What was Jesus’ personality like? If our culture were to create Jesus’ personae, it might look like Mr. Rogers’s personality:[i] gentle, unassuming, two-dimensionally meek and mild. In short, a sweet pushover of a man. There is truth in our culture’s depicture. When sharing the nature of his heart, Jesus says that he is “gentle and lowly” (Mt 11:29) So he is. He is patient and merciful. He is kind and caring.
Jesus was the first and greatest fire and brimstone preacher. He referenced hell more than any other figure in Scripture.
How do we make sense of Jesus being gentle and lowly and yet seemingly obsessed with preaching on hell? Why does Jesus preach about a place of eternal damnation and fire where “the worm never dies” (Mk 9:48), and there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13:42)?
Is Jesus not as gentle and lowly as he claims to be? Certainly not, for that would make him a liar. But what we find in Jesus is the incredible coupling of compassion and courage.
Why does Jesus bring up hell?
First, Jesus speaks of hell to warn us of the danger of our flesh.
Jesus cautions us that we ought not underestimate where our judgmental hearts and sharp tongues can lead us: “And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matt 5:22).
Jesus warns us of the power of lust in our lives, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt 5:29). Jesus isn’t advocating mutilation; he intentionally uses strong language to communicate the serious danger of lust. This is the most frequent lesson Jesus draws from when referencing hell. He also commands the same call to action of our hands and our feet as they are directed by our lust.
Jesus alerts the slothful and undutiful of the danger they are placing their souls in when he speaks of a servant set over his master’s house. “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 24:50-51).
Second, Jesus speaks about hell to warn us of the danger of hypocrisy.
Jesus alerts the religious that their place in heaven is not reserved because of their heritage. When meeting a Roman Centurion with faith, Jesus says, “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, ‘Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matt 8:10-12).
Jesus informs his hearers that it might not be obvious from appearances who is righteous in this life. In his parable about the weeds, Jesus says, “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matt 13:41-43).
Such religiosity without true faith can lead others to hell. Jesus cautions, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” (Matt 23:15). And again, he proclaims, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt 23:33).
Our personal beliefs about God are inconsequential if our faith is not lived out. Jesus says, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life’” (Matt 25:41-43, 46).
Finally, Jesus speaks about hell because he does not want us to be surprised by the consequences of our choices.
Jesus directly warns that the concerns we feel toward the rulers in this world is of no comparison to facing the mighty King of Kings. He says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28).
In the parable of the wedding feast, where some take the invitation to the wedding flippantly, Jesus does not mince words, “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” Matt 22:11-13).
Similarly, in the parable of the steward, Jesus records the master’s response to the steward who is irresponsible and fearful by making no return on the talent given him by the master, “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matt 25:28-30).
So, why hell?
There’s a fair amount of preaching today that steers clear of hell. “Don’t preach on hell because it makes God seem angry.” “Don’t preach on hell because we don’t want to scare people into heaven.”
In reality, it would be unloving not to preach on hell. We must preach out of the well of God’s compassion and mercy with an invitation to Jesus’s Kingdom. We don’t preach on hell because we believe that the best way to move people to Christ is through fear. We preach on hell because we take God’s at his word that judgment awaits those who reject him.
While we preach on hell, we ought to preach on heaven too. Jesus did and so should we. The reality of hell reminds us of the trap of our flesh, the dangers of hypocrisy, and of the final judgment to come. If Jesus believed preaching on hell was loving and gracious, then I do too.
[i] For the record, I think Mr. Rogers’s life beautifully demonstrated the love of Christ in many ways. In our contentious and divisive world, his commitment to gentleness and kindness was and remains Christ-exalting.