And he gave Moses the two tablets of the covenant law,
the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God. (Exodus 31:18)
Many wonder if violating the Ten Commandments will lead to eternal damnation in Hell. I am sure you came across videos by Christian minister Ray Comfort because they are being advertised and have gained about half a billion views on social media platforms. They became known primarily for his “Ten Commandments Interview.” In these video interviews, Comfort corners strangers in public places to get them to admit they are sinners for breaking the ten commandments. His interrogation involves questions like: “Have you ever told a lie in your life?” “Have you ever stolen anything?” “Have you ever looked at a woman with lust?” If we are being honest, it is impossible to answer these questions with a ‘no.’ It is enough to have answered ‘so beautiful!’ when a bride asked for your opinion on her hideous dress, and now you are a liar. It is also enough to have taken a pen from the office and never returned it, and now you are a thief as well. As for lust, this reminds me of one of my doctoral classes in which all the participants happened to be men. At some point, the professor asked, “If anyone here has never fantasized about lesbians, please raise your hand.” Faces turned red, but not a single hand was raised. Theologians, pastors, ministers—we have all done it.
Then, Comfort continues by explaining to his interviewees about God’s holiness, “You have to be perfect in God’s eyes. Morally perfect.” Says Comfort.[i] Otherwise, “if God judges you according to the ten commandments,” you are doomed forever. The punishment is everlasting condemnation “in the lake of fire,” concludes Comfort.
So, because God is holy, he will have to punish you in hell for eternity. Or, to use the words of another reformed preacher, Paul Washer: “We owed a debt to God because of our sin. And that debt was eternal punishment.”[ii]
On one occasion, [iii] in August of 2022, Comfort asks a young Israeli-Jewish guy on the street, “Have you ever looked at a woman with lust?” Comfort says to the guy’s positive reply that according to Jesus, it’s the same as committing adultery. Therefore, on judgment day, he would be thrown to hell.
Now let’s take a step back and unpack the logic behind Comfort’s argument. One of the Ten Commandments Comfort loves using the most says:
You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14).
Once Comfort gets the young men to admit to looking at a woman with lust, he then continues onto the following verse:
I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:28).
There. It’s biblically proven. These wicked lawbreakers are on their way to hell. Forever.
Comfort’s logic works like this: Any legal offense against the Ten Commandments, even the lightest of offenses (like a temporary look at a beautiful woman with lust), deserves severe and eternal punishment — to be burnt in hell forever and ever. Comfort is essentially saying to young single men this: God created you with a robust sexual urge as part of who you are. However, if you think about sexuality for even a second – and you definitely will – God will cast you to hell for eternity.
I realize these videos are great for raising five million USD a year from like-minded Christians.[iv] But who on earth will want to believe such a message?
Let’s apply Comfort’s evangelistic logic to daily life. Imagine living in a country where a police officer could sentence you to a lifetime in prison for parking in a non-parking zone, or a parent could execute their child for watching porn. The moral standards and ethics of such a country would seem harsh and disproportionate, and you would likely try to escape this “North Korea” to another country. Yet, this is the “kingdom of God” we often hear about from pastors and evangelists. A God who will condemn you to eternal hell for simply looking at a woman with lust.
But the problem is not with Jesus and the Law but with how Comfort and others misuse the Law when associating it with our eternal spiritual destination.
First, for the sake of argument, let’s say Jesus was indeed trying to make a judicial case as to why a man (all men, really…) should be charged with the death penalty (Leviticus 20:10). If this is true, then just a few verses earlier, Jesus also explains that anyone who gets angry and calls their friend “fool” is also doomed (Matthew 5:21-22). So now, both men and women, all of them, are on their way to eternal condemnation. But I believe this would be a misinterpretation of what Christ was trying to teach. Jesus simply established the link between what you think and what you do.
What do I mean? Any company that has ever been formed started with an idea, a thought in someone’s mind. Any gun that has ever been fired at someone was triggered by a thought in the shooter’s mind. Actions, every single one of them, are first formed in our minds. If you committed adultery, you first entertained the idea inside your brain. If you cursed, it was because you first got upset. If you murdered someone, you first hated them in your heart. As Andy Woods puts it:
Jesus warned you about murder happening in your heart long before physically anything else transpires. Because private thoughts will ultimately lead to public actions. That’s why there is so much scripture about us guarding the mind.[v]
But I believe Comfort, like many Christians, is also misusing the Law and the commandments. The term “Torah” (or “Law”) is one of the most confusing and controversial terms in both Judaism and Christianity. And many times, things get even more confusing due to imperfect translation. Primarily, Torah refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, meaning the Pentateuch. But the same word is also used to refer to the laws and commandments within the Pentateuch.
