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.