American Christianity is obsessed with Hell. I have often heard preachers justify their copious references to it by saying they are just preaching like Jesus. I’ve even heard them say that Jesus preached on Hell more than he did Heaven. Evangelism strategies, such as The Way of the Master, lead with the question, “If you were to die tonight, would you go to Heaven or Hell?” They claim to be evangelizing like Jesus.
But, was Jesus really the “Hell-fire and Brimstone” preacher we have made him out to be?
I decided to find out the answer. I took out my “red-letter edition” Bible and read every word of Jesus in the gospels to see how much he talked about Hell compared to Heaven.
There are a couple different Greek words translated to “Hell” in our English Bibles.
The first is Gehenna. It was a real place—a ravine South of Jerusalem where they burned waste in Jesus’ day. Jesus used it as a metaphor for the kind of judgment that will fall on those who are not a part of his Kingdom.
Jesus only says “Gehenna” in 11 passages. Three are repeats from stories retold in another gospel account. On two occasions Jesus used the word multiple times in a single speech. In total, he used this word around 8 times on 6 different occasions.
The second word is Hades, which is borrowed from Greek mythology. Hades was not originally understood as a place, but as a Greek god who rules the underworld—the realm of the dead. When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (the Septuagint), translators used Hades as a counterpart to Sheol, which was a euphemism for the grave. Both the righteous and unrighteous ended up there (cf. Gen 37:35). Consequently, it would be perfectly reasonable to translate Hades as “death” or “the grave” rather than “Hell.”
Jesus used this word 4 times.
He also used a handful of other phrases and metaphors, such as “eternal fire,” around 10 times.
In total, Jesus spoke of Hell around 20 times. (Less if we remove Hades.)
Jesus usually referred to Heaven as a kingdom, which is (of course) the realm over which a king rules. So, “Heaven” is everywhere Jesus reigns.
So, let’s get to the numbers.
There are 70 occurrences of the word “Heaven” in the book of Matthew alone. Around 65 are from the mouth of Jesus. He used the word approximately 11 times in Mark, 14 in Luke, and 14 in John. Granted, some of these occurrences are repeats. But, we haven’t even touched the other metaphors and synonyms he used for “Heaven.” For instance, John records Jesus using the phrase “eternal life” 15 different times.
That’s not all. We can’t reduce Jesus’ message to the amount of times he used the word “Heaven.” Jesus wasn’t merely speaking. He was doing. He summarized his mission by stating,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19
He reminds us of the Israelite tradition of Jubilee. Every fifty years the people of Israel were to forgive all debts and release all slaves. No matter how much you owed, you were free! Jesus came to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is an eternal Jubilee.
He didn’t come to judge or proclaim that God was disgusted by humanity. He didn’t come screaming, “Turn or burn!” from a megaphone on a street corner. He didn’t even come to ask people if they would go to Hell when they died.
He came to proclaim the good news that the enemy loses, God is King, and he has no ill will for humanity. In fact, he looks upon us with favor.
The Israelites were waiting expectantly for the Messiah to set up God’s reign on Earth. In Luke 17:20-21 Jesus was asked how and when the Kingdom would come. He responded:
“The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
So, every time Jesus …
…forgave the sinner…
…healed the broken…
…gave food to the hungry…
…comforted widows and orphans…
…rebuked the Pharisees’ religion…
…sat at the table with sinners…
…he preached Heaven.
Jesus’ parables reveal that the Kingdom of Heaven is hidden like a seed in the dirt—like leaven in a lump of dough. It is already here—in the places we wouldn’t think to look—and it is growing. We are called to bring this Kingdom to Earth. To manifest it in a world that can’t see it. To follow Christ’s example of good deeds.
What can we conclude from all of this?
In three years of preaching, discipling, and teaching Jesus spoke of Hell less than 20 times. How many times have you or I, or the pastor, or the local evangelist spoken of it in three years?
We have created a distorted view of the gospel that puts escaping Hell as the top priority and central message of Christianity. We have reduced the gospel to a 140-character tweet that essentially says, “You deserve Hell. Jesus died so you don’t have to go there.” We have come to believe people cannot follow Christ unless they are trembling in fear of the wrath of God and the Hell they deserve.
If that’s true, then Jesus was a terrible evangelist.
He was more interested in teaching the world what the Kingdom looks like and showing us how to live as a part of it.
Maybe we should do the same.