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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 118-19.
 Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006), 144-45.
 Ibid, 149-50.