“Unconverted men walk over the pit of Hell on a rotten covering, and there are
innumerable places in this covering so weak that they won’t bear their weight,
and these places are not seen.”
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
Enfield, Massachusetts July 8, 1741
Deuteronomy 32:35 (NIV)
“It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip;
their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.”
Years ago, when I was a Pastor in the Hudson Valley in New York, a woman in our church asked me a question. She was strong in the Lord but her older brother was a hardened unbeliever. He had just died, and she inquired of me…gently… “Do you think he is in Hell?” I was blessed by the Holy Spirit and given wisdom to say “We never know who is in Hell. There is always hope because even in the last moments the Lord can extend the offer of Christ to an unbeliever and he could be saved. We do well not to speculate in that regard.” I think that was a sensible pastoral response, but I did not blame her…for wondering.
“The Most Unpopular Subject in the World.” That was the title of a sermon about Hell preached by the late Pastor D. James Kennedy, nearly fifty years ago. It was great way to introduce the subject. Be assured that I realize this is an unusual theme for a blog article. One may ask if I have an unusual and troubling interest in the reality of Hell? In short, why dwell on this awful subject? Why does it interest me as a Christian and a preacher of Christ?
My response is twofold. FIRST, we hear few if any sermons on the subject. (When did you last hear one?) No one really wants to say much about it. If we have been born again and received eternal life we are happy to look forward to Heaven (See John Chapter Three). Talking about Hell seems sad and sour and unprofitable. There’s some truth to that but it may still be necessary to contemplate the reality of Hell. Why? Because Hell exists as the direct contrast to Heaven and the Holiness of God. In fact, because God is entirely and quintessentially Holy and Righteous, Hell MUST exist. The Bible is filled with separations. Ultimately, God must separate out those who cannot be near Him in Heaven in their unholiness. We’ll come back to that.
SECOND, as I observe so much godlessness in our society, I am reminded that God will not allow His ultimate Kingdom or the community of the redeemed to be morally polluted by the presence of wickedness! I am not a hateful man, but when I see people who rejoice over the murder of the innocent unborn, and celebrate same sex marriage, and promote the idolatry that has exploded across this culture, I am grieved. When I witness the worship of politicians and athletes and every other VIP in our news, the constant pursuit of material excess and the mocking of God at every turn, I am heartsick. WE as believers are grieved! And the Word of God says that a great judgment and separation is coming! But again, most egregiously, the wholesale slaughter of over a million unborn children every year prompts my grief. That is the capital sin of America. And it seems that few in leadership recognize that God’s judgment is coming; most of the culture seems to be walking on Edward’s rotten covering.
Years ago, those who supported the availability of abortion on demand often said that “Abortion should be safe, legal and rare.” Not today. In our time, abortion is being celebrated, by some, as a good thing. Positive. Not something shameful and tragic but rather an option to be held secure and nearly a sacrament. Consider the words of a so-called comedian joking about killing babies. She spoke recently at the National Press Club Dinner. Saying, “Abortion. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it!” And, “Get rid of that baby!” And, “God bless abortion!” This is a darkness that cries out for separation from the light. God sent a darkness upon Egypt (Exodus 10:21), a “darkness that could be felt!” Those who love God can feel this darkness. And such “comedy” comes from a heart of darkness. Setting aside this woman’s ghoulish remarks, the real shocker is the response of so many (not all) in the audience. They can be seen laughing and applauding. It is nauseating. I immediately thought of the prophet Isaiah:
Isaiah 5:20 (NIV) “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”
I am a Pastor who cares intensely about lost souls. I’ve even prayed for her. But I care just as much for the unborn brutally sacrificed in a society that celebrates their death! People who are this godless show us why there must be a Hell. A place of eternal separation from God. True, the Word of God tells us that God’s desire is for sinners to be saved. We read:
Ezekiel 18:32 (NIV) “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!”
