Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What the heck is hell?

Some words just don’t sit well in our culture. One is “sin”. Another is “hell”.
What is the destiny of those who do not believe in Jesus in this life? What is “everlasting punishment” (Matt. 25:46)? What the heck is hell?

Some, like Rob Bell, define “eternal” in terms of intensity of time, rather than duration. He seems to see hell as something temporal, something we experience in this life. He says hell “refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.” (p. 93). He also implies those who die in unbelief will not necessarily remain in unbelief; God provides a “way out” (p. 109-110). He clearly doesn’t see hell as everlasting torment.

Some, like Edward Fudge, believe that the person who dies without believing in Jesus ceases to exist. Unquenchable fire cannot be extinguished and consumes until nothing is left. And “everlasting” simply means “the disintegration of the wicked will never be reversed” (Two Views of Hell, p. 33).
The more traditional view of hell sees it as conscious punishment that lasts forever.
Which is it? What the heck is hell?
To be honest, I find either of the first two views easier to accept than the traditional view. The thought that someone can suffer forever is difficult to swallow! But here’s where we must be careful. I cannot decide the truth of a doctrine based on my emotions or feelings. Never. I must always let the truth of God’s word provide the answer.
Here’s the end result, my answer to the question, based on my understanding of what the Bible says: The fate of those who have never believed in Jesus is unending, conscious torment away from God as the consequence of rejecting God’s solution in Jesus Christ that fully satisfies His holiness and perfectly displays His love. You can stop here, but I’d encourage you to work with me through the process to see how I came to my conclusion. The answer lies in carefully looking at the nitty-gritty details of the Scriptures.
Wherever we end up in our view of hell, we must begin with the character of God and the message of His Word. Many who do not buy the traditional view of hell have in their argument something to the effect of “God is love. He loves us too much to...” The first half of that statement is absolutely true. God is love, and I fear too many believers don’t understand the depths of that love. I applaud ministries that help believers understand and experience God’s love. The second half of the statement can become a problem if we decide what God can or cannot do.
God is love, but God is not only love. A cursory look through the Bible reveals dozens of “God is” statements. Some speak of His relationship to us, like “God is my helper” (Psalm 54:4), and some speak of His character, like “For the LORD is good” (Psalm 100:5). And, we find statements like “The LORD is the righteous one” (Exodus 9:27), “God is a righteous judge” (Psalm 7:11), and “holy is the LORD our God” (Psalm 99:9), or, even stronger, “Holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts.” (Isa. 6:3, Rev. 4:8). “Hebrew uses repetition to express superlatives or to indicate totality. Only here is a threefold repetition found.” (Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, p. 76).
God is love.
But God is also holy.

Because he is holy, He is absolutely pure and separated from any evil.

God can never act according to one attribute in a way that violates another attribute. God cannot act in love in a way that violates His holiness. Nor can He act in holiness in a way that violates His love. I know this principle applies to any combination of His attributes, but we find the answer of eternal destiny most intensely at the intersection of holiness and love. When we apply this to the question of the destiny of those who do not believe in Jesus, the solution God provides must satisfy His love, His holiness, and every other attribute of His. He cannot act contrary to Himself. So, where do love and holiness meet?

In the person of Jesus Christ.

In Him, God satisfies His holiness and His love. John 3:16 begins, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.” On the cross, Jesus “bore our sins in His body … so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24a). God made Jesus, who was sinless, “sin on our behalf” (2 Cor. 5:21a).  Jesus is the propitiation (or, satisfaction toward God) for our sins (1 John 2:2). God showed His love by sending Jesus; Jesus completely satisfied God’s holiness by dying on the cross for our sin. So, Paul concludes, God is both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). So, we receive the benefits (justification, eternal life, forgiveness of sin, etc.) by faith alone in Jesus alone as John 3:16 concludes, “whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

So, we have two types of people in the world.

Those who have believed in Jesus for eternal life, and those who have not.

If we drop down a couple of verses in John 3, we discover the fate of those who have not believed in Jesus. In verse 18, we read “he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

The person who has not believed in Jesus has been judged already. A consequence of their unbelief.

 So, now, let’s look for the pieces that define this judgment.

Let’s start with Matthew 25:41: “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’”. Whatever this “eternal fire” may be, we see its original purpose was for Satan and his fallen angels for their judgment. This judgment of the devil is carried out in Rev. 20:10, “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone…”

That leads us to this word “eternal”. How long does the judgment last? The Greek term is aionios (αἰώνιος), which simply means “eternal”. One major Greek dictionary gives these three meanings: (1) without beginning, (2) without beginning or end, or (3) without end. We are left with no choice but to understand this fire as “without end”. In Matthew 25:46, Jesus contrasts eternal punishment and eternal life. The implication is clear: whatever duration “eternal life” covers, “eternal punishment” covers the same time. If eternal life in unending, so is eternal punishment.

