Hell: The Neglected Christian Doctrine
By Dean Olson
According to Scripture, among the signs of the end of the age is the growth of unbelief among professing Christians. Jesus prophesied that “many will fall away” (Matthew 24:10). The growth of unbelief has progressed so far that much of Christianity in America has become a pseudo-Christianity described by Paul in his letter to Timothy as “…having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof…” (2 Timothy 3:5). Nowhere is this condition more pronounced than the neglected doctrine of hell and the eternal judgment of evil by God in what Peter refers to as “…the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:7).
The reality of eternal judgment is not preached in most mainline churches. What passes for faith in much of Christianity today is a feel good gospel that avoids unpleasantness like the reality of a literal place called hell. Ignoring this doctrine has had a dramatic impact. A recent poll found that 81 percent of adult Americans believe in heaven and fully 80 percent expect to go there when they die. By contrast, 61 percent believe in hell but less than one percent believe they will end up there. While a slight majority of Americans still believe in hell, a genuine fear of hell is almost nonexistent in an increasingly secular culture devoid of any real fear of God for the consequences of unrepentant sin.
The corrosive effect of pseudo-Christianity on faith is evident in the Emergent Church that has declared war on the biblical doctrine of hell. After all, thinking of the consequences of sin by spending eternity suffering in some horrible place doesn’t fit the feel good gospel of pseudo-Christianity. The explosive growth of the Emergent Church is a burgeoning trap for the unwary. Like all predators, Satan is adept at thinning Christ’s herd by going after stragglers, the weak, the sick, the young and inexperienced. The Emergent Church movement is particularly seductive and dangerous especially to newcomers of the faith who are only beginning to learn the Scriptures and to all Christians who are Biblically unschooled.
The Emergent Church movement is based on the concept of post-modernism; the gospel needs to be presented in a new and different way in keeping with the times. Christianity should be presented to the world in a new light because we live in a post-modern society, one that cannot easily accept the fundamental Biblical teachings of Christianity. Contrary to the teachings of Scripture, those in the Emergent Church allow for a multiple interpretations.
Emerging Church proponents believe that straightforward Bible teaching could cause division and discomfort so it is better to find ways to reinvent the Bible’s teachings and have a new more accommodating approach to reaching others. They reject the literal interpretation of the Bible viewing it as intellectually and spiritually inferior. Fundamental to this view is that the Bible must be taken symbolically rather than literally and the various personal accounts in the Bible are nothing more than fictional stories made up to illustrate the writer’s point of view.
The end time heresy of the Emergent Church was prophesied: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3). Assuming that the word of God is changeable is an incredible affront to our Maker and flies in the face of Scripture. Jesus says of the permanence of His Word: “Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away” (Luke 21:33). The permanence of God’s word brings comfort and security to those who trust in Him. It is timeless and unchangeable.
Since the beginning of time God has not changed His will or the Word by which He communicates that will to mankind. He revealed to the prophet Malachi: “I am the Lord, I change not” (Malachi 3:6). James described Him as “the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17). God and His Word cannot be separated from one another. Scripture bears witness that they are one: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
The written Word of God reveals His will and His eternal truth. Without an unchanging and eternal frame of reference, the life of fallen sin-corrupted man is without spiritual and moral direction. Jesus prayed for His own that they would be sanctified by the truth of God’s Word (John 17:17). God and His Word remain unchanged and eternal and will continue after the world ceases to exist, for “heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away” (Luke 21:33).
Contrary to what the Emergent Church espouses, the Bible contains numerous descriptions of hell. And while popular culture depicts hell as an exceedingly hot place where a red-suited gremlin with a tail known as Satan keeps the fires stoked and torments his victims with a pitchfork, in reality Satan neither stokes nor torments. Some of the confusion about hell stems from the fact that the New Testament contains two Greek words – Hades and Gehenna – both of which are translated in our English Bibles as “hell.” There are two places where unbelievers are held. Christian expositor Dr. Jack Van Impe uses the analogy of a jail and a penitentiary. In society a jail is a holding facility used to house pre-sentenced prisoners awaiting trial. After trial the guilty are sentenced to serve their prison time in a penitentiary. Jails are temporary holding places while a penitentiary is for long term where final sentences are served. When Jesus spoke of Hades he was referring to the local jail; the place where sinners are bound until the Great White Throne judgment of Revelation 20:11-15. On that day they will come out of Hades and stand before Jesus to be judged for all of their sins. After judgment they will be transferred to the final penitentiary of souls called Gehenna, sometimes referred to as the lake of fire.
