Did Jesus Talk More About Heaven Than Hell?

I recently came across a good post and discussion on Verum Serum about how much Jesus spoke of hell. Apparently someone made the statement that Jesus spoke about hell more than heaven, so John at Verum Serum checked it out to see if it was true and he came to the conclusion, just be doing a word count that Jesus speaks more about heaven than hell.

John’s interlocutor fired back with some evidence to the contrary and a good discussion ensued.  Said interlocutor quoted Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology as saying that Jesus spoke of hell more than any other biblical figure.  That’s a good point, but the issue is “Did Jesus speak of hell more than Jesus spoke of heaven”?

So, using my handy-dandy Logos software I decided to do a little search to see what I could find out.  Before I tell you the results I need to explain a bit about Logos searching.  I have a bunch of bibles in my Logos collection and the word “hell” was found in 20 of them.  When Logos searches it gives you the number of places the search term was found, so if the word is found in 7 versions, it’s 7 hits, if it is in 20 versions it’s 20 hits.  Also, Logos will often include variants of the search terms in their results.  So that’s my qualifier to say that this is not exactly a scientific study.  Still, the results are interesting.

Logos found the word “heaven” 4742 times in the gospels in 20 translations.

Logos found the word “hell” 286 times.

Since it seems to be a proven fact in some circles that Jesus spoke of hell more than heaven it occurred to me that Logos was obviously off here so I did a search for the word “hades” and came up with 86 hits.

That was still a little short so I did a search on the world “fire” and came up with 936 hits.

I’m not good at math, but I think 4742 is a slightly larger number than whatever 286 + 86 + 936 adds up to, like it might even be somewhere around 4 times larger.

In all honesty, my little survey here proves little.  To really understand Jesus on heaven and hell you would have to read each and every verse in its context, but I’m lazy and that just sounds too much like work.

A number count doesn’t determine the truthfulness or the importance of a concept.  If Jesus had only spoke of hell once that would enough to establish its reality and the fearfulness of it.

I think pointing out these numbers has greater value in addressing the way we use rhetoric.  In the Verum Serum post the discussion of how often Jesus spoke about heaven and hell was used in service to a bigger debate about man-centered vs. God-centered ministry.  Saying “Jesus spoke more about hell than heaven” is a rhetorical device designed to offer greater weight to criticisms of “man-centered” theology and ministry.  It’s a way of finding a bigger hammer with which to swat the fly.

In a proper zeal to combat error sometimes our rhetoric can outstretch the factual basis of that  rhetoric and we have to be careful.

I would suggest that it is more fruitful to admit that heaven and hell are equal realities that have equal bearing on our ministry, and that both issues can be used in service to a man-centered or a God-centered agenda.

To motivate by fear of hell can be just as much an appeal to self-interest as is enticement to heaven.

I don’t have time to develop the thought here, maybe later, but I think we need to be careful about using the man-centered vs. God-centered dichotomy as a paradigm for ministry and theology. I understand what the God-centered advocates are getting at and am firmly on their side in many ways.  Yet, I would say to the “God-centered” folks the same thing Inigo Montoya said to Vizzinni in The Princess Bride – “you keep using that word, I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

Yes, our life is to be fully-centered on God, to glorify and enjoy Him forever.  Yet, how did God accomplish and enable sinful men to re-center their lives on Him? He did this by moving in a man-ward direction, by becoming man Himself.  The incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are very man-centered things in many senses.  Jesus set aside His own glory out of a concern for the welfare of His human children. It doesn’t get much more man-centered than that.

Yet, whatever “man-centeredness” we find in the ministry of Jesus it was a means, not an end in itself.  God went “man-ward” in Jesus to send man back “God-ward.”  This is where the “God-centered” folks get it right, too many never make that turn back toward God.      I am particularly thinking of self-esteem and health and wealth preachers in this regard.

So, my concern here is more with terminology and the use of rhetoric than anything else.  Good motives don’t justify bad rhetoric.  Also, to call all appeals to self-interest “man-centered” and therefore to be written off, paints with too broad a brush and misses some important nuances in the biblical writings.  Even John Piper, the modern king of God-centeredness offers a paradigm where self-interest can be used in service to the glory of God in his writings on Christian hedonism.

I am also afraid our anti-man-centered rhetoric can cause us to miss some important theological concepts.  I don’t want us to be so afraid of being labeled “man-centered” that we fear to use valid theological words like “condescension” when speaking of God’s activity toward man in redemption or “humiliation” when speaking of the earthly sojourn of Jesus.  Though we must always call men to center their lives upon God, Jesus Christ, and the gospel, let’s not lose a sense of the stunning way in which God leans toward man in redemption.

David Wayne
Grace Point Presbyterian Church

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