Although there are laws in the Torah, the genre of the Torah is not judicial but narrative. It’s a story – a story that was written in one book, “the book of Moses.” Later on, the book was divided into five different books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The laws and commandments are only a small fraction of the Torah, which is mostly a narrative story. Israeli-Jewish Professor of Bible, Simeon Chavel, explains:
The Torah, which contains most of the laws, is not a collection of laws but rather a narrative that tells the history of the Jewish people in their earliest days… therefore we can view the Torah as a source of laws and even construct a set of laws from it. But this is not adequate grounds to interpret the Torah outside of its literary genre, which is a narrative… The fact that the biblical laws are always found in a literary context and not in a legal context means that the laws are indisputably tied to the means and purposes of the literary context in which they are found… The Torah is, first and foremost, a narrative and not a law book, and it needs to be treated accordingly.[vi]
The commandments were not an instruction manual on “how to get saved from hell,” but rather they included rites, rituals, customs, morals, social justice, and so on. They were given in the context of forming a new nation, essentially a constitution. Similarly, no one today looks at the constitution and laws of their country as a means of gaining or losing eternal life. Laws can and will affect your life, perhaps even dramatically, but it’s your life in a specific earthly setting.
For the children of Israel, the consequences for keeping or not keeping the Law had to do with their physical livelihood on this earth:
If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today…You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock–the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks. Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed…The LORD will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The LORD your God will bless you in the land he is giving you. (Deuteronomy 28:1; 3-5; 8-10)
So, the Law ends with an explanation of the blessings (and curses) of keeping it, never mentioning anything about salvation or heaven and hell. Of course, some laws had a spiritual aspect, yet the Law was Israel’s constitution, not “a guide to heaven for dummies.”
Just like in modern times, the Torah includes taxation (Leviticus 27:30; Deuteronomy 14:28), banking (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19), labor laws (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:14-15), etc. If the Torah was given in modern times, we would probably see rules about not smoking in airplanes and only crossing the road when the light turns green (or white, if you’re in America). There are fines and penalties for breaking these laws, but they have nothing to do with your eternal destination.
If you buy a vehicle, you receive a written manual that includes everything you must know in advance. However, the commandments (613 of them, some would say) did not come all at once. In the context of the story, you can see that the commandments were given slowly, from time to time. It’s like a scenario when a child breaks a vase, and then his parent decides that “from now on, you’re not allowed to play ball games inside the house!” Unlike an instruction manual, where all laws and rules are given in advance, the Law is a narrative, a story about a group of people forming a nation. A nation of slaves, chosen by God, who is slowly restraining their behavior by setting up boundaries and correcting their ways. This was a long process in which God slowly raised Israel’s moral standards. Remember, the children of Israel were not educated. They used to be enslaved and came out of a pagan culture of idol worshipers. Furthermore, the pagans around Israel would burn their babies alive as part of their pagan rituals. So Israel’s standard wasn’t very high to begin with.
Nowadays, a person reading the Torah will find some of its commandments exceptionally odd and primitive. Laws that forbid you from having sexual intercourse with your mother and pets. Laws that require you to cover up pits you’ve dug to prevent someone from falling into them. Laws forbidding you from drinking blood as if you are a vampire. Laws that forbid you to sacrifice your child by fire. And other laws that make you think, “What kind of hooligans was Moses dealing with?” But this was precisely the point. Enslaved for four hundred years in Egypt, the people of Israel had no moral compass, values, or basic understanding of what was right and wrong. So, as you can imagine, their way of thinking and interacting with one another, morally speaking, was like that of a small and undisciplined child. That’s why they needed to be told that you’re not supposed to beat up your old parents but honor them, even if they ask you to do something you don’t feel like doing.
