What the…Hell?

“What the…Hell?”  It seems like I hear that phrase all the time. It pops up in some surprising places. Some substitute Hell’s more socially acceptable cousin, “Heck.”  While others just drop the word altogether by saying, “What the . . .  “ so that we get to fill in the blank ourselves. We hear people use the word in other ways, too. We hear some describe a friend who they admire as a “hell of a guy” and others talk about a task done well as a “hell of a job.” And in competitive arenas, fans cheer, “Give’m Hell!” Often, telling someone to “go to Hell” is an egregious step across most socially accepted boundaries.  But why is “Hell” itself among a list of four-letter words to some and to others, it’s simply a verbally expressive term? What’s wrong with Hell?

By using the word “Hell” in such trivial ways as a saying of surprise in our American culture, it seems, at least to me, that the reality of Hell is diminished. By using, “Hell,” as a expression of exasperation, we ignore it’s certainty. And when we dismiss someone who has offended us by a verbal damnation to Hell, we discard it’s existence.

Perhaps our biggest problem with Hell is that we really don’t want to consider the reality of it or why it would exist. We may give it token acknowledgment from time to time, but then quickly move along with the more positive, amusing things of life. “What the…Hell?” seems to be culturally acceptable as a verbal expression of self, but when used in the context of an eternal punishment of individuals both the word and it’s meaning are considered personally offensive.

What’s happened to Hell? Even in our supposedly disenchanted age, large majorities of Americans believe in God and heaven, miracles and prayer, but belief in hell lags well behind, and the fear of damnation seems to have evaporated.

Maybe too many well-intended preachers have proclaimed a legalistic, fire-and-brimstone message so much that we want to avoid talking about it’s reality today. Tony Woodleif said in World Magazine, “As a child I went to churches where it was used as a threat. As an adult, I believed for a time in the notion that God made man fall on purpose, solely for the pleasure of burning a great many people for eternity.”

Or possibly the religion of multiculturalism has left the idea of Hell intolerant. In order for Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Atheists to live happily side-by-side, it’s politically incorrect to say one faith is superior to another. Believing that only one way leads to Heaven and all others lead to Hell is boorish, prehistoric, ignorant, unloving.

On Easter Sunday, two of the top three books on Amazon.com’s Religion and Spirituality best-seller list mapped the geography of the afterlife. One was Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,” an account of a 4-year-old’s near-death experience as dictated to his pastor father. The other was Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” in which Rob Bell asks questions that raise the greater question of whether Hell actually exists: “Does a loving God really send people to hell for all eternity?”

Released March 29, 2011 by Harper Collins, Bell’s book was popularized by TIME Magazine’s Cover story article, “What if Hell Doesn’t Exist?” by Jon Meacham on April 14, 2011 and it quickly skyrocketed up the NY Times Best Seller list.  How Bell raises the questions about Hell seems just as distorting as the actual questions: “Has God created billions of people over thousands of years only to select a few to go to heaven and everyone else to suffer forever in hell? Is this acceptable to God? How is this ‘good news’?”

Bell reads Jesus’ warnings of divine punishment as addressing only the temporal, rather than both the temporal and the eternal. He begins the book arguing that Jesus’ story has been hijacked by a number of different stories that Jesus has no interest in telling. “The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.” (Preface, vi):

“A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better…. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”

Woodleif acknowledges that “[Rob] Bell appeals to people raised in an evangelical environment that is long on judgment and short on grace. I am certainly one of those people, and so the hard questions he asks appeal to me,” he says. More and more people are asking questions about life after death. Where can we find the answers?

There are many things Jesus said we could know for sure about eternity. One of those things is the reality and the certainty of Hell. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed God’s Good News about Heaven and it’s also the bad news about Hell. The Gospel is that Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead to redeem everyone who believes in Him from spiritual death.

First of all, Hell exists because Jesus described it as a literal place. Jesus spoke about Hell more than anyone else did. He referred to Hell as a real place and described it in graphic terms (Matthew 10:28; 13:40-42; Mark 9:43-48).  In Matthew 10:28, Jesus said, Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” In Mark 9, Jesus repeatedly described Hell  as, —the unquenchable fire, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Perhaps the most compelling passage on Hell can be found in Luke’s Gospel in chapter 16.  It is there Jesus tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man.  The rich man mistreats Lazarus in life and in death the rich man is punished while Lazarus is comforted.  Verses 23-24 speak of the rich man,

And being in torment in Hades, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off, with Lazarus at his side. ‘Father Abraham!’ he called out, ‘Have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this flame!’

