Tradition, so not just as particular as the Protestant Reformational instantiation and appropriation.

    I appreciate your approach to all of this, Wayne; I think we are very close, actually.

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  16. […] My personal conclusion, at the moment, is that Jesus’ teaching on hell should serve as the standard; I see it with ‘universal force’ and thus am not willing, as of yet, to annex it, or particularize it to his specific audience in the 1st century (which would be what MacDonald does, amongst others). I continue to hold to the trad teaching, but I also am willing to hold out that once we are present with the LORD in the consummation that he could surprise us in keeping with his life of grace and love. [You can read the full article here] […]

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