Peter Hiett is the pastor of a church in Denver called The Sanctuary and he has an interesting story you’ll want to check out. You can find The Sanctuary, along with some of Peter’s writings and sermons, at www.tsdowntown.com.
One of the things Peter says is, of the 18 references to hell in the New Testament, not one of them is directed at a “worldly” person. Jesus didn’t warn the tax collectors, prostitutes, or sinners about hell. Instead, 15 of them, Peter Hiett says, are directed at God’s people, followers of the Messiah. Of the 18 uses of the words we translate as “hell,” 15 of them are warnings for God’s people. The other three, and arguably the most severe, says Peter, were for the Pharisees. These were the religious elite, those who were certain of who God was and certain of their standing before Him. Of course Jesus, and other parts of the New Testament, at times speak of judgment or the consequence of sin, but none of the 18 references to “hell” are for the people we typically think of as on their way there.
Is that not worthy of consideration?
In the evangelical world (at least the one I’ve been a part of) hell is the destination for anyone who does not put their faith in Jesus, or for anyone who may claim to have faith but has no demonstration of it (see our last discussion on the surprises there will be in heaven). Hell is NOT for people inside the evangelical church. Church is a place where God’s people worship Him, where they are equipped for ministry outside the church walls. Hell is not for church people . . . or is it?
Somehow it wouldn’t seem hard to draw a comparison between the religious elite of Jesus’ day and a characteristic or two of the church to which you and I belong. I’m not trying to throw evangelicals under the bus (I am an evangelical), but I do think healthy self-evaluation is good, and at least this is something we should consider. In what ways do we resemble the religious elite of Jesus day? Are Jesus’ warnings about hell meant for us as much as they are meant for anyone?
If they are, is it possible we could view them in a light that does not make us live in on-going fear about the possibility of ending up forever in a place of fiery torment? Is it possible we could view God in a different light?
While we consider that, I want to talk about one specific reference to hell as we continue through the book of Matthew. Matthew 10:28 says this:
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.
This is a popular verse, quoted both by people who believe in hell as eternal conscious torment, and by those who believe hell “destroys” people so that they simply cease to exist. Jesus is referring again to “gehenna,” perhaps using it again as a metaphor for punishment.
What is more interesting to me, however, is that Jesus’ use of hell in this verse comes within a chapter in which He was giving instructions to His twelve disciples before He sent them out. He is equipping the twelve disciples for ministry. These are the good guys, more than anyone the followers of the Messiah. They are NOT among the people we think of when we think of the religious elite of Jesus day. These are people with whom we want to be associated – Peter, James, and John. Pillars of the faith. Leaders of the early church. John, the disciples Jesus loved. Peter, the rock. James, John’s brother. Jesus is warning them about hell, telling them not to be afraid of the people from whom they may face persecution, but to be afraid of the One who can destroy soul and body in hell.
Is Jesus trying to scare the disciples? Is He trying to tell them that if they quit preaching because of fear of persecution at the hands of men, they will face even a worse fate in the hands of God? Is He scaring them into obedience? Is this what we are to take from this verse? Is this the application for us?
I don’t think so.
In the very next verse Jesus reassures the disciples and two verses later finally tells them, “Don’t be afraid.” In the context, Jesus’ inclusion of hell seems more an attempt to reassure the disciples of the greatness of God’s power compared to man’s, than it is a warning about the result of not believing in Him. Surely the disciples did not leave that training season with Jesus afraid that if they didn’t live up to His expectation then He would send them to hell.
Not that we shouldn’t take from this passage an admonition to “fear” God. A reverent and awe-filled recognition of who God is and a proper perspective of who we are in relationship to Him is something we find throughout Scripture, maybe most specifically in the book of Proverbs. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” This is appropriate fear.
However, given the context of this verse, given the recipients of many of Jesus’ references to hell, it seems reasonable to interpret them in a light that does not make us live in on-going fear about ending up forever in a place of fiery torment. Jesus certainly seemed to think that warnings about hell were appropriate for God’s people, but He also reassures us, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
The warnings don’t come without good news.
Really good news, really.
But if you’ve read that passage, you’ll know we stopped just short of Matthew 10:32. Don’t worry. We’ll talk about it.
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