Jesus said the wicked suffer terribly, remain conscious, retain their desires and memories, long for relief, cannot find comfort, cannot leave their torment, and have no hope (see Luke 16:19-31).

Many, including some Christians, believe that God tortures people in hell. However, it’s significant to observe that in the New Testament, Hell is not described as a place of torture but rather a place of torment (Luke 16:23-28, Revelation 14:11). Torture is inflicted against one’s will, while torment is self-inflicted by one’s own will. Torment comes from the mental and physical anguish of knowing that freedom was used selfishly (for evil). The anguish results from the sorrow and shame of the judgment of being forever separated from God and all that is meaningful and joyful. Everyone in Hell will know that the pain he or she is suffering is self-induced. It is not a place where people are forced against their will to undergo agonizing pain. Some often use the image of torture to portray God as a cruel and vindictive being. However, the torment of Hell comes from the individual who freely chooses to reject God’s gift of forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ and must live with the sorrow of being aware of all that was lost.

The emotional part of my soul and being wishes there was another way besides Hell. I don’t want anyone to be forever separated from God in eternal torment. If it were up to me, no one would go to Hell. Regardless of my feelings, a literal, eternal Hell exists because Jesus clearly and repeatedly affirmed it. We can’t dismiss Hell without dismissing Jesus. If we cannot trust Jesus’ teaching about Hell, why should we trust anything He said, including His offer of salvation?

16 “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world that He might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God.  John 3:16–18

We can’t make Hell go away simply because it makes us feel uncomfortable, it seems intolerant, or it’s politically incorrect.

Secondly, Hell exists because God is just. When some people speak of what a terrible notion Hell is, they talk as if it involves the suffering of innocent people. Even if people acknowledge Hell as a necessary and just punishment for evildoers, we rarely see ourselves or others as worthy of Hell. After all, we are not Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or Osama Bin Laden. We’re not murderers, sexual predators, or financial embezzlers. We consider ourselves and the people we call our friends, “good people.” God responds, however, through the Apostle Paul…

“Are we any better? Not at all…both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin, as it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God…There is no one who does what is good, not even one(Romans 3:9-12).

When we deny the fairness of Hell, we deny the reality of our sin. When we ignore the seriousness of our sin, we ignore the extent of God’s justice. The justice of Hell doesn’t seem fair because we just can’t understand our sin problem and God’s holiness. Furthermore, if we regard Hell as a divine overreaction to sin, we deny that God has the moral, legal right to allow ongoing torment on any humans He created to exist forever. Most of all, if we deny Hell, we deny the extreme glory of God’s grace in Christ’s blood shed as the substitute for God’s judgment for all men and women who believe on the cross. If the sins He died for aren’t big enough to warrant eternal punishment, then perhaps the grace He showed on the cross isn’t big enough to warrant eternal praise. The more we understand God’s absolute justice and our sin, the more the reality of Hell will make sense to us.

With the reality of an eternal Hell, God exercises justice with absolute equity in the punishment of sin.

11 Then I saw a great white throne and One seated on it. Earth and heaven fled from His presence, and no place was found for them. 12 I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged according to their works by what was written in the books. 13 Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. 14 Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.  Revelation 20:11–15

The great white throne the apostle John saw is evidently God’s throne in heaven. It is great because it is God’s throne and because it is the seat of this last judgment. Its whiteness suggests that the verdicts that proceed from it are pure, holy, and righteous (cf. Ps. 97:2; Dan. 7:9). At the Judgment of the great white throne, the bodies, spirits, and souls of unbelievers will be reunited and then be cast into the lake of fire, a place of eternal punishment. The dead before this throne are evidently the unsaved of all ages who now stand resurrected before God (v. 5; Dan. 12:2). They come from all classes and groups of humanity. The books contain a record of their deeds (cf. Deut. 32:34; Ps. 56:8; Isa. 65:6; Dan. 7:10; Mal. 3:16; Matt. 12:37). The book of life contains the names of believers in Christ (Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:15; 21:27; Isa. 4:3; Ps. 69:28; Dan. 12:1; Luke 10:20; Phil. 4:3). God will condemn those raised to face this judgment because of their works that include failure to believe in Jesus Christ: “This is the work of God—that you believe in the One He has sent.” (John 6:29).

We live our earthly life between Heaven and Hell and so our decision of trust prepares us for either one or the other. Eternal death in Hell is judgment by God according to sin and rejection of God’s gift through Jesus. Eternal life in Heaven is knowing God by faith in Jesus Christ: “This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and the One You have sent —Jesus Christ” (John 17:3).

