So, here we are. As promised in my post on Heaven, I am now giving you the flip side of the coin. I said in the earlier post that you can’t teach satisfactorily about heaven unless you teach about hell and the same is true the other way around. As much as heaven, and you may say more so, hell is burdened with layers of misconception and bad theology so thick it has rendered the actual idea useless to the vast majority of people. Useless at the least if not deeply harmful. Once again, as with heaven, the popular imagery of hell renders it unbelievable to some, while ignorance of its nuances renders it dangerously literal to others. To some there is a horror that cannot exist in a universe bound by the laws of nature they believe fundamental. To others there is a quick and easy answer to the unknown that delivers them from the responsibility of three-dimensional thought. Either mindset is false and, in the end, an instrument of hell itself.
Of the many misconceptions of hell, I will address the largest four which I believe serve as the root of most other misconceptions. Unlike heaven there are two opposing sides of misconceptions with regard to hell that are equally false. One is the typical image of a endless lake of fire filled with screaming souls, plunged to their fate by a strict God whose sense of justice in inexorable. The other image is one of a metaphorical lesson that uses the language of ignorant and superstitious people to communicate a second and inevitable process of redemption. One is an image of terrifying revenge, the other is of a coerced universalism. Neither image is biblical.
The thing many well meaning Christians forget is that the one person in all of scripture who talks the most about hell is Jesus Himself. Jesus believed very literally in hell, and though He says He came to save all, He also says some will not be saved.
So let’s take a hard look at some of these ideas and bounce them off the orthodox theology of hell. As with the heaven post I’ll include some numbered links to relevant scripture passages. Again this is not an attempt at proof-texting, but rather a guide for your own reflection and study.
What hell is not…
When they think of hell many people envision John’s lake of fire from Revelation.1 This is the iconic lake burning with sulfur into which the beast, false prophet, devil, and reprobate are all cast. The meaning of John’s vision is clear, in that there will be a day of reckoning when all deeds and secrets are laid bare, and God will set all things right, which includes once and for all putting the devil and his servants in their place. This is all very true, but the difficulty with many people, Christian and unbeliever alike, is that they hardly ever read whole passages of the bible let alone entire books. As such people often pluck passages out of their context and half-ass an explanation which turns out to be unhelpful and unfaithful to the text. If you read the whole book of Revelation you will find that John isn’t having a literal vision of future events. Rather he is given a dream in which he is commanded to try and write what he sees. The things he is shown are often beyond the power of human speech to describe and so he often uses this formula which is common to apocalyptic literature, such-and-such a thing “was like” such-and-such another thing. His vision is about the past, present, and future of God’s church and the imagery he uses is designed to make sense to the people of his time as well as to attempt to describe things which he saw that he doesn’t have vocabulary for. All this is to say that John’s point is very clearly communicated when he speaks of the lake of fire, but the actual lake should be taken no more literally than the scroll with seven seals which no man can open.2
Along with the lake of fire, we need to ditch the idea that God is a super-cosmic force of hate just waiting for the end of time so he can unleash billions of years of sadistic creative thinking on unworthy humans. But in our eagerness to reject this idea many Christians have gone too far. Again and again I hear people saying things like, “a God of love cannot put people in hell or he is not a God of love,” or “God’s love surpasses all understanding, I can understand a heaven with everyone in it, so God must have a heaven at least that nice.” Implicit in these statements is, first, that somehow God is beholden to our fallen conceptions of goodness and justice, and second, that we are willing to immediately replace God with an imaginary god the second we don’t like or understand Him. The God Christian universalists worship does not in fact exist. They have taken the parts of God they like and combined them the traits they associate with goodness to create an idol, upon which they have written “God.” 2 Timothy 4 says all this in a great nutshell, “1 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. 5 But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
What hell is…
God is absolutely holy, and implicit in that statement is absolute love and absolute justice. God endures our sinfulness while we are separate from Him, but as he draws near to us His holiness drives away anything that is not also holy. To be holy means that unholy things cannot exist in your presence.3 This is why God sent His son Christ to satisfy the requirements of justice and to clothe us in His holiness. As such, if we are willing to put on the holiness of Christ we become just as holy as He is and may be with God.4 & 4b So you see that God is not bent on destroying “wrong-doers” or smashing “sinners.” God sent His son to satisfy justice in our place and to give us a one way ticket into His kingdom of love. If we don’t want the ticket the train leaves without us.
As I said in the post on heaven, heaven works backwards into our lives and our pasts literally transforming past darkness into light. This transformation is not coercive though, and as such hell works backwards too. As heaven moves back, redeeming the past and creating a new reality, it drives out the dark reality. Heaven is not coercive and God will not force your hand. This new reality opens the door for aggressors and persecutors to be redeemed into friends and companions, but if they are unwilling to live in a such a reality the new reality of heaven simply pushes them aside. The “aside” into which they are pushed is one where the bad things of the past not only exist but exist with no hope of being any different than they are. This reality is hell. Hell does not exist to teach you a lesson until at last you break and accept grace. Such a view of hell reduces salvation to a gift one must be tortured into accepting. Anyone humble enough to be willing to give themselves and their pasts to God, that is willing to have any part of them or their identity be changed into what God sees them as being will be embraced by the advance of heaven. God is not cruel because there will be people in hell. A doctor is not cruel if a patient rejects their cure and dies. God is not cruel for creating a beautiful healing reality that some have no wish to be part of.
But some say, “what if I change my mind and accept the grace I once thought false?” There are two answers to that. First when the reality of heaven finally displaces that of this reality there will be a judgment in which all will be raised to new life, either for heaven or hell.5 Since the two realities of heaven and hell are so utterly distinct there is no communication or communion between the two, that is there is no bridge. You will only continue deeper into the one you’re in. Secondly, once a heart is hardened what exactly do you think it would take to soften it? Christ tells a story of a man who goes to hell and asks Abraham if a good man can visit his living relatives to warn them about his fate which they may share. Abraham responds that they would never believe the message to be real. They didn’t believe Moses or the prophets, so why would they believe a vision?6 The truth is that the gospel exists in all its glory among us and either a heart is open to it or closed. Now that being said no one but God can see and judge the heart. The populations of heaven and hell are a mystery to us until we’re there. We have no use or business knowing and ought to trust God with the souls of others. After all He says, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious. And I will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” Exodus 33:19.
Heaven is an oncoming reality in which you can trust that you will be perfected and live life more fully than you can imagine. It will drive out all the darkness and hurt that surrounds you. But if you cling to any piece of darkness or resist the coming of the Kingdom it will slowly push you aside. At some point, none can yet see, you will have allowed yourself to be pushed so far there is no coming back. That is hell. The good news is this, Christ has already paid your way into the Kingdom. If you are willing to allow His healing to begin you will be holy, absolutely sufficient to live in the company of your maker.
Peace in Christ