Question: "Why did Jesus refer to the Pharisees as a 'child of hell' in Matthew 23:15?"
Answer: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15). This is one of the “seven woes” pronounced by the Lord against the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. To understand why Jesus would refer to a convert of the Pharisees as a “child of hell” (literally, “son of Gehenna”), we have to look at the context of Jesus’ words. Jesus is instructing His followers about the religious hypocrites who are themselves “children of hell.”
Jesus begins His condemnation of the religious leaders of the day in Matthew 22 with a parable. The story of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1–15) condemns the leaders’ self-righteousness and their refusal to accept God’s provision for their salvation. Because their hearts were still hard, they responded by trying to entrap Jesus with questions about taxes (verses 16–22), the resurrection (verses 23–33), and the Law (verses 34–40). Jesus avoided their traps and indicted them for knowing neither the Scriptures nor the power of God (verse 29). Then He turned the tables on them, asking them a question they couldn’t answer about the Messiah (verses 41–46). Once He had silenced them, He used the occasion to teach His disciples the truth about the teachers of the Law in chapter 23.
To be a child of hell is to be deserving of hell, that is, to be awfully wicked. In Matthew 23, Jesus explains that the Pharisees and Sadducees displayed their wickedness in many ways. They did not practice what they preached (verse 3). They burdened the people with religious rituals and ceremonies of their own invention and made no effort to help them to bear them (verse 4). All their religious rituals were done in a public manner in order to receive the praise and glory from others (verses 5–7). For all these sins and more, Jesus pronounces “woes” upon them for their guilt and the punishment that would surely await them.
The Pharisees and their converts were children of hell primarily because they rejected God’s provision for their salvation, attempting to justify themselves through their own righteous deeds. In so doing, they “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matthew 23:13). Jesus said that, when they made a Gentile convert, they made him double the child of hell that they were—the former pagan became twice the hypocrite that they were, twice as confirmed in wickedness. By opposing Jesus, the leaders tried to convince people that He was an impostor. Many were ready to embrace Him as the Messiah and were about to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but the hypocrites prevented it. Jesus says they had “taken away the key of knowledge” (Luke 11:52), meaning they had taken away the right interpretation of the ancient prophecies respecting the Messiah. In that way they prevented the people from receiving Jesus as their promised Redeemer.
Just as the Pharisees and Sadducees became children of hell by rejecting Jesus as their only Savior, so do millions today. All who remain in their sins are deserving of hell because God demands justice, and wickedness must be paid for (Romans 6:23). If we reject Christ’s payment for our sins, we must pay for them ourselves, thus rendering ourselves children of hell.