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. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:43-48 ESV)
It’s just hard to get around the theme of judgment in the Bible. Nearing the end of my latest journey through the pages of the Old Testament, the theme of judgment is simply unavoidable — to which you no doubt will say, “Duh.” But if the Old Testament has it’s share of pain, the New Testament isn’t exactly all party either. It is in the pages of the New Testament that we encounter the concept of “hell,” and in these verses of chapter 9 we encounter “hell” for the first (and last) time in Mark.
A quick point of clarification.
It is often said that Jesus talked more about hell than he did about heaven. And while I’ve never seen or heard anyone back up that statement with a side-by-side comparison, I do know that when it comes down to an actual word (actual Greek word) count in the New Testament, the final score looks something like this:
ouranos (“heaven”) 284
gehenna (“hell”) 12
So let’s just say that Jesus’ mouth was filled far and away more with “heaven” than with “hell.” And perhaps that speaks to where our emphasis should be.
Now, there are other Greek words translated “hell” — at least in classic translations like the King James Version. For instance hades occurs eleven times in the New Testament (10 times translated hell; once translated grave in the KJV), but it doesn’t refer to an eternal place of punishment but the unseen realm of the dead that Jesus himself visited between his death and resurrection (see Acts 2:31). Hades literally means “unseen” and corresponds to the Hebrew word sheol which also refers to the grave (where your body is buried below ground, out of sight, out of mind). The picture Jesus paints of hades in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus has hades consisting of both a place of torment and a place of comfort (“paradise”) separated by a “wide gulf.”
But gehenna is more than the grave or an unseen place where all the dead go. Gehenna was an actual valley, a hellish place just outside the gates of Jerusalem; it was what amounted to a garbage dump and sewer; a place of filth and fire and festering maggots and flies. To the Jewish mind of Jesus’ day it became the governing image of divine retribution and judgment. When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 Gehenna is essentially where the entire city (and much of its population) ended up. They were “salted with fire.”
But what about “hell” — the spiritual place of judgment that gehenna ultimately points to and pictures? The book Four Views on Hell discusses common interpretive options in Christian circles: literal, metaphorical, purgatorial and conditional — too much to even touch on here. And perhaps a bit of humility is in order since none of us have been (or hopefully will ever be) there. But after all words have been said that can be said (and more), the simple truth we need to hear and come to terms with is perhaps best summarized in the inspired words of Hebrews 9:27-28
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
It is that reality of approaching judgment to which Jesus calls our attention in Mark 9. And whatever that judgment looks like, you really want to miss it.