Pixabay image of Hell

Ask An Evangelical: Are Jews Going To Hell?

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What do you want to know about Evangelicalism? Pastor Rob Bryceson, of The Gathering House Church, and Elizabeth Backstrom, a member of The Gathering House, co-author this column. Submit your question here.

Are Jews going to hell?

This is the second in a two-part answer.

evangelicalHi, thanks for writing. I’d like to answer your question with a question.

Why do you think hell is real at all? And if it is real, what’s the point in making it such a big motivator for our behavior? I know growing up as a Christian I was taught hell was the place you went if you didn’t believe in God (which meant basically everyone else) and was also the place you went if you sinned and did not repent. That’s a strong reason to tell people about Jesus, right? Does anyone want someone they love to go someplace like the hell that was described to us? I know I didn’t, and I certainly didn’t, and don’t, want to end up anyplace like that.

Like a lot of things in Christian culture, the concept of hell something we’ve been taught, and we focus on a lot, because dividing lines like this make it easier to make sense of life. If we know about hell, we have a reason to get it together and believe. We have a clear, bright line to draw around who’s in and who’s out, and an easy reason to believe it ourselves.

Yes, there are places in the Bible that mention hell. The etymology of those words can be debated all day long. The main players are Sheol, Hades and Gehenna. Gehenna, Greek for the Hebrew Gehinnom, is a place outside Jerusalem where people used to perform child sacrifices. It was undeniably a bad place. But, importantly, an earthly place. Sheol is described as a ‘place of the dead.’ But it’s confusing, because in some areas, it’s mentioned as a permanent place, but in others it gives the idea of a temporary place, like purgatory. The Bible also mentions Hades, the Greek for the underworld. There are other names for underworld-like places scattered throughout the Bible, but to keep you awake, I won’t name them all. All these places sound bad. But as Tim Chastain over at Jesus Without Baggage points out, they don’t actually cohesively add up to the fiery, otherworldly pit concept most of us associate with hell. There’s a whole other set of verses on ‘the book of life’ and who gets into heaven, but that’s another conversation.

The main point I get from all of this, honestly, is that we may not know what the hell we’re talking about when it comes to hell. And how can we? No one alive has been there, or been back to write about it. The text we do have on it is confusing and sparse. I know I don’t feel comfortable looking at you and saying you’re going to hell, if it exists, based on these texts.

Here’s why I think the concept of hell makes things easier for many people. It does the dividing for us. It answers the hard questions so we don’t have to.

We don’t have to think too much about  things like ‘but how does that person raised in the household of another religion really get a fair chance to hear about Jesus?’ And if she did, what would make her switch camps? Would she be afraid of going to Christian hell, any more than I’m afraid of going to her religion’s version of hell?

And the hardest question, in my opinion, the one I never like to confront; what makes me so different? Why is my religion more superior than that of my Sikh or Mormon or Muslim or Jewish friends? Why do I get to escape into heaven? Questions like this spawn the universalist movement, and many people dismiss them. I can’t though, even though I’m not a universalist by most other definitions. And it’s not just because I think the Judeo-Christian definition of hell is lacking. I think, like a lot of pieces of culture and history, it’s narrative that’s written and controlled by the victors. The ones in charge of the narrative about hell are, conveniently, not going there. Everyone else is. If this was any other story, we’d be crying ‘foul,’ but because it’s about religion, we stand back and say ‘well, I guess God is in control.’

In this case, we’re in charge of this message, and we’re mangling it. No one knows exactly what happens when we die, but why does our motivation have to be focused on the afterlife at all? Can’t we be good to each other simply because it’s the right thing to do, and if we ascribe to the Christian religion, we’re called to do so anyway? We don’t need the threat of hell for that. I’d argue anyone who’s here because they’re afraid of hell is going to get going when things get tough. Multiple studies show extrinsic motivation is not good fodder for lasting change. So I don’t know for sure if Jews are going to hell. I really hope not. I would like to think any afterlife punishment, if it exists, is not solely based on what religion you held in this life, but rather the content of your heart and character and soul. I don’t get to pick, though.

About Elizabeth Backstrom

Elizabeth Backstrom majored in journalism at Western Washington University and currently works as a content analyst and grant writer in Spokane. Her background is in newswriting and features, but if an overabundance of caffeine is consumed, she has been known to write a humor piece or two. Backstrom attended various Christian churches growing up in Spokane and currently attends First Covenant Church, an inner-city ministry in downtown Spokane.

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22 comments

  1. Great column, Liz! This is a subject I’m always afraid to bring up, but I feel the same way. The afterlife was a huge part of the theology I received as a kid, but I read a very different message in scripture as an adult. “We’re in charge of this message, and we’re mangling it.” Well put.

    • Elizabeth Erin

      Thank you Charlie. I’ve struggled with how to address this for years, Still thinking over it, to be honest, but writing this column is helping me come to terms with what I think about it. I’m afraid to bring it up also because it’s so divisive. It seems like either way we’re wrong – if everyone besides a select few are going to hell, we’re bigots, and if no one is, we’re not taking a firm enough stance or not ‘real’ believers. I hate feeling like I’m forced to choose between loving people and loving God.

  2. Oh, spot on, Liz! I loved this bit, “The main point I get from all of this, honestly, is that we may not know what the hell we’re talking about when it comes to hell.” I see what you did there. 😉
    And this, “In this case, we’re in charge of this message, and we’re mangling it” Yes, we ARE mangling it, and so we mangle the central message of God’s inclusive love for all. My behavior matters because I carry the name CHRISTian, but if behavior is all that matters, we are all doomed to hell.

