Hell has been getting some bad press lately, and we need to know that the gates of heaven won’t prevail against it.
As you may or may not know, Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, has written a book entitled Love Wins. In that book Bell sounds quite a bit like a universalist, meaning, he seems to doubt that anyone will actually go to hell, much less live there for eternity enduring the wrath of an angry God. The brouhaha surrounding Love Wins and Bell’s suspect theology propelled him and his book all the way to the cover of Timemagazine, numerous network television interviews, and countless editorials on the blogosphere. It turns out that questioning the virtue and the value of hell can launch one into fame and fortune. Who knew?
Full disclosure: I have always been more than a bit suspicious of Rob Bell. His books and especially his Nooma videos concern me greatly. While I am anything but a Bell scholar (I haven’t read Love Wins), in everything I have read, in most of the sermons I have heard him preach, and in most of the videos I have watched, Pastor Bell seems intent on dissuading me from my biblical, orthodox convictions. He seems determined to untether me from my evangelical moorings in order to set me adrift on the wide-open sea of inclusivism, skepticism, and, now, universalism.
But enough on Bell. Let’s think together about hell itself. Does the Bible teach that every person who lives and dies actually has a destiny in either in heaven or hell? Could a good and loving God really consign His people to an eternity separated from His presence and His glory—and still be considered a good and loving God? The answer to both questions is, in a word, yes.
Now I am a happy man with a God-given joyful temperament. I find humor in almost everything. If laughter is good for the soul, my soul is doing just fine. Accordingly, I would love to tell you, Hell? Hell is for the Middle Ages and for a few snake-handling fundamentalists preaching fire and damnation deep in Mississippi on a hot summer night. But I cannot say that. Instead, I have to say, Hell is the destiny of all people whose sins separate them from a holy God. This is what the Bible teaches.
Scripture clearly teaches that we live, then we die, and then we face the judgment of God (Hebrews 9:27). Consider a few examples from the New Testament:
• This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wickedfrom therighteousand throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. – Jesus in Matthew 13:49-50
• [God] will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power. — The apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9.
• The apostle Peter speaks of God’s coming judgment that will bring about the destruction of the ungodly (2 Peter 3:7).
• Jude warns of a coming day of judgment by eternal fire (Jude 7).
• James calls the rich to weep and howl because of the miseries that are coming in the future (James 5:1).
• The writer of the letter to the Hebrews warns that those who persist in their sins will face a fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume these who are impenitent. (Hebrews 10:27)
Do such teachings mean that our God is unloving? Are people sent to hell because God doesn’t care—or worse? Is God a sadist who enjoys dispensing His wrath? No. God is love (1 John 4:8). The Father wishes no one to perish: He wills that everyone come to saving faith in Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:9). So how can God’s love and God’s wrath exist side by side? How can the same deity dispense both unimaginable wrath and incomprehensible love to the people he created?
Scottish journalist and theologian John MacLeod points out that the biblical doctrine of hell flows from the heart of the Bible’s story of creation:
Man is created in the image of God. He is above all other creatures. He has self-awareness, self-knowledge, the capacity to relate, the capacity to create, the capacity to dream. He is immortal. The soul–they think–must live forever. It cannot cease to be, because God created it. In our hearts we all know that death is unnatural and change appalling, the grave obscene; but when man has rejected God in this world, when he has gone His own way, when he has rejected God’s instruction, His moral Law, what then? The logic of God precludes eternal fellowship with such a being, who has despised His Law and defied His will. And when the gospel itself is spurned, the way of Christ’s atonement, what can there be at the last but for God to grant such a soul its own heart’s desire?
Or, as C. S. Lewis put it more succinctly, A man can’t be taken to hell, or sent to hell: you can only get there on your own steam.
And so we have both the virtue and the value of hell. First, hell is virtuous because it allows our sinful rebellion to run its course. Hell thereby honors our freedom. As G. K. Chesterton said, Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice. The impenitent shakes his fist in the face of God, and God gives him over to his rebellion (Romans 1:18ff).
Second, hell is valuable because if we understand its reality, we will never want to go there. The biblical teaching is that the coming judgment of God and His just punishment of those who are in rebellion against him will be…hell. Jesus said it would be better to rip your eye out and be half-blind than to persist in lust and go to hell. He said that because of the coming judgment of God it would be better to have never been born than to have led a young person astray. And several times Jesus spoke of a furnace of fire where there is eternal weeping and gnashing of teeth. Hell is not where we want to spend forever.
Brothers and sisters, let us place our faith in Jesus and so live our lives before him that, at the last day when he comes to judge the living and the dead, we will be as far removed from hell as the east is removed from the west. And that place is heaven. Let us take care that we meet there at last.