Yet…nothing in the Bible makes sense without the reality of Judgement Day. Jesus spoke of “that Day” again and again. There must be a place called Hell. But people object. Even some Christians find fault with this ultimate outworking of God’s justice. Before saying more, one thought. Let’s stay humble. It does not really matter what people think about Hell’s existence. If absolutely everyone insists there is no such place, it will not alter the reality. And the reverse is true. If Hell does not exist, man cannot invent it. But if we are Bible-believing people, we cannot deny it since Scripture affirms it. Some thoughts in Q & A format:
Q: Does the Bible teach that Hell exists and how are we to understand Hell?
A: Yes, the Bible makes the existence of Hell clear. There are many words used in the Scriptures that touch on the existence of Hell. Confining our examination to the New Testament, we note that three Greek words are translated into “Hell.” They are “Hades” and “Gehenna” and “Tartaroo.” Hades is the way the New Testament translates the Old Testament word “Sheol” meaning the underworld, a place of torment. Gehenna referred to a garbage dump that had been a place of pagan worship where trash fires burned constantly and endlessly. The less familiar word Tartaroo was a classical Greek word meaning a place of punishment. It is used only once by Peter when he writes:
2 Peter 2:4 (NIV) “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to Hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons (tartaroo) to be held for judgment…”
Yes, this is getting linguistically complicated. I think we can simplify it by considering the words of the Lord Jesus Christ. In his parable about the rich man named Lazarus, he said this:
Luke 16:23 (NIV) “In Hell, (Hades) where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.”
Our Lord portrays a man suffering separation from God AFTER HIS DEATH. For those who say that death simply means total cessation of life, this parable would not matter. Many unbelievers think, as Jack Kevorkian said years ago: “When you die, you rot!” But Jesus said otherwise. All his teachings make that clear. There will be a conscious afterlife!
Other such references to the afterlife and Hell abound from Jesus. We do well to understand Hell as the place of eternal separation from the God who made us. Perhaps the most punishing aspect is that in Hell unredeemed sinners realize that their souls long for God, but the separation is eternal, and it is too late to do anything about it! The thirst for God becomes an eternal longing that cannot be quenched! The godless person has been satisfying his or her desires with the things of the world. In their proper place, such things are great. But idolatrous devotion to them in this life eclipses God. What happens when that unbeliever moves on to a place where those niceties cannot be found? Where the longings of their souls cannot find satisfaction except in God…who has separated them out at death? Now, they no longer live on Earth and they cannot live in Heaven. But only in Hell.
Indeed, Jesus warned his listeners that while living in the flesh, there are two levels of human existence. The world above and the world below. Here the Son of God speaks with great clarity:
John 8:23-24 (NIV) “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.”
Can anything be more shocking than the terrifying idea that we might “die in our sins?” In other words, die without our sins being covered by Christ? Die and stand before the Eternal God with no remedy for our sins? Like dying from a disease that could have been cured? Separated forever from the God who made us? Yes, the Bible teaches that Hell exists, and it is a frightening reality! The Doctrine of Hell now introduces a third place of existence. Not on Earth and not in Heaven. Hell is the place where a person goes if they die “in their sins.” But…
Q: If God is good and merciful, would he really send people to Hell?
A: Of course. He must do so precisely because He is good and merciful and just. Remember, He fenced off the Garden of Paradise so that sinners could not enter and pollute it, and God has fences and gates around Heaven. It cannot be Paradise if even one godless person lives there. Our migration into Heaven will include a total transformation of ourselves leaving no trace of our fallen natures that reside in our flesh. That is why we cannot take these bodies into Heaven (different teaching there…another time perhaps.) We cannot enter Heaven with our sins remaining upon our souls. They must be removed and only Christ can remove them. If we refuse Christ, we have turned away from God’s only remedy for the sin problem. God must send the unredeemed to Hell. They will live on in their spirits but not in His presence.
We’ve all heard of judges who do not sentence criminals according to their crimes. And we are frustrated. God is the eternal Righteous Judge who must judge the wicked and to do otherwise would impugn his Holy character.
