Hell’s Disappearing Act
© May 2017 • KSYC 103.9FM Yreka, CA • Download this article (PDF)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, once wrote, “Hell, I may say … has long dropped out of the thoughts of every reasonable man.” British philosopher and theologian John Hick (1922–2012) also argued that hell was “totally incompatible with the idea of God as infinite love.” Agnostic British philosopher Bertrand Russell also wrote in 1967, “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. [Eternal punishment is] a doctrine that put cruelty in the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture.” Christians are not surprised that unbelievers reject the doctrine of hell. Unbelievers, obviously, don’t believe in anything that the Bible says, except being loving and being good.
But listen to another quote about hell: “[God] cannot endure that … and he will not.” No, this is not from another unbeliever, but from Anglican bishop John Robinson, who died in 1983. Clark Pinnock, another well-known theologian agrees with Bishop Robinson, “How can one imagine for a moment that the God who gave His Son to die for sinners because of His great love for them would install a torture chamber somewhere in the new creation in order to subject those who reject Him to everlasting pain?” And here’s another quote:
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better…. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.
Again, this is not a quote from an atheist or an agnostic. This is what Rob Bell, who calls himself a Christian, says in his 2011 bestseller Love Wins. It’s plain that he doesn’t believe in the Bible’s teaching about hell. And there are many so-called Christians today who have debunked the doctrine of hell. To them, the idea that countless billions of people, “good,” decent, and morally upright, some of them our family members and friends, will spend eternity in terror and torment, is utterly inconceivable and unacceptable. How can a God who is perfectly loving, merciful, gracious and good, send people to an utterly despicable destination?
But the question cannot be, “How can a loving God send anyone to the eternal torment of hell?” The question should be, “How can a perfectly holy God who cannot tolerate sin allow anyone into heaven?” since all, not a single human being excepted, are sinners and fall short of God’s requirement of perfect holiness. Revelation 21:27 says, “Nothing unclean will ever enter [heaven].” Those who say that God will allow unbelievers, who have not been declared perfectly righteous by God, into heaven have an impossible explaining to do.
Hell therefore is the destination of all those who don’t believe and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior, the Son of God who also became man. But what is hell? The Bible is clear.
First, hell is a state of separation from God. On the day of judgment, Jesus will say to all unbelievers, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (Matt 25:41). In hell, all of God’s love, mercy and goodness will be absent. It is called “outer darkness” (Matt 8:12; 25:30) because darkness is a metaphor for sin and evil. This is what Jesus had to suffer on the cross when he cried out to his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This doesn’t mean that God will be completely absent from hell, because he is present everywhere in the universe (Psa 139:7-8). We also read in Revelation 14:20 that those in hell “will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.”
Second, hell is a place where all unbelievers will be together with the devil and all his angels (Matt 25:41). Can you imagine sharing a place for eternity with the devil and all his angels, in addition to Hitler, serial killer Ted Bundy, and countless Muslim murderers?
Third, hell is a place of unspeakable punishment. As a place of punishment (Matt 25:46), Jesus describes hell as an “eternal fire” (Matt 18:8). It is also a “lake of burning sulfur” (Rev 19:20). It is a place of retribution and condemnation (Matt 12:36-37). There, justice is served just as the Bible warned, so those who are in it will be “weeping and gnashing their teeth” (Matt 13:42). The justice of God is perfectly righteous.
Fourth, hell is an eternal state of punishment. Jesus describes it as “eternal fire” (Matt 18:8), “eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46), and where the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). Jude says hell is “a punishment of eternal fire” (verse 7). The apostle John describes his vision of people in hell, “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Rev 14:11).
Fifth, purgatory does not offer a second chance to avoid hell. The Roman Catholic Catechism states, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified … undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” Purgatory is not hell. From where did this idea of purgatory come? Not from the Bible. The Bible states, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9:27). There are no second chances. Jesus says there are only two destinations: heaven or hell, “And these [the wicked] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46).
The unspeakable descriptions of hell in the Bible are unacceptable to most people, even to many who call themselves Christians. So there are two main propositions against the doctrine of eternal hell.
The first is universalism. God is perfectly loving and merciful, so that this character will prevent him from punishing anyone in hell. So he will save everyone. The best example of this is Rob Bell, who calls himself an evangelical, but in his book Love Wins, he teaches that even unbelievers will go to heaven in the end. So there is no real hell. Another example is the cult of Unitarian Universalism. This is Rob Bell’s belief.
The second is called annihilationism, which teaches that God will exterminate people in hell after a time of punishment, and afterward, hell itself will not exist anymore. They have several arguments for their case. One is that hell is called a place of “destruction” (Matt 7:13; 2 Thess 1:8). But destruction here means total loss or ruin, not ceasing from existence. For example, the Antichrist will “go to destruction” (Rev 17:8, 11), but he, together with Satan and all unbelievers, “will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:10-15). Well-known theologian John Stott and cult leader Harold Camping both support this idea.
Both universalists and annihilationists argue that God hates sin, but not the sinner. Yes, God hates sin and cannot tolerate sin. But the Bible also says that God hates all sinners who don’t repent of their sins and believe in Christ. This is why all sinners are condemned to death and hell. Two examples are in the Psalms. Psalm 5:4-6 says this about God’s intolerance of sin and sinners, “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.” And Psalm 11:5 says, “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.”
Both are premised on separating the love of God from the justice and holiness of God. This is impossible, because, as mentioned before, God is both merciful and just at the same time. All Christians, even non-Christians, affirm that “God is love.” Love is one of his perfect divine attributes, as is his mercy and grace, patience, and abundant goodness and truth. Yet God is not made up of parts, nor does he change. He cannot be loving one day, and just the next. He is always and eternally loving, merciful, gracious, patient and good, but also always and eternally holy and just.
A God who is only loving and merciful, but not holy and just is not the true God. This kind of God is only a caricature, a twisting, of the God of the Bible. He is called “holy, holy, holy,” which means he is perfectly holy. His name is “holy,” so that even mentioning his name in vain is a grievous sin. He cannot wink upon sin. He has zero tolerance for sin. He is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Hab. 1:13). Without perfect holiness, no one can enter heaven and see God.
But how can anyone be perfect? Perfect holiness can only be attained through faith in the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was perfectly holy in his earthly life. By faith in Christ, God counts his perfect holiness to anyone who believes in him.
Do you believe and trust in Christ as your Savior from all your sins and from God’s wrath in hell? If you do, then all the blessings of salvation are yours: forgiveness of sins, salvation from God’s wrath, adoption as children in God’s family, righteous living through the Holy Spirit, and glory in heaven. If you don’t, then all the curses of God are yours: continuing sinful living, God’s wrath, and eternal torment in heaven.
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