Why would being rude to someone get you thrown into the hell of fire?

Read time: 8 minutes

Ryan sent me a nice email a few days ago. He tells me that he has a very conservative theology but struggles with the traditional understanding of hell. He has read some of the articles on this site about hell and finds them “extremely fascinating”, but he has some questions. For example, why should a person who says “fool” to someone be in danger of the fire of hell? “Can you explain this through your viewpoint?” he asks. “Why would someone be thrown into the valley for calling someone a fool? And what is the fire about if it’s just a valley?” So what can we say about this curious passage from the sermon on the mount?

You have heard that it was said to the ancients, “You shall not murder”, and “whoever murders will be liable to the judgment”. But I say to you that everyone who is angry towards his brother will be liable to the judgment; whoever says “raca” to his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “fool!” will be liable to the Gehenna of fire. (Matt. 5:21-22, my translation)

1. The sermon on the mount is framed eschatologically. The beatitudes, with which it opens, are pronounced generally on the “poor” in Israel (“Blessed are the poor…”) who mourn over the wretched condition of the nation and desire righteousness; they will gain the kingdom of God, they will inherit the vineyard of Israel that will be taken from the wicked tenants (Matt. 5:1-10; 21:33-44). The body of teaching concludes with the warning that Israel’s house is currently being built on sand and will be swept away when the storm and flood of God’s judgment come in the form of war against Rome (Matt. 7:24-27).

The judgment of the geenna of fire comes into force when the normal process of justice under Torah has broken down. It is God’s judgment on the dysfunctional vineyard of Israel.

In this context the disciples are blessed specifically (“Blessed are you…”) “when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11–12). The disciples will also be sent to the vineyard of Israel, and they can expect to be treated in the same fashion as the prophet-servants were and the Son will be. In that capacity they are the “salt of the land” and the “light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-16).

2. The teachings about the Law, which follow, have to do with relations between Jews. This is true all the way through to the end of the chapter. The evil-doer who should not be resisted (Matt. 5:38-42) is a person whose behaviour might otherwise be subject to the ruling of Exodus 21:23-25: “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exod 21:23–25). The enemy to be loved is the Jew who will persecute the disciples on Jesus’ account. The saying presupposes Leviticus 19:17-18:

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.” (Lev. 19:17–18)

So I disagree with Hagner, for example, when he says: “The ethical injunction against anger is directed to those who receive the kingdom—but in their relations with all other human beings”.1 It is only intra-Jewish relations that are in view. Hagner naturally wants to put the sermon on the mount at the disposal of the universal Church, if not of all humanity, but Jesus’ purposes are narrowly focused. This is about how Israel will get through the next 40 years.

3. Jesus expects his disciples to keep the commandments to the letter: if their righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will not enter the kingdom of heaven. The intensification of the commandments regarding murder, divorce, false witness, retaliation and love for neighbour set out in Matthew 5:21-48 applies exclusively to the community of his followers. If they do not adhere to his heightened version of Torah observance, they will not enter the kingdom of heaven; indeed, they will suffer the same fate as the scribes and Pharisees. The community of the disciples is redefined as ideal obedient Israel, subject to a new Moses, under extreme eschatological conditions.

4. It is difficult to discern any meaningful development in the three offences: expressing anger towards a brother, calling him “raca” (a transliterated Aramaic word meaning something like “empty-head” or “numskull”), or calling him a “fool” (mōre). But the corresponding outcomes seem to be climactic: “liable to the judgment”, “liable to the council”, “liable to the geenna of fire”.

The point here, I think, is that under Torah a person charged with murder would be “liable to the judgment (krisei)”—that is, he or she would be tried and sentenced either by a local court or by the Sanhedrin:

You shall appoint for yourselves judges and recorders in all your cities, which the Lord your God is giving to you, according to tribes, and they will judge the people with a just judgment (krisin dikaian). (Deut. 16:18 LXX)

In Jesus’ eschatological intensification of Torah, therefore, a disciple charged with anger or abusiveness would likewise be tried and sentenced by a local court or the Sanhedrin: it’s a way of saying that anger and abusiveness towards a fellow Jew—a “brother” according to the terms of Leviticus 19:17-18—are tantamount to murder.

5. The judgment of the geenna of fire comes into force, however, when the normal process of justice under Torah has broken down. It is God’s judgment on the dysfunctional vineyard of Israel.

Whatever further connotations the word geenna may have acquired in Jewish apocalyptic writings, I think that for Jesus the Valley of the Son of Hinnom had the same narrow metonymic function as it had for Jeremiah. The valley stood, by topographical and literary association, for the catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple:

Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away. (Jer. 7:32–33; cf. 19:6-8)

Jerusalem would be besieged by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar because the sons of Judah had done evil in God’s sight (7:30). So many would die from hunger, disease and the sword that there would be no place to bury them in the city. The bodies of the dead would be thrown into the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, which is “Gehenna”, to be eaten by carrion birds and wild animals, or perhaps consumed by the fires that slowly burnt through the city’s waste (cf. Is. 66:24).

Jesus predicted the same “judgment of Gehenna”—the same horrors of siege and slaughter—for a city that did not recognise the time of its visitation, that did not know the “things that make for peace”:

For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you…. (Luke 19:43–44)

The prediction would be confirmed by Josephus, writing about the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans:

Now the seditious at first gave orders that the dead should be buried out of the public treasury, as not enduring the stench of their dead bodies. But afterwards, when they could not do that, they had them cast down from the walls into the valleys beneath. (Jos. War 5.12.3).

I find it quite remarkable that commentators will note the connection with Jeremiah but completely overlook the prophetic significance it has in that context:

The name Gehenna is from the Aramaic words גֵּי חִנָּם, gê ḥinnām, for the “valley of Hinnom” (cf Josh 15:8; 18:16), a despised place to the southwest of Jerusalem where at one time human sacrifices were offered to the god Molech (cf 2 Kgs 23:10; Jer 7:31) and where in later times the city’s refuse was burned. The constant burning there made the valley a particularly suitable metaphor for eternal punishment (cf 4 Ezra 7:36; SibOr 1.103…).2

The name geënna derives from the Valley of Hinnom (Hebrew gê hinnōm) outside Jerusalem which had once been the site of human sacrifice by fire to Molech, 2 Kgs 23:10; Jer 7:31. There is a later tradition that the city’s rubbish was dumped and burned in this valley, which if true would provide a vivid image of “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”3

Ironically, Hagner invokes 4 Ezra and the Sibylline Oracles in order to give Jesus’ language the larger and more abstract connotation of “eternal punishment”. This seems to me unjustified. If Jesus’ language can be fully explained from the Jewish scriptures, then we should simply accept the historical constraints that the literary dependence imposes.

He teaches his disciples to develop an attitude of heart and mind—an internalised “hedge” around the Law—that would maintain the integrity of their eschatological witness against the failure of Israel to keep the Law, during the traumatic period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the birth pains of the age to come. It would also be a sign, I imagine, that in this new age the Law of God would be written by the Spirit on the hearts of his people.

  • 1D. A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 (2000), 116.
  • 2D. A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 (2000), 117.
  • 3R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (2007), 202.