Hell is a subject that Christians do not like to talk about. However, there is a lot of plain-speaking about hell in the Bible, and so it seems to me that occasionally there should be a bit of plain-speaking about it in our sermons and writings and conversations. CS Lewis said that if we truly believe in such things as hell, then “we must sometimes overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them.”1 He is right. And yet, it is not easy to speak about hell. Personally, I dislike even saying the word. So I write about it now with a sense of anxiety. Yet love compels me to write about it with conviction.
Hell is a dreadful subject. But, strangely, it is not all dreadful. In fact, from the perspective of a fallen human being, there is one good thing about hell. But before we can consider that one good thing, we need to consider two bad things.
The first bad thing
The first bad thing, humanly speaking, is that hell is for real. It is not an imaginary place invented by the church to frighten people. It actually exists.
The Bible repeatedly emphasises the reality of hell. It is a place that God originally “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). The Lord Jesus warns that God is able to “destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28), and states that it is better for a person to be physically mutilated than to be “thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29).
Hell is real, and it is dreadful. It is a “place of torment” (Luke 16:28) to which people are “sentenced” (Matthew 23:33), and in which they “weep and gnash their teeth” (Matthew 22:13) and “have no rest, day or night” (Revelation 14:11). It is a place of depravity and hopelessness where people are abandoned to their sin, so that the evildoers go on doing evil and the filthy go on being filthy (Revelation 22:11). It is a place where people “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
The Bible describes hell variously as a “furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:42), a “lake that burns with fire and sulphur” (Revelation 21:8), and a place of “outer darkness” (Matthew 25:30). These descriptions are probably symbolic. After all, it is difficult to see how hell could be both a lake of fire and a place of outer darkness.
Concerning the biblical imagery for hell, RC Sproul states:
I suspect they are symbols, but I find no relief in that. We must not think of them as being merely symbols. It is probable that the sinner in hell would prefer a literal lake of fire as his eternal abode to the reality of hell represented in the lake of fire image. If these images are indeed symbols, then we must conclude that the reality is worse than the symbol suggests. The function of symbols is to point beyond themselves to a higher or more intense state of actuality than the symbol itself can contain. That Jesus used the most awful symbols imaginable to describe hell is no comfort to those who see them simply as symbols.2
Hell is an awful place, too horrible to describe, too dreadful to imagine. And the principle reason it is so terrible is because it is a place where people will be “shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). In hell, people are separated from God.
Superficially, this may not seem too bad. In fact, it is exactly what many people want. They want to get away from God. They hate him and do not want anything to do with him. So why should it bother them to be separated from him?
The answer is quite simple. God is the source of every good thing and apart from him there is no good thing: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). Consequently, if hell involves separation from God, it also necessarily involves separation from everything that is good.
Pause for a moment and think about what this means. When we are comforted in the night by the love of a spouse, that is a good gift from God. When we are blessed with a restful night’s sleep, that is a good gift from God. When we take pleasure in the feeling of the water on our skin in the shower, that is a good gift from God. When our breakfast coffee smells nice and our toast tastes fine, that is a good gift from God. When we are delighted by hugs from our children, that is a good gift from God. When we appreciate music on our CD or iPod, that is a good gift from God. When we enjoy the company of friends, that is a good gift from God.
We should not be mistaken about this: we should not be like unbelievers and scoffers who take the pleasures of their senses and their relationships for granted. The pleasures of taste, touch, smell, sight and sound did not happen by accident. God ordained them. The pleasures of friendship and companionship and love did not arise by chance. God ordained them. Everything good comes from God; and apart from him there is nothing good. So to be separated from God means to be separated from every good thing. There is no comfort or satisfaction or pleasure of any kind in hell. There are no sweet sounds, no soft touches, no kind gestures, no lovely objects, no loving relationships. These are all things that flow from the goodness of God, and that goodness is not there.
