WHAT IS HELL?
Prophecy Series ❧ Part 16
Sometime ago I read about a couple of young Christian servicemen. They’d spent a number weeks listening to their assigned chaplain explain away different parts of the Bible, which really bothered them. The chaplain had a number of modern twists on the Bible that was making a significant impact on a number of other servicemen who’d once had a fairly strong faith. Finally, the two young servicemen went to talk with the chaplain about his modern take on the Bible. “Today scholars know that Hell isn’t exactly what people thought it was for centuries,” the chaplain explained. “God is love. Eternal punishment and Hell have, for centuries, been spoken of in too literal a sense.”
“So, you’re really saying you don’t believe in Hell?” one soldier asked. “No, I don’t” responded the chaplain. The soldiers began to walk away from his tent. “See you both at services Sunday.” The chaplain called out. “I doubt it,” one of them said. “Why not?” asked the chaplain. The soldier replied, “Think about it, chaplain. If there is no Hell, we don’t need you. And if there is a Hell, we don’t want to be misled.”
Whether this story is true or not, it does expose the popular idea that the doctrine of Hell is out of step with our times. I recently came across one study that said less than 10% of sermons preached in Evangelical churches even mentioned Hell, Sin, Salvation, or Heaven (Revival Outside the Walls 6.3.21). Gordon Kaufman of Harvard Divinity School believes Americans have gone through a transformation of ideas. He says, “I don’t think there can be any future in heaven and Hell.” Erwin Lutzer writes: “Genuine fear of suffering in Hell has vanished from the mainstream of Western thought. Few, if any, give prolonged thought to the prospect that some people will be in Hell. Fewer yet believe they themselves will be among that unfortunate number.”
This morning we’re going to look at what is probably the most offensive and painful doctrines of the Bible – the believe in an eternal Hell. We’re going to unpack three questions about Hell: 1) What does the Bible say about it, 2) Why does Hell offend people? 3) How can a loving and just God allow Hell to exist? What Does the Bible Say About Hell?
I. It a literal place. The Bible says Hell is a real. It is a place of final judgment for those who reject God’s offer of forgiveness through His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus was very straightforward about the reality of Hell. He spoke more about Hell than anyone else in all of Scripture. 13% of His sayings are about Hell and judgment; more than half of His parables relate to the eternal judgment of sinners (John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell, p. 128). Jesus says Hell is a place of eternal punishment reserved for those who oppose God and His will for their lives. He says Hell was not made for people, but for the devil and his angels. The eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). God’s desire is for everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), but not everyone will. The book of Revelation says one day in heaven God is going to gather everyone from every age who rejected His forgiveness. Books will be opened containing all of their deeds and a Book of Life will be opened as well. Anyone whose name who was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown in to the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15). In order for us to deny Hell we must say that Jesus is lying and God’s Word, the Bible, is not true. Most people are not prepared to do that. The Bible says it is a literal place.
II. It is a place of torment. In Luke 16 Jesus tells the story of a rich man and a poor man who dies. The poor man goes to Heaven and the rich man goes to Hell. The rich man cries out from his place of suffering: I am in agony in this flame (Luke 16:24). The word Jesus uses for agony (ὀδυνάομαι, odunaomai) means severe or great pain. The verse before this (v.23) says the rich man lifted his eyes to Heaven being in torment (βάσανος – basanos) serve pain associated with torture. The book of Revelation says: The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night (Revelation 14:11).
III. It is a place of memory and remorse. Again, looking at Jesus words of the rich man and the poor, He describes Hell as a place of continued consciousness and immediate awareness of where one came from and where one is. The rich man, knowing he was in a place of great suffering was told to remember (Luke 16:25) where his past life of how he spent it. Send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment (Luke 16:27-28). The rich man’s memory was fully int tact, he was completely lucid. A great part of his suffering was due to remorse. There was no hope of escape or warning his brothers. Jesus says elsewhere, In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:42). Hell is a place of great agony on the inside as well as great suffering on this outside.
IV. It is an eternal place where there is no escape. (Jesus) These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matthew 25:46). Jesus does not mince His words – Hell is an eternal place of agony. It is a place where hellish suffering and agony do not end nor is there any escape. We have to admit, Jesus words are not easy to accept. Many in our day have attempted to either soften Hell by teaching what is called annihilation; unbelievers will not suffer forever, but cease to exist at some point. Others find the concept of Hell too much and deny it outright. Dr. David Hart, philosopher, religious scholar, and cultural critic who writes for the New York Times recently noted: The idea of eternal damnation is neither biblically, philosophically nor morally justified. I don’t believe we can speak about Hell without it breaking our hearts. It should. But no matter how much our hearts ache, we dare not deny what God says about Hell as some do. When we speak about Hell, it must be with love.
