Some months ago, R. C. Sproul was asked which doctrine he struggles with most. He replied: “Hell.”
It’s comforting to know a theological giant like Sproul still wrestles with something I’ve struggled with my whole Christian life.
The doctrine of hell is uncomfortable for most of us. However, our understanding of hell shapes our view of the gospel, God’s holiness, and our depravity. If we don’t accept the reality of hell, we won’t rightly understand the glory of the gospel.
Reality of Hell
A friend once challenged me to show her where Jesus talks about hell in the Gospels. Even a cursory read-through shows Jesus talked about it plenty. In fact, Jesus talked about hell more than any other person in the Bible. In Luke 16, he describes a great chasm over which “none may cross from there to us.” In Matthew 25, Jesus tells of a time when people will be separated into two groups, one entering into his presence, the other banished to “eternal fire.”
Jesus talks about hell more than he talks about heaven, and describes it more vividly. There’s no denying that Jesus knew, believed, and warned against the absolute reality of hell.
Jesus doesn’t only reference hell, he describes it in great detail. He says it is a place of eternal torment (Luke 16:23), of unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43), where the worm does not die (Mark 9:48), where people will gnash their teeth in anguish and regret (Matt. 13:42), and from which there is no return, even to warn loved ones (Luke 16:19–31). He calls hell a place of “outer darkness” (Matt. 25:30), comparing it to “Gehenna” (Matt. 10:28), which was a trash dump outside the walls of Jerusalem where rubbish was burned and maggots abounded. Jesus talks about hell more than he talks about heaven, and describes it more vividly. There’s no denying that Jesus knew, believed, and warned against the absolute reality of hell.
Reason for Hell
Jesus has to talk about hell because it is the fate that awaits all people apart from him. Because of Adam’s sin, we’re all guilty and deserve God’s eternal punishment. Contrary to popular belief, hell is not a place where God sends those who have been especially bad; it’s our default destination. We need a rescuer or we stand condemned.
So we’re left with two options: stay in our state of depravity and be eternally punished, or submit to the Savior and accept his gift of redemption.
Goodness of God
The one truth that allows me to accept the justice of hell is the indisputable certitude of the goodness of God. While the notion of hell is difficult for me to grasp, Jesus (with nail-scarred hands) is worthy of my complete trust. His goodness causes me to look ultimately not to hell, but to the cross.
The one truth that allows me to accept the justice of hell is the indisputable certitude of the goodness of God.
God is both great and good. His greatness causes us to bow the knee, cry out in awe and wonder, and fear him. We realize we don’t deserve salvation; we deserve punishment. His goodness, on the other hand, causes us to rise up in endless praise, grateful for a Savior. His mercy allows us to enter into his presence boldly and without fear. Because he is good, we can have a relationship with him as a child, dearly loved, snatched from the flames of hell.
In his classic Knowing God, J. I. Packer writes of the goodness and severity of God: “The character of God is the guarantee that all wrongs will be righted someday; when the ‘day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed’ (Rom 2:5) arrives, retribution will be exact, and no problems of cosmic unfairness will remain to haunt us. God is the Judge, so justice will be done” (143).
One day, all that is wrong will be made right. We’ll see all God’s ways as good, including the demonstration of his eternal justice. For now, we walk in humility and faith, trusting with the apostle Paul: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33).