Hell is hell because God is absent. Or more correctly, he is absent except in wrath and judgment. One of the essential characteristics of God is omnipresence. God is omnipresent—that is, he is present everywhere. This means that he must be present even in hell. And so he is. David asks God in Psalm 139, “Where shall I flee from your presence?” And he answers, “If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” Even in hell, David says, he could not escape God’s presence. So then, God is present in hell—and he expresses his presence there in holy indignation and furious judgment. None of his mercy, none of his kindness, none of his goodness, none of his grace will ever be experienced there.
For this reason we could say that hell is like what God is like in his wrath. “Our God is a consuming fire,” Scripture declares (Hebrews 12:29). This is why “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31) without first falling into the hands of the Son of God. To enter into God’s presence without the Saviour is to enter into a consuming fire of judgment and wrath.
The second bad thing
Hell is for real. Even worse, hell is for keeps. This is the second bad thing we need to consider: hell is for ever. There is no end to it and no escape from it. Like the humans and the angels who inhabit it, hell is eternal.
The people whom God sentences to hell will never get out. They will be subject to never-ending, never-lessening punishment. They are given no release date and are never eligible for pardon or parole.
Because this truth is so terrible, some Christians have tried to explain it away. They argue that the sufferings of hell will be temporary and that God will mercifully annihilate the sinner after a suitable period of time. Such a view contradicts the fact that we are made in the image of God and are therefore eternal. Human beings cannot cease to exist because the Divine Being has put eternity into our hearts and minds (Ecclesiastes 3:11). And if we cannot cease to exist, then we must continue to exist somewhere throughout eternity. For the wicked that somewhere is hell.
The Bible plainly teaches the eternal duration of hell and its inhabitants. Revelation 14:11 states that “the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever” (cf 20:10). Jude 13 speaks of wicked people “for whom the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved for ever.” Jesus speaks of people being thrown into hell, “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48; cf Isaiah 66:24).
Jesus declares in Matthew 25:46 that the wicked “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Note that Jesus uses the adjective “eternal” to describe the final situation of both the wicked and the righteous. One will endure “punishment” while the other will enjoy “life”—and both will do so eternally. The wicked “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Hell is described in Revelation as “the second death” (2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). Yet the terrible irony is that its inhabitants are not dead and cannot die. As in the tribulation, people in hell “will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, and death will fly from them” (Revelation 9:6). They will call to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16). But the mountains and the rocks will not hear them. There is no escape from hell, not even through death.
Some Christians attempt to counter the horror of hell by claiming that it is either a temporary place or an imaginary place. Their sentiments are perhaps summed up in the words of one liberal Anglican bishop: “I am clear that there can be no hell for eternity—our God could not be so cruel.”3
Despite his assertion, the bishop is not at all clear about hell. He is only clear on his personal sentiments about hell. What he wishes and what scripture teaches are two very different things. Furthermore, he is not even clear about God: his statement reveals an inexcusable ignorance of God’s nature, especially those aspects of his nature known as holiness, justice and love.
The holiness of God makes hell necessary. God is infinitely holy, and therefore he cannot and will not tolerate sin. He must remove it utterly before there can be “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
Also, the justice of God makes hell necessary. God is infinitely just, and therefore he must repay each person according to his or her deeds. He must punish sin. And apart from the cross, hell is the only appropriate punishment. We might be tempted to think that the punishment is too severe for the crime. But that is only because we are too sinful to see sin for what it really is. Sin has blinded us to the seriousness of sin. But the moment we remember what God did to his dear Son in punishment for our sin, we get a glimpse of the enormity, the monstrosity, of sin in God’s sight.
Furthermore, the love of God makes hell necessary. God is infinitely loving, and therefore he must act to protect the objects of his love. Divine love is not some insipid, feeble thing. It is strong and vigorous and protective in nature. Sin involves an attack on everything that God loves, including his honour, his creation, his image, his Son and his people. Apart from the cross, hell is the only way God can end this attack. Bearing in mind that human beings are eternal beings, the only way to prevent unrepentant humans from hurting the things God loves is to imprison them. They can’t be annihilated, and they won’t be assimilated, so they must be incarcerated. Hell is God’s defence of the things he loves.