Hell exists because God is loving. In our lifetime, the Creator God gives people freedom to believe or reject Him. On the cross, Jesus took upon Himself the Hell we deserve, in order to purchase for us the Heaven we don’t deserve. When Jesus died on the cross, He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), using the Greek word for canceling certificates of debt, meaning, “Paid in full.” He paid our debt of sin. Jesus then rose from the grave, defeating sin and conquering death:

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, He was buried, He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

Jesus, the Eternal Son of God, died in the place of every man, woman, boy and girl as the single greatest act of love in history. In fact, God’s love is demonstrated best and most by sending His Son to die for our sins that would otherwise result in Hell’s judgment. He took our judgment. He took Hell for us!

God does not send anyone to Hell – people choose to go there. He created us as free moral creatures and He will not force people into His presence if they do not want to be there. If a person chooses not to be with God in his or her lifetime, He will respect that decision. Wouldn’t we question God’s love if he forced people who have rejected Him on earth to spend eternity with Him in Heaven? In Matthew 23:37-39, Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem and the nation of Israel because they rejected their Savior and were not willing to accept the love of God. Christ as Lord of creation could have forced His will on His creatures, but instead respected their decision even though it broke His heart. Since God’s desire is that all be saved from Hell (Luke 19:10) and He has made this possible for all men, God cannot bear the blame for people going to Hell. In love, God gives us freedom to believe or reject Him (John 3:18).

Hell exists because God is not just loving – He is Holy. While it is certainly true that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that we love because He first loved us (1 John 4:10), this is not the primary characteristic of God. Love is not the primary characteristic of God, holiness is. It’s God’s holiness that holds His character and all of His characteristics (including love, justice, mercy, grace, goodness, truth, etc..) in absolute perfection.

Those who worship God in His very presence assert, with threefold emphasis, that God is holy:

 Seraphim were standing above Him; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts;
His glory fills the whole earth.”
The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke.  Isaiah 6:2–4

Each of the four living creatures had six wings; they were covered with eyes around and inside. Day and night they never stop, saying:
“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God, the Almighty,
who was, who is, and who is coming.”  Revelation 4:8 

In Heaven’s throne room, angels proclaim God’s holiness in His presence, and He does not correct them. As we examine the Bible we find that a twofold repetition is strong in both Hebrew and Greek languages, but threefold repetition is the strongest in both languages. The only characteristic of God described so forcefully is His holiness.

Maybe we’ve seen love in our lifetime, but we haven’t seen holiness.  Perhaps the closest we’ve come to seeing holiness is an infant child, but it doesn’t take too long for the selfish, sin nature of a child to raise it’s ugly head. When we gain a vision of the holiness of God, however, as He is portrayed in the Bible, we begin to understand the fairness of eternal judgment in Hell. Of course, God is love, but we must understand His love through the lens of His holiness. If we reverse things – understanding His holiness through the lens of His love – we are distorting what the Bible has said about Him and begin to question the justice of Hell.

All people really want to know what happens after death.  Many people are reading and talking about the afterlife these days. This is consistent with survey results that report more than 80 percent of Americans believe in some sort of life after death. This belief may take Buddhist, Baptist, or Oprah Winfrey form, but the belief is out there nonetheless. People really want to know what happens after death. The most loving thing is sharing the truth about Heaven and Hell as we share the story of God’s love for His greatest creation.

All people have a knowledge of God (Romans 1:19-25) and of eternity written on our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and so most eventually come around to asking the question, “What’s going to happen to me when I die?” Let’s listen for these afterlife conversations taking place around us and be ready to give a “reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Since the Bible speaks of an eternal Hell as a reality, it should motivate believers in Christ to share the truth of the Gospel – including the truth of Heaven and Hell – with urgency.

Hell isn’t just a verbal assertion of self, an emphatic outburst or an emotional expression, it’s a reality that everyone must consider . Heaven, by contrast, is not just an escape from judgment, it’s the free gift of a Holy God who is worthy of our love because He first loved us. What a tragedy that this present life is the closest unbelievers in Christ will ever come to Heaven. What a comfort that this present life is the closest believers in Christ’s death for us will ever come to Hell. If someone rejects the best gift that a holy, gracious and loving God offers, what remains in the end will be nothing but Hell.

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Author: Larry Murray

I'm a child of One, a son of two, a husband of my one and only, a dad of three, a pastor of sheep, and a fan of baseball. Follow me...as I follow Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 11:1; Philippians 2:5; 1 Peter 2:21)

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