“Why would a loving God condemn people to Hell?”
How many times have you or someone you know asked this question? It seems like an obvious question. We know what love is and we know what love is not (at least that is what we tell ourselves) and condemning a group of people to eternal punishment seems not only punitive, but unjustly so.
In over a decade of youth ministry this question, above all else, is at the forefront of every Q&A session I ever held. Kids are desperate for fairness. They have been coached on fairness since they were toddlers wandering around and taking each other’s toys.
“That’s not fair,” we told them, “Jennifer had that first. Give it back.”
They think the world should be fair, and they think that fairness is defined by the one that feels cheated.
Kids also want to know why they are being punished. They crave that the punishment fits the crime, and to many, a few white lies, sexual exploration, and a dabble in theft here and there does not equal an eternity of torment.
To them… Christianity is unfair.
And if we are being honest, Christianity is unfair. Just not in the way we think.
So what has the church done to combat this growing uneasiness with a literal Hell?
Unfortunately, they have either ignored the topic altogether, believing that they simply must state that Hell is real, or, like Rob Bell, they have sought to eliminate the concept altogether. After all, if Hell is a place of temporal displacement or an allegory for those that reject the Almighty only to find themselves annihilated in the end (more on this view later), then the uneasiness subsides.
In churches we speak of Hell but we do not define it. We tell our kids that people who do not believe in Jesus will end up there, but we do not often spend much time on the why or the what. What is Hell? What takes place there? Why is it necessary? Why would God allow that?
This became evident in an e-mail exchange I had recently with a former student of mine.
The young person brought up her visceral response to the concept of Hell.
This is what she said:
“Hell. eternal torture and pain and misery. that doesn’t seem fair to me – god created us… and he’s going to torture us… oh and the only way to get to heaven is to live a perfect life – which is impossible – literally according to him.”
This same sentiment is all over the world today. The thought of Hell seems patently evil to those that do not understand the theology around it. And the refusal to enter the realm of real discussions on Hell has seemed to be the stamp of approval on said objections.
The reality is that the Church at large, especially in the western world, struggles with Hell because it is not popular. It is much easier and popular to talk about love than it is wrath. But divine love must be accompanied by divine wrath.
The truth is the crux of the Christian faith relies on there being eternal and lasting consequences for sin. Scripture is littered with it, yet we ignore these scriptures for the more palatable ones, like Jesus saying “neither do I condemn you” to the woman caught/tricked into adultery.
That is a message we can get behind!
Do what you want and no one casts a stone.
That will preach in today’s postmodern and post-Christian culture.
But it is not biblical.
Do we forget the next sentence Jesus spoke to that woman? Now, go and sin no more (John 8:11).
So what is Hell? Why is it important? And how should we teach it?
It might be easier, in defining Hell, to poke holes in the commonly held cliché versions of Hell that have gained traction in society.
This is not an exhaustive list, but these are the primary myths of Hell that I have seen promulgated in society, and ones that are commonly held by those without much training or teaching on the topic.
Hell is a place where all the cool kids can party together without kill-joy God telling us what is and is not okay.
Hell is a place of eternal torture inflicted by God.
Hell is a place where Satan rules and his demons torture you for eternity to their pleasure.
Hell is a place where only the most evil among us go for eternity.
Hell is a figure of speech, souls that do not accept Christ will simply be annihilated.
Hell is not real, it is a place made up by Christians to trick you into their cult.
None of these represents the biblical view of Hell.
Are you surprised?
The one that surprised the most people in my time in ministry was that Satan was not the king of Hell.
This narrative has been propagated through popular Occult literature as well as TV Shows (mostly based on that same Occult literature) like Lucifer, Supernatural, and others.
But Satan’s throne is not in Hell. He has a throne and a kingdom (Matt. 12:26; Rev. 2:13) but it is in the spiritual realm, not in Hell. Satan’s kingdom is of the earth and of the fallen spiritual forces (Matt. 4:9; 9:34; Eph. 6:12) that wreak havoc on it. While Satan’s kingdom is darkness (Eph. 6:12) it is not eternal and he will also be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10), which is Hell.
I could go on, but the point here is not to develop a correct understand of Satan per say, but of Hell.
Satan does not rule Hell. He resides there for eternity, along with unbelievers, death, and all other forms of unrighteousness (Rev. 20:15).
So what is this place?
The best way to understand what Hell is, is to simply take Jesus at his word.