God is not cruel. But he is holy and just and loving. Therefore he must remove evildoers from his presence and reward them according to their deeds and prevent them from continually hurting the objects of his love.
One apparent good thing
It is in the matter of the justice of God that we can see one possible good thing about hell. When we consider the evil that some people have done with seeming impunity, we can for a moment get a sense of the goodness of hell. How heartening it is to know that Adolf Hitler and his fellow National Socialist killers, not to mention Osama bin Laden and his fellow Muslim murderers, will pay in the next life for the monstrous evils they did in this life!
And the consolation of hell’s justice is not confined to historical figures and events. Might not the parents of a molested and murdered child today take comfort in the thought that the unknown murderer will in the end be found out and punished? Certainly, cries for justice can arise from malice, but they can also arise from legitimate grievance. Sometimes a cry for justice is simply and rightly a cry … for justice! If the souls of the martyrs can virtuously cry out for vengeance in heaven (Revelation 6:9-11), may not we on earth blamelessly join our voices with theirs and look forward to the “eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:2) of evildoers?
Ah, but this seemingly good thing about hell goes bad on us when we realise that in God’s eyes we are all evildoers. Yes, some are worse sinners that others, but all are sinners nonetheless. John X may be “twice as much a child of hell as” Jim Y (Matthew 23:15), but even so both are children of hell to one degree or another. Scripture asserts that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and as a consequence “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10), where eternal justice declares that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). From God’s perspective (which, after all, is the one that counts), we are among the evildoers who deserved a place in hell.
From a fallen human viewpoint, in a personal experiential sense, there is little good about the fact that hell is a place where the wicked get their just deserts, for we ourselves are classed among the wicked. Being in need of mercy ourselves, we cannot rejoice too readily in the administration of justice to others.
One actual good thing
On closer inspection, the reckoning of hell is only an apparent good. Yet there remains an actual good.
Of course, when I say that there is one good thing about hell, I am speaking from the perspective of a sinful man. From God’s point-of-view, everything about hell is “good” in the sense that it is necessary and righteous and just. But from the viewpoint of someone who deserves to go there, nothing about hell is good in the sense that it is enjoyable or desirable or beneficial.
Nothing is good about hell, except this: it can be avoided. It is not our inevitable destiny. This is the one actual good thing about hell so far as sinful human beings are concerned: No one has to go there!
In fact, God does not want anyone to go there. He made hell originally for the devil and his angels. When our ancestors, Adam an Eve, chose to follow Satan rather than God, hell opened its gates for the human race, too. But it was never made for human beings; and it was never God’s desire to send us there.
The prospect of sending someone to hell gives God no pleasure (Ezekiel 18:32). On the contrary, he “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” To give force to this earnest wish, he sent us his Son, Jesus Christ, “who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:4-6; cf 2 Peter 3:9). Jesus came to earth to live and to die as our substitute. He lived a life of perfect obedience to the will of God, thereby fulfilling the moral law on our behalf. He died on the cross in our place, bearing our sins and suffering our punishment, thereby quenching the fire of God’s holy wrath towards us (1 John 2:2). He rose from the grave, thereby destroying the stranglehold of death over us.
Because of what Jesus did, no one has to go to hell. Everyone has the opportunity to escape eternal punishment and to enjoy eternal life. All that God asks of us is that we acknowledge ourselves to be sinners and call out to his Son in repentance and faith for forgiveness and salvation. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). So then, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). For truly, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 8:9).
This is the one good thing about hell: we don’t have to go there, and we won’t go there if we commit our lives to Jesus. Hell holds no horrors for those whom Jesus holds in his almighty hand (John 10:27-29).