The Doctrine of Hell and the Love of God

Everyone who believes in Jesus will go to heaven (perhaps on a cloud with a harp), and God will send everyone else to a fiery chamber below the earth to be tortured for all eternity.

This is the narrative that much of the Christian world has legitimately believed for centuries. It is most likely the way you have had heaven, hell, and salvation explained if you grew up going to Sunday School or youth group.

Recently I have been having discussions with friends and family about hell, and I am realizing it is an extremely important conversation because of its implications about the character of God.

For what it’s worth, here are a few bullet points that have helped me begin to sort out the topic.

There is much we do not know about the afterlife.

This is the first axiom we must be quick to admit. Heaven and especially hell have become extremely vivid as they have been described throughout human history in Augustine, Dante, the Quran, Milton, Chick Tracts, Looney Tunes, etc.

When I was about 12, I remember my pastor describing hell to a group of us middle-schoolers as being stuck in molten lava for all eternity, unable to move century after century.

The Quran contains this Iyah about hell among dozens of others: “Those who reject Our revelations—We will scorch them in a Fire. Every time their skins are cooked, We will replace them with other skins, so they will experience the suffering. Allah is Most Powerful, Most Wise.” (Quran 4:56).

Interestingly, Augustine employs the same line of thinking in The City of God, describing the exact mechanics of how human skin will be regenerated so that it can burn forever.

It must be said that these are descriptions of hell generated from human religion and human agendas. We ought to know better than to make such extrapolations of the doctrine. Clearly, I think, these are a human attempt to manipulate and control through fear.

The first axiom is to be humble about what we don’t know about hell and heaven.

The biblical language of hell is metaphorical.

Unlike the Quran, which has countless vivid verses describing the precise details of what hell will be like, the Bible uses metaphorical and mysterious language to describe hell.

The Bible uses metaphors like “fire”, “outer darkness”, “gnashing of teeth”, “where the worm never dies”, “gehenna” (a fire where garbage is burned), “the lake of fire”, and so on to describe the place where the wicked will go.

On the one hand, this means that we cannot be specific about what hell looks like. We cannot make claims about hell being trapped in molten lava for all eternity just because the Bible uses the metaphor of a lake of fire. Language about hell is highly symbolic.

On the other hand, we must come to terms with the fact that these metaphors do mean something. These are legitimate warnings mostly found in the teaching of Jesus himself describing the condition of the people who reject him.

God’s wrath and judgment is an aspect of his grace.

This may seem like a provocative claim, but I see this more and more clearly in Scripture. At the heart of judgment is the increasing and intensifying of God’s grace. This may sound contradictory, but consider the way Jesus talks about condemnation and judgment:

John 3:17-19: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”

9:39: “For judgment I came into this world”

12:47-48: “If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.”

It is important to recognize that, on the surface, Jesus is literary contradicting himself: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world…” “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world…” “For judgment I came into this world…” “For I did not come to judge the world…” etc.

I believe Jesus is intentional in his teaching. What I conclude from his seemingly contradictory statements is that God’s greatest act of judgment is simultaneously his greatest act of love and grace in which he intended to redeem the world. In Jesus, God is bringing every person and every thing in the universe to terms with the reality of his great love as a Father. This is an act of judgment for those who don’t want anything to do with the love of the Father.

So, whatever hell is, we must not think of it as God’s bad side, as if God’s grace is his nice side and his justice is his mean side. This is an enormous theological error.

Hell is locked from the inside out.

One of the conclusions the previous point leads me toward is the idea that hell is locked from the inside out. This is an idea which C.S. Lewis displays brilliantly in his book The Great Divorce. Those who are in hell are not willing to accept the grace of God extended to them in Jesus. The condition is one of bitterness and hard-heartedness toward God rather than eternal regret.

You see this in Romans 1:21-25: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

Those who experience the wrath of God are given over to their own decisive sin and selfishness. Lewis describes two types of people: those who say to God “Thy will be done”, and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.”

