The other morning, I woke up to start writing, as I’ve been doing for the past few weeks, and I decided to do something different. I closed my laptop and just read through all of these passages on hell. I didn’t think about writing; I didn’t try to figure out all the nitty-gritty details of the text. I just let the New Testament speak in its power and simplicity, and here are some of the shocking things that God hit me with.
Jesus threatens hell to those who curse their brother (Matt. 5:22). He’s not warning drinkers or smokers or murderers. Jesus preaches hellfire against those who have the audacity to attack a fellow human being with harsh words. It’s ironic—frightening, actually—that some people have written books, preached sermons, or written blog posts about hell and missed this point completely. In fact, some people have slammed their Christian brothers and sisters in the process, simply because they have a different view of hell, missing the purpose of Matthew 5: Whoever calls his brother a fool may find himself guilty of hell.
Have you called your brother a fool lately? On a blog? On Facebook? Have you tweeted anything of the sort?
So often, these hell passages become fodder for debate, and people miss the point of the warning. Jesus didn’t speak of hell so that we could study, debate, and write books about it. He gave us these passages so that we would live holy lives. Stop slandering one another, and live in peace and brotherly unity. Jesus evidently hates it when we tear into our brothers or sisters with demeaning words, words that fail to honor the people around us as the beautiful image-bearing creatures that they are.
Blessed Are the Poor
And what about the poor? Jesus is crystal clear about the necessity of reaching the poor. Yet many hellfire preachers are overfed and overpaid, living in luxury while doing nothing for the majority of Christians who live on less than two dollars a day.  Contrast that with Jesus, who in His longest sermon about judgment made helping the poor a vital criterion.
Put simply, failing to help the poor could damn you to hell.
I know, I know, everyone wants to qualify this. We want to add all sorts of footnotes to fix Jesus’ shaky theology in Matthew 25—justification is by faith, not by works; you don’t really have to help literal poor people, etc. 
On the flipside, some want to keep the stuff about helping the poor but take hell out of the picture. Sometimes, people even take Jesus out of the picture—fighting poverty, they believe, is an inherent virtue whether or not it’s rooted in the gospel.
Let’s keep the teeth of both truths. There’s a literal hell, and helping the poor is essential. Not only did Jesus teach both of these truths, He saw them as necessary and interrelated.
The Tongue of Fire
James doesn’t say much about hell in his short epistle. In fact, the word hell only occurs once. But this one instance is directed right at me, a teacher of the Bible. In the context of warning teachers that they will incur a stricter judgment (James 3:1), James says that the tongue is capable of burning up an entire forest (v. 5). “The tongue is a fire,” James says, and it is ignited by the fire of hell (v. 6). He doesn’t warn drunks, thieves, or adulterers about going to hell. No doubt James agrees that sinners of all sorts will go to hell, but for some sobering reason, he saves his only explicit—and quite scathing—warning about hell for teachers of God’s Word.
The same goes for 2 Peter and Jude. These short letters are full of hellfire and emphasize that hell is a place for false teachers—those who claim to be speaking for God but are really only speaking for themselves. According to Peter and Jude, these teachers are among us, exploiting us with false words. They speak a lot about God, but the gods they really delight in are their own bellies and wallets. Peter and Jude say they are heading for hell.
From Every Tribe and Tongue
Or take racism. The Christian church in many ages and in many places has stood on the wrong side of this issue, and it’s damnable—literally. What’s racism got to do with hell? you may ask. According to Jesus, it’s got everything to do with it.
In Matthew 8, Jesus smuggles a warning about hell into the context of racism and ethnocentrism. The entire context of Matthew 8-9 depicts Jesus reversing all of the cultural and social assumptions of the Jews of that day. One assumption is that the Jews, as the “people of God,” are much more fit for the kingdom than all those other nasty sinners—those Gentiles, those Greeks, those Romans. But in Matthew 8, Jesus is absolutely floored by the faith of a Roman Gentile military leader. And Jesus accepted him as he was, as a Gentile. From this encounter, Jesus says that the “sons of the kingdom” who think that God values one ethnicity over another are damned to hell: “The sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 8:12 NASB)
Why is it that only 5.5 percent of American evangelical churches could be considered multiethnic (where no single ethnicity makes up more than 80 percent of its congregants)?  Why is that? Five and a half percent! And we’re supposed to be living in the melting pot, the place where hundreds of languages and colors often live within a few miles—or feet—of each other. Many people outside the church are far less racially divided. Consider the military, our places of work, or athletics. Yet there are three places where racial division still persists: bars, prisons, and the American evangelical church.
If we’re going to take Jesus’ words seriously, we have to make a more concerted effort to forge avenues of racial reconciliation and unity under the banner of the gospel of Christ.
NOTES[1.] See Rodney Woo, The Color of Church: Biblical and Practical Paradigm for Multicultural Churches (Nashville: B & H Publishers, 2009); Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Divide by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).