A while back I read Rob Bell’s book ‘Love Wins’ and it caused me to re-think a lot about how I view hell, even causing me to have some concerns about what I had been taught all my life. That fallback position to go back to ‘what I’ve always been taught’ isn’t the best standard to judge the legitimacy of an idea, though, like comfort food, can be a good starting point. I will admit that I even had some doubt about what I believe. What is hell? What is its purpose? Is it a place? Is it forever? Should we fear it? Does it cause people to turn away from God? Does it make it hard if not impossible for us to share the love of Christ with someone else? Is it a problem for Christianity?
I think that the whole idea of hell is one of Christianity’s most offensive doctrines. Peter Kreeft writes: “Of all the doctrines in Christianity, Hell is probably the most difficult to defend, the most burdensome to believe and the first to be abandoned.”
Many are repulsed, sickened and appalled by the idea of an eternal place of punishment, especially if someone suggests that includes themselves, friends & family. “Hitler maybe, but not my grandmother.”
Because of these angsts, many Christians will avoid the topic of Hell altogether. We don’t hear it talked about from the pulpit in may churches anymore and it isn’t usually a part of the conversation around a shared meal. We don’t want to rock the boat maybe or we think that Hell isn’t a required subject when sharing the gospel.
I propose however, that we need to talk about Hell more than we do. I believe that it is integral to the Gospel message and is doing the church a disservice when we hide it away as though it is the crazy uncle we’re embarrassed to talk about.
So, I did what I always do when faced with a spiritual and / or theological question. No, I didn’t ask Siri or head to the theological depths of Wikipedia, I went to God’s word… and even more specifically the Word made flesh. If we want to answer the question of hell, then we need to look at Jesus and what he had to say on the subject.
He’s a great place to start for a few reasons. The first is that people in the West think Jesus is a pretty good guy so if you want to help others understand a particular subject it helps if you can ‘name drop’ someone they like. Oprah likes him, at least the non-confrontational Jesus, and Deepak Chopra has even written books about Jesus as a great mystic and guru of Eastern religion.
In our culture we find that Jesus isn’t painted with the same brush as that angry, vengeful, cranky God of the Old Testament who hadn’t matured out of his confusing puberty years yet. But when God finally grew up and entered his college years in the New Testament, he reemerged as the party guy named Jesus. Good times! Parties in Cana, lots of talk about love and compassion and grace, and of course helpful spiritual sound bites. Selfies all round!
The problem with this view though is that it’s not true, which is another reason why I find it helpful to go to Jesus. We get most of our understanding of hell, not from the Old Testament, but from Jesus own words. When you start reading the Gospels, you find that Jesus speaks about hell more than anyone else. About 13% of his teachings and half of his parables are about hell, judgment, punishment, and the wrath of God.
Jesus talked about hell and it follows that we should too. First though, how do we reconcile a Jesus of grace & mercy & love with a Jesus’ of wrath, punishment & hell?
I think that number one, we need to see that interwoven with the love of God is his mercy that requires justice. If a judge pardons an unrepentant child abuser without any good reason, we wouldn’t applaud his mercy and see it as an act of love, particularly when we consider the rights of the victim (and the safety of potential future victims). Mercy without justice is reckless and dangerous. True justice requires adequate payment for the crime or crimes committed.
“When a person goes through rape or child abuse, she needs to know that there is a God of such holiness and beauty that his reign can tolerate no evil.” – Tim Keller
Even if someone got off because of a loophole in the justice system, we’d call it “Injustice!” Why? Because we have something within us that tells us that injustice is wrong. It’s a universal belief that we know it has to be paid for.
If God is truly just, then there is punishment for offenses committed.
Yet, many people will demand God show them mercy while still refusing to love that very same God. “I will not follow you and obey your commands – but don’t send me to hell.” However, the facts are that God’s mercy & love are inseparable.
The other concern I needed to address after reading Rob Bell’s book was the idea that hell was symbolic as opposed to a real cavernous abode of fire and brimstone… so I went back to the Word of God to see what is revealed there.
Some people get confused and will deduce that hell can’t be a physical place because of how it is described. For example, when scripture describes hell, it speaks about “eternal fire” “unquenchable fire”. But it also says that hell is a place of utter darkness.
So, what is it?
It’s all the above. It is fire, darkness and a real place hung in real time. Yet, because of our culture, we often imagine the fire and darkness as literal flames and literal inky blackness. Instead we need to understand the language was used to help us understand the magnitude of the place.