I read about a church that had dismissed its pastor and gotten a new one. Someone asked why they had gotten rid of the old one. “Because he kept telling the people they were going to Hell” was the answer. The person asking the question then asked, “What does the new man say?” “Oh, he keeps telling them they’re going to Hell, too.” “Well, what’s the difference?” he asked. “The difference is the when the first one said it, he sounded as if he were glad of it. But when the second one says it, he lets you know it’s breaking his heart.” Why Does Hell Offend People?
I. A loving God would not allow people to suffer in Hell. Many believe God is so loving He would not allow billions of people to suffer in Hell. They struggle accepting that God is both loving and just at the same time. People ask: “How can a God of love be so filled with wrath and anger? If He is loving and perfect, He should forgive and accept everyone. He shouldn’t get angry.” They forget that you can love someone and be angry at the same time. If you love someone and see them getting hurt by themselves or by another, you get angry. God says in Jeremiah, But those who wish to boast should boast in this alone: that they truly know me and understand that I am the LORD who demonstrates unfailing love and who brings justice and righteousness to the earth, and that I delight in these things (Jer. 9:24). God delights showing His love and making right what is wrong. Love and justice are inseparable in His perfect character. Anger is not the opposite of love, indifference is. God’s love would not be real if He were not a God of justice as well. One author said it well: God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer…which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with this whole being. We know that loving people are sometimes filled with wrath. They are not enraged despite their love, but because of their love.
The other night I watched the footage caught on camera of a man walking down the street hit a woman in the head without warning. She immediately collapsed to the ground. What really made me mad was the man just stood there as though he were daring someone to do something about it. The news commentator was incensed as well. If God were not angry at injustice and did not promise a final and eternal end to violence, then He would be less than God. He would not be worthy of our worship. His love would not be real but deceptive. Because God is loving there is a Hell.
Someone has said that if there were no Hell, we should have to invent one. The late 19th century pastor C. E. Macartney said: If there were no word that carried with it the implication of our word “hell,” we should be compelled to coin some word which would fit the facts of the heart; for without such a word as “hell,” one of the deepest, strongest sentiments and convictions of the heart would have no equivalent in expression. Words are only the pictures, or symbols, of reality.
II. Hell is a primitive superstition. A young lady came home and told her Mother that her boyfriend had proposed but she had turned him down because she found out he was an atheist and didn’t believe in Heaven or Hell. “Marry him anyway dear.” the Mother said. “Between the two of us, we’ll show him just how wrong he is.” Hell is an outmoded doctrine foreign to our modern educated mindset. Our culture perhaps more than any before it sees itself as more intelligent, more in control of our world, more in tune with reality than the ages before us. We understand our world better than those before us and therefore we now know better than to believe in medieval superstitious beliefs like Hell. C.S. Lewis called this chronological snobbery. One man said, Our new confidence that we can control our physical environment has spilled over so we think we can reshape the metaphysical [spiritual] realm as well. Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words or He will reprove you and you will be proven a liar (Prov. 30:5).
III. Hell is unfair. Hell violates our idea of equality or moral relativism; that no one should judge our individual choices. One survey found that 80% of Americans agree with the statement “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any church or synagogue.” One of the most fundamental beliefs of American culture is that moral truth is relative. We have no problem believing in a God who loves us and supports us no matter how we live. So, the idea of Hell seems extremely unfair – like capital punishment for a speeding ticket. The irony is we’re not offended by a forgiving God.
Johnathan Edwards said it best, I think. He said the reason people find Hell so offensive is because our insensitivity to sin. We underestimate the offensiveness of our sin before a holy God. What if, from God’s viewpoint, the greatness of sin is determined by the greatness of the One against whom it is committed? Then the guilt of sin is infinite because it is a violation of the character of an infinite Being. What if, in the nature of God, it is deemed that such sins deserve an infinite penalty, a penalty which no one can ever repay?
The reason people see Hell is unfair is because all they can see is that God is a God of love.
He is also a holy and just God that cannot tolerate sin. Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, And You cannot look on wickedness with favor (Habakkuk 1:13). The question is, what makes us think God is a God of love? What is it that proves to us He is a God of love? Life? Does the world around us prove God is a God of forgiving love? Does history? Do other religions? Christianity alone is the one belief that teaches God is a God of grace, unconditional love, and forgiveness. Where did this idea come from? The Bible. Our idea that God is a God of love comes from the Bible. The Bible tells us that God is also a God of judgment who will put all things right in the end.
Why Does A Loving and Just God Allow Hell? Jesus tells a story in Luke 16 about a poor man name Lazarus who begs at the gate of a rich cruel man. They both die. Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man to Hell (READ: Luke 16:24-31). Wrapped up inside of this parable are a number answers why a loving and just God allows Hell.