Therefore, you might notice something in common with most of the Ten Commandments: DO NOT murder. DO NOT steal. DO NOT bear false witness. DO NOT lust… They are about what you should NOT do. This means they weren’t meant to represent God’s ultimate moral standards. It was a temporary compromise on the godly standards (Matthew 19:8-9). Otherwise, the laws would be about things we should do. Instead of “do not murder,” “love your enemies.” (Luke 6:27-28) Instead of “do not steal,” – “give generously.” (Luke 6:38). However, the main goal of the commandments was to temporarily restrain the human heart. (Galatians 3:24; Romans 10:4) This was in an attempt to build a decent enough society in a corrupt world for the nations to start and follow (Isaiah 42:6, 51:4).
The laws and commandments in the Torah were meant to suppress crime and defend the weak, to create an initial framework to work with a corrupt and barbaric society. In the New Testament, we read:
Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers… (1st Timothy 1:9)
On top of that, Israel was a nation of stiff-necked people (Exodus 33:3; Deuteronomy 9:13). But this is how God likes to show his wisdom. He chooses the weakest, most miserable, and messed-up people to serve in a role no one else would ever consider them fit for. We would much rather see “perfect” people serving and leading in ministry. However, from reading the Bible, it seems God often chooses the opposite.
The Torah treated Israel like small children, which is why Paul called it “a guardian,” “schoolmaster,” “nanny,” or “babysitter” (Galatians 3:24, depending on the translation). Think of an animal infected with rabies. It must be in quarantine so that it won’t hurt others. This is what the commandments did for the hearts of the people of Israel. They restrained and restricted, but quarantine is no cure. So, the Law was “set aside because of its weakness and uselessness” (Hebrews 7:18-19). By the way, rather than explicitly forbidding murder, stealing, or worshiping other idols, Jesus exemplified how to love even one’s enemies, how to be generous, and how to recognize the goodness of the one true God. His teachings encouraged us to embody values, which in turn implicitly discouraged things like murder, theft, and idol worship.
Yet throughout Israel’s long journey, none of Israel’s prophets or leaders ever attributed their ability to follow the commandments to salvation, heaven, or hell. Instead, it was about the quality of their lives. Any conversation regarding salvation and the afterlife in the context of keeping the commandments would be a foreign concept for the people of Israel. They saw the Law the same way you look at the laws in your country. You wouldn’t associate crossing the road at a red light with God sending you to hell, but you would acknowledge that you might get fined for it (or worse, get hit by a car). The quality of their lives was affected by what they did, and their eternal salvation was affected by what they believed.
Now you can understand why attempting to evangelize people by telling them God will throw them into hell because they didn’t keep a commandment of the Law makes no sense. It is as if I told my son he was supposed to walk peacefully in the house without shoes on, but since he ran with dirty shoes and stepped on the dog, he is forever banned from the house and is no longer my son! The house rules exist so the family can enjoy living in the house peacefully and protected. The laws have nothing to do with the status of my son as my child. He will always be my child, no matter what. Unless, of course, he chooses otherwise because he doesn’t see me as his father anymore. But that’s his decision, not mine. For me, he will always be my son, no matter how often he gets the floors dirty.
Likewise, with Israel, the commandments were given so that the people of Israel could live together in harmony. Of course, if someone broke a commandment, they would get punished. But their punishment had to do with their earthly life, not with the eternal destination of their souls. Yes, there was a penalty for sin; the penalty was even death for some sins. However, these are not spiritual nor eternal penalties but physical punishments.
For example, let’s look into one of Comfort’s favorite commandments to quote. The 8th commandment says: “You shall not steal.” (Exodus 20:15).
Here in the Middle East, we absolutely love lamb. So, let’s say my next-door neighbor was hungry while I was away. Craving a lamb, he then stole my sheep and ate it. So, according to the scriptures, is God going to doom him to eternal condemnation in hell for stealing it (as implied by Comfort)? Well, two chapters later, we find out the answer: “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep” (Exodus 22:1). So, thanks to some context, we know Comfort’s logic to be faulty. God will not doom my hungry neighbor to hell for stealing. But he now owes me four sheep, and they better be nice and fattened!
