Must we always talk about hell in evangelism?

Must we always talk about hell in evangelism? July 12, 2022

Must we always talk about hell when we evangelize? No.

Before you cancel me or spread false rumors about my theology, you should know that I do believe in hell, and I do think it’s something worth discussing. It’s simply not something that people need to emphasize every time they share the gospel.

When did Jesus talk about hell?

It’s noteworthy that neither Jesus nor Paul routinely appeals to hell when teaching about the gospel. Whether they ever do so is a different question.

In the ministry of Jesus, we find a nuanced position that some might think. He mentions “hell” (γέεννα) in a narrow range of texts.[1] The occurrences are almost only located in Matthew. The two texts in Mark and Luke are repeated in Matthew.

What patterns do we see in the way Jesus spoke of hell? In each instance, he is not addressing a broad audience with the primary concern of explaining how people “become Christians.” Instead, Jesus generally reserves hell talk for three situations.

First, Jesus uses hell to underscore how seriously one should fight sin (Matt 5; Mark 9; cf. James 3:6). For example, he says,

“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:30).

Second, Jesus alludes to hell as a way of stressing the supreme authority of God. Hence, in Matthew 10:28, he says,

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (cf. 18:9; Luke 12:5).

The third set of texts is remarkable. These verses are the only ones where Jesus uses hell as a threat against a specific group of individuals. In Matthew 23:15, 33, he says,

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves…. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?

He does not target the general population. He expressly rebukes those who supposedly represent God as teachers yet mislead the people away from him. Such men were negligent shepherds whose misguided agendas corrupted the character of His sheep.

Did Jesus Use Hell in Evangelism?

There’s much more to be said on this topic. Grasping how Jesus talked about hell is a crucial starting point that shouldn’t be glossed over.

However we understand Jesus’ use of hell language, we can conclude one thing:

It does not resemble the methods of evangelism that we see recommended today by countless churches and ministries.

There’s a place for talking about hell. It is in the Bible, so it’s a truth worth being known and taught. But talking about hell in disproportion or in ways inconsistent with the Bible’s approach can cause confusion.

(It’s interesting that articles like Greg Gilbert’s “Why Hell is Integral to the Gospel” affirm hell as biblical teaching, but they do not show how Jesus and others use it to preach the gospel explicitly.)

Might some biblical passages speak about hell indirectly, such as when authors refer to “judgment”? Aren’t those implicit references to hell? In the next post, I’ll respond to these questions.


[1] Most are bunched together in Matthew 5:22-30; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43-47. Other references include Matthew 10:28, 18:9; Luke 12:5.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

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