I had never been so insulted in all my life as the day in eleventh grade American lit. class when we had to read a Puritan sermon by Jonathan Edwards titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I took offense at the (apparently) obvious scare-tactics Edwards used, warning his audience about the terrors of hell. He told his hearers that we were like tiny spiders being held over a fire, and that God needed only to relax his grip upon us and at once we would fall into the fires beneath us. I didn’t see how a God of love could send anyone to hell, and didn’t appreciate Edwards saying otherwise. Understand—I wasn’t a Christian at the time—that would take another year and a half. But I remember getting really, really angry reading this sermon. It was only after I came to know Jesus Christ that I realized that Edwards wasn’t saying anything new. He was getting his message from Jesus. Indeed, over half the references to hell in the Bible are from the lips of ‘gentle’ Jesus! Jesus, with all his kindness and mercy toward sinners, was something of a ‘hellfire and brimstone’ preacher. Witness these words from the Savior, telling us to fear God:
I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. —Luke 12:5
The biblical teachings about hell are under attack today—not from outside the church, but from within. Christians today want to be God’s Public Relations Agency, and they’re afraid an eternal hell makes God look bad. Why not just ignore hell, not teach about it, not preach it, not mention it in our evangelism or witness? If hell makes God look intolerant, then why not get rid of hell? Several Christian leaders have suggested replacing the notion of hell as eternal punishment with a notion of annihilation. The idea goes like this: hell is just a cessation of human existence. You don’t go someplace to be punished, you just sort of ‘stop.’ Another path some take is to suggest that people have a second chance after death. These approaches are not options for bible-believing Christians.
Or, if not that, why not ‘spin’ hell in such a way that it sounds better than eternal conscious punishment? It goes like this. We’re talking with a seeker and they’re troubled about the thought of hell. But we don’t humbly agree and say, “Yeah, it’s a terrible thought, but a real one. God is a holy God, and will not tolerate evil. The thought of God’s wrath should sober us all and cause us to seek him.” No. We’re God’s PR agency, so we say, “Oh, don’t worry about that. Hell is just eternal separation from God, that’s all.”
That’s not how the Bible describes hell. Think about it. What does a sinner want? To get away from God, of course! And the thought of an eternity without ever having to deal with God is actually good news to a lot of ears! It may seem horrible to me, but not to someone who’s playing games with the God of the universe! Why do we want to make hell sound like a good thing? It’s supposed to sound horrible. We don’t need to market it to make it sound better than it will be! Our job is to honestly carry the message God has given us—results are up to God. But the good news about Jesus saving sinners in only good news against the backdrop of the hell we all deserve. Sick people don’t go to the doctor until they realize they’re sick. Hell is what Jesus told us to let us know how severe our sin disease is. And then he went to the cross to provide the cure.
Hell is final. There is no second chance after death. “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
Hell is everlasting. It never stops. It is “eternal” (Daniel 12:2) and “everlasting” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), and the smoke of their burning goes up “forever and ever” (Revelation 14:11). We moderns may miss this image, since we don’t use fire on a daily basis. As long as the fuel remains, the smoke continues to rise. When the fuel is used up, the smoke stops rising. In hell people are burned, but the smoke keeps rising forever. They burn, but never fully come to an end. Such torment is called “the second death” (Revelation 21:8), where they are forever “outside” the gates of heaven (Revelation 22:15).
Hell is conscious. No sleeping here, where “there is no rest day or night” (Revelation 14:11). Notice the rich man’s pleadings in Luke 16:19-31. Hell’s victims are conscious.
Hell is punishment. It’s not “just what happens” to people. It is punishment at the hands of God. It is God’s contempt of people (Daniel 12:2), it is being “condemned” by God, like in a court (John 5:29). It is God’s just “payback” for sins (2 Thessalonians 1:6), when Jesus “will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel.... They will be punished.” (v.8-9).
Hell is painful. Jesus described it as “the fiery furnace” (Matthew 13:40-42), “the eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41),“the darkness,” “outside” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). Hell is “the blackest darkness” (Jude 13). Revelation calls it “the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). Whether hot or cold, bright or dark, all these images are images of extreme suffering.
People will be condemned to hell at the Second Coming and Day of Judgment. The sentence of hell is given at Jesus’ return (2 Thessalonians 1:7, also Matthew 25:31).
People suffer in hell even while they await the Second Coming and Judgment Day. “The Lord knows how to... hold the unrighteous for the Day of Judgment, while continuing their punishment” (2Peter 2:9). We also see this in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), where the rich man was undergoing punishment in hell after his death while his brothers still lived. This is a parable, so it can’t be pressed too far, but Jesus’ parables were taken from real-life situations, including the situation of dying and being held in punishment while awaiting the Day of Judgment.
God is in hell and punishes people there. The guilty “will be tormented in burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb, and the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever” (Revelation 14:10-11). The Lamb in Revelation is Jesus. Hell is not so much eternal separation from God as it is the eternal presence of God in unmitigated wrath and fury. Hell is separation from God in the sense of being separated from his blessings and fellowship (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Hell is where we must “drink the wine of God’s fury which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath” (Revelation 14:10).
Hell is both physical and spiritual. It follows the resurrection of the dead (John 5:28-29), so those who suffer in hell will suffer bodily as well as in spirit. Jesus said it was “better to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:30). Hell will be a place for our bodies as well as a condition of our souls. Beware those who make hell sound too ethereal and spiritual.
Hell is real. This isn’t just language the Bible uses to get a response out of us. Jesus warns us about it because it really does exist and really is our destiny. He loves us enough to warn us in advance.
Everyone goes to hell. Jesus Christ and those “in Christ” are the only exceptions. All who “do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” are sent to hell (2 Thessalonians 1:8). Those who turn to Jesus are saved. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.... Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already” (John 3:16, 18).
Have you heard the story of the Good Policeman?
The Good Policeman was walking down Main Street one day when he saw a little old lady with a walker trying to cross the street. As he watched the little old lady, he saw a large Buick fly past him and come to a screeching halt next to the little old lady. Three young men hopped out of the car, laughing. One of them pushed the old lady to the ground, while another started kicking her in the abdomen, then the legs, then the face. Another of the men smashed his heel into the old woman’s face while she screamed in pain. Even from a distance, the Good Policeman could hear bones crack. Finally, one of the young men did the unthinkable. He pulled a knife out of his belt and slit the woman’s throat. But the Good Policeman witnessed these events. So as the men walked back toward their vehicle, he rushed up to them and thrust his hand out in front of them and said, “Hi. I’m the Good Policeman. And I want you to know that I LOVE you.”
What’s wrong with the story? Is it a ‘good’ policeman? Of course not! A good policeman would have run up to the men, arrested them, and taken them to court to be punished! This is not a good policeman, but an evil one! If he were good, his goodness would require the guilty to be punished! Yet we expect God to be like the Good Policeman—all love and mercy and grace, with no punishment, no justice, no vengeance, no anger, no wrath. We expect him to see our sin and rebellion and just say, “I love you!” God cannot be good unless he punishes evil. The difficult question is not why God condemns sinners to hell, but why he doesn’t condemn all sinners to hell! For that, we have to understand the cross, where Jesus was punished in our place, so that all who seek him might stand before God blameless, the punishment for their sins already paid in full by our willing scapegoat Jesus.