The Problem of Hell
The problem of hell is, in some ways, another facet of the problem of evil. Hell is eternal separation from God and all that is good and blessed. How can we believe in a loving, powerful God who would also cast people into an eternal destination of pain and torment? Hell is not to be taken lightly. Eternity is serious business no matter what side of the issue one takes, and what is at stake is everything. Reconciling the dire and horrible nature of hell with a God who desires all to be saved can be a challenge. However, both biblically and philosophically, hell is compatible with an all-loving and all-powerful God. So what are some of the principles that can help us put the issue into perspective?
First, the question of hell is not an isolated issue to be understood apart from all of the other evidence that supports God and the Bible. Whatever one may think of hell does not change the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus or the comprehensive case for Christianity. So the issue of hell does not disprove the Bible or Christianity, even if people don’t fully understand the nature of hell or why it must exist. As Groothuis observed:
"Hell is an apologetic problem for Christianity because it demands that we square the love of God with the eternal punishment of some of God's creatures.' But this problem should not be wrestled with in isolation from the cumulative case for Christian theism made in these pages (and elsewhere). A philosophical problem, even a vexing problem, need not sink an entire worldview. This does not mean that Christians should shy away from believing in or teaching this doctrine; it does mean that we should approach it with humility and not apart from the evidence for Christianity as a whole system." (Douglas Groothuis. 2011. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. IVP.)
Second, objections to hell are based upon emotional responses against its severity, not upon factual information or evidence to the contrary. People react against hell because they don’t like it as a concept. However, we must not confuse disliking something with proof against its existence. We may not like what hell represents (and we shouldn’t like it). We may think it says something unsavory about God and eternity. We may not like the concept of hell for a variety of reasons, but these reasons are not based upon facts that disprove the evidence for its existence. In terms of the reality of hell, whether or not we like it is irrelevant. What matters is whether or not it is real. If hell is real, then our feelings need to be tempered by that truth, for reality cannot be altered by our emotions against it. If hell is real, an adverse emotional reaction would not therefore mean that we are exempt from its consequences. So the question is not, “How do I feel about hell?” The question is, “Is hell real?” Then, what evidence would lead us to the conclusion that hell is real?
Third, in connection to the previous point, the denial of hell is based upon redefining both who God is and what our conception of ultimate justice is in connection with God’s character. Because we don’t like hell as a concept, then we essentially try to reshape God into the mold we think He ought to fit. God “can’t” do it this way because it offends our modern sensibilities, so either He must not exist or He must actually have something else in mind. In our minds, God, who is all about love, is not a God who could actually support a notion like hell, so God, justice, or both must be denied or remade. This reshaping of God into our image is then supported by our view of what ultimate justice should be. Whatever it is, we just know that ultimate justice should not be eternally painful. Since we wouldn’t conceive of such a terrible penalty, then obviously God couldn’t. This all sounds familiar. “You will not surely die,” said the serpent to Eve (Genesis 3:1-5). The essence of the devil’s lie is that God doesn’t mean what He says, especially when it comes to punishment. The trick in getting us to bite the forbidden fruit is to plant the idea that God isn’t really going to be that strict after all and the punishment for rebellion won’t be quite as bad as it sounds. Thus, hell will only be temporary at best and annihilation at worst. How do we know this? Our self-imposed personal standards just tell us. We know better than God, and if that’s not the way it is, then we’ll just deny God. That will show Him.
Fourth, the primary reason for accepting the reality of hell is based upon the Lordship of Jesus. The argument here is almost identical to the argument for accepting a high view of Scripture. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then Jesus is Lord (an argument combined with His claims and works). If Jesus is Lord, then what Jesus teaches is true. Jesus taught the reality of hell. Thus our warrant for accepting the reality of hell is based upon the Lordship and teachings of Jesus. Anyone denying hell will have to deal directly with the authority of Jesus.
What did Jesus say about hell? Jesus uses the imagery of Topheth in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom from the Old Testament. This valley was just outside of Jerusalem. Here many practiced the idolatrous form of child sacrifice referred to as passing their children through the fire (see II Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31-32; 32:35). The place was a fire pit (as the meaning of Topheth seems to indicate) and represented that which was an abomination and a place where there could be no fellowship with God. One can only imagine the smoke, the worms, and the stench that would be found there. Gehenna is the New Testament term for this valley, and thus is a fitting description of eternal separation from God. Jesus said that hell (Gehenna) is where the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47-48, quoting Isaiah 66:24). He referenced hell as a “sentence” for wickedness (Matthew 23:33). It is where the soul and body meet destruction (Matthew 10:28). Hell is conceived of being “outer darkness”; “in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30). It is the “eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Hell is “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46). Now if Jesus is Lord, then how we feel about these statements is irrelevant. If we accept Jesus as Lord, then we accept the reality of what He taught and adjust our lives accordingly.
Fifth, biblical writers, prophets, apostles, and teachers continually spoke of two themes:
- God’s grace, and
- God’s justice in judgment.
