Some sincere persons have a literal view of Scripture that forces them to believe in a literal hell, yet in the privacy of their inner-most thoughts, they wish they did not need to believe in such a fierce God and terrible destiny. On the other hand, there may be just as many Christians who doubt there is a literal hell, yet their doubt leaves them uneasy. I write for all those who doubt as I do, and long for some degree of certainty.
Jesus talked as though hell was a real place where sinners receive the ultimate penalty for sin. This seems so out of character for one so compassionate. Yet, Jesus warned of a destiny for sinners that included weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, and a fire that is not quenched.
Jesus chose the valley of Hinnom or Gehenna as a symbol of hell. In that loathsome valley the heathen had once offered their babies as burnt sacrifices to their gods, and later, the filth of ancient Jerusalem was cast out and burned there. The exact location of this valley is unknown today, other than that it was south of Jerusalem. But, the enigma of why a teacher like Jesus said so much about hell continues to be a burden to the church.
A partial solution to the enigma may be in Jesus’ great sermon on the mount, taken literally as Mennonites are prone to interpret it. Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”(KJV) How Jesus fulfilled the law is instructive. First, note the words of Jesus. He said, “You have heard that it has been said, but I say unto you . . ..” He repeated this critical formula six times in the sermon.
It seems to me that Jesus was supplying something the law lacked. For the most part the law was concerned with sinful acts. The Son of God, as a human being tempted in all points as we are, was privy to the desires and emotions that lead to sins. To lust, Jesus said, was to be guilty of adultery, and to hate was to be guilty of murder. To put deeds not yet done under the law makes more binding a law that could not be kept. No wonder both Old and New Testaments conclude that all have sinned, and that there is none righteous, no not one. You and I know it is true.
Second, an effective law has a penalty attached. Consider specific penalties attached to the civil laws enacted by Moses at Mt. Sinai. A son who hit or cursed his father, a Sabbath breaker, an adulterer, and persons guilty of other such heinous crimes were to be put to death, a penalty common in the Old Testament.
On the other hand, the Old Testament says little about the fate of those who die, revealing only that every one who died went to sheol, consistently translated the “grave”in the NIV and most other modern versions, and described as a dark, shadowy place from which there was no return. Jesus gave the law what it lacked, the ultimate penalty for sin, a hell of fire. He knew the intent of God and the weakness of humankind. All are under condemnation, all are weak, all are lost; we’ve all gone astray, every one of us. No comfort comes from the law.
This generous, creator God gave the law to show us our need for a savior and redeemer, and then gave Jesus to bring the kingdom of heaven on earth. The best loved verse in the Bible begins with, “God so loved the world that he sent . . . ,” and clearly reveals that God loved the world before Jesus came to earth. Jesus illuminated God’s love for people by miracles, parables, acts of kindness, and the simple authoritative sayings that drew the masses to him.
This said, it must be quickly acknowledged that Jesus was not a fan of the law. He came to earth because the law had failed to save one soul, When the disciples of Jesus were criticized for “threshing grain” by hand on the Sabbath day, Jesus reminded the critics that when King David was hungry he ate some holy bread that priests alone were allowed to eat. Jesus justified his seemingly cavalier attitude toward the law by asserting he was the lord of the Sabbath and had the right to make or break Sabbath rules.
Jesus demonstrated that even a law given by Moses and deemed from God should not prevent us from doing good. It was for doing good at the wrong times that Jesus was crucified. He healed the sick on the Sabbath day and ate with sinners and the unclean. He was their friend and everyone knew it. Jesus was perfect, but in the eyes of the hypocrites in power he was not the ideal keeper of the law. To their annoyance he did what they thought that only God could do: He forgave sinners. He was their friend. He ate with them