A bulletin announcement read: “Topic for this evening–‘What is hell like?’ 7:00 PM. Come early and hear our choir practice.” Jokes about hell abound. The truth is–hell is no laughing matter! Jesus painted a dramatic picture when He told about the separation of the sheep from the goats on the day of judgment. In it He revealed some truths about hell: “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’…And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41,46).
I struggle with the doctrine of hell. Isn’t torment overkill, especially for people who were kind, just never said yes to Jesus? How about those raised in Buddhism and never heard the claims of Christ? Does the punishment fit the crime? I don’t like thinking about hell, but the Bible teaches it.
When Scripture says that God is just, that is not justice as I see it but as an eternally perfect and compassionate God sees it. I cannot understand the ins and outs God’s justice. My job is not to tell God how He should exercise judgment. “The Almighty will not pervert justice” (Job 34:12). Let no one think he is either more merciful than God or more just. Whatever punishment is given to the unrighteous will come from the perfect justice of God who is neither vindictive nor imbalanced in his retribution to the unsaved. He spoke through the prophet, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked may turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11).
- Hell means separation from God.
When Jesus says to the majority of humanity, “Depart from me,” they will be cut off from God with no chance for a review. God is light and without him there is only darkness. Hell is pitch dark, described as “outer darkness” and “blackest darkness” (Jude 13), hardly something to inspire fellowship. St. Paul speaks of “exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9). Hell-bound people are God-forsaken.
- Hell is for the cursed.
Jesus says, “Depart from me, you cursed…” It is one thing to be cursed by a drunk, another to be cursed by a holy God. He is not popping off in a fit of rage. He has stored up his wrath, and it is finally poured out on unrepentant humanity. The word “curse” is the last word in the Old Testament. And the threat of a curse comes three verses before the end of the Book. Everything doesn’t end happily ever after, not for everyone.
- Hell is eternal.
Jesus said that the cursed go to an “eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41). The same word “eternal” describes the unending life of the righteous. John writes that “they (the devil, beast, and false prophet) will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). Sounds like a long time.
- Hell is hot.
If hell is not literal fire, it is just as tormenting, or language means nothing. Jesus says that hardened sinners will be thrown “into the furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:42), and the goats go to the “eternal fire.” Revelation calls the pit “the lake of burning sulphur (20:10), “a lake of fire” (20:14). This sea of flames is anything but a “cool” place.
- Hell is prepared for Satan.
What kind of God would create such a horrible place? A God who doesn’t want to send anyone there. Hell has not been fashioned for any human but was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). He would prefer that they be the only tenants, and they will precede all others (Revelation 20:10) to the place where they know they are destined. People who go to hell will do so over Christ’s dead body!
- Hell is punishment.
The apostle wrote that “they shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction…” (2 Thess. 1:9). People outside of Christ prefer darkness. Those making that decision in time will find their eternity bitterly dark. Those not on God’s roll-call will be on Satan’s. Hell will be populated with Methodists and Lutherans, Jews and Hindus, good and bad, religious and nonreligious, rich and poor, with one thing in common–the rejection of salvation through Jesus Christ.
The church down through the ages has declared the truth of eternal salvation and eternal separation unswervingly. In recent days, the doctrine of annihilationism has been presented as a softer alternative to eternal punishment. I understand the heart of those who suggest this. It is uncomfortable to picture people in eternal torment. I am not however free to consider alternatives outside the scope of Scripture. Death in the Bible is separation, never extinction. Death is an eternal state of pain and deprivation, not of non-being. We cannot read the Bible with our limited understanding and flawed character and conclude that the punishment is unfair. We do not scrutinize the Bible; it scrutinizes us (Hebrews 4:12). We do not stand in judgment of the Word of God; it stands in judgment of us.
People who oppose God actively or passively will spend eternity in hell as best I understand. Those who reach out to God with an honest heart will find him, whether they live in Rhode Island or Rwanda. Truth is truth, for all times, all situations, all people. There is one way, not multiple possibilities. God does not play hard to get: to the proud–yes, to the humble–no. To those who call good God, they eventually make themselves gods, and the living God is out of reach. To those who call God good, he will prove his goodness through an eternal salvation.
Some might be thinking, “Why not be more loving?” Would it be loving to watch blind people heading toward a cliff and not warn them? Jesus spoke of hell so that none would go there. Hell is more dreadful than we can imagine–and heaven is more wonderful! Take your pick!