Hell - A Forgotten Doctrine?
God is a God of love. He is, and has, and always will be. At the same time, He is not all-loving, to the exclusion of everything else. He has other attributes in addition to love. He is also a God of justice, a God of righteousness, and yes, a God of wrath. I know we don't like to hear about that, but it's true. The Bible couldn’t be any clearer on this issue.
I have been spending a large portion of my summer reading through the Old Testament. It’s seemingly impossible to open up the left side of the Bible and not be confronted with God’s wrath and judgment. Yet, when we speak about the doctrine of hell, the portion of the Bible that gives the most thorough treatment on the topic of hell is the right side – the New Testament.
A Hard Doctrine
Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in his work Why I Am Not a Christian: "I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture: and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as His chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that."
Charles Darwin has pointed to the doctrine of hell as one of the significant reasons for his abandonment of the faith. He stated in his autobiography: "I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother and almost all my friends, will be everlastingly punished."
Bertrand Russell is right about one thing; Jesus spoke often about hell. In fact, we learn the most about hell from the lips of Christ Himself. I wish I could remember who said it, but allow me to paraphrase a quote I remember hearing. The person made the point that the doctrine of hell is so difficult for us to comprehend, and so affects our sensibilities, God knew that this teaching must come from our loving savior Jesus.
As much as Jesus spoke on the topic (more than anyone else in Scripture), it seems to me we almost never hear it spoke of today. We hear about God’s love, and we hear about having a relationship with Him, and Christians certainly speak out often on current issues like politics, gun control, immigration, and other social issues of our day. However, maybe it’s me, but it seems as though in all our discussions and commentary we have forgotten about hell.
Now I don’t consider myself a fire and brimstone kind of guy and I’m not advocating for any undue emphasis on judgment, wrath, and suffering, but I want to take a hard look at this hard doctrine. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t give anyone warm fuzzies to dwell on the subject, but if the Scriptures speak on it, so should we.
People joke about it. Cartoons depict it inaccurately. We use the word flippantly. When we're angry with someone, we tell them to go there. People say that they are going there, and they will be partying with all their friends engaging in endless amounts of sex, drugs, and rock and roll for all eternity. Many people don't even believe such a place exists because they think it is utterly inconsistent with a God of love.
Why do such misconceptions exist? Are we misinformed on the subject due to the fact we aren’t reading our Bibles? I don’t want to hear from man on this topic. Culture shouldn’t shape my perception either. I don’t even want to hear from other Christians in terms of their view. As with all topics, controversial or not, we need to go to a reliable source for our information. What does God have to say regarding hell?
As hard as it may be, let’s take some time looking into this critical, yet often neglected doctrine. I will explore a number of popular questions that come up when we talk about hell.
How does the Bible describe hell?
outer darkness (Matthew 25:30) weeping (Matthew 8:12) wailing (Matthew 13:42) gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:50) flames (Luke 16:24) everlasting fire (Matthew 25:46) a furnace of fire (Matthew 13:42) separation from the righteous (Matthew 25:46) eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord (2 Thessalonians 1:9) torment (Luke 16:23) everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:46) the lake of fire burning with brimstone (Revelation 19:20)
Why do people go to hell?
The short answer is a single word – sin. Sin, as the Bible describes it, is transgression of the Law of God. God has established certain laws for our good and the problem is none of us have kept them. Just like here on earth when people break the law, there are consequences. When the justice system is working as it ought, criminals receive punishment. They did the crime and now they have to do the time. This principle applies in an earthly court as well as in God’s heavenly court.
Some people say individuals go to hell because they haven't "accepted" Jesus. That's not true. They go to hell because of their sin. That would be like saying that a person got the death penalty because they didn't receive a pardon. No, they got the death penalty because they committed a capital offense.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23
Let me provide some brief commentary regarding the above verse. “Wages” are what we have earned for ourselves, and the “death” here is not mere physical death. It is both physical and eternal death. For anyone who has sinned against God, hell is what they deserve. This verse presents the grim reality of our seemingly hopeless condition, but this same verse also presents to us the remedy where hope can be found.
Who deserves to go to hell?
According to the above answer – everyone. You say, “Not me.” Well, simply follow the logic. Hell is for law breakers. Are you a law breaker? Can you honestly say that you’ve never lied, stolen, dishonored mom and dad, etc.? We all deserve hell.
The Bible also speaks of those whose pattern of life can be described as unrighteous, as well as those who practice the deeds of the flesh.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 1 Corinthians 6:9,10
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Galatians 5:19-21
How long are people in hell?
Again, the short answer – forever. When someone goes to hell they are there for all eternity and there’s no hope of that being cut short.
Jesus speaks to hell’s eternality in the following verse: “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:46
In the original language there is a perfect parallel. What that means is the believer will be in heaven just as long as the unbeliever will be in hell. The position that many people hold is that heaven is forever, but there is a finite amount of time for those in hell. Jesus’ words make that an untenable position.
Some other verses to consider –
Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. Jude 1:7
And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name. Revelation 14:11
And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Revelation 20:10 These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9
We were created for eternity. We were created to live forever. That's why hell is the ultimate demise. That's what I think the Bible is talking about when it refers to things like eternal destruction. Not that we will someday cease to exist, but rather it's the ultimate fail – the loss of everything that we were created for.
