The other night, my wife and I went out to dinner with new friends of ours. During the course of dinner, conversation began to move to “spiritual things.” The husband explained that he was an “agnostic” and began to put forward the various reasons of why that was so. One of the main “stumbling blocks” for him (as with many skeptics) is the Bible’s teaching on hell, especially a hell that is eternal. To be sure, the Bible’s teaching on hell is very terrifying and ought to disturb us. In fact, in many churches today, it seems that many are embarrassed or afraid to speak about it. As a result, they have essentially taken the same position as an agnostic, as you barely hear a whisper on hell anymore. But if it is true, the reality is too weighty to ignore. Lives are at stake for all eternity. Therefore, I want to put forward some thoughts in this blog article for two kinds of people; for those who struggle with this whole “concept” and for my Christian friends. We (including myself) need to be better equipped when sharing and reasoning with those in a position like my friend.
Let’s start by assuming that the Bible is true, accurate, and that it is God’s word (Another post for another time!). But as such, it clearly teaches the reality of hell. Different people will take positions on aspects of hell and interpretation regarding hell, but the Bible unmistakably teaches about hell. In fact, Jesus himself had more to say about hell than anyone else! Ironically, many people, including my agnostic friend, say they admire the “Sermon on the Mount” and the virtues it extols, however, Jesus speaks of hell twice in the Sermon on the Mount! He warns that those who harbor hatred or lust in their hearts are in danger of “the fire of hell” and of being “thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:21-30). But one cannot deny that Jesus himself, spoke, taught and warned of hell as a reality (see for example: Matthew 10:28, 11:23, 18:9, 23:23, Luke 16:19-31).
To get around this, one either has to say Jesus is mistaken, lying, or that others “added” or attributed those words/teachings to him wrongly. Here’s the problem: if he is deceived or lying, then he can’t be trusted in his other teachings either, and that means he can’t be a “good teacher.” If, on the other hand, you try to claim that these teachings were attributed to him but not really said by him, I would say this to you: it is a very slippery slope (and can be a convenient “work around”) to “pick and choose” which teachings of Jesus you believe or accept and which ones you do not personally like or have a problem with and therefore dismiss. Many people in fact, try to make Jesus in their own image or likeness (something they are comfortable with and can accept) rather than be confronted by his teachings, changed in their thinking and conformed to his image and likeness. It’s a dangerous place to stand in judgment of the Bible or Jesus’ teachings rather than accept and obey all of his teachings, whether we like them, understand them or not. It’s also an arrogant place to trust our own understanding more than scripture’s revelation, or trust our logic more than God’s wisdom (Proverbs 3:5). Really, at the core of it all is the fact that we want to be our own “god”; not submit ourselves to God. It is the same lie today as the ancient lie in the Garden of Eden…”you can be your own god and determine for yourself, according to your own standard, good and evil (Genesis 3).
But, let’s come back to the problem many have with hell. The first big problem many people, like my friend, have with hell is not only the concept itself, but especially the fact that it’s eternal. The argument goes something like this: “How can a loving God send people to hell simply for not believing in Him?” Or: “How is it ‘just’ that a person has to pay for their earthly sins for all of eternity?”
Let’s start with the first argument about a loving God sending people to hell. First of all, let’s be clear that the Bible states, in the very words of Jesus, that hell was never intended for human beings. In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus speaks of what will happen when he returns. The language all throughout the Bible in regard to the coming of Jesus is one of judgment for the disobedient and salvation for the obedient. In this passage, he speaks of separating people from all the nations of the world. Some will be separated to his right, others to his left. The ones on the right are referred to his “sheep” (a phrase used to denote the “people of God”). The one’s on the left are called “goats” (a term used to denote those not of his “flock”). The sheep are told to come and receive the eternal kingdom of God; it is their inheritance, a blessing as being his children. The goats on the other hand are told by Jesus to: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Notice a few things. First of all, the horror of hell is real, because it is a separation and departure from Jesus himself. The “goats” are told to “depart from me.” Hell is hell because of the absence or separation from the presence of God and therefore all that is good. On the other hand, heaven is heaven, because God is present and all good things come from God! (Psalm 16:11, James 1:16-17). A person who rejects God on earth is therefore handed over to an eternity without God in hell.
Secondly, notice that Jesus refers to them as “cursed.” The reason they are “cursed” is not because God didn’t love them. They are cursed because they did not embrace the only remedy for their sin: Christ being “cursed” on the cross for their sin. Scripture teaches us that we are “under the wrath of God” because of our sin; in fact, Ephesians 2:3 says: “…we were by nature deserving of wrath.” (We will come back to this later in regard to the justice of hell).