I have close friends who have grown bitter toward God, friends, and family. They have made an active decision that their way is better than God’s way. I have seen their hearts grow harder throughout the years. Most likely, we all know people who have grown in bitterness, and live life in the posture of a victim even though they have clearly been in the wrong. Although I would not wish this on anyone, if these people were allowed to live for eternity (and I do think the Bible teaches the eternal existence of everyone), they would continue in a trajectory of their own misery and selfishness, and their condition could rightly be described as hell locked from the inside out.

We must bring difficult doctrine to a good Father.

I have found that people have two responses to hell (and other difficult doctrine like original sin, predestination, homosexuality, etc.). Either people quickly reject the teaching because they cannot see how a good God could possibly do such a thing, or else they harden their heart because God can do whatever he wants. Either reaction is a failure to wrestle with the tension and learn at the feet of Jesus.

Before we jump to either extreme, we need to sit at the feet of Jesus and pray, “Lord, this doesn’t seem to add up. This doesn’t seem like the God who is light and love. Help me understand this.” Then we should open our Bible and talk about it with other people who are committed to learning at the feet of Jesus. This is partly the reason for this post, not to explain away a difficult doctrine, but rather to open a conversation.

If we fail to take difficult doctrines to Jesus and his community, then we will most likely end up like one of the characters from Lewis’ The Great Divorce, bitter against God, bitter against his church, and ironically, in our own personal hell.

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “The Doctrine of Hell and the Love of God

  1. Jesse, thank you for delving into a difficult topic for many Christians to discuss openly. This is something I have wrestled with on a personal level. It has led me to some difficult places in my faith where I had to do exactly what you mentioned here about coming to God and prayerfully asking for wisdom and understanding. I’m a work in progress but I find your honest, biblical approach refreshing.

    Like

  2. Humility, meditation and conversation are the best paths forward to a deeper experience and understanding of the Lordship of Christ.

    Thank you for sharing this Brother.

    Like

  3. Jesse, this is such a thoughtful teaching and dialogue opener on an important but often-swept-under-the-rug topic. One of the great DNA qualities of The Well, full truth and grace, consistently comes out in your writing.

    Continuing to pray for you and your fam….

    Sang

    >

    Like

  4. Thanks for reading Sang. I would definitely be interested to know how you respond to people who have problems with God because of this doctrine (although I know you have a lot going on these days ha).

    Like

  5. Where do you see in scripture that the soul is eternal?

    Matthew 10:28 “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

    Like

    1. That’s a good question and good point. John 3:16 talks about the people that reject God’s Son “perishing”, which could also be interpreted as ceasing to exist language.

      I see several things in Scripture that seem to teach otherwise:

      1) Everlasting Life and Everlasting Shame/Contempt are usually parallel ideas (Dan 12:2). Notice in Daniel 12 he is describing people awakening (a conscious idea) to everlasting shame/contempt.

      2) The punishment is specifically said to be everlasting in several clear passages (Matt 25:41-46 for instance).

      The death/perishing/destruction of the soul language in the Bible seems to be talking about an eternal reality.

      But I realize that’s debated. I know you mentioned that you hold to an annilihilationist perspective. I am curious how you explain the passages I mention above?

      It seems like people tend to explain hell either by saying it doesn’t actually last forever (annihilationism) or else they say it is locked from the inside out (Lewis). I am much more comfortable with the latter explanation, as it seems stronger in Scripture to me. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but as I affirm that hell is locked from the inside out I also see how hell makes more sense as an eternal reality because the punishment is not necessarily physical destruction, but the punishment is precisely the ability to continue in the path you desire.

      This is why The Great Divorce does not portray an annihilationist perspective. Rather, you see characters like Napoleon who are in an eternal state of frustration and bitterness toward God and others. That seems to square much better with the idea of “eternal shame/contempt” in my mind. It’s really CS Lewis who keeps me away from the idea of annihilationism.

      Thoughts?

