I recently wrote this blog post for The Gospel Project in a series on A God-Centered Worldview. You can see the whole series on A God-Centered Worldview here.
Where Did Hell Go?
We all know that one thing is for certain, all men die (Hebrews 9:27). While death is a certain reality, it is not something we regularly talk about with others. As for the topic of eternal destinies after death, those conversations are even more scarce. More specifically, consider the topic of hell. Who wants to talk about, even ponder, the reality of hell as portrayed in the Bible?
Not too long ago, I was traveling and decided to take a few books with me in preparation for writing this blog post. One of these volumes was a full book-length treatment on the topic of hell. I distinctly remember taking notable pause when reaching down into my bag in order to retrieve this book. The dust jacket not only had images of flames but also had the word “hell” in large embossed letters. In that moment I could imagine the thoughts of the other two passengers in the seats beside me if I began reading a book on eternal punishment as we were being hurled five hundred miles an hour through the air. Nothing says let’s have a delightful chat to those around you, or gives an indication as to where the conversation might go, like holding a book covered in images of hell fire.
Now, let me be clear. I believe in the reality of hell. The Bible is very clear on this issue. The point of my anecdote was simply to illustrate the palpable social stigma that is attached to this biblical doctrine in our post-Christian culture. It is a stigma that I am very aware of, as are many other Christians. It’s just not something we talk about. Notably, the reality of hell has been a fixture in Christian theology for over sixteen centuries, but at some point in the 1960’s hell disappeared. And more recently, the traditional view of the nature of hell has been challenged more than ever before.
What Is Hell According to the Bible?
Historically; Christians have held that after death, believers will either dwell with God in paradise, heaven, and eventually the new heavens and new earth or be cast out of God’s presence forever into a place called hell. Hell has been taught as involving eternal conscious torment of persons who have rejected the forgiveness of God through the atoning sacrifice of Christ Jesus. In the book Hell Under Fire;Christopher Morgan summarizes the three predominant pictures of hell we find in the New Testament.
- Punishment is the chief description of hell in the New Testament (Matt. 25:31-46; 2 Thess. 1:5-10; Rev. 20:10-15). Summarizing these passages; Morgan concludes that the punishment of hell is just, consists of suffering, is conscious, and is eternal.
- Destruction is also a central descriptor of hell in the Bible; in fact, this descriptor of hell is used by almost all of the New Testament writers (the exception seems to be Mark). In 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; we find the most developed section of this theme, where Paul explains the eternal destruction of hell. For Paul, hell as destruction is best understood as utter loss, ruin, or waste.
- Banishment is the last central picture Morgan explores dealing with the difficult doctrine of hell. The picture of hell as banishment is also found in almost every New Testament book, with the exceptions of James and Hebrews. Banishment carries with it the connotation of separation, exclusion, or being left outside. Mark 9:42-48 provides a clear example as believers are welcomed into the kingdom of God and the wicked are banished outside of it.
In summary, punishment and destruction stress the active side of hell, while banishment stresses the horror of hell by highlighting what a person is excluded from. As we’ve already stated, secular thought and modern sentiment certainly make it hard to talk about the reality of hell. Moreover, while many Christians may hold to the historic convictions of the Christian faith, they find it very hard to align their emotional response to the doctrine of hell with the biblical teaching on it.
What Is Our Problem with Hell?
Perhaps some have trouble with the doctrine of hell emotionally because, deep down, we may find ourselves posing defensive questions in response. The question that hides under most questions regarding hell is “Isn’t hell unfair?”
In one sense this question is probably related to the judicial idea that people are innocent until proven guilty. True, if people are truly good and innocent; then God has no right to judge or punish. However, the apostle Paul said that no one is righteous; all are guilty in sin and without excuse before God (Romans 1:10, 3:10-11, 5:12). Russell Moore notes that hell is an affront to a non-Christians sense of justice, “…since no person except through the conviction of the Spirit deems himself worthy of condemnation.”
Another assumption behind this question is that people are neutral, generally good, or even innocent of God’s judgment. I don’t think it is a far stretch to assume that many non-Christians and ill-informed religious people assume that heaven is the common destination of humanity, except for the worst and most cruel humans: murders, pedophiles, genocidal dictators, etc. The broad assumption is that hell is only for other people, namely, people worse than I am. Again, the Bible is clear that all are guilty in sin (Isaiah 64:6). Simply put, no human stands on neutral ground when it comes to eternity.
Sadly, there is little talk about hell because too many people ignore the reality of sin or estimate they have too little sin. To put it bluntly, it would be just for God not to save one person from the depths of hell. This is where the good news of the cross deals with the “problem” of justice. On the cross of Christ, God makes it possible to justify sinners at the cost of His son and remain a just God. On the cross; Jesus took upon Himself what we deserved (death) and paid the penalty for our sin and through His resurrection; freely offers what we do not deserve (forgiveness and eternal life with God).
For this reason we need to be willing to tell the whole gospel story, even if it is uncomfortable. As Tim Keller has said, “there is an ecological balance to Scriptural truth that must not be disturbed.” To preach the good news, we must warn people of the bad. Keller argues that if we play down difficult doctrines; we will find, to our shock, that we have gutted all of our pleasant beliefs too.
For some people the doctrine of hell is extreme, and they are right. Hell is extreme because sin is extreme. However, Jesus Christ endured the hell of the cross so those who believe in Him might escape it. Michael Rogers rightly states that “Hell alarms us as nothing else can about the awful weight and penalty of sin.” The doctrine of hell should weigh heavy on the Christian heart as the Spirit leads us to plead with those who are without Christ. Hell is a horror to the Christian conscience. We shouldn’t deny the reality of hell, nor should we sheepishly avoid it. If anything, the doctrine of hell calls us to bold yet winsome evangelism. If modern sentiment, social tolerance, and relational indifference held the final votes about the doctrine of hell, the Bible’s view of hell surely would find few defenders.