Though some people associate judgment and hell with the Old Testament, if one actually pays attention to the text of the Christian Bible, the New Testament seems even more concerned with these themes, and it is only with the Gospels at the start of the New Testament that we really encounter repeated warnings about the threat of eternal fire. These warnings come from none other than Jesus himself. We should thus resist the temptation to purge these warnings from our Christianity, lest we lose something which Jesus himself preached about constantly and fearlessly. Yet we should not lose sight of why Jesus preaches about these bleak realities. It is clear in every instance that what Jesus preaches against is the failure to love, which is also a choice not to live out of the eternal life that he offers. Accompanying each of these warnings is an invitation to love, which is the living out, even in this life, of the eternal life that he offers. Thus, while it would be improper to purge our faith of warnings concerning eternal hellfire, it would likewise be inappropriate to suggest that our God is a god who created humankind in order to have it burn in hell, with only a few being saved from this horrid end. What sort of god would that be? That would not be the God of Jesus Christ, for Jesus came not to condemn, but to save (Jn 3:17). And yet, in his great love and desire to save us, Jesus must warn us of the real and terrible choice that we make in rejecting to live a life of love in the Love that he offers us: such a rejection is a rejection of God’s true life, and as such is itself hell.
It is curious that some who insist on “preaching” hell take a particular relish in the thought of others going there. Nonetheless, I have never encountered a person among these who, understanding the reality of hell, delighted in the thought that he or she might end up there. This possibility may seem alien to some of these people because of some privileged knowledge that they think they have, whether it be “knowing Jesus” and thus “being saved,” or maybe reading the right theology, or praying the right prayers, or what have you.
But Matthew 25 indicates a rather different basis for God’s judgment. In this gospel, Jesus indicates that it will not be enough to simply “know” Jesus or even to “speak well of him,” for the ones whom Jesus tells to depart from him also seem to know him and even call him “Lord” (Mt 25:44). Indeed, as we have already heard Jesus say, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21). But what is this will? In today’s gospel, it is clear that this will is love. “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” (Mt 25:35-36). These “righteous” did not recognize Jesus, whom they were serving in the least, and perhaps that is the point. Their life is so filled with the love that God offers them that they love even those who are hardest to love, the abandoned from whom they can hope for no recognition or reward for loving. Those who love with such a love in this life become pointers to the gratuitous love of God, who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). They have something that God can preserve for eternity, whereas those who decline to love thus (even if they claim to have the right religious practice and “preach hell” for those who don’t) will have very little in their life that merits being saved for eternity. For God’s eternity is nothing but this Love, and this Love alone is worthy of our faith.