When we hear a report of child abduction or abuse, it provokes righteous anger within us. We immediately recognize the incredible injustice of someone taking advantage of the innocence and weakness of a child. No justification is possible for this blatant disregard for righteousness.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus minces no words as He speaks about judgment for those who cause “little ones” to stumble (v. 42). But who are the little ones? First, He is referring more broadly to new believers, all those new followers who were casting out demons in His name or giving a cup of cold water to His disciples (v. 41). Jesus reminds His disciples that “whoever is not against us is for us” (v. 40). But just earlier, Jesus referred specifically to small children (vv. 36–37). To avoid causing “little ones,” young or old, to sin and to avoid the fiery judgment of hell for making them stumble, Jesus suggests some extreme acts to stop our sinful behavior: dismembering the hand or the foot, or taking out one’s eye. Then, one will not be “salted with fire”—judged in hell’s fire as mentioned in verses 43, 45, and 47.
The consequence of sin is real. Hell is described here as a place where “the worm does not die and fire is not quenched” (v. 48), and stands in stark contrast to entering the kingdom of God (v. 47). Hell is a real threat to the person who causes another to stumble.
The reality of eternal punishment should urge careful self-examination of our actions, because the consequence is worse than entering the grave. Death is not a threat; it is natural. But the consequence of hell is beyond what is natural. Therefore, just as we react with great concern about an abused or abducted child, we should pay attention to Jesus’ warning and lead others to Christ, not turn them away.
For many, the mention of hell can feel too harsh, too out of touch with modern sensibilities. Yet the reality of everlasting punishment does not disappear because our society wishes to ignore it. We must continue the task of preaching the gospel. There is no other message that gives people the good news of escaping hell.