For example, when the bible speaks about a God of unquenchable fire, we don’t imagine him being a big ball of literal fire. Rather we understand that it’s giving us a picture of his holiness.
Likewise, when we read that God has blinded the eyes of the unbeliever in John 12:10, we don’t expect to see a bunch of unsaved people on the roads driving around with dark glasses on because they’re literally blind all of a sudden. We know that it’s speaking of their spiritual condition.
At the same time, in Luke 16, Jesus speaks about heaven and hell as being real places with hell as a place of separation from the presence of God. Yet it wasn’t utter darkness in a physical sense since the Rich man could see Lazarus (albeit through sweaty eyes). However, think about the following; Since God is the source of all spiritual light, and all joy and all wisdom and all love or good thing of any sort, and since we were originally created for God’s immediate presence, it is then only before him will we thrive, flourish, and achieve our highest potential.
So, if we were to lose his presence totally, that’d be the deepest darkness of the soul. Without his light, we can only expect the loss of our capability for giving or receiving love or joy and finding any kind of satisfaction.
Add to that the picture of fire which speaks to its nature as a degenerater, something that deteriorates to ash everything it touches. Even in this life we can see the kind of soul deterioration that self-centeredness creates.
We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them.
We see this process in a small way in addictions such as drugs, alcohol, gambling, and pornography. First there is the degeneration, because as time goes on you need more and more of the addictive substance to get an equal kick, which leads to less and less satisfaction.
And then add the bitter darkness that isolation brings we had talked about in the Rich man’s situation, as increasingly you blame others and the surrounding environment or circumstances in order to justify your behaviour.
With that in mind ask the question:
“What if when we die we don’t end, but spiritually our life extends into eternity?”
With that picture in your mind’s eye you can see that Hell is the fire or the deterioration of a soul by living a self-absorbed, self-centred, angst driven, anxiety filled, blame shifting life – going on & on forever.
“Yeah, but I’m not all that bad. I haven’t murdered somebody, I’m not a drug addict, I don’t look at porn – often. I only get mad at ‘stupid’ drivers, God will be fair and let me into heaven.”
Jesus didn’t say the greatest commandment is to not murder, or to not commit adultery, though he did say that if you had anger in your heart you’ve committed murder, or if you’ve ever lusted after someone other than your spouse you’ve committed adultery.
But what Jesus did say was that the greatest commandment was, “to love God with all your heart soul and mind.” There is no greater evidence of the inability of man to obey God’s law than this one commandment. No human being with a fallen nature can possibly love God with all his heart, soul, and strength 24 hours a day. It’s humanly impossible.
Even without considering the sins we commit daily, we are all condemned by our inability to fulfill this one commandment. Further to that, the Bible declares that everyone sins, and that all sin is ultimately against God.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” – Romans 3:23
“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” – Psalm 51:4
Those verses are sobering enough, but then also understand that those who go to Hell aren’t going to be suddenly sinless and perfect. Those who go into eternity without Christ will be confirmed in their decision to not follow him while on earth.
Jesus said that there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in Hell. The gnashing of teeth isn’t a picture of someone who is in sorrow and repentance but rather a picture of a continued defiance toward God.
In Hell there will be no repentance.
So, unless you surrender your life to God in this lifetime, you will not only be living in disobedience to God for 70, 80, 90, or 100 years, you will be in disobedience before him for eternity – which requires an eternal penalty.
Why did Jesus speak about hell more than anyone else in the Bible? Because he wanted us to see what he was going to endure on the cross on our behalf so that we might choose heaven – so that we might choose God.
On the cross, Jesus’s sacrifice was scarcely describable: this bloodied, disfigured remnant of a man was given a cross that was perhaps recycled, likely covered in the blood, feces, and urine of other men who had used it previously. Hanging there in immense pain, he slowly suffocated to death. All the while knowing he could end the suffering, but choosing not to for our benefit.
But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the separation from the Father that Jesus felt, a separation that was like hell itself. “My God, my God,” he cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” – Matthew 27:46
An eternity without God is hell.
Without the cleansing of sin that he provides, and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit who lives in the hearts of the redeemed, loving God to any degree is impossible.
But, when we receive the free gift of salvation offered by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we are cleansed from sin and receive the Spirit of holiness to do the impossible. That being, a transformation of our hearts and minds to love God as we have been commanded to do, and as a result heaven becomes our home. This is great news!
That is why we talk about hell, because it allows us to talk about Jesus and his sacrifice… it allows us to make Jesus known, it brings clarity to the Gospel message about why Jesus died, and it lets us brag up our Saviour in order to bring him all the glory he deserves.