Jesus talked about hell more than all the other Bible authors combined. Hell is mentioned explicitly 23 times in the New Testament and in 16 of those times, Jesus is the one who utters the words.
He pronounces “eternal fire and punishment” as the final destiny of persons who see the hungry and give them nothing to eat or see the sick and don’t care for them (Matt. 25:41-46). He warns that those who give into sin are in danger of “hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:42-48). Normally when all the flesh is consumed, any maggots die; but the decomposition in hell never ends—their worm does not die. Normally something on fire gets burned up and the fire goes out; but in hell the burning never ends.
Why would Jesus—the Lord of Love, the Author of Grace—talk about a fate that horrible?
Our minds tend to go toward worst case answers:
● Jesus was not as compassionate and wise as us.
● He allowed the brutality and barbarism of his day to rub off on him.
● Or maybe he himself never spoke threats of hell but over-zealous followers put them in his mouth.
But there are also best case answers available:
● If we choose evil we cannot enter the heavenly City.
Out of respect for human dignity, Jesus does not force his values on us—does not force us to behave as residents of heaven behave, to love God with all our being and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. So if we reject the values of heaven, we must go to the “other place.”
C.S. Lewis wrote: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it” (The Great Divorce). Henri Nouwen wrote: “God is love and only love. In God there is no hatred, desire for revenge, or pleasure in seeing us punished. God wants to forgive, heal, restore, show us endless mercy, and see us come home. But just as the father of the prodigal son let his son make his own decision, God gives us the freedom to refuse God’s love, even at the risk of destroying ourselves. Hell is not God’s choice. It is ours” (Bread for the Journey).
● Misery is the out-working of a choice against God and for self.
The agony of hell-fire may be a metaphor for something infinitely worse than fire. We see that self-centeredness brings misery in the long run. The more self-absorbed and self-focused a person is, the more they tend to grumble, complain, and blame others. Relationships break down. Even physical well-being lessens. If we see that amount of misery in this short life, imagine these souls in a billion years. As we start out, we are distinct from our grumbling mood. We may even criticize it in ourselves and wish we could stop it. “But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine” (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce).
Jesus’ images of horror and agony may simply be a description of a chosen path of sinful selfishness going on forever, on a trajectory toward abject misery. Jesus, more perceptive and wiser than any other prophet or teacher, was more aware of this danger than any other. And so he in compassion warned us of it more than any other.