By John Dickson
One of Jesus' hardest teachings was delivered in metaphor: Hell. I'm sometimes asked if I believe in hell. I think I must give off the vibe sometimes that I'm a soft theologian who doesn't go with all those "archaic" things - the hard bits - in Christianity.
But I actually do. I'm not sure I believe in the hell people usually think of when they say the word, but I do believe in the hell Jesus talked about. And he talked about it more than anyone else in the Bible: fire, brimstone and all the rest of it. But Jesus used picture language. That's really clear. Just as the Bible speaks of Heaven having "pearly gates" (Revelation 21:21), Jesus spoke of hell as darkness one minute and fire the next.
Who wants human traffickers, for example, to get away with their crimes forever? Not me.
In Matthew 8, we hear Jesus say, "They will be thrown outside into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
But in Matthew 25, he speaks of it this way. "Depart from me, you who are cursed into the eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels."
This is clearly metaphor on the part of Jesus. You can't have darkness and fire in the same place at the same time. But what does the scary image mean? It isn't a theological scare tactic: "Be good or you'll burn in hell." It's basically about justice. It's God's pledge to bring his justice to bear on every evil act.
I mean, who wants human traffickers, for example, to get away with their crimes forever? Not me.
Hell tells me they won't get away with it, even if they seem to get away with it in this life. And one of Jesus' scariest parables makes this point about justice powerfully and metaphorically, in Matthew 25. He speaks of a king separating sheep from goats. To the sheep on his right he says, "Take your inheritance the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in..."
It's all about how we treat the vulnerable. Those who know the love of God are meant to treat others with that love.
But then he says to those on his left - the goats - "Depart from me, you who are cursed into the eternal fire. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink..."
He's talking about those who neglected the poor and by doing so were neglecting Jesus himself.
The other interesting thing Jesus says about hell is that it's not the same experience for everyone. Some will receive greater judgment than others. And again, he puts this teaching in a metaphor.
Here's Luke 12:
"The servant who knows the masters' will but does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows."
These things are so profound, so significant, that our normal ways of speaking just become inadequate.
So there's a difference in judgment in this parable. Jesus taught what you might call "proportional judgment". If it makes sense for the human trafficker to experience some level of judgment, it also makes sense to me that the rest of us would experience a degree of judgment proportional to our own participation in evil. The metaphor corresponds to reality.
Jesus put the most striking thing he says about all this judgment stuff in a metaphor, too. He said that his death would take the judgment of hell, for any who wants it.
At his final meal, this is the way he put it:
"He took the cup. And when he'd given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26)
Here's the most controversial thing about all this judgment stuff. Way more controversial than the thought that God might judge us is the promise that he would forgive us - anyone, even the human trafficker who wants forgiveness. The fact that Jesus put all this stuff in images and metaphors doesn't take away from the reality. It makes it somehow more confronting. These things are so profound, so significant, that our normal ways of speaking just become inadequate. Only metaphor can bear the burden of such grave and beautiful realities.