“Behold then the kindness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22). Even a casual reading of Scripture shows that they had no problem reconciling God’s mercy with harsh judgments; they are not mutually exclusive ideas. If we have a problem today, it is likely due more to misconceptions on our part about divine grace and justice. However, the biblical warrant for accepting both is clear. Paul wrote the following in a context of both grace and judgment:
“And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation” (Romans 2:2-8).
Notice that God’s judgment “rightly” (in truth) falls on those who are wicked. His wrath is not arbitrary, unjust, or out of control. Further, those who ignore the severity of God are, ironically, thinking lightly of God’s kindness. God’s mercy is continually demonstrated as He gives time for repentance. He is unwilling that anyone perish, but that all come to repentance (I Peter 3:9). Yet He gives us that option, not forcing us to obey, but warning us that failure to obey has its consequences. The time God gives is purely a matter of His grace, for no one deserves it. To argue that God is immoral for bringing judgment is to make a farce out of His grace. It cheapens what God does in extending His hand out to sinners who do not deserve His kindness by essentially saying that all people, no matter what they have done and no matter how evil they continue to be, in the end deserve God’s favor. Yet when does any sinner deserve God’s favor? All have sinned and fall short of His glory (Romans 3:23).
This brings us back to the issue of the nature of sin and what we actually deserve. The reason “grace” means anything is because it is undeserved. Grace is marvelous and often misunderstood. By its very nature, we do not deserve it. No one, in judgment, will be asking for fairness, for grace is not about fairness. Rather, we will ask for mercy, again undeserved. If we really want what we deserve, then we will not be happy with the final result. If we really want fairness, then we are asking for hell. But how can we say that we really deserve hell? How can eternal hell be a just punishment for a few sins here?
Remember that sin is not only a violation of God’s law, but is also a rebellion against His glory. The law reflects the glory of God, who is infinitely holy, and who must act with justice if this holiness is to be vindicated. We are created to be henceforth eternal. If we reject God and rebel against His nature, then we will continue on eternally without Him. This we call hell. How can we say that we should be in God’s presence when our actions have indicated to God that we don’t want Him in our lives here? If we have repudiated God’s word, then we judge ourselves unworthy of eternal life (Acts 13:46). Hell is the consequence for rejection of God’s glory and authority in favor of our own. If we insist on retaining our own autonomous authority apart from God now, then we must recognize what eternity is like without God’s presence when He gives us completely over to our own will. Hell is not some kind of medieval dungeon with laughing demons and evil torture devices. Dante’s Inferno does not define hell for us. The devil will be there (Matthew 25:41), but he will not be in charge and he will not be laughing and whipping anyone. Further, while the descriptions of hell in physical terms evoke painful images in our minds, the real tragedy is that God isn’t there. Paul captures this very point when he writes of those who do not know God: “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (II Thessalonians 1:9). Being away from God’s presence and glory is the essence of eternal ruin in hell. The true issue of hell is not about fire, worms, and gnashing teeth. It is about a final separation from God. That realization will, indeed, be a pain far beyond what any physical description can represent.
People use the problem of hell in order to deny God, but, again, such a denial is based upon an emotional reaction, not the facts. If we can admit the wisdom and knowledge of God, then we have to admit that God has information and knowledge that we don’t have. He has wisdom and understanding that we don’t have. He sees the universe as a whole, under an umbrella of the total picture of reality. We see but a speck of reality based upon our limited, finite knowledge. We must acknowledge that God has the wisdom, understanding, and knowledge to know exactly how ultimate justice does and should operate. He knows the full extent of both His own glory and the problem of sin. Just because we don’t understand it all doesn’t mean it isn’t real. When we stand in judgment over God based upon our finite understanding of both hell and who He is, then we are essentially saying that God does not know what He is doing. We know more than God. We have the ability to reason over and judge God’s actions and intentions. Because we don’t understand how God could send anyone to an eternal hell, we must use our own standards in order to argue that such a God is not worthy of our devotion. Do we even stop to consider that our knowledge is incomplete? That our personal standards aren’t exactly the best for judging the infinite? If we can be so skeptical of God, why can’t we be so skeptical of our own finite reasoning?
The acceptance of both the reality of hell and God boils down to a matter of trust. When Abraham was faced with the knowledge of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he may not have fully understood all of God’s reasons, but he still showed his faith. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25) Whatever the outcome and however God would accomplish justice, Abraham knew that God would do what is right. Can we not have the same sense of trust and faith in God with eternal justice? Our acceptance of hell is not a matter of completely understanding it. It is not even a matter of liking it. It is a matter of whether or not we can trust that God knows what He is doing. For our part, we need to concentrate on doing His will and leave the rest in the hands of the Almighty. The only alternative is to deny God in order to fashion our own understanding of reality. In denying God we end up creating our own god in our faulty image. This cannot be an acceptable alternative.