Thirdly, notice that Jesus speaks of hell as “eternal fire.” I do not believe Scripture teaches “annihilism” as some teach annihilism, which is the thought that those who are separated from God will cease to exist, rather than be in hell for eternity (I’ll touch on that very briefly later, but it would require a whole other blog to truly tackle this subject).
Fourthly, notice that Jesus said this “eternal fire” was prepared specifically for “the devil and his angels.” It is a tragic and unnatural thing for human beings to be cast into “eternal fire.” Human beings were made in the image of God to live forever with God, not apart from God. Yet, the sober reality of this glimpse into the future is that there will be those who refuse to believe and obey the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and who will be punished with “everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).
However, let’s address how a “loving God could send anyone to hell.” First of all, we must remember that the Bible does not speak of God simply as “loving.” The refrain and cry around the throne of God in heaven is not: “Love, love, love!” it is “holy, holy, holy.” (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8). God is love, but his love is a holy love. God is merciful, compassionate, forgiving and gracious, but he is also righteous and just. The word “holy” means “other-than.” In other words, God is not “like us.” We have been created in his image to be “like him”, but sin has tainted and corrupted us all (Romans 6:23). God, on the other hand, is perfect in all his ways, and one attribute cannot be divorced from or separated from his other attributes.
Secondly, let’s flip this question around: “How could a just God allow anyone (sinners) into heaven?” The assumption that we somehow don’t deserve hell or do deserve heaven contradicts the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel (which means “Good News”) makes clear that we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and that “The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23). A gift by nature and definition is not something we work for or deserve; it is something freely given to us by someone who paid a price to present it to us. If God were only just, then no one would enter heaven. The Good News is that God is love and in his love he sent His Son so that “whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16). He was “cursed” so that we could be “blessed.”
Thirdly, consider this. Timothy Keller, in his book The Reason for God; Belief in an Age of Skepticism, makes a very interesting point. He explains how the problem with hell can actually be a cultural problem, not a universal issue. Our culture, he argues, finds themes such as “turning the other cheek” and “forgiving enemies” “appealing” (in theory anyway!). But he goes on to write how in other cultures “turning the other cheek makes absolutely no sense. It offends people’s deepest instincts about what is right. For them the doctrine of a God of judgment, however, is no problem at all. That society is repulsed by aspects of Christianity that Western people enjoy, and are attracted by the aspects that secular Westerners can’t stand.” As a side note, I will add this is one reason I trust the Bible. It speaks to every culture but yet transcends (even confronts) every culture at certain points.
Fourthly, scripture teaches us that God has given human beings free will. He has given us the unique ability to reject Christ or receive him. Without this ability to freely choose, I would argue that we would cease to truly be “human.” It would diminish and snuff out the uniqueness of our being “made in the image of God.” This also explains why an eternity in hell is actually more “dignifying” than for God to simply annihilate the person and cause someone made in his image, to cease to exist.
Fifthly, while some cannot square God’s love with “God’s wrath”, I would argue that a God without wrath is not a God of real love or justice. I believe that the problem for some is that their idea or understanding of God’s wrath is that it is equivalent to him having “petty or childish outbursts of anger.” But God’s wrath is not unrestrained, irrational or unjust. It is rather the rightful expression of his justice and actually evidence of his love. What kind of loving and just God would not punish evil and wrongdoers? What kind of God would passively and eternally shrug his shoulders, or “wink” at injustice? Hell is just and heaven brings justice to the persecuted and oppressed who took refuge in God while on earth.
Sixthly, let’s address the justice of hell being eternal. The argument goes: “How can we be punished eternally for sins committed while only on earth temporarily?” Nevertheless, this belies a fundamental (and often overlooked) misunderstanding. First of all, hell is not simply about punishment for our sins; it is the consequence for rejecting God and the only remedy for our sin, which is Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Our sin is so serious that we cannot atone for it. God had to send a perfect, sinless, spotless Savior to save us from our sin and from hell. To reject this is to cut ourselves off from the only medicine for our sickness.
Also, since God is an eternal being, our sin is against an eternal God. In fact, for those who are in hell, it’s not like they cease to sin once they die. We know that is true for the believer once we are in the presence of God, but it’s not true for those in hell. There is no evidence in scripture (actually, the evidence is contrary) that anyone comes to repentance once in hell. All that is seen in hell is the desire for relief and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” over their situation, but never their sin (see Luke 16:19-31). This is a crucial but often overlooked point. Their sin against an eternal God continues in eternity and so is eternal in nature. Their choice has been made while on Earth and it continues in eternity. Therefore, they are left to themselves and the consequences of their choice.