Jesus does not mince words when he speaks of Hell, in fact, he seems to be incredibly concerned for those listening that they understand the severity of Hell.
The Greek word translated Hell in Jesus’ words is Gehenna. To have a correct understanding of Hell, one must understand the etymology and why Jesus would use Gehenna as the word which he used to describe Hell.
Gehenna is not simply a word; it is a very literal place southwest of Jerusalem called the Ge Hinnom in Hebrew (meaning – Valley of Hinnom). This was the place where garbage (human refuse, trash, carcasses etc.) were burned day and night. In other words – it is the place where the dirty, unclean, and soiled things would be cast out.
It was not a kingdom. It was a dump and no on in their right mind would reside there.
So what is the purpose of Hell?
In short, as you read through the scriptures, we find that the purpose of Hell is to cast out (like garbage) those who do not wish to be a part of the Kingdom of God. And since only good comes from God, those that wish to have nothing to do with God will be granted their wish. To be on the opposite end of the good.
In fairness, we all deserve to be cast out (Rom 3:23; Col. 1:13) because we stand condemned already (John 3:17; Rom. 7:7-25). So, if fairness is really what we desire… well… what is the old saying? Be careful what you wish for.
To borrow a quote from an old Relient K song, “The beauty of Grace is that it makes life not fair.”
The purpose of Hell is not torture, contrary to what the young lady that e-mailed me thought. God is not standing above the souls of men flogging them for eternity. It is not nearly that sadistic. In fact, it is not sadistic at all.
It is justice.
We stand condemned already apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps another time we can get into the doctrine of original sin and soteriology but take it for granted this time as we explore the doctrine of Hell.
If Original Sin is true (and orthodox Christian doctrine would indicate it is) and If the only way outside of this condemnation is through Christ (and orthodox Christian doctrine would indicate it is) then Hell is the requisite place for those who do not embrace the free gift of Salvation through Jesus Christ.
This torment is not active, it is passive. It is a chosen torment. The torment comes from being separated from all that is good (Mark 10:18; James 1:17) for eternity because we were haughty enough to think we could manufacture our own good. Much like Satan thought he could build his own good (Isaiah 14:12-15) out of pride, so too, does humanity.
Don’t believe me? How many arguments against Hell include a “better way” to do things from God? As if the person arguing against Hell should be in charge. Probably all of them.
Hell then, is the natural result of offending an almighty supernatural being. Satan experiences it. The demons experience it. And those who do not believe in Jesus experience it. Not because God is unloving, but because He is completely good and just.
The fact that anyone can enter into His presence with confidence (Heb. 4:16) at all is the grace and love of Almighty God.
We must “rescue” the doctrine of Hell from those that would distort it. Hell is a natural consequence for offending a holy God, not a punitive measure deployed by some egomaniacal halfwit.
I will leave a note here to say that there are different and biblically based understandings of Hell that can and should be investigated fully. While the eternal conscious torment of those in Hell is justice, and something worth defending in my view, so too could Conditional Immortality be. (a form of annihilationism championed by Chris Date – learn more from the video below)
In the end, a proper understanding of Hell should drive us to repentance (Rom. 2:4) and that kindness is displayed in God’s desire, ability, and choice to provide an exit ramp from the highway to Hell to the Kingdom of Heaven.
People are in danger of Hell, whether that is an eternal existence without God or the snuffing out of their souls for eternity (and what do we fear more than our own mortality as Chris Date would say?).
In the end the truth is that Hell is being apart from good for eternity, and if you are separated from good, the only place you can reside is with evil. This is logically the only option. God does not desire this for anyone (1 Timothy 2:4) but he must only allow those to enter his Kingdom that want to live with Him and want to be ruled by Him. What kind of king would allow treasonous dissidents entrance and participation in his kingdom?
Not a good one.
The torment is the knowledge that you have rejected the Almighty God and embraced eternity apart Him.
Without Hell (whether that is the literal place of Hell or the lack of eternal existence), God cannot be good, and without goodness there can be no God and with no God we would be in Hell for eternity.
Note – In my not so professional opinion there are only two views of Hell that can be justified with a biblical defense. Eternal Conscious Torment (the view that I hold to here) and Conditional Immortality which is a form of Annihilationism. Only one of these is true but either COULD be true. In reality, the purpose of Hell (whether ECT or CI) is not to scare people into eternity but to remedy rebellion and sin forever, which is why both views can be supported biblically in my opinion.