Someone recently asked me why I, and other Presbyterian ministers, don't mention hell that much. He suggested that it might
be a good thing to return to preaching hell, that maybe that would encourage people to get back to "traditional morality."
I thought about this. He's right, I don't mention hell a lot in my preaching or in my ministry generally. So I considered
how I might address this deficiency. Hell is, after all, a biblical concept of more than trivial importance.
I think my friend who pointed out this flaw believes that the people who most need hear about hell are not people like
him an affluent, white, middle-aged, conservative Republican. Presumably he thinks hell is outfitted to accommodate Gays,
feminists, environmentalists, Muslim extremists, liberals, Hollywood executives, Communists, drug addicts, welfare moms, and
Well, what does Jesus say about the matter? What kind of people does Jesus suggest might be bound for hell? Looking
in the Bible, we find that Jesus' harshest judgments fall on the following three classes of people.
1. The rich.
The first group of individuals who are in danger of being thrown into hell are the wealthy, the successful, the powerful,
and the well-off. We find evidence of this in Luke vi.24-26, "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your
consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and
weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets." We also see
passages like Luke xvi.19-23, where the rich man lands in hell while the poor beggar, Lazarus, ascends to sit at Abraham's
side in glory.
Scripture generally has a suspicious view of wealth and the wealthy. Psalm xxxvii.16 and Proverbs xi.4 contrast the righteous
with the wealthy, implying that wealth and righteousness are mutually exclusive. Conversely, wickedness and prosperity are
often viewed as closely related if not synonymous. (See Job v.3-5; xii.6; xv.21,23,27,and 29; xx.5,22; and xxi.7-13; Psalm
xxxvii.1,35,36; xlix.10-15; lxxiii.3-22; and xcii.6,7; Ecclesiastes viii.12,13; Jeremiah xii.1,2; Habakkuk i.3,4,and 13-17;
and Malachi iii.15.) Jesus says the same thing in Matthew xix.24, where a rich person's getting into heaven is about as likely
as a camel crawling through the eye of a needle.
The wealthy and successful are blasted repeatedly throughout the writings of the prophets. And the apostles are no more
optimistic. Paul says, "But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful
desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their
eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains" (I Timothy vi.9-10).
And the apostle James has much the same message in James i.9-11.
According to the Bible, then, hell has lots of room for rich people. Economic sins are the most likely to gain one an
eternal sentence in perdition.
2. The uncharitable.
The second group condemned by Jesus is related to the first. It is those who refuse to assist those in need. The obvious
passage here is Matthew xxv.31-46, where the "goats" are separated and condemned to hell on the basis of their refusal
to serve "the least of these who are members of my family." In Psalm ix.17-19 the wicked are identified with those
who forget the needy. And James is even more explicit. "Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that
are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their
rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen!
The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have
reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts
in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you" (James v.1-6). And
the apostle John asks, "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in
need and yet refuses help?" (I John iii.17). It's a rhetorical question.
If, when we see a neighbor in need, we are cheap with the resources God has placed in our care, we are applying for a
ticket to hell. If we are buying big houses while our neighbors are homeless, or feasting on sumptuous fare while our neighbors
are hungry, or buying additional and larger vehicles while our neighbors are hitchhiking or standing in the cold waiting for
buses, or shelling out for expensive private schools and colleges while our neighbors have to quit high school to work at
McDonalds to make ends meet, or going in for cosmetic or elective surgeries while our neighbors don't even have access to
health care, and so on... look out. You can't buy a funeral grandiose enough, or a eulogy eloquent enough, to save you.
The third group coming in for Jesus' ire are religious fundamentalists. This is especially apparent in Matthew xxiii.13-36,
where Jesus expresses his fullest rage for those who by their rigidity prevent others from knowing God's grace. They focus
on enforcing obedience to superficial technicalities while neglecting "the weightier matters of the law: justice and
mercy and faith" (v. 24). He calls them hypocrites because they devote a lot of energy to merely looking good, "but
inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence" (vv.25-28). They piously and self-righteously disavow the sins of
their ancestors, but go and do the same things today. "You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced
to hell?" (v.33) says Jesus.
When those who hold religious authority and power use the faith to define status, keep social control, maintain national
identity, and buttress the economic status quo, it is something that incites Jesus' righteous indignation more than anything
else. Instead of a force for liberation, faith becomes a prison. Instead of God's Kingdom, it props up regimes like those
of Pharaoh, Herod, and Rome. Those who use God's Word to exclude people from grace, or to do evil, violence, injustice, and
theft, especially against the lowest and poorest members of society, are slated for the lowest, darkest regions of the infernal
In addition to these specific condemnations against particularly vile behaviors, Jesus and the Bible usually talk in more
general terms about who gets dumped into hell. Often figurative terms are used like "sinners," the "chaff,"
the "goats," or the "wicked." Sometimes we hear about puzzling figures like the guy in one of Jesus'
parables who came to the banquet without being properly dressed. The bad things done by such people are not always spelled
out. Fortunately for our understanding there are enough places where the connections are explicitly made so that when we
read about the wicked or sinners we know to whom the text refers. The witness of Scripture is remarkably single-minded about
this. The people most likely to receive punishment from God are those whose transgressions are economic. Jesus even implies
that there was an economic element to the religious sins of the Pharisees and Sadducees, for he is careful to mention their
fine clothes and high social standing.
Since the Church became aligned with Imperial Rome and the successive empires of the West, these sins, as prevalent as
they are in Scripture, were often discounted. Instead, the Church came to think of sin in terms both of personal, sexual,
private moral questions, and of giving assent to doctrinal propositions. Thus, in the Middle Ages, one could burn at the
stake for fornication or for denying the two natures of Christ, but it was less likely that you would receive such a punishment
for getting wealthy through unfair business practices.
This brings me to what is perhaps the main criterion for determining who goes to heaven and who to hell. That is belief
in Jesus. In John iii.18 we read, "Those who believe in [the Son] are not condemned; but those who do not believe are
condemned already, because they have not believed in the Name of the only Son of God." There are many other places where
believing in Jesus or his Name is what brings one to salvation. Christians have always inferred that the opposite is also
true, that not believing in him brings one to condemnation.
Using what we have learned above, we should have a better idea of how to understand what it means to "believe."
Of course, the Greek word, pisteuw, might be better translated in terms of a wholehearted trust, so as not to be reduced
to merely a cognitive opinion about something, which is a problem with the word "faith." Belief, understood as
trust, would have to be something that bears fruit in concrete actions. It would have to involve obeying Jesus' teachings
and commandments, not just mouthing them or agreeing with them in theory. Real belief in Jesus must have to do with following
him and rejecting the ways of the wicked.
Jesus himself is very clear that to be a disciple is to renounce wealth and power, turning your life over to God. Therefore,
we have arrived at the obvious conclusion that faith itself consists, at least in part, in a rejection of wealth and the economic
sins required to attain and maintain wealth.
So, yes, it may now be important for preachers to again emphasize hell and punishment of sinners. But let us also be
quick and disciplined about following Scripture in this regard. The parade into hell will be led by the wealthy and those
who fawn over and serve them, by those who have resources and refuse to share them with those in need, and by those who corrupt
religion in the service of their own comfort, status, affluence, profit, and power.