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March 15, 2011

Hell: Eternal Sovereign Justice Exacted upon Evildoers (Chapter 29 of If God Is Good)

If there is no Hell, there is no justice.

When most people speak of what a terrible notion Hell is, they talk as if it involves the suffering of innocent people. That would indeed be terribly unjust—but nowhere does the Bible suggest the innocent will spend a single moment in Hell.

When I think of Hell, I recall a man I met on a train out of Kiev, whose mother was the only one of twelve children in her family to survive Stalin’s enforced starvation in Ukraine. I think about Vek and Samoeun Taing, as they walked us through the Killing Fields, telling us of the atrocities committed against their families.

Without Hell, justice would never overtake the unrepentant tyrants responsible for murdering millions. Perpetrators of evil throughout the ages would get away with murder—and rape, and torture, and every evil.

Even if we may acknowledge Hell as a necessary and just punishment for evildoers, however, we rarely see ourselves as worthy of Hell. After all, we are not Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Bundy, or Dahmer.

God responds, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10–12).

As we saw in chapters 7–9, in our unredeemed state, we remain alienated from God, the source of all goodness. And while by his common grace some of his goodness leaks both onto us and into us, our predominant condition is far from good. In his book The Nazi Doctors, Robert Lifton coined the phrase “the normalcy of evil.” Evil permeates the human condition. The Nazi doctors were respectable, educated people who loved their families yet thought nothing of performing sadistic experiments on Jewish children. They considered themselves good people. We consider ourselves good people.

We’re wrong.

Guilty people can always rationalize sin. Hell exists because sin has no excuse.

After detailing a long list of human atrocities, Os Guinness asks the painful question, “What does it say of us as human beings that the people who do these things are the same species as we are?”[1]

To see the face of evil, we need only look in the mirror. If we don’t see evil’s reality in our lives, it’s no surprise. Evil people typically don’t.

Hell exists precisely because God has committed himself to solving the problem of evil.

Hell is not evil; it’s a place where evil gets punished. Hell is not pleasant, appealing, or encouraging. But Hell is morally good, because a good God must punish evil.

Hell will not be a blot on the universe, but an eternal testimony to the ugliness of evil that will prompt wondrous appreciation of a good God’s magnificence. That sounds like nonsense to Hell-hating moderns, but it makes perfect sense when we recognize and hate evil for what it is. We each have our preferred ways of sinning, whether as prostitutes, porn addicts, materialists, gossips, or the self-righteous. We all are sinners who deserve Hell.

We hate Hell precisely because we don’t hate evil. We hate it also because we deserve it.

We cry out for true and lasting justice, then fault God for taking evil too seriously by administering eternal punishment. We can’t have it both ways. Sin is evil; just punishment of sin is good. Hell is an eternal correction of and compensation for evil. It is justice. To fear and dread Hell is understandable, but to argue against Hell is to argue against justice.

Were this our only life, for there to be justice all evil would have to be judged here and all goodness rewarded here.

Christianity teaches that one’s life in this fallen world will give way to an unending life, either in Heaven or Hell. That life, not this one, will bring perfect justice. Atheists consider the world terribly unjust, for they think that only in this life can any retribution for good or evil take place. But the Bible teaches that God will exercise justice in a never-ending afterlife. At the end of this fallen world, just before the inauguration of the New Heaven and New Earth, God will at last bring ongoing justice to both unbelievers and believers (see Revelation 20).

Hell is the only just alternative to Heaven.

Fallen angels along with humans who haven’t accepted God’s gift of redemption in Christ will inhabit Hell (see 2 Peter 2:4; Revelation 20:12–15). After Christ returns, believers will be resurrected to eternal life in Heaven while unbelievers will be resurrected to an eternal existence in Hell. Jesus said, “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out... and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28–29).

God will judge the unsaved for their sins. Christ will say to those who don’t know him, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).

JESUS AND HELL

In the Bible, Jesus spoke more about Hell than anyone else did.

Jesus referred to Hell as a real place and described it in graphic terms (see Matthew 10:28; 13:40–42; Mark 9:43–48). He spoke of a fire that burns but doesn’t consume, an undying worm that eats away at the damned, and a lonely and foreboding darkness.

Christ says the unsaved “will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). Jesus taught that an unbridgeable chasm separates the wicked in Hell from the righteous in paradise. The wicked suffer terribly, remain conscious, retain their desires and memories, long for relief, cannot find comfort, cannot leave their torment, and have no hope (see Luke 16:19–3 1).

Our Savior could not have painted a bleaker picture of Hell.

C. S. Lewis said, “I have met no people who fully disbelieved in Hell and also had a living and life-giving belief in Heaven.”[2] The biblical teaching on both destinations stands or falls together. If the one is real, so is the other; if the one is a myth, so is the other. The best reason for believing in Hell is that Jesus said it exists.

It isn’t just what Jesus said about Hell that matters. It is the fact that it was he who said it.

“There seems to be a kind of conspiracy,” wrote Dorothy Sayers, “to forget, or to conceal, where the doctrine of hell comes from. The doctrine of hell is not ‘mediaeval priestcraft’ for frightening people into giving money to the church: it is Christ’s deliberate judgment on sin.... We cannot repudiate hell without altogether repudiating Christ.”[3]

Why do I believe in an eternal Hell? Because Jesus clearly and repeatedly affirmed its existence. As Sayers suggested, you cannot dismiss Hell without dismissing Jesus.

Atheist Bertrand Russell wrote, “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.”[4]

Shall we believe Jesus or Bertrand Russell? For me, it is not a difficult choice.

C. S. Lewis said of Hell, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.”[5]

We cannot make Hell go away simply because the thought of it makes us uncomfortable. If I were as holy as God, if I knew a fraction of what he knows, I would realize Hell is just and right. We should weep over Hell, but not deny it. If there isn’t an eternal Hell, Jesus made a terrible mistake in affirming there is. And if we cannot trust Jesus in his teaching about Hell, why should we trust anything he said, including his offer of salvation?

We may pride ourselves in thinking we are too loving to believe in Hell. But in saying this, we blaspheme, for we claim to be more loving than Jesus—more loving than the One who with outrageous love took upon himself the full penalty for our sin.

Who are we to think we are better than Jesus?

Or that when it comes to Hell, or anything else, we know better than he does?

God determined he would rather endure the torment of the Cross on our behalf than live in Heaven without us.

Apart from Christ, we would all spend eternity in Hell. But God so much wants us not to go to Hell that he paid a horrible price on the cross so we wouldn’t have to. This can be distorted into self-congratulation: if God paid such a great price for us, we must be extremely valuable. A better perspective is that if God had to pay such a great price for us, it emphasizes both the extent of his love and the extent of our evil.

Jesus asks a haunting question in Mark 8:36–37: “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”

The price has been paid, but we can’t benefit from forgiveness unless we choose to receive it. A convicted criminal may be offered a pardon, but if he rejects it, he remains condemned.

By denying Hell’s reality, we lower the stakes of redemption and