Q: Would God really send sinners to Hell if they never even heard of Jesus? Would this be just and fair?
A: Yes! This is the most demanding aspect to consider about the Doctrine of Hell.
Let’s clarify: God does not send sinners to Hell because they reject Christ but because they are sinners who deserve Hell. We are born sinners and the judgment upon the first Adam is upon us. Right. We did not ask to be born at all much less born into sin, but that is irrelevant. In a sense, when Adam sinned, we sinned! He left us corrupted and programmed to sin. We were born under the weight of sin and we are responsible for our sins once we reach an age where we understand them and realize that we are accountable to God. We are born with sin natures and if we never hear of God’s offer of Christ, we still deserve to be separated from God. Our natural state merits condemnation.
This is often the biggest stumbling block for skeptics. They are saying if the Gospel is true, how can God condemn those who never heard it? But the basis of God’s condemnation is not first rejecting the Gospel but being a sinner who does not merit living in His presence. This is a question of causality. The real cause of our eternal separation from God in Hell is that we are sinners. If a cancer-curing drug is available to me and I die, it will not be because I never heard of the drug. That is only secondarily true. The first cause was that I had cancer. The first cause, the primary cause, of sinners going to Hell is because they deserve Hell as recompense for their sins.
Beyond that, if God were to not send sinners to Hell because they had never heard the Gospel, then we would be better off never sharing Christ because people might hear it and reject Christ!
Q: Does the New Testament teach that God only saves those he has chosen from Hell? Doesn’t God really wish that every sinner would come to repentance and receive His offer? A: Yes, and yes. However, the reality is that man in his natural state does not want God and naturally rejects the offer of Christ. God offers, and man says “No! No thanks! I’m not interested!” Consider this parable and its meaning told by our Lord himself:
Luke 14:16-21 (NIV) 16 Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 “But they alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ 19 “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’ 20 “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’ 21 “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’”
Notice that all were invited. All said “No!” Notice that the owner of the feast then sent his servants out to bring in some guests! He did not need to do that! This is this is why the Lord Jesus Christ said:
Matthew 22:14 (NIV) “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
In short, God will not apologize for sending most people to Hell. Most people? Yes. Jesus said:
Matthew 7:13-14 (NIV) 13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Q: Is there another aspect of God’s Judgment that we might consider.
A: In my view, yes.
I hold tentatively to the proposition that Hell is not necessarily an endless place of conscious suffering. It might be a temporary place of suffering for rejecting God’s Lordship, a place where the dis-embodied souls of the lost long for God, but where at some point they are destroyed. After all, Scripture teaches that even death and Hades are burned up! (Rev. 20:14) This is a minority view in theology. For sure! Not many theologians agree with me here. But I think we should consider the nature of a fire. Namely, the fire is ongoing, but the things placed into it are consumed.
Are there compelling arguments for this view, known as “Annihilationism?” I think so. Consider how often the afterlife is presented as the language of destruction:
Ezekiel 18:4 (NIV) For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son—both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die.
Matthew 10:28 (NIV) Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.
There are other such references to eternal destruction. And as to the concern that if God has predestined those who will be saved, then how can He send those who are not saved to an eternal Hell? Perhaps because God really does somehow make a genuine offer of salvation to all, but all reject that offer. So, God presses on after all reject His offer and He “calls” some few into His Kingdom. Deliverance from Hell is the gift of God.
As Paul said: Romans 8:29-30 (NIV) 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
More than fifty years ago, folk singers Peter Paul and Mary sang a tune called “And When I Die” with these lyrics:
“My problems are many, they’re as deep as a well, I can swear here ain’t no Heaven, but I pray there ain’t no Hell! Swear there ain’t no Heaven, pray there ain’t no Hell…but I’ll never know by livin’ only my dyin’ will tell…only my dyin’ will tell!”
Not so. There is a Heaven and a Hell. The Good News is that, as the Apostle’s Creed tells us: “He descended into Hell”…so we don’t have to!
Blessings! Pastor Alberta