The Biblical descriptions about hell depict God’s judgment of the unrepentant sinner. In Hebrews 10:27-30 it is described as fearful and dreadful and as a raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. It also teaches that hell comes from God as punishment, judgment, and retribution. As the result of God’s retributive justice on sinners, hell is punishment for those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel. It is a place of horrible punishment, eternal destruction and exclusion from Jesus’ presence and majesty coupled with interminable suffering. Those dispatched there are tormented for eternity in a place of outer darkness that is completely devoid of light embodying the blackest darkness imaginable. Those who are banished there continually weep and gnash their teeth from the unrelenting pain.
Most significantly, hell is a place of eternal separation from the blessings of God. As such it is a punishment for sin that is worse than death and far beyond any form of earthly suffering. Hell is a place of punishment characterized by eternal suffering, torment, fire, agony, exclusion from heaven, and finality: “They have no rest, day or night” (Rev. 14:11), and “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10).
Christian expositor Jack Kelley provides a chilling picture of what such punishment may be like. The Dead Sea is filled with water so rich in salt and other mineral content that it supports the human body. When I visited Israel last year I made it a point to visit the West Bank to float in the Dead Sea to test the claims that you can’t sink in it – and you can’t. There is a bar there at Kalia Beach that claims to be the lowest bar on earth at 418 meters below sea level. The beer was as cold and tasted as good as at higher elevations, even if I was sitting that much closer to where hell may be…but I digress. In ancient times crude oil would periodically bubble up to the surface of the Dead Sea and solidify into a tar-like substance that harvesters chopped into blocks and towed to the shore for sale. It was used to melt down into adhesive to cement building blocks together. The Egyptians used it in their embalming procedure and that it was so prevalent on the water’s surface that the Romans called the Dead Sea “Lake Asphaltus” using the word from which we get asphalt. During electrical storms lightning would occasionally strike the surface setting the solidified tar aflame. When that happened they called it “The Lake of Fire.”
Kelly’s analogy continues: picture yourself in deep water in a sea like the Dead Sea. As long as you keep your head above the surface you can breathe. But the surface is on fire so you hold your breath to sink under the surface to escape the flames. As soon as you do the water pushes you back up like a cork into the fire. This continues day and night with no break. Over and over you twist and turn and squirm on the surface looking for some kind of rest however brief. After awhile you’d welcome death and long for it but you can’t die because there’s no escape from the punishment. On and on it continues…forever. Add to this horror the fact that there is no light. Not just darkness, but the complete absence of light. Picture the utter hopelessness, loneliness, darkness and despair and you begin to sense what eternal punishment and separation from God is like.
There is no biblical concept more grim or terror-invoking than the idea of hell. And as horrible as Kelley’s vision of eternal punishment in hell may be like, the reality of that horror will be far greater. Our inability to discern the full horrors of hell stem from our limitations imposed by our fallen human perspective. Our way of seeing the world is so tied to our earthly experience that it is impossible to evaluate reality apart from the influence of our fallen nature. No human experience in this world is comparable to hell. If we try to imagine the worst of all possible suffering in the here and now we have not yet stretched our imaginations to reach the dreadful reality of hell. Man’s limited earth-bound intellect makes it impossible to imagine the full horror of perpetual eternal torment in such a place.
The ungodly in our secular hedonistic society want nothing more than to be separated from God. They have waged a successful war to eliminate all vestiges of Christianity from the public sphere. Their problem in hell will not be separation from the God they hate because God is omnipresent. It will be the presence of God delivering His infinitely righteous judgment that will torment them for eternity. God will be present in hell in the fullness of His divine wrath to exercise His just punishment of the damned. They will know Him as an all-consuming fire that never ends. It is that eternal aspect of punishment that is perhaps the most frightening feature of hell.
People can endure the greatest agony if they know it will ultimately stop. In hell there is no such hope. The Bible clearly teaches that the punishment is eternal. The same word in Greek is used for both eternal life and eternal death. Punishment implies pain. The Christian expositor Jonathan Edwards, in preaching on Revelation 6:15-16, said “Wicked men will hereafter earnestly wish to be turned to nothing and forever cease to be that they may escape the wrath of God.” Being consigned to hell means spending eternity before the righteous, ever-burning wrath of God; a suffering torment from which there is no escape and no relief.