I. Hell is a personal choice. The first thing I want us to see is that the rich man didn’t ask to get out of Hell. His attitude is that he still expects to be served and he wants Lazarus to be his water boy. He accuses God implying He did not give him enough information about the afterlife. But Jesus clearly points out God has given more than enough information to make an adequate choice. They have Moses and the Prophets (God’s Word). Ultimately, for reasons we don’t immediately see, the rich man doesn’t ask to leave Hell. Hell is a personal choice.
How can that be? God does not force us to love Him but gives us the option to accept or reject His love. To reject God is to reject His presence, His heaven. People don’t choose Hell as much as they reject God’s forgiveness. If we choose to be left alone in our sin over God, He is a gentleman and will eventually say, “Okay. Have it your way” God gave them up…to their own desires (Romans 1:24). With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him (Eph. 4:17-18).
C. S. Lewis is extremely helpful here. He points out in contrast to human prisons doors that lock from the outside, he says Hell’s doors lock from the inside. They are locked from the inside by those who refuse to let go of themselves and their sin and embrace God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. If God’s gift of free choice is real, Lewis points out, then we must be free to reject God. Where can we go if we don’t want God in our life? The only answer is Hell. Hell is the one place where God will give you absolute freedom from Him. How can that be unfair? There are only two kinds of people, writes Lewis, those who say, ‘Thy will be done’ to God or those whom God in the end says, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell. Hell is a fair choice.
II. Hell is a process. Getting back to the rich man and Lazarus. Many have noted the rich man, unlike Lazarus, is given a personal name. He’s only called the ‘Rich man.’ Why? It reveals what he spent his whole life building his identity on – his earthly wealth. Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day (Luke 16:19). Instead of building his life on God, he built his life on gaining the status and power of wealth. (Jesus)Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God (Luke 12:21).
The point is whenever someone builds their life and their identity on something other than God, whatever that thing is, they become so fully enslaved to it. They have to have more and more of it and they take this unfulfilled longing desire into eternity with them. But it all begins with a process of gradually giving yourself over to whatever “it” is you become enslaved.
C. S. Lewis explains it this way. He says Hell is not something sudden but gradual, like a mash or swamp we slide into one little sin at a time. Each time we choose our sin over God and others, he says, we surrender another spark of our humanity. Without repentance, turning back to God, we eventually dehumanize ourselves.
Why do people hold on with white knuckled resistance toward God? Because their delusion is if they let go, if they yield their will to God, they would somehow lose all their freedom and fulfilling identity. They buy into the age old lie that was whispered in the Garden of Eden, “God is holding out on you. The only way you’re going to find fulfillment and freedom is to do ignore God and do it your own way.”
Hell is a gradual process that does its worst work when we don’t even notice it. While we justify our thousand little white lies and peccadilloes, adds Louis Markos, our humanity drips out of us bit by bit, leaving us stranded in darkness, cut off from the light, from God, from life, from joy, from our true selves. The rich man is remembered as the ‘rich man’ because that’s what his true passion over God was. As a result, it consumed him, he lost all touch with reality. Often Hell is pictured as a place of fire because fire disintegrates. Even in this life we see the disintegration that bitterness, selfishness, worry brings. Hell is a process of losing one’s humanity and one’s sanity so all that is left is one whom in the end God said, ‘Thy will be done.’ Hell must exist simply to give a place to go for those who reject a loving and just God. So, what is God’s answer to Hell?
III. God’s answer to Hell is repentance and faith in His Son. A medical doctor tells the story: Early in my career as a doctor, I went to see a patient who was just coming out of anesthesia. Far off church chimes were sounding. The woman murmured, “I must be in heaven.” Then she saw me. She said, “No, I can’t be, there’s Dr. Campbell.” Hell is real and so is heaven. And the only way to heaven is through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. …we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 2:16). Having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:30-31).
Hell does not bring God some morbid satisfaction. He doesn’t want anyone to go there. Peter reminds us: …do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:8-9). God says in Ezekiel, Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? says the Sovereign LORD. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live (Ezek. 18:23). The truth is, God never made Hell for people. Jesus says in Matt. 25:41 it was prepared for the devil and his fallen angels. Nonetheless, Hell is a frightening reality and certainty if we have not personally trusted Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him (John 3:36). God didn’t have to, but I am amazed and thankful He gave us a way to escape the wrath our sins deserve. We are forever embraced by His love and shielded from His wrath to come.
How can a loving God send people to Hell? I think the words of C.S. Lewis are once again fitting here: I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts, ‘Without their will or with it?’ If I say, ‘Without their will,’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say, ‘With their will,’ my reason replies, ‘How if they will not give in?’