What is hell? A topic many Christians avoid and one that even my igadget does not like as it usually tries to autocorrect to ‘he’ll’. But people often ask about it so it is next in our series “Questions People Are Asking.”
Before we get into it, meaning the topic of hell, not hell itself of course, we should remember that the Bible presents various teachings that are like anchors, they are solid, easy to discern, and hard to pull out of Christian theology without ripping pages out the Bible. But sometimes a boat can spin around an anchor giving a person different views as it does so. We have in the Bible certain teachings that are not as plain to see and about which there may be disagreement without breaking unity. As Christians we have an obligation to set the anchors of the Bible deep within our hearts and minds, but as Baptists we have the liberty to think through the different views that are possible. Indeed this is one of the reasons why I have remained a Baptist. So let us look first at those teachings of the Bible that we might consider anchors:
Hell is real. You really need to do some theological gymnastics to get the Bible to teach otherwise. We find it in the Old Testament, we find it in the New Testament. Some people think Jesus was too nice to mention hell, but according to our gospel writers he did. Some will claim that yes, hell is real, but it is something we experience in the hear and now, however this requires more gymnastics!
Hell is described in vivid terms. Fire, a fiery lake of sulphur, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, darkness, the second death, and Gehenna which was basically the garbage dump for Jerusalem. All these are vivid descriptions that leave no doubt the Biblical teaching is that heaven is the better option.
Hell is a just consequence. The Bible in affirming that God is just by implication teaches that hell also is a just reward for those who end there. 2nd Thessalonians 1:6-9 is worthy of consideration on this point also.
Hell is forever. We ought not say that anyone will be in hell for eternity, for eternity has already started! But the idea is that once one is in hell, that’s it for all time to come, in other words this is something that cannot be undone.
Hell is defined for us. The most succinct definition of hell given in the Bible is ’separation from God’ which we find clearly stated in 2nd Thessalonians 1:9 (NRSV) “These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” What is separation from God like? Here is where we move from anchors to viewpoints. Let us consider three:
To be separated from God is to experience conscious torment literally as described. So yes, one will experience fire, darkness, the whole shebang. This view has going for it the ease of taking things literally.
To be separated from God is to experience conscious torment, but the descriptions given in the Bible are metaphor. The person who takes this view understands that when speaking about hell, and about heaven for that matter, the Bible uses images we can understand to help us grasp things which we could not possibly understand. The Bible does not always speak plainly, but uses art and poetry to get theology across.
To be separated from God is to cease to exist. Before you stop reading, if in fact you are still reading, consider the Biblical support fans of this view will provide. The original promise made to Adam for disobedience was not hell, but death (Genesis 2:17). The “wages of sin” is not hell, but death as stated in Romans 6:23 (NRSV):”For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” John 3:16 does not say “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not go to hell but will go to heaven” but rather “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (NRSV). There is also the already mentioned succinct definition of hell “These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (NRSV). Though the preceding verse mentions hell, it quickly turns to the idea of ’destruction.’ Finally, in a vivid bit from Revelation, we hear of hell with all it’s fires and sulphur being termed ’the second death’: “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” Revelation 20:14 (NRSV). Note that death and hell itself end up in hell! It is hard to get anywhere in understanding Revelation 20 without an appreciation of the poetic. Furthermore,those who prefer this view will hold up the philosophical argument that it makes good sense, that to reject the Giver of life will have the consequence of rejecting life itself.
If it seems like I am giving this third view preferential treatment, I am not, there has just been more to say. I do have a caution though for those who prefer this third view and it is to watch the temptation to relax. Some might think it won’t really matter what happens to loved ones who die apart from Christ, “It won’t be that bad” they might say. Jesus never relaxed but went to the cross. The early Christians of New Testament did not relax but went to the mission field. This is where we belong also no matter which view of hell we adopt. Let me reiterate the freedom you have to think though these views, but the obligation you have as a Christian to set the anchors. Let me also mention that my viewpoint on what hell is like has changed often and likely will change again. That God loves me and has done what is necessary to keep me from experiencing hell is something I hold with conviction in accordance with God’s Word. My viewpoint on what hell is like, however, is something I hold with humility.
Speaking of anchors here is one more; not one person hearing this sermon or reading this blog needs to live one minute more in fear of hell. Jesus Christ has gone to the cross as an expression of love and grace, dying that death we deserve. When we turn from our sin and turn to Him, no matter how far we have run from Him, or how quickly we have run, when we turn around we find that He is right there ready to embrace us and lead the way back. There is not one person reading this who at this point is beyond His love. If you have turned your back on God you should fear hell, or better yet, just turn around.