Hell is on my mind, and it is not even November. Presumably, any one of the Four Last Things can serve as matter for reflection any time of year. But after my last column , which was on David Bentley Hart’s denial of the traditional notion of eternal punishment, some readers said that they wished I had spent more time on what Jesus said on Hell. So this time I want to oblige them by discussing, paradoxically, what Jesus did not say.
From many years spent interpreting texts, especially Aristotle, I find that people commonly make a certain mistake. They think the only evidence for or against a theory are words or sentences that can be identified in advance.
Here’s what I mean: Suppose the view in question is whether Jesus taught that we’re at risk of being judged worthy of eternal punishment – Hell. Someone bent on denying Hell might go through the New Testament, pick out the twenty or so verses that seem to imply the existence of Hell, and taking these verses to be the only evidence, argue that they don’t really imply that.
This is David Bentley Hart’s approach. Jesus says in one verse (Mt 25:46) that the unrighteous will be sent away into everlasting torment (kolasin aiōnion). So Hart expends a lot of effort arguing that the Greek word aiōnios does not necessarily mean “everlasting” and that kolasis need not mean “punishment.”
Jesus also talks a lot about Gehenna: “it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire” (Mk. 9:43); “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell” (Mt. 10:28). There are altogether twelve verses that refer to Hell, Gehenna, in the New Testament.
You would think that the meaning of a word is fixed by its function and that twelve sentences suffice for revealing a word’s function. But, no, Hart argues. By Gehenna Jesus meant a certain place outside of Jerusalem, which may or may not have been a pagan place of child sacrifice, and may or may not have been a garbage dump.
It’s all very unclear, he says. And all that stuff about “unquenchable fire” and “the worm that never dies”? Typical Semitic hyperbole. In any case, we are not obliged to identify this “Vale of Hinnom,” as Hart prefers to call it, with the “opulent” medieval invention of “Hell,” or so he says.
And so it goes. Except Hart goes farther than interpreters usually do: to deal most definitively with such evidence, he, in effect, annihilates it. That is, he produced an entire translation of the New Testament so that aiōnios never means everlasting but always “of the Age.” And Gehenna never means Hell, but always “the Vale of Hinnom,” and so on. In Hart’s Bible, Jesus warns the unrighteous that “these will go to the chastening of that Age.” (Mt 25:46) Voilà! No more offending evidence.
But the point I wish to urge about interpretation is that so far we have looked at only the smallest portion of the available evidence. We need to reason not simply from evidence to theory, but also from theory to evidence. That is, we have to ask: on the assumption that a theory is true, does the evidence match what we would have expected or not? This approach is sometimes called “Bayesian”: Newman dealt with it under the heading of “antecedent probabilities.”
In the present instance, we ask: Suppose the Lord Jesus believed, or rather knew, universal salvation to be true, holding to it with all the conviction of David Bentley Hart. This would be a highly important truth for him to convey, as Hart clearly holds. Does Jesus speak, then, as someone who knows this to be true and strongly wants to convey it? Or does Jesus say things contrary to what we would expect, i.e., is he silent where a universalist would certainly not be?
See now that each verse in the New Testament becomes potential evidence against Hart’s view, and not merely the handful that seems to be speaking about Hell explicitly.
You can start almost anywhere. You are the branches, the Lord says, and if a branch gets separated from the vine, it is already as good as dead, and these withered branches are then thrown into the fire and burned. (Jn 15:6) Apart from the mention of fire here, which we realize is so characteristic of Jesus – would someone who affirmed universalism have chosen, for his imagery, the irreversible process of desiccation? When Plato, for instance, wanted to suggest that there are additional chances for souls after death, he provided, as illustrations, cyclical processes.
Or the good thief repents, and Jesus tells him that he will be with him in paradise on that very day. (Lk 23:43) Wouldn’t a universalist, at that point, turn also to the bad thief, the one who was reviling him, and tell him to have courage, because, when he faces torment after death, it will be merely a “chastening for the Age,” which will lead him eventually to eternal blessedness? But Jesus fails to teach this.
Or what about the demons? Demons are persons too, and they experience pleasure and pain. When a “legion” of them torments the man at the tombs, Jesus sends the demons into a herd of swine, who rush over a cliff into the sea, apparently to illustrate a point about their evil power. (Mk 5:10-20) But wouldn’t a universalist, to make his message perfectly clear, once in a while send a demon or two into Heaven, as a proof that all will be reconciled to God?
This is what I mean: hundreds of verses point to things Jesus did not say, which count against universal salvation in Hart and many others who hold a similar position.
*Image: Last Judgment by Stephan Lochner, c. 1435 [Wallraf–Richartz Museum , Cologne]