Some people seem to think they know who’s going to hell. For instance, they’ll write a letter to the editor proclaiming that some columnist or some other letter writer will sizzle in hell for what they wrote. What makes them think they know?
For centuries, some preachers and Christian writers have distinguished between believers and professors. Professors in this sense profess Christianity, maybe show up in church regularly, but don’t believe it enough to live it. Many of these church leaders at least imply that the believers go to heaven and the professors to hell. But can they really know?
Nowadays some people deny there is a hell. Somehow, they think it’s incompatible with God’s love. No one goes to hell on this view, because no one can go to a nonexistent place.
But Jesus himself spoke of hell more than anyone else in Scripture. It’s real. He proclaims some people will go there. And gives us no information and no right to figure out which ones.
How Jesus used the word “hell”
Here are the passages in Matthew that use the word “hell,” the Greek gehenna, which was Jerusalem’s trash dump. Verses in other gospels duplicate these.
But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5:22 NKJV)
If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast itfrom you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast itfrom you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. (Matthew 23:15)
Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you [hypocritical religious leaders, blind guides] escape the condemnation of hell? (Matthew 23:33)
What else Jesus said about hell
Here are passages, again limited to Matthew’s gospel, that don’t use the word hell, but leave no doubt as to Jesus’ meaning:
And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:11-12)
The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:41-42).
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind, which, when it was full, they drew to shore; and they sat down and gathered the good into vessels, but threw the bad away. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:47-50
Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him [the one who didn’t put on his wedding garments] hand and foot, take him away, and cast himinto outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 22:13)
But if that evil servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat hisfellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for himand at an hour that he is not aware of, and will cut him in two and appoint himhis portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:48-51)
And cast the unprofitable servant [who buried his talent in the ground] into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:30)
Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41)
What we can and can’t learn about going to hell from these passages
We see certain kinds of attitudes that can lead us to hell.
The Sermon on the Mount makes clear that attitudes themselves can be sinful even if no deed results. Wrath equals murder. A lustful look equals adultery.
Jesus didn’t speak to people who didn’t acknowledge God. He spoke his harshest words to covenant people who claimed to live godly lives. He condemned their hypocrisy in no uncertain terms. In fact, he said, outsiders and sinners will make it into the kingdom of God before religious hypocrites will.
We also see people who fear people instead of God, selfish people, oppressors, the lazy, and those who fail at basic kindness to the helpless consigned to hell.
In one way or another, these passages challenge the hearers to consider their own ways—which isn’t the same thing as to judge themselves. None invites anyone to think of anyone else’s eternal destiny.
John looked at the issue from the other direction in his first epistle: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13).
That is, he wrote so that you can know that you have eternal life, not that you can know whether someone else has eternal life.
What we can know and not know about some hypothetical examples
I wrote earlier about the unforgivable sin, which includes unforgiveness. I think we can say that anyone whose sin God does not forgive goes to hell. We just can’t identify who might fit that description.
Here’s the basic biblical principle that forbids us to try: “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” (1 Samuel 16:7)
Let’s consider three men who suffer some grievous hurt and naturally become angry and embittered at the people who hurt them.
And let’s consider what they’re like twenty-five years later. The offense still impacts their lives. The offender may have murdered someone close to them. Or destroyed their business or reputation somehow. Some big, life-altering catastrophe.
I won’t call them Tom, Dick, and Harry, because those names mean nothing. So let’s call them Clement, Jacob, and Nabal.
There’s a Clement in the Bible who ministered with Paul. His name means merciful. So we can figure that our imaginary Clement eventually forgave his offender.
So Clement still lives with the consequences of what the offender did twenty-five years later. But the memory of the offense and the offender no longer causes emotional pain. That’s what forgiveness means. He lives in peace and joy.
Clement may or may not have restored his relationship with the offender. It really doesn’t matter if he didn’t. Forgiveness doesn’t require restoration.
So does Clement go to heaven? We can see the fruit of his forgiveness, but we have no idea what’s on his heart. If Clement reads 1 John 5:13, he can be assured of eternal life. Since “you” there is plural, others who believe can suppose he goes to heaven. But since we see only the outward appearance, we can’t know.
Jacob’s temporary unforgiveness
We know Jacob from the Bible. He hated his brother Esau. And he wrestled with God. I’m not talking about him, though. I’m just using his name and the fact of him wrestling as an illustration.
Our Jacob suffered the same kind of catastrophic hurt as Clement. He knows what Jesus said about forgiveness and wrestles with it.
Twenty-five years later, he can’t say that he’s forgiven his offender. Maybe he even says he hasn’t. Maybe he even says he never will. In fact, maybe he still actively carries on a feud.
I know someone who suffered horribly as a child. She testifies she used to fall asleep fantasizing about subjecting the offenders to slow and painful deaths. Oh, and she also led Bible studies at that time. Eventually, however, she did forgive and now testifies that a burden has therefore been lifted from her.
Do you realize that her testimony could have described Clement twenty years after his suffering, but before he learned to forgive? At that time, he wasn’t Clement yet. He was Jacob.
We can know what someone who hasn’t forgiven tells us. We can know what he acts like. We can’t know if or how he will grow into forgiveness later on.
Nabal’s permanent unforgiveness
You can read about Nabal in 1 Samuel 25. His name means “fool.” I don’t suppose his parents gave him that name. I doubt if anyone dared call him Nabal to his face, but his wife made it clear that’s what she and others called him behind his back.
Our Nabal adamantly refuses to forgive. He may or may not still carry on his feud. But he certainly lets everyone know how deeply hurt he was and how angry he remains.
Nabal sounds a lot like the people in Matthew 5:22 whom Jesus said were in danger of hell. If, in fact, he persists in unforgiveness, God will not forgive him. Nabal will go to hell.
How can we tell the difference between Jacob, who will eventually forgive, and Nabal, who will refuse until his dying breath?
If you’re ever tempted to think that someone is going to hell, give it up. That decision’s above our pay grade. We can pray for him, testify to him, encourage him, speak all kinds of things to him. But only God can know his destiny.