Noted British author and journalist G.K. Chesterton was once asked about his views on hell. “While I cannot speak from personal experience,” he replied, “it seems a place to be avoided.” Few would argue with the wit and wisdom of Chesterton on this point, though many would prefer to ignore the subject or deny that such a place actually exists. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny the pervasive references to hell in our common parlance. It is at once a curse word, a descriptive adjective and the subject of all manner of creative expressions, from fine art and theater to movies and even video games.

In a recent newspaper review of the biography of Moishe Rosen, in the online version of The Jewish Daily Forward, one commentator wrote of Moishe, “He should rot in hell,” to which another responded, “Umm, do we believe in hell?”

That is a good question and many modern Jews would feel quite comfortable answering, “no.” They would be surprised to learn that the traditional Jewish view of the afterlife has a great deal to say about the existence of hell.

The Jewish view of the afterlife as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures is (like other ancient near eastern cultures) unequivocal on the existence of hell, commonly referring to it as “Sheol” and “Abaddon,” However, these words have an uncertain etymology and the references to them are just as vague as Chesterton when it comes to saying what hell is actually like.

The word “Gehenna” is more commonly used in later Jewish literature such as the New Testament and the Talmud. It is derived from “Gei Ben Hinnom,” or the valley of the son of Hinnom. This valley is an actual place on the southern side of the city of Jerusalem—and it actually does have a history of horror. Children were sacrificed to the Ammonite/Canaanite god Moloch, making the place an utter abomination. The unholy site eventually became a garbage dump, a place of stinking refuse. One would never guess the history of this valley by looking at it today, but in the Second Temple period it was quite evocative of the common understanding of “a place to be avoided.” 

Unlike the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament and the Talmud are quite descriptive of the place we now call hell. Jesus described it as a place where “the fire…shall never be quenched… ” (Mark 9:43). The Talmud is much more detailed concerning the fire and darkness of hell, even supplying descriptions concerning its size, divisions and entrance gates. So yes, a great deal has been written in Jewish literature regarding the existence of hell. Despite this, for Jews as for most people, hell remains more a subject to be avoided than a place to be avoided. In our post-modern world it is considered ridiculous or even shameful to believe that anyone may actually be headed there, except perhaps Adolph Hitler.

I remember Larry King’s challenge to me on his television show, Larry King Live, as to whether I believed God would send people to hell for not believing in Jesus. I replied that God isn’t in the business of sending people to hell. We are getting there just fine on our own. Rather, God is in the business of saving people from hell and that is exactly why He sent Jesus the Messiah. The distinction is important.

As C.S. Lewis famously said, hell is a place where the door is locked from the inside; in other words, it is a destination of our own choosing. Writing in The Great Divorce, he explained, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'”

This month our Jews for Jesus missionaries and volunteers are out on the streets of New York, London and several other cities throughout Europe, proclaiming the gospel and handing out tracts just like the one that was sent out with the print version of this newsletter, titled “What the Hell.” Invariably, some we meet on the streets will challenge us about our belief concerning hell, much as I was challenged by Larry King.

When people ask with hostility, our policy is to answer with a question of our own: “Do you honestly believe in hell?” If that hostile questioner answers “No,” then we will reply, “Then I guess you should have nothing to worry about, huh?” It’s not wise to give a straight answer to someone who denies the premise of his or her own question. Jesus certainly didn’t.

On the other hand, we should never be afraid or ashamed to speak of the realities of hell and to warn people away from its terror and torment. But our warning must be tempered with the hope and promise of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. Moishe Rosen said we should never preach about hell without tears in our eyes for those on their way there. This is the character of the Lord Jesus Himself, “[Who] is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Yet many have come to repentance because they do (rightly) fear hell as the consequence of their lifestyle and choices. We should therefore not shy away from this important doctrine. Sadly, many Christians do. Some rationalize that since the gospel is good news we need only emphasize God’s love and forgiveness. But how can we expect anyone to understand how essential that good news is if they have not grasped the very bad news about sin and eternal separation from God?  More than that, it is only when we understand the greatness, glory and holiness of our God that the realities of hell and eternal separation from Him become plausible and meaningful. It is the inadequate understanding of our own sin and of God’s holiness that produces the misapprehension of the realities of hell and eternal separation from God. If we care about seeing people saved, we must be prepared to give a full explanation of both. People need to know the realities of both heaven and hell, so it is up to us to proclaim them without shame or caveat.

I once opened a letter from a Christian who received a Jews for Jesus mailing with the very same gospel tract we’ve enclosed in this newsletter: “What the Hell.” She was upset because she said her postman would have seen the title through the clear envelope and that would ruin any chance she had of being a good witness to him. She didn’t say what kind of witness she had had up until then, or what she was planning, but I wrote back that, on the contrary, I believed that tract might give her an even better opportunity to share with her postman the wonderful news of God’s salvation. I still believe that as much as people want to avoid the topic, it provides great possibilities for meaningful conversations.

While I cannot speak from personal experience either, I know that hell is a place to be avoided. Hell is just as real as death. But I also know that Jesus conquered both when he died and rose again. Only through faith in Him can we come to know the forgiveness of God. This message is the same for Jews and Gentiles. It is a message of love and of hope. Jesus said, “I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death” (Revelation 1:18).  We can all be thankful for that.

Online extra: See also “Hell, Let’s Face It,” an article by Susan Perlman, originally published in ISSUES (our publication for Jewish seekers)