In Matthew 25:41-46 Jesus teaches us four truths about hell. First, hell is a state of separation from God. On the Day of Judgment Jesus will say to all unbelievers, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (v. 41). To be separated from God is to be separated from anything and everything good. That is hard to conceive because even the most miserable, hate-filled atheist on earth enjoys some of God’s blessings. Believers and unbelievers alike breathe His air, are nourished by food that He supplies, and soak up the life-giving rays of the sun that He created. While on earth, even the most rabid, God-hating unbeliever is immersed in the Creator’s common grace.
God’s blessings that permeate the earth in this dimension will be nonexistent in hell. Those consigned there will remember God’s goodness and will even have some awareness of the unending pleasures in the promise of heaven, but they will have no access to them. This does not mean that God will be completely absent from hell. He is and will remain omnipresent (Psalms 139:7-8). To the atheist’s chagrin, to be separated from the Lord and cast into hell does not mean that a person will finally be free of God. That person will remain eternally accountable to Him and He will remain Lord over the person’s existence. In hell a person will be forever separated from God in His kindness, mercy, grace, and goodness and will be consigned to deal with Him in His holy wrath.
Second is the state of association in hell, a point that is often missed. Jesus says that the eternal fire of hell was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). People were made for God. Hell was made for the Devil. Yet people who die in their sin by refusing to accept the free gift of salvation paid for by Christ’s shed blood on the cross will spend eternity in hell with the one being most unlike God. It is a tragic irony that many who deny the existence of the Devil in this life will wind up spending eternity being tormented with him in hell.
Third is the state of punishment. Jesus describes it as “fire” (Matt. 25:41) and a place of “punishment” (v. 46). Hell is a place of retribution where justice is meted out for the payment for crimes. The misery and torment of hell point to the wickedness and seriousness of sin. Those who protest the biblical doctrine of hell as being excessive betray their inadequate comprehension of the abhorrent nature of sin to our perfectly righteous God. For sinners to be consigned to anything less than the horrors of eternal punishment would be a miscarriage of justice and incompatible with God’s perfect and absolute righteousness.
The fourth aspect of hell is its everlasting nature. There is considerable disagreement among sincere believers about the eternity of punishment in hell. Though some would like to shorten the duration of this state, the words of Jesus are clear. He uses the same adjective to describe both punishment and life: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). If hell is not eternal, neither is the new heaven and earth. Sins are offenses against the infinitely holy, infinitely kind, infinitely good, and infinitely supreme Creator of the world deserving infinite punishment. Unlike life in this dimension on earth there is no way of repentance in hell. Those condemned to hell will go on sinning for eternity because they are separated from God’s mercy. The punishment will continue as long as the sinning does. Would a loving Jesus really teach about hell? Yes, and so does every New Testament author. In the Sermon on the Mount, often known for its emphasis on love and the promised kingdom, Jesus teaches the reality and nature of hell (Matthew 5:20-30). Jesus contrasts hell with the kingdom of heaven and warns that hell is a real danger to unrepentant sinners. The fire of hell, the justice of hell, and the extreme suffering in hell are particularly stressed. The unrepentant are warned to use extreme measures to avoid being cast into it by God.
As Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount He contrasts the kingdom of heaven with the horrors of hell (Matthew 7:13-27). Jesus cautions that hell is a place of destruction depicted as the end of a broad road. Hell awaits everyone who does not enter the kingdom of heaven- even those who profess to know Christ but continue in sin. Jesus is Judge and King who personally excludes the wicked from His presence and the kingdom of heaven; “Depart from me,” (Matthew 7:23).
The doctrine of hell is a warning and a reminder of what a loathsome reality sin is. The dreadfulness of hell deepens our appreciation of the salvation we have in Jesus Christ. Hell is what we deserve and hell is what Christ experienced on the cross in our place. By God’s grace those of us who have accepted the free gift of pardon paid for by Christ’s incredible suffering on the cross are rescued from this horrible place. Jesus paid the price for our sins in full by His shed blood at Calvary. In the process He provided sin-corrupted believers the only means of meeting the Creator’s perfect justice. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Dean T. Olson, Omaha