Concerning hell, C. S. Lewis once wrote, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.” In many ways, I agree with him. No one, Christians included, should like the idea of hell. Those of us who believe in hell aren’t sadists who enjoy the idea of eternal suffering. In fact, the thought of people I know who are outside of Christ spending eternity in hell is heartbreaking. As a young Christian, when I began to learn about hell and its implications, I almost lost my faith. It was that disturbing.
Hell is a difficult reality, but it is something that the Bible teaches, and we can’t fully understand God and his world unless we grapple with it. These seven truths should frame our discussion of hell.
1. Hell is what hell is because God is who God is. People speak glibly about “seeing God,” as if seeing God face-to-face would be a warm and fuzzy experience. But the Bible explains that God’s holiness and perfections are so complete that if anyone were to see him, he would die (Ex. 33:20). Even the slightest sin in his presence leads to immediate annihilation. When Isaiah, the prophet of God, saw God upon his throne, he fell upon his face, terrified and sure that he was about to die (Is. 6:5).
The doctrine of hell has fallen out of favor among many. But it’s there for a reason. God tells us about hell to demonstrate to us the magnitude of his holiness. Hell is what hell is because the holiness of God is what it is. Hell is not one degree hotter than our sin demands that it be. Hell should make our mouths stand agape at the righteous and just holiness of God. It should make us tremble before his majesty and grandeur.
Ironically, in doing away with hell, you do away with the very resources that show God’s justice. When a person goes through rape or child abuse, she needs to know that there is a God of such holiness and beauty that his reign can tolerate no evil.
2. Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else in Scripture. Some people try to avoid the idea of hell by saying, “That was the Old Testament God, back when he was in his junior high years and all cranky. But when God matured in the New Testament with Jesus—meek and mild Jesus—he was all about love and compassion.”
The problem with this view is that when you start reading the Gospels, you find that Jesus speaks about hell more than anyone else. In fact, if you count up the verses, Jesus spoke more about hell than he did about heaven. One of the most famous skeptics in history, Bertrand Russell, said in his book Why I’m Not a Christian that Jesus’s teaching on hell is “the one profound defect in Christ’s character.” If we want to avoid the idea of hell, we can’t ignore the problem by just focusing on “meek and mild Jesus.”
3. Hell shows us the extent of God’s love in saving us. Why did Jesus speak about hell more than anyone else in the Bible? Because he wanted us to see what he was going to endure on the cross on our behalf. On the cross, Jesus’s punishment was scarcely describable: this bloodied, disfigured remnant of a man was given a cross that was perhaps recycled, likely covered in the blood, feces, and urine of other men who had used it previously. Hanging there in immense pain, he slowly suffocated to death.
The worst part was the separation from the Father that Jesus felt, a separation that was hell itself. “My God, my God,” he cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). In all of this, Jesus was taking the hell of our sin into his body.
People often feel that hell is some great blemish on God’s love. The Bible presents it as the opposite. Hell magnifies for us the love of God by showing us how far God went, and how much he went through, to save us.
4. People are eternal. C. S. Lewis once noted that hell is a necessary conclusion from the Christian belief that human beings were created to live forever. As he put it:
Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live forever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only 70 years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live forever. Perhaps my bad temper or my jealousy are gradually getting worse—so gradually that the increase in 70 years will not be very noticeable. But it might be absolute hell in a million years: in fact, if Christianity is true, hell is the precisely correct technical term for what it would be.
Hell . . . begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. . . . Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.
5. In one sense, God doesn’t send anyone to hell; we send ourselves. Hell is the culmination of telling God to “get out.” You keep telling God to leave you alone, and finally God says, “Okay.” That’s why the Bible describes it as darkness: God is light; his absence is darkness. On earth we experience light and things like love, friendship, and the beauty of creation. These are all remnants of the light of God’s presence. But when you tell God you don’t want him as the Lord and center of your life, eventually you get your wish, and with God go all of his gifts.
We have two options: live with God, or live without God. If you say, “I don’t want God’s authority. I would rather live for myself,” that’s hell. In The Great Divorce and The Problem of Pain, Lewis put it this way:
In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” . . . To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what he does. . . . In the end, there are only two kinds of people—those who say to God “thy will be done” and those to whom God says in the end “thy will be done.”
6. In another sense, God does send people to hell, and all his ways are true and righteous altogether. We may be tempted to rage at God and to correct him. But how can we find fault with God? As Paul says in Romans 9, who are we—as mere lumps of clay—to answer back to the divine potter?
We are not more merciful than God. Isaiah reminds us that all who are currently “incensed against God” will come before him in the last day and be ashamed, not vindicated (Is. 45:24), because they will then realize just how perfect God’s ways are. Every time God is compared with a human in Scripture, God is the more merciful of the pair.
When we look back on our lives from eternity, we’ll stand amazed not by the severity of his justice, but by the magnanimity of his mercy.
7. It’s not enough for God to take us out of hell; he must take hell out of us. Some people see a problem in using hell as a way of coercing people to submit to Christianity. It’s as if God is saying, “Serve me or else!” And that seems manipulative. It may surprise you, but God agrees.
If people are converted to God simply because they are scared, or because God has done some great, miraculous sign (cf. Luke 16:31), they might submit, but it wouldn’t change their heart attitude toward God. If you accept Jesus just to “get out of hell,” then you’d hate being in heaven, because only those who love and trust God will enjoy heaven. If you don’t love the Father, then living in the Father’s house feels like slavery. It would be like forcing you to marry someone you didn’t want to marry. The only way you’ll enjoy heaven is when you learn to love and trust God.
Only an experience of the love of God can rearrange the fundamental structure of your heart to create a love and trust of God. It’s not enough for God to take us out of hell; he must take hell out of us.