Hell—eternal conscious punishment of those who do not repent of their sins and trust in Christ—is a subject that too many preachers and teachers in our day seek to avoid. In a drive to reach unbelievers who might find the doctrine of hell off-putting, many preachers never mention it at all. Some go further and say that unbelievers will simply cease to exist at death and will not suffer for eternity (annihilationism). Still others go even further and affrm that there is no punishment of any kind, not even annihilation. They advocate universalism, the belief that everyone will go to heaven no matter what they believe.
The neglect or denial of hell may be presented under the name “Christian” at times, but no one can be faithful to our Lord’s teaching without affirming the eternal conscious punishment of the impenitent. That is because no one in all of Scripture talks about the reality of hell more often than Christ Jesus Himself. Today’s passage includes some of His most noteworthy teaching on the subject.
Jesus draws attention to the utter horror of hell with a series of contrasts that all involve bodily crippling and mutilation (vv. 43–47). He teaches that it is better to lose a body part that entices you to sin than it is to go to hell. This would have been a particularly striking saying for His original Jewish hearers—the disciples—for bodily mutilation in Judaism was strictly forbidden, and it disqualified one from entering the worshiping congregation (Deut. 14:1; 23:1). To say it would be better to mutilate your body than to go to hell, then, shows the seriousness with which we must take sin. Hell is so awful that losing a body part is a better fate.
The word “hell” in verse 47 translates the term gehenna, which was another name for the “valley of the son of Hinnom,” the place near Jerusalem where many ancient Jews sacrificed children to the pagan god Molech (2 Kings 23:10). By the first century A.D., the place was seen as accursed because of that, and it was used as a figure for the eternal place of punishment after death, or hell. Jesus’ use of the unquenchable fire in reference to this place (v. 48) borrows from the fact that in his day, the physical gehenna was a garbage dump where garbage never stopped burning. Jesus uses the physical reality to point to something much worse—unending pain in the afterlife for those who go to hell.