Let’s make things more complicated. What if a person living in the times of Deuteronomy trespassed two different commandments simultaneously by “stealing” a woman to have sexual intercourse with her. Surely then, his punishment will be eternal condemnation in hell. Right? Well, in that case:
If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
In this situation, that man is to pay the young woman’s dad a fine and support her for the rest of her life. It seems you have to pay for your sins, sometimes even for the rest of your life. But this had nothing to do with your eternal destination.
Think of King David. He not only stole and committed adultery with Bathsheba, but he even murdered her husband, Uriah. In 2nd Samuel chapter 12, when the prophet Nathan came to confront David, he spoke nothing about David’s salvation. He did, however, announce his punishment. Nathan knew what David knew – his salvation was not in question as it had only to do with David’s faith. Interestingly, God did not even ask David to resign from office.
Let’s look into another commandment. The 5th commandment holds a much more severe punishment: “Honor your father and mother.” (Exodus 20:12). What would happen if you didn’t? Several chapters later, in the book of Leviticus, we find the answer: “For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:9). Now the question is, what kind of death is Leviticus referring to? An eternal condemnation in the lake of fire, as some evangelists suggest, or something of a different nature? In Deuteronomy, we find the answer:
…then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
Here, too, the penalty is literally a physical death penalty.
Suppose we are to translate all this into modern language. In that case, a person may pay a fine or sit in prison for something stupid they did yet be saved due to their faith in Christ. The former does not contradict the latter. In Old Testament times, eternal salvation had nothing to do with your works and behavior but with affecting the quality of your life (and probably your wages in the next world). The modern connection between one’s works and their salvation is foreign to the Hebrew Scriptures as it was only later developed based on New Testament verses that I believe were taken out of context. But we can speak of it later. The bottom line is that how we behave on earth affects our life on earth. What we believe of God — our faith — affects our eternal life.
Nowhere in the Pentateuch, nor any place in the Old Testament, does it tell the Israelites that trespassing a commandment will result in eternal condemnation in hell. Comfort’s doctrine of salvation would be utterly foreign to an ancient Israelite, as it was only developed thousands of years later. So, when you are reading the Law, remember God did not give you the Law as a manual. Instead, you are reading a story about how God gave the Law to Israel. And from this perspective, you should approach it.
My intention is not to harass Comfort, Washer, and other Reformed preachers. I agree with some of their beliefs and appreciate their sincerity and zeal for God. However, I believe they misrepresent the gospel and oversimplify the concept of sin altogether. Sin is far more complex than God’s holiness demanding I will be burnt for eternity because I drooled over the neighbor’s beautiful new convertible.
In summary, the commandments were never about salvation, and therefore, they should not be used to evangelize in such a way. For the people of Israel, salvation had only to do with one’s faith. Since the Bible never uses the commandments concerning salvation, it is probably best if modern evangelists do not as well.
This article is based on my new book, ‘The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse,’ available on this Amazon page.
A free sample is available here.
 I like to use the term “Torah” in referring to the Pentateuch, and “Law” in referring to the commandments given Israel in Sinai. But different Bible translations will use different words to mean different things, making it confusing. One example is the English Standard Version (ESV). Sometimes the ESV used “Law” (capital L) to refer to the Pentateuch as a whole (Matt. 5:17; 22:40;). Other times, “Law” (capital L) is restricted to the commandments of the Sinai covenant (Matt. 12:5; Galatians 3:10) and in some cases “law” (lowercase l) refers to the commandments of Sinai (Matt. 23:23; Acts 13:39;). In Romans 3:21, “Law” (capital L) refers to the five Books of Moses and “law” (lowercase l) refers to the commandments of Sinai. The ESV is not very consistent.
 Another problem with using the ten commandments as a standard for salvation is that they say nothing about other sins, such as pride, anger, addiction, animosity, selfishness, patronizing, etc.
[i] “Ray Comfort Was Almost Killed Preaching in Jerusalem.” YouTube, Aug 6, 2022.
[ii] In ‘American Gospel’ film (2018).
[iii] “Ray Comfort Was Almost Killed Preaching in Jerusalem.” YouTube, Aug 6, 2022.
[v] “Genesis 109. Sin’s Temporary Consequences.” Dr. Andy Woods. Feb 12th, 2023.
[vi] שמחה שבל, ספרות המקרא: מבואות ומחקרים – כרך ראשון, ירושלים, בהוצאת: יד יצחק בן-צבי, 2011, עמ’ 227-232