    • Elizabeth Erin

      Thank you Jan 🙂 Glad you appreciate my humor 🙂 I struggled to write this and I’m happy to see it resonates with someone else.

  3. The teaching on eternal judgement (Hell) is biblical, historic and considered an essential Christian doctrine among conservative evangelicals . The length, quality, ECT or Annihilationism etc are not. ‘Eternal Judgment’ is considered one of the 6 foundations to Christian fundamentals in Hebrews 6:1-3

    1. Jesus taught on Hell

    Matthew 13:41-42, 49-50
    “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    Mark 9:43, 48-49
    “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire…where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire.”

    Matthew 22:13
    “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    Matthew 8:12
    “while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    Matthew 25:46
    “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

    Luke 12:5
    “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”

    Revelation 14:10-11
    “he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”

    2. The Early Christian Creeds speak of it:
    Apostles Creed:
    The third day He arose again from the dead.
    He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

    Nicene Creed (AD 325):
    On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

    Athanasian Creed (A.D. 500)
    Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly…He ascended into heaven, He sits at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence He will come to judge the quick and the dead. At His coming all men will rise again with their bodies and shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.
    -https://carm.org/creeds-and-confessions

    3. National Association of Evangelicals includes it:
    “We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.”
    -http://nae.net/statement-of-faith/

    “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.” -Charles Spurgeon

    • Elizabeth Erin

      So I’m just going to pick one thing out of here… are you saying we all have to be Catholics to avoid hell? That’s what I’m reading above.

      I will have to respectfully disagree. I don’t see that in the Bible anywhere. As for the verses you referenced, I know the Bible talks about hell, as I mentioned in my column, but the references are varied, come from different word sources, and are, in my mind, confusing/contradictory. That doesn’t mean there’s no afterlife or judgement. It means, to me, that there’s not enough evidence available for me to sit around telling folks this person or that person is going to hell, this is what it will be like, and here’s how they can avoid it.

      I personally don’t feel comfortable doing that based on my knowledge of the Bible and my beliefs. I’m not a pastor, but I’ve read the Bible many times and I know what it says. I also know people are fond of using the Bible to support their own agendas. Texts can and have been manipulated to get a point across or keep groups of people in power, or other groups of people in their place.

      • Appealing to the scriptures, church history/tradition and most importantly Jesus isn’t in opposition to loving people. Teaching the whole counsel of God especially in matters that deal with eternity is essential to being a traditional evangelical.

        I’m not sure where you are getting “Catholic” from in my response.

        • Elizabeth Erin

          It says that in the Athanasian Creed you posted. ‘Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith.’

          I think the teachings on hell are in opposition to loving people – how can I say ‘I love you, everything you are is wrong and you’re going to hell. If you do what I tell you, maybe you will be alright.’ That sounds like conditional love to me, which is not what Jesus teaches. Also, what about the confusing words? If hell is this for sure place that is so well-defined and determined, why do they have all these different words that mean different things to describe it?

          Maybe because we don’t actually know what we’re describing. People are writing down this stuff and translating it over and over. It’s totally possible there could be a mix-up. Or that people are manipulating it to get something they want (this happens in history all the time, does it not? Why should Christianity be an exception?)

          The Bible has four different words for love that mean different things. Why can’t hell mean something different, and therefore not be a set concept/place also?

          • You are free to believe what you want but those views wouldn’t be considered evangelical. Those are talking points straight out of mainline, progressive spirituality.

            I guess I’m wondering if you’d align with the National Association of Evangelicals statement of faith?

          • Elizabeth Erin

            I guess I’m wondering why you’d like to know. If I say no, does it make it easier to dismiss what I say, because I’m not a real Evangelical and therefore not credible? If I say yes, then are there a ready-made set of talking points by which to discredit me? It feels like either way, it’s been decided on your part. Why do I have to be real or not real? Why can’t I just be me with what I think and believe, just like you are you, with what you think and believe?

            As to your original question, I’m still deciding. I believe a lot of those things posted in the NAE statement. I don’t know that I think the Bible is infallible all the time.

          • I’m trying to understand what your view of being an evangelical is?

          • Thanks for asking. I’m still trying to understand that myself. I know it looks different than it did ten years ago. I think this column is helping me figure it out. I don’t have a concrete answer for you. I know I believe in God and the character of God. I want to love people. So often in Evangelicalism, for me, these two become at odds and I don’t know how to reconcile them. I know you said otherwise but for me this happens often. I miss my old certainty about things, but I don’t think I can go back.

    • Elizabeth Erin

      Also, would you mind defining ECT? I don’t know what that stands for.

  4. Are there various stripes of evangelicals? I suppose it makes sense that there would be liberal and conservative wings of the evangelical christian movement.

    • Well terms are all up for debate theses days, but the term evangelical as its used by the NAE has been the agreed upon understanding. I’m sure there are those who will say they can believe whatever they want and claim the term but that’s historically and religiously out of step with its meaning.

    • Elizabeth Erin

      Andrew, so glad to see you here! There are. Within any movement, I believe that’s the case. No group of people are all alike. We got (and answered) another ‘what is an Evangelical’ question, and that column contains what most mainline Evangelicals believe.
      However, I also think we as a group are characterized falsely in the media as thinking, voting and feeling alike on issues. We tend to be put into boxes by our loudest and angriest and most reality TV-friendly representatives, and that is not an accurate portrayal of who we all are and what we believe.

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