I’ve been diagnosed with stage four cancer and my prognosis is grim. It’s a terrible situation, and I don’t want to sugarcoat it. Cancer is awful.
Based on what I’ve often heard people in circumstances similar to mine say, some might proclaim that my cancer is “putting me through hell.” While meaning no offense to these sympathetic friends, I want to set the record straight.
Yes, I’m writing this from a furnace of sorts. But no, I’m not “going through hell.”
Serious Words, Serious Realities
I’m old enough to remember when careless uses of the words “damn” and “hell” were almost universally condemned by God-fearing believers. But Christians today—including those who sincerely believe what the Bible says about hell and damnation—can frequently be heard “damning” disappointments, circumstances, things, or people or casually referencing “hell” in passing conversation.
But I would suggest that if damnation to hell is—as I believe it is—banishment to a place of unending divine punishment, far away from the smiling presence of God, then it should be something about which we never trifle.
At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old nitpicker, I wish we Christians would rethink our reckless misuse of “hell” (and its corresponding term, “damn”). These are two of the most dreadful words in the human vocabulary. They speak of the two most dreadful horrors in human experience. They’re literal (and ultimate) curse words—for hell and damnation are God’s prerogative, involving his everlasting and justifiable curse, pronounced upon Satan, his angelic demons, and all who reject the Truth in this life (Matt. 25:41; Rom. 2:6–9; Gal. 3:10; Rev. 20:7–15).
‘Damnation’ and ‘hell’ are two of the most dreadful words in the human vocabulary. They speak of the two most dreadful horrors in human experience.
And yet Christians can be heard to say (and not infrequently), “That was hell,” “I’m going through hell,” “This is hell on earth,” “All hell broke loose,” “It’s as hot as hell,” and “What the hell?!” among other expressions. Besides being egregious misrepresentations of the truth, these profane expressions diminish the fearful dreadfulness we all should feel when considering the reality behind the words. My concern isn’t to taboo certain four-letter words legalistically but to restore them to their right and proper use and to recover a godly fear and trembling when thinking about what these words represent. Serious words describing serious realities need to be used seriously.
No Such Thing as ‘Hell on Earth’
Since people started calling everything they liked “awesome,” we’ve forgotten what “awesome” really meant. The careless use of the word changed how people thought about the word (and the experience behind it), reducing its meaning from “that which inspires awe and wonder” to “something I like.” A serious word (“awesome”) casually spoken led to a serious experience (awe and wonder) casually understood. If a milkshake can be awesome and a fierce thunderstorm can be awesome, then what in the world does the word “awesome” mean? How we use words matters.
There’s a reason we never hear anyone say, “I’m going through Auschwitz,” or “All Buchenwald broke loose,” or “It’s hot as a Nazi oven out there.” The realities behind the words are too real and terrible to invoke in expression of less severe experiences. Likewise, while other experiences on earth can be devastatingly brutal, they’re not hell. Pain in this life is real and often horrifying. But given what God says about hell, might I suggest that as bad as it sometimes gets in this life, there’s no “hell on earth” for you and me? Compared to hell, the worst moments on earth—including my stage four, apparently terminal cancer—are but fleeting sorrows.
Compared to hell, the worst moments on earth—including my stage four, apparently terminal cancer—are but fleeting sorrows.
Yes, I’m going through severe affliction right now. Yes, I know how tormenting life can feel. Yes, Gayline and I have wept many bitter tears. Yes, we’ve endured agonizing seasons and understand why people with no knowledge of what the Bible says about the real hell might wonder if life on earth is it.
But I’ve chosen to preserve the solemn and horrible meaning of the word by saying emphatically that while I know pain and sorrow, I have in no way been through hell. I’m not going through it now. Nor will I ever go through it. And while I fully expect that my life is going to get much harder in the next few years (unless God heals me), that increased hardship will only prove that I might feel cursed without being cursed. My cancer may get very, very, very bad, but no matter how bad it gets, it won’t be as bad as damnation or hell.
In Overstating Our Suffering, We Understate His
There’s only one who truly can say, “I have been through hell on earth.” His name is Jesus, the eternal Son of God who became man precisely for that purpose. He voluntarily chose to be “smitten by God,” “crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:4–5), and cursed by God upon a tree to reconcile us to God (Deut. 21:22–23; Gal. 3:13–14; Rom. 5:6–10; 1 Pet. 2:24).
Contemporary Christians, living as we do in a very profane world, can unintentionally profane the sin-atoning sacrifice of our precious Savior when we speak flippantly of our life sorrows as if they’re the same as his—or even close to it. We should use care, lest in overstating our sufferings, we understate his.
For the honor of our Lord, I recommend we think (and speak) of hell and damnation on the one hand with hushed lamenting horror and on the other hand with tear-filled, grateful, and indebted love. Because Jesus took our hell precisely so we’d never have to. He was cursed so we wouldn’t be.
As horrific as my cancer is, I’m not going through hell. Thanks to Jesus, I never will.
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