Yes, Jesus threatened all sorts of awful things to happen to people. But to which people, and why?
It was the “teachers of the law and the Pharisees” that Jesus aimed his threats of hell and punishment at, because “they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them,” Matthew 23:2-4.
And for the next 32 verses Jesus rips these uncaring frauds to shreds for their “greed and self-indulgence” (25), and for giving the impression they were “righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (28). It was to these people and for these reasons that Jesus then asked in verse 33, “How will you escape being condemned to hell?”
So yes, Jesus threatened people with hell. But why these people in particular? Because they spoke for God and represented him (verses 2-3), but in what they taught and how they behaved they were giving people a totally wrong picture of God. They had no interest, for instance, in “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (23), all three of which pictured God. Their interest was only in themselves looking good, rather than being humble servants, the total opposite to the picture that Jesus gave of God.
It’s to those who gave a wrong picture of God, while claiming they represented him, that Jesus directed his threats of hell and punishment at most of all. And those who were supposed to be God’s servants caring for his people, but instead were interested only in themselves in Matthew 24:47-49, Jesus also threw on the pile of those who would be “cut to pieces and assigned a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” verse 51.
Strong words from the “gentle Jesus.” But they tell us what angers God most. It isn’t people who’ve made a mess of their lives. Nor is it people who don’t attend church. Nor is it people who ignore God or hate him. It’s those who like to preach and teach about God, but in their teaching and behaviour make God out to be something he totally isn’t.
Like the temple priests in Jerusalem for instance, who were ripping off their Jewish countrymen in the lousy exchange rate they gave on temple coins to buy animals for sacrifice, and making God’s house a market place for profit. What a horrible picture of God that gave to people. But it really made me think what picture of God I give to people, especially when I’m writing as if I represent God and what he wants taught too.
So I hope I’m giving the right picture of him in this blog, because I cannot deny that Jesus threatened people with hell, but it was only to those in God’s service who were turning people off God by their behaviour. But even then, despite their hypocrisy and the horrible picture of God they were giving, Jesus still held out hope to them in Matthew 23. He wasn’t threatening hell forever.
We see that in Matthew 23:37-39, when Jesus cries out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” Despite everything they’ve done, Jesus still loves them. There’s still punishment for their behaviour, oh yes, for “your house is left to you desolate,” but in the last verse Jesus leaves the door open, “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” All is forgiven once they acknowledge him.
And that to me is the true picture of God when it comes to hell and punishment. He always leaves his door open, no matter how awful we’ve been, because he loves us like a mother hen.