      Like

      1. The Matthew scripture I mentioned is clearer than the Daniel scripture you posted.

        (Matthew 10:28 “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
        VS.
        Daniel “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”)

        Though I do agree that the text in Daniel says clearly everlasting contempt. I would ask if the everlasting contempt could be everlasting to a point when it is no more?
        Now the immediate response would be to say/know that our life with Christ is everlasting and we don’t see God telling us that Life with Him ends. The only difference is, if Gods wrath towards the wicked is to be the same as God’s Grace toward the Saints.

        For instance, you mentioned the verse Matthew 25:41
        “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

        Eternal can mean time or Eternal is from a source and that being God.
        Consider Jude 1:6
        “And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day— 7. just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. “
        Are Sodom and Gomorrah still burning?
        What is the difference God is doing to the Demons after judgement? No chains?
        The chains of the Demons can be everlasting or eternal but that is the until the UNTIL happens. Like when hell is thrown into the lake of fire.

        Let me know if you think this is a valid perspective in your opinion.

        Like

  6. I look at the biblical evidence for annihilationism (much of what you outlined above) and I do get how someone can arrive at that conclusion (so yes, I think it is a valid perspective). However, I also see in Scripture equally strong language that seems to indicate an eternal reality, and I just want to take that seriously.

    You only mentioned Matt 25:41, but look at vs. 46: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” I also think the language from Dan 12:4 is strong because it speaks of people “awakening” to everlasting shame/contempt, which is conscious language. It seems the idea behind this biblical language and metaphor is the idea of some kind of everlasting experience, both for those who experience life and those who experience death.

    That said, I do see the possibility that you outlined, that perhaps the reality is everlasting up to the point that it ends (although honestly even that sentence sounds a bit wishy-washy, like it is avoiding the exact point of the word everlasting).

    If in eternity we both find out that annihilationism is the case, I wouldn’t be very surprised. I guess I just want to take the everlasting language seriously while I am on this side of eternity and I don’t know. And the everlasting language squares better with the idea of God saying “Thy will be done” to people, in my mind. The point I am banking on is that hell is locked from the inside out and that people are allowed to continue in their decisive sin. I am not banking on there being an end to “eternal punishment”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. With your comment again on Matthew 25 I agree that the punishment will be eternal. I think if you put a person to death that they are gone from the earth for an eternity. So they are eternally punished from the earth.

      In Revelation 20:14 it says
      “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.”

      If the first death ended people from earth what does the second death do? Hurt people for an eternity?

      I still want to know what verses in the Bible people go to to prove that the soul has eternity in itself apart from Christ. Would you post some?

      Why does God preserve his enemies for all eternity when all throughout the old Testament the Glory of God is in destroying His enemies? I imagine that the smoke that Revelation talks about going up for all eternity is a reminder of thankfulness at the righteousness of God and His Justice and His grace towards those whom He redeemed. Not a God sustained prison of people trapped in eternal gnashing of teeth.

      The C.S. Lewis position that eternity for every man is either a forever “Thy will be done” from those who are saved and an eternal statement from God to those damned “thy will be done” is that in my perspective (I could not be understanding this correctly) it places man in the place of ultimately determining the narrative of his eternity. Rebellious man gets an eternity to proclaim his hatred towards God. When I see that the Bible seems to show that the hatred will be cleansed from the Heavens when Christ reconciles the all things to Himself. If they are left then how are all things reconciled through Christ?

      There would also be a place for all eternity where our Lord and King did not have victory over. Victory in punishment is when it is carried out and the offense is done away with. Rebellion is offensive. I could say more on this but I hope I was clear enough to get a response.

      Like

      1. Those are definitely good thoughts to chew on. Thanks for sharing. I’ll have to think about it and get back to you. My view on all of this is definitely being shaped these days so I appreciate the input.

        Like

  7. Thanks Jesse! My experience talking about hell is limited to what can be heard or seen culturally in movies, songs, etc. or like you shared, lessons from Sunday School that were more about fear than anything else. I’m glad to have this dialogue started and I want to learn more through Scripture and prayer, and like you said, Community. Thanks for starting things (in a way that I can actually understand – the article was thoughtful and “simple” enough for someone not as well versed in theological speak!) Thanks again brother. I really appreciate this!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s