A few weeks ago, I posted some broad-brushstroke thoughts about my experience reading through the New Testament, seeking out every passage that touches on judgment, heaven, hell, who goes where, and for how long. This little experiment was inspired by reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins earlier this year. I thought I’d dive a little deeper into one book in particular, Luke.
Luke is one of two volumes from the same writer. Luke tells the story of Jesus, while volume two (Acts) unpacks the movement he ignited.
More than any other gospel, Luke highlights the radically inclusive nature of Jesus. Time and again, Jesus subverts the “natural order of things.” Those who think they’re entitled to God’s favor end up on the wrong side of things. Those typically excluded — women, foreigners, the diseased, etc. — end up pleasantly surprised.
The gospel of Luke mentions hell (a.k.a. Gehenna) only once, in Luke 12:5. Three times if you also count references to Hades (Luke 10:15; 16:23).
In Acts… not one mention of hell.
As for judgment, there’s plenty to be found in Luke. But it’s not always what you’d expect.
John the Baptist warns of an unquenchable fire in Luke 3. But he also connects fire with baptism. One fire, different results — depending on what kind of person you are.
Twice (Luke 9:25-26; 12:8-10) Jesus says he’ll disown anyone who’s ashamed of him. The second time, Jesus also warns that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.
And just what is blasphemy against the Spirit? This statement is set against the backdrop of Jesus’ clash with those who cynically credit his work to the devil and insist he prove his identity by performing signs at their command (Luke 11:14-16).
Two things worth mentioning…
First, you have to know someone in order to be ashamed of them. These texts say nothing about those who’ve never heard of Jesus.
Second, Jesus aims his rebuke at those who knowingly, persistently reject him. Those who see God at work and call it the devil.
Elsewhere, Jesus prophesies that three Galilean villages — Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum — will suffer a fate worse than Sodom because of their unbelief (Luke 10:1-15).
In Love Wins, Rob Bell reflects on a similar passage in Matthew, suggesting that maybe there’s hope for Sodom (p. 83-84). But that doesn’t seem to be the point of Luke’s text or the parallel account in Matthew.
Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum are sometimes known as the “evangelical triangle.” This was Jesus’ home turf. Several of the disciples came from these villages. The evangelical triangle was home to some of the most devout, God-fearing people in ancient Palestine.
According to Luke, the fate of these otherwise good people who rejected the Messiah will be worse than that of the notoriously wicked who never met Christ (e.g. Sodom).
That’s because judgment is directly related to knowledge. Elsewhere, Luke quotes Jesus: “The one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows,” while those who know better “will be beaten with many blows” (Luke 12:47-48).
And in his next installment, Luke writes about a God who has overlooked human ignorance.
Does ignorance get someone off the hook for bad behavior? Not entirely. But the full force of judgment is reserved for those who ought to know better.
And then there’s the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). In this story, Jesus describes Hades as a place of “torment.” There’s a “great chasm” separating Hades from paradise — though the rich man’s refusal to accept Lazarus as his equal, even after their fortunes have been thoroughly reversed, is as much a chasm as anything else in this story.
Most scholars will tell you not to read too much theology into parables. But this story does reveal another dimension of judgment: it is in part about evening the score, providing justice for those who didn’t get any in this life (see also Luke 6:20-26).
In fact, if there’s one group of people for whom it’s almost impossible to enter the kingdom of God, it’s the rich (Luke 18:18-29). Which is small comfort for those of us who find ourselves among the wealthiest 1% of people on the planet.
Last, we have the religious leaders — Jesus’ nemeses in all four gospels.
Near the end of his life, Jesus singles out the religious establishment in a parable about a vineyard owner who executes his wicked tenants (Luke 20:9-19). No one misses the point (which is remarkable for one of Jesus’ parables): the “teachers of the law and the chief priests” are the wicked tenants.
A few paragraphs later, Jesus warns that the religious leaders “will be punished most severely” for making a mockery of religion and exploiting the vulnerable (Luke 20:45-47).
So yeah… there’s plenty of judgment in Luke. We’re talking more than just a slap on the wrist, too:
“Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell.”
“Will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.”
“These men will be punished most severely.”
But Luke also seems to believe that not all sins are created equal. In God’s cosmic justice, the punishment always fits the crime.
This is a far cry from the brand of Calvinism which says that every sin — from breaking the speed limit to genocide — is equally repugnant in the eyes of a holy God.
But there’s more.
In Luke, Jesus is radically inclusive and divisive all at once.
When Jesus’ disciples try to stop someone driving out demons in his name, Jesus tells them to leave the guy alone, saying, “Whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-51).
But in the very next section of Luke, he says, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23). (This was in response to those attributing his powers to the devil, for what it’s worth.)
Jesus insists he came not to bring peace but division (Luke 12:51), and he butts heads with the religious leaders… a LOT.
Yet Luke also says the religious leaders “rejected God’s purpose for themselves,” once more highlighting the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ message. Even the establishment — as corrupt as it was — was meant to be part of what God was doing.
It turns out God wants everybody, even misfits. Even outcasts. And even the ones oppressing the outcasts. That’s the whole point of Luke’s gospel.
One last thing to take from Luke: judgment isn’t our business. It’s God’s.
In Luke 9, as Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem — toward his death — he and his disciples pass through a Samaritan village. The people refuse to welcome him. (Let’s just say there was a bit of ethnic hostility between Jews and Samaritans back then.)
The disciples ask if they should call down fire from heaven to destroy the village… which was just a bit presumptuous on their part, don’t you think?
Jesus will have none of it. Luke simply says that he “turned and rebuked them.”
There’s a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo laments that his uncle Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance. To which Gandalf replies: “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”
The same warning applies to all of us to debate heaven, hell, and who goes where. It’s God’s business, not ours.
Even those who have a relatively narrow view of salvation should hope and pray they’re wrong — that God will withhold whatever judgment he’s got in store and spare whoever they seem to think will be on the receiving end.
After all, if you figure the odds based on the New Testament, those of us who qualify as “religious insiders” have a better chance of being on the wrong side of things… precisely because we’re so sure we’re right.
But the good news is that God wants everybody. Outcasts, insiders, everyone.