The concept of hell is one of the greatest stumbling blocks for many. For some, it’s the deal breaker. One theologian (Peter Kreeft) wrote: “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.”
Hell presents some huge obstacles and raises several questions:
- How can an all-loving God sentence people to hell?
- Why does God condemn people eternally for what they do in a finite amount of time?
- Why is it necessary for hell to involve a kind of torture?
Some people just say there is no hell. Others advocate that hell is not eternal, and eventually everyone will get to heaven.
C.S. Lewis once wrote about the doctrine of Hell: “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.”
So what is hell? What is its purpose? Is it a place? Is it forever? Is it real? Should we fear it? How should Christians think about it? Let’s look closer at this very important biblical doctrine.
We get most of our understanding of Hell from Jesus Himself. If you divide the teaching of Jesus into various subjects, about 13% of His teachings and half of His parables are about hell, judgment, punishment and the wrath of God. Here are a few examples:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ . . . And these will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41, 46)
“[But some] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12)
“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. . . . ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’ ” (Mark 9:43, 48)
If you want to get rid of hell, you have to get rid of Jesus. Jesus emphasized not only the love of God but also the wrath of God. We can’t escape the fact that hell and heaven are central to New Testament teaching.
Some people object that hell doesn’t fit the crime. Hell is too heavy-handed and harsh and goes on for far too long. Hell is not very just.
But hell is all about justice. If we are honest, we know that if there is a God and He is perfectly good and just, he must judge impartially and fairly, and there must be consequences for the evils that people commit. If God is truly just, then there is a hell. Does it make us uncomfortable? Yes. But it also makes sense.
We have a tendency to like God’s ‘softer’ qualities of love, mercy, and forgiveness. But shy away from His ‘tougher’ qualities like holiness, justice, and wrath. But just because we don’t like a quality, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Hell exists because a holy God must punish sin in order to be truly just.
Some people see hell as overkill. If hell represents God’s justice, maybe it’s actually a miscarriage of justice. How can a person sin for 80 years and then get punished for eternity? How is that just? Let me see if I can answer that?
First, the degree to which a person experiences punishment is not typically based on how long it takes them to commit a crime but on the seriousness of the crime. It could take a person 6 seconds to murder someone, but is a punishment of 6 seconds just? No we put them in prison for the rest of their life.
Second, we fail to see the value of the offense – “sin.” Sin is a crime against an eternal, infinite God. This means that our sin is infinite, not something small that can be easily fixed. An offense against God requires a just punishment. It is not just the nature of the sin or sinner, but the One being sinned against.
Some people wrongly assume that after living and committing sin, they die and go to hell and stop sinning. But eternal punishment is legitimate because sin doesn’t stop when people die; it continues. It is ongoing punishment for ongoing sin, going on forever. People who in this life do not wish to surrender their lives to Jesus will not somehow change their minds in the next.
Many object that hell is actually ‘cruel and unusual punishment. How could a loving God, just because you don’t obey Him and do what He wants, torture you forever?
Why is hell the way it is? Because if God is the life-giving source of everything in the universe, of everything good that we experience in life, and if these things are given to us because of the grace of God, what are we left with if His presence and grace are removed? In one sense, hell can be understood as the result of our choice to experience total independence from God. We are allowed to be our own god. Hell eposes the lie that Satan told Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden – you don’t need God. Those who pull away from the source of all that is good and left with all only bad things.
“Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? One a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?” – C.S. Lewis
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.
Hell is a place for people who, given what is needed to belong in heaven (submission to Jesus), do not want to go to heaven. Thus, hell is the natural consequence of the choices people make. It is a monument to human freedom.
Hell is a horrible place. And I hope you understand some of the logic behind it and don’t want to go there. But it’s not enough to run from something. Salvation is about running toward something – indeed someone, Jesus.
Hell is real and scary. But I want you to know one more thing. Jesus took on Hell for you. When He said on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He revealed that the eternal Son suffered your punishment for sin. Will you turn to Him now?
Read more God Questions.