Revelation uses different words to mark out the duration of this judgment. In Revelation 20:10, we are told the beast and the false prophet will be tormented “forever and ever” (τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων). Twelve times this phrase pops up in Revelation, including passages like Rev. 4:9 that says the one who sits on the throne (Jesus) lives forever and ever. See the connection? The time period in Rev. 20:10 is the same time period as Jesus’ “life expectancy” – it is unending!

Let’s assume I am correct that the duration of the punishment is unending. The next question is, does this mean, as Fudge believes, that the “disintegration of the wicked will never be reversed” or is the person conscious during this time? I think the Bible paints the picture that the person is conscious. Revelation 20:10 tells us the beast and the false prophet (both humans) are “tormented day and night forever and ever”. A very strange description indeed if they had ceased to exist. Plus, the timing of this description is intriguing. The beast and false prophet were cast into this lake a thousand years prior to this time when the devil joins them. It really doesn’t matter if you take the thousand years as a literal thousand years or as some undisclosed long period of time, these two are still experiencing torment long after entering the lake. These two did not cease to exist, and nothing indicates the experience of those who are later cast into the lake of fire will be anything different. (By the way, other passages support the idea that the unbelieving dead continue to exist consciously after death, but I want this to be a post, not a book!)

I can hear the cry now, “That’s not fair! Why should God punish forever someone who committed sin for a finite lifetime?” And that is a valid question. We have to go back to the character of God. That’s why we had to start with Him. If God is truly just and righteous, then the destiny He determines for the unbelieving dead must be just. He cannot act contrary to Himself. So, let’s assume I am correct in how I put the Scriptures together on this tough topic. I am convinced that our sense of “that’s not fair” comes from an inadequate view of the holiness of God and an inadequate view of the depth and scope of our sin. Isaiah got it when he had his vision of the throne room: “Then I said, ‘Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts’” (Isa. 6:5). I really believe if we understood the scope of our sin and the greatness of the one sinned against (God), we would grasp that the penalty fits the crime. I accept by faith in His perfect character that He is fully just in His dealing with the unbelieving dead.

Last but not least, I have heard people describe hell as the unbeliever’s “payment” for sin. I do not find this anywhere in Scripture. Humans are incapable of paying for sin (the price is too high)and Jesus already paid the price in full. We cannot pay for something already paid for! Thus the destiny of the unbelieving dead as the consequence of not believing in Jesus, the solution God provided to the issue. If they never believed in Jesus for eternal life, what options are left? In a debate with the Pharisees, Jesus made this telling statement: “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:58). The option left for the destiny of the unbeliever is to be cast into the lake of fire, a lake created not for mankind but for the devil and his angels.

So, pulling all this together, what the heck is hell? I understand the fate of those who have never believed in Jesus as unending, conscious torment away from God as the consequence of rejecting God’s solution in Jesus Christ that fully satisfies His holiness and perfectly displays His love. What a motivation this should be for us to share the gospel with a lost world!

I hear one more question. What about the person in deepest, darkest, downtown Dallas who has never heard the gospel?  That’s my next post…..


  1. Well, I'm glad you picked on Dallas for once instead of Austin! ;)

    Hopefully this isn't straying too far from what you are saying, but it is appropriate to say that because all have sinned and failed to meet God's standard (Romans 3:23) that we, as you say from Scripture, are already judged and destined for Hell unless we accept Christ's atonement that delivers or redeems us from that fate? It seems most folks tend to think of our souls starting as blank slates and we move up or down some scale as we move through life based on what we 'deserve,' rather than realizing we are already in the wrong place and need to get to the right one--and Christ is it.

    It seems like we are born on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg, and Christ is the only lifeboat. Many folks seem to not realize the ship is sinking, or think that jumping into the ocean and swimming for it is a viable option, or any number of scenarios.

    When you address the issue of the downtown Dallasites, I'd really appreciate it if you'd include a comment or two about Romans 5:12-20. Some of Paul's words seem like hyperbole and tend to lead folks towards universalism. I know that's not what he's saying, but I'm a little hard pressed to be able to satisfactorily explain it to someone who reads it very literally. Is it a poor translation into the English and the Greek is more full-bodied and nuanced in its wording, or is it something else?

    Thanks Roger!

  2. Thanks, Robb. I picked Dallas instead of Austin because everyone knows, Austin is beyond hope. (Okay, I know that's not true, but I gotta pick back!)

    You're right on the basic idea that we do not start with a clean slate. We are already judged. We don't start "innocent" and become "guilty". We start out guilty, and God allows us, through Christ alone, to be declared "not guilty" (justification).

    If I don't address Rom 5 in the next post, I will ina follow up!

  3. That should say, "I'll follow up in a later post"... don't know what happened there!