The Letter of Jude on Hell and the Afterlife

The Letter of Jude on Hell and the Afterlife

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Of the three major images Jude’s used for judgment—desert destruction, dark dungeons, flash firestorm—the third seems the worst to me. But that’s the image Jude returns to later in his letter to offer hope. To snag Jude’s full meaning, though, first we’ll glance at two background texts from the Old Testament.

Remember how Sodom set a precedent in Scripture? Here’s a later passage in which God scolds the Israelites: “‘I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. You were like a burning stick snatched from the fire, yet you have not returned to me,’ declares the Lord” (Amos 4:11).

The other passage is a bit longer. It comes from a vision of the prophet Zechariah:

Then [an angel] showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”

Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.”

Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.” (Zech. 3:1–4)

You may notice that this vision’s similar to Jude’s tale of the angel rebuking the devil over Moses’s corpse (v. 9). Most likely, Zechariah’s prophecy influenced that story.5 But Jude uses that prophecy to lay out hope for the hell-bound: “And show mercy to those who’re disputing. Save others by snatching them out of the fire. Show mercy to others with fear, hating even the clothes stained from their bodies” (vv. 22–23).

Are you catching how Jude echoes Amos and Zechariah? He’s saying to imitate God by showing mercy even to the false teachers and those swayed by them. Like the Lord snatched the Israelites from the Sodom-style fires of judgment. Like he did the same for High Priest Joshua and ditched his dirty laundry for the clean clothes of a fresh start. And, let’s add, like he did for John Wesley and still does today!

Jude holds out hope that even those who’d formerly denied Christ and abused his grace (v. 4) can be snatched from the flames. If so, does it mean that everybody will end up saved? Early in church history, some respected figures thought so. This view is called universalism, and it’s rebounding in popularity. Its appeal is obvious. Who wouldn’t like to think that every last person will someday, somehow, yield to Christ’s mercy and be saved?

But what about the Bible’s many warnings of judgment? After all, they make up the bulk of the book of Jude! Universalists read them in one of two ways: either

  1. They’re motivational threats made to spur people to seek salvation, but because everybody will do this eventually, nobody will experience these threats coming true.
  2. They’re not about final damnation, only temporary correction. Hell is really purgatory. If it’s a fire, it will cauterize our sins. If it’s a prison, we’ll all make parole.

Either way, the upshot is that all Jude’s warnings are backhanded promises. The false teachers aren’t only “marked out for this condemnation long ago” (v. 4) but also for salvation, come hell or high water. So are the exodus rebels, Sodom’s citizens, Cain, Balaam, and maybe even the fallen angels and the devil himself (vv. 5–11). Every uprooted tree will be replanted and fruitful; every lost star will emerge from the murk (vv. 12–13).

If we read Jude’s manifesto that way, though, his “extreme urgency” (v. 3) feels overblown. He should’ve had a psychiatrist help calm his hysterical rant. He also needed a better editor to polish his letter to make his optimism shine brighter—­especially since universalism wasn’t a live option in his Jewish surroundings. None of the Old Testament stories he picked as examples had happy endings for the people being judged. His nature illustrations don’t strike a hopeful note either.

Truth be told, Jude’s language of judgment sounds much like other Jewish writings of his era. They tend to agree that in the end, some will live with God and others will be lost, and these two destinies follow from our relationship to God here and now. The divide in Jewish circles was over these destinies’ details, like if the lost suffer forever or cease to exist. (This debate continues in Christian circles.) Sometimes both options appear in the same document, like in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which says that the wicked will experience “eternal torment and endless disgrace together with shameful extinction in the fire of the dark regions.” (Community Rule [1QS] 4.12–13 in Geza Vermes, trans., The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, rev. ed. [London: Penguin, 2004], 102.)

Jude’s letter seems to blend both options too. We get footage of fallen angels and stars and perhaps even Korah still existing in the shadow realm, but right alongside is coverage of extinction-level events like the scorching of Sodom and the double death of trees. Logically, the two options contradict each other, just like the images of fire and darkness do. Maybe that means we shouldn’t take them overly literally or combine them like grisly puzzle pieces in hopes of developing a single consistent snapshot of hell. Maybe the jarring clash of graphic images and the clear expectation of a final judgment on evil are enough.

This entry is an excerpt from Jerome Van Kuiken’s new book, The Judas We Never Knew. Find extended notes and further explanations on many of these points in the book. As you read it and view the videos, you’ll discover unearth the Judas behind the biblical letter of Jude—illustrating why we should care about his twenty-five-verse letter and arguing that Jude’s presence in the early church and in our Canon still matters today.

We believe this resource can help someone understand:

  • Why the book of Jude is so important for the church today
  • Jude’s place in the church as Jesus’s half-sibling
  • What we stand to lose as believers if the book of Jude is overlooked

Get it from our store here.


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