Seventhly, the very day I was writing this, my son said something he has been saying a lot lately in various situations: “That’s not fair!” But as parents know, the understanding of a 3-year-old child of “what is fair” is different from an adult’s understanding of what is fair! Well, should I be so arrogant as to believe that if I don’t understand or think something is fair, it therefore must not be? Am I to sit in judgment of God, or in humility think about the reality of God’s judgment? Just because we don’t understand something in our limited, finite human minds, doesn’t mean God (who is infinite and eternal) is unjust. Perhaps what we really mean by saying “that’s not fair” is what my 3-year-old son really means to say: “I don’t personally like this, because it’s not my way, it’s not what I want and I don’t understand why!” If God is truly God this should give us all pause.
Eighthly, an article posted on www.GotQuestions.com made another valid point: “In a human court of law, a physical assault against an individual will usually result in a fine and possibly some time in jail. In contrast, a physical assault against the president or prime minister of a country will likely result in a lifetime in prison. And this is the case despite the fact that the crime was a one-time offense, not a continual, ongoing action. God is infinitely higher and greater than any human being. How much more are our crimes worthy of a great punishment in light of the fact that our sins are against God?” (Romans 6:23)
Lastly, during this dinner conversation with my friend, another comment was made that I want to address here. The comment was along the lines of: “Isn’t it horrible to put fear in people in regard to hell; essentially “scaring” them into heaven?” Let me respond with my own question: “If your child is standing in the middle of train tracks, and you know a train is coming, which could hit him and kill him, would you still hold to this line of reasoning? Wouldn’t the loving thing be to warn your child? Wouldn’t you do it with a sense of urgency? Sin is serious. Hell is sobering. God certainly considered it serious and sobering enough to send his own Son into the world to save us from our sin and eternal separation from him.
As a matter of fact, I don’t believe we can truly know the love of God, the grace of God, the joy of the forgiveness of sins and gift of eternal life, if we don’t accept the reality of hell. We can’t even really know the Gospel, let alone see our need for the Gospel. What “good” is “Good News” if there wasn’t first “bad news”? What is the point of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross if sin is not that serious with eternal consequences? If it was just to demonstrate a “good example” so that we would be more loving and forgiving towards each other, surely there could have been another way other than Jesus dying on the cross. Yet, when it comes to salvation and forgiveness of sin; there was and is no other way (John 14:6).
I truly believe that nowadays, at the core of it all, is that we have lost a healthy “fear of the Lord.” Scripture says: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” It is ironically sad that some of the most “intelligent” people are by nature and according to the Bible “fools” (see Romans 1:18-32, Psalm 14:1-4). This is a result of pride. In order to enter the Kingdom of God, we must humble ourselves and become like little children, realizing that we don’t know everything and that we need God (Matthew 18:3). The Gospel is a “stumbling block” to those who are “wise” in their own eyes, but it is “salvation” for those who will humble themselves before God. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 puts it this way: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
If you have not placed your faith in Christ, if you have not repented of your sin, humbled yourself of your pride and surrendered your life to God, I want to plead with you to do so. These are serious, weighty, eternal matters. There is nothing more important and nothing more urgent. Life on earth is nothing compared to life in eternity. None of us knows how much longer we really have on earth. If we plan for so many other important and future events (weddings, vacations, career’s, retirement) why would we not plan for our eternity? And if you don’t believe in the reality of eternity, what evidence do you have that there is no eternity, before dismissing of it so certainly? Does not something in you long for “life eternal?” Ecclesiastes 3:11 (a book that wrestles with the apparent meaninglessness of life; but concludes with purpose being found in the reality of an eternal God and right relationship with him) says that God has put eternity in our hearts. In fact, doesn’t your heart long for peace? I truly felt for my agnostic friend because I saw the conflict and turmoil in him in this regard. The thought of “nothing” or “ceasing to exist” in itself troubled him. But “fear of death” is one thing Jesus frees us from when we believe (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Nevertheless, Scripture makes clear that all of us will one day stand before the God of the universe, who created you and me, who proved the depth of his love for each of us by making the ultimate sacrifice possible, so we could spend an eternity with him, not apart from him. Each of us will one day stand before this Savior and Judge and give an account of our lives, whether we believe this or not (Romans 14:12, Revelation 20:11-15).
Secondly, to my believing Christian friends, if we really believe this, shouldn’t we be deeply motivated to share the Good News and take the Gospel into all the world? (Matthew 28:18-20, 2 Corinthians 5:11-15) Shouldn’t we be better equipped to give a reason for the hope we have, with gentleness and respect? (1 Peter 3:15). Our faith is certainly supernatural at its core. It also does require a step of faith and surrender. However, evidence is on our side (Romans 1:20-23, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8), and our faith is not “unreasonable.” I know I need to sharpen my skills to reach out better to those with questions and doubts. Lives are hanging in the balance. Eternity is at stake.
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (1 Peter 3:15).
***Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God, Belief in the Age of Skeptisicm. pg72