One of the Bible’s more difficult and often misunderstood teachings is that of hell being a real, conscious, eternal punishment. And this is understandable. All of us have people in our midst who don’t know Christ—friends, family members, neighbors, colleagues—about whom we would rather not think that hell could be their future. In fact, people have had discomfort about the idea of hell throughout history, because on the surface it seems inconsistent with everything we read in the Bible about God’s mercy and love. And yet the Bible’s teaching on hell as conscious and eternal suffering is unavoidable. Actually, without the existence of hell, much of what we know about God’s love comes into question.
First, Jesus, the most loving man who ever lived, spoke about hell more frequently and vividly than all other biblical authors combined. He described it as Gehenna, which was a garbage heap where fires burned constantly, or as the outer darkness, where there’s no illumination but only misery. In the story he tells of the rich man and Lazarus, hell is a place of conscious and real suffering. Jesus warns us about hell again and again (Matt. 13:41–42; Mark 9:42–48; Luke 16:19–31).
Second, the existence of hell helps us to understand the consequences of sin. In some ways hell is the outworking of what we as sinful people have always wanted: autonomy and independence from God. In hell we are therefore cut off from God and from everything that God is. So in hell there’s no love, there’s no friendship, there’s no joy, there’s no rest, because those are all things that exist only where God is present.
But most importantly, until we acknowledge the reality of hell, we cannot truly understand the meaning of the cross. Put another way, we cannot understand God’s love until we understand the reality of his wrath. God’s wrath is a settled, controlled opposition and hatred of anything that is destroying what he loves. God’s wrath flows from his love for creation. It flows from his justice. He’s angry at greed, self-centeredness, injustice, and evil because they’re destructive. And God will not tolerate anything or anyone responsible for destroying the creation and the people that he loves.
Think of it this way. Saying, “I know God loves me because he would give up everything for me” is much different from saying, “I know God loves me because he did give up everything for me.” One is a loving sentiment; the other is a loving act. And while we may try to make God more loving by diminishing the reality of hell and God’s wrath, all we’ve really done is diminish the love of God. Without a real hell we can’t understand the real price that Jesus paid for our sin. And without a real price that was paid, there’s no real love, there’s no real grace, and there’s no real praise for what he has done.
Unless you believe in hell, you’ll never know how much Jesus loves you and how much he values you. Jesus experienced hell himself on the cross. Jesus was separated from his Father. On the cross Jesus cried, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). When Jesus lost the eternal love of the Father, he experienced an agony, a disintegration, an isolation greater than anything anyone of us would have experienced in eternity in hell. He took the isolation and disintegration that we deserve upon himself. Unless you believe in hell and see what Jesus took for you, you will never know how much he loves you.
The real issue is not how a loving God would allow there to be a hell. The issue is, if Jesus Christ would experience hell for me, then, truly, he must be a loving God. It’s not “Why would God allow hell?” It’s “Why would God experience hell for me?” And yet he did.