Is hell necessary?
If there is no hell, then there is no ultimate justice in the universe. Think about the number of people who get away with murder. If there is no ultimate reckoning, justice will never be satisfied. I suspect that when someone gets away with a heinous crime, there is something inside you that troubles you. You think, “That’s just not right!” You are, at the very least, disturbed by the injustice, or perhaps you are straight up angered by it. You feel something. Why? Where does that feeling come from? It's a God given desire to see justice served.
Hell is necessary because just like in our society, criminals are kept in prison because they have broken the law and are unfit (for one reason or another) to live with others. In a similar way, hell was created by God for law breakers who are unfit to dwell in His holy presence.
Are there different degrees of punishment in hell?
Yes. The answer is clear from Scripture:
In His teaching He was saying: “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation.” Mark 12:38-40
And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you. Matt 11:23-24
And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. Luke 12:47-48a
Are the descriptions of hell symbolic or literal?
This is a debated question. I don't know the answer to this, but I tend to agree with what theologian RC Sproul says regarding this question. "I suspect they are symbols, but I find no relief in that. We must not think of them as being merely symbols. If these images are indeed symbols, then we must conclude that the reality is worse than the symbol suggests. The function of symbols is to point beyond themselves to a higher or more intense state of actuality than the symbol itself can contain. That Jesus used the most awful symbols imaginable to describe hell is no comfort to those who see them simply as symbols."
Does God throw anyone into hell?
This is a controversial question, but I’m not sure why. Over the years, I have had a number of people approach me and say, “Mike, you said that God sends people to hell. The reality is people send themselves to hell.” Now I think I understand what people mean by that, but I can’t agree with it. People are most definitely culpable for their own sin, but it seems to me that people who say this want to get God “off the hook”. They want to make God look more passive than what the Scriptures actually teach. Like He’s saying, “You made your bed and now you got to lie in it.” In a sense, I would agree with that sentiment, but I think God is not simply allowing the outworking of sin to run its natural course, no He’s more active than that in the whole process.
In fact, I would say God not only sends people to hell, but the text uses much more vivid language. Depending upon your translation, English Bibles will often use the word “throw”. I think what’s being conveyed there is that God is not passive in the administration of punishment upon a guilty sinner. If you find yourself on the other side of that view, I would like to ask – what do you do with the following verses?
And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. Rev 20:15
If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. Mark 9:47-48
Note: In Mark 9, the English Standard Version of the Bible uses the word “thrown”, instead of “cast”.
How can we have joy in heaven knowing some of our friends and family are in hell?
This is a difficult question because the Bible doesn’t address this question specifically. In fact, the Bible says certain things about our experience being in the presence of God.
For example, Psalm 16:11 says, "In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forevermore."
Revelation 21:4 tells us, "He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away."
So what about those friends and family members who won’t be with us in glory? Does God perform some sort of “mind wipe” on us ala Men in Black? How can we be happy knowing they are suffering for all eternity?
The best answer I can give right now is that Christians will be so fully satisfied with seeing God for who He is and we will be so enamored with Him that we won't focus on our loss, but rather on our gain. It’s a difficult answer to a challenging question, but that’s the best I got. Because the only other thought I have is even more challenging than that.
Consider this: perhaps when we are in a glorified state, we will have a more accurate unbiased view of justice than we currently have, and we will be too busy praising God for His perfect justice (even when it is poured out on those whom we love) that we won’t feel bad for their plight. That is a hard thought, for which I am extremely challenged. If you have a thought on this, feel free to comment below, or contact me.
How does someone avoid going to hell?
If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:9
The “saved” there is saved from hell. Saved from God who will dole out punishment to every person in perfect proportion for what they have done and also for what they have failed to do. The command from God to you this day is to repent (turn away from sin and turn to Christ) and believe the gospel (the good news that Jesus came to save sinners like you and me).
What does the Bible say about Purgatory?
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Purgatory is "A place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God's grace, are not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions."
Our natural inclination is to feel as though we need to contribute something to our salvation. That is one reason why the man-made doctrine of purgatory was created. If we were able to somehow pay (to God’s satisfaction) for our transgressions against God, then we would then be able to say that we earned even a small portion of our salvation.
That is one reason why hell is eternal; we can never pay back our debt in full to an infinite God. We would need to pay forever, which is what hell is.
In addition, to say that we must also suffer for our sins is to say that Jesus' suffering was insufficient. Purgatory denies the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. On the cross just before breathing His last breath, Jesus said, "It is finished." This declaration eliminates the idea of us having to suffer in any way for our sins. Either we pay the price ourselves in an eternal hell, or it was paid for us (in full) on the cross. The payment that Christ made emphatically stamps a "Paid in Full" upon the record of all those who will trust in Him.
The idea of anyone paying even a small portion towards their redemption is contrary to everything the Bible says about God saving people by grace alone, through faith alone, for God’s glory ALONE. To answer the question, what does the Bible say about Purgatory…? Nothing.
The Main Objection – Hell is just too severe!
The objection goes like this, “You mean to tell me that God is going to punish someone for an infinite amount of time for a finite number of crimes committed during their lifetime?”
First of all, who says there needs to be a correlation between the amount of time it takes to commit a crime and the punishment for that crime?
I want to be sensitive to recent events, so let me apologize up front for my rather graphic illustration I am about to present. If I killed a shopping mall full of people with an automatic weapon, it would only take a few minutes to commit that heinous act. Yet, once I am arrested, I would end up going to jail for the rest of my life. I need just minutes to do the crime, yet I’d be sentenced for many years to do the time.
Conversely, imagine my job is to work a cash register in that same shopping mall. Suppose I chose to steal only a dollar out of the drawer each day for a year. At the end of the year, I would have stolen a total of $365. That is also a crime, but it took a long time to commit and the punishment would not be nearly as severe as wiping out dozens of people with an automatic weapon. The point here is this, there isn’t necessarily a meaningful correlation between the amount of time it takes to break the law and the duration (or even the severity) of the appropriate punishment.
In my opinion, those who argue that hell is too severe have an incomplete and/or inadequate understanding of two things:
1. The seriousness of sin
2. The holiness of God
What is sin? I appreciate how preacher John Piper has defined sin:
The glory of God not honored. The holiness of God not reverenced. The greatness of God not admired. The power of God not praised. The truth of God not sought. The wisdom of God not esteemed. The beauty of God not treasured. The goodness of God not savored. The faithfulness of God not trusted. The commandments of God not obeyed. The justice of God not respected. The wrath of God not feared. The grace of God not cherished. The presence of God not prized. The person of God not loved. That is sin.
- John Piper
Hell is a drastic consequence because it is an outworking of the hatred God has for sin. It's hard for us to understand this because in our depravity, we don't hate sin all that much. We don't see sin the way God does.
Moreover, it's not just the nature of our sin that we need to take into account, but rather the One whom we've sinned against.
Let me present a scenario regarding what many of us consider to be a rather harmless sin – lying.
If I lie to my son, what’s going to happen to me? Nothing.
If I lie to my wife, I'm probably on the couch that night.
If I lie to my boss, I could lose my job.
If I lie to the government, that's perjury, I'm going to jail.
Same crime committed each time, but what changed? It's the one who was lied to. It's not that our crimes are so deplorable; it's against whom those crimes have been committed. Crimes against an eternal Being, are deserving of an eternal punishment. We must recognize just whom we are sinning against!
Still, the question may remain – Yeah, but why does hell have to be so severe? It just seems so unreasonable!
Ok, come let us reason together. Let’s look at it this way. Hell is a very severe punishment because hell is a place where one is separated from God. (I am not denying God’s omnipresence, but rather revisiting the following verse):
"And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power." 2 Thessalonians 1:9
The Bible teaches that God is the sole source of all that is good.
Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. James 1:17
Think about it. Hell is a place of separation from the very source of all that is good. All that would bring joy, and all that would bring comfort, comes from God. Why? Because God, by His very nature, is good.
If you withdraw all that is good from an individual, what do you end up with? Hell.
In a very real way, that person is experiencing hell. That’s one way we could describe hell – it is the removal of every good thing. That’s what makes hell so severe.
On a side note, this truth makes what so many people say so ludicrous – “This life is hell.” That is often said by someone enjoying the sunshine God created, all the while breathing His air and eating the food that He provided. As hard as this life can be sometimes, there is always some good that is bestowed upon us. If there is anything good in this life, then this life can't be hell.
Lastly, on this notion that an eternal hell is unreasonable, let me ask this question: Who says that the person who goes to hell ever stops sinning? What evidence do we have that would suggest some sort of post-mortem repentance? What gives us such an idea? We are making assumptions that once an individual leaves this life and sees impending judgment, all of the sudden they will fall in line with what God says and recognize the error of their ways and cease from their sinful rebellion.
I like how Dr. James White responds to this notion. I don’t have the quote exactly, so please permit me to paraphrase. He said, "If you could travel a million years into the future and reach into hell and take out a smoking soul and sit him in a chair and say, 'You have two choices. You could worship the Lord your God with all you heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself, or you could turn around and return back to hell and resume your suffering for the remainder of eternity.'" Dr. White said, “They would march right back into hell with a curse for God and would spit in His face if they could.”
I wonder if we sometimes underestimate the depth of our depravity. If the sinning continues for an eternity, shouldn't the punishment as well?
The bottom line is this – hell is real and many people are really going there. As J. P. Moreland has pointed out in Lee Strobel's book The Case for Faith, "If a person constantly ignores God, constantly mocks Him by the way he chooses to live, saying 'I couldn't care less about what You put me here to do, Your values, or Your Son's death for me. Leave me alone! I want to live my life without You!' Well, God will honor that decision, and in the end, that person will have his preference."
If you are cold towards God right now in this life, meaning you basically don't want anything to do with Him as evidenced by your disobedience to Him, your lack of conversing with Him, your lack of reading about Him, talking about Him, serving Him and fellowshipping with other believers…if that characterizes your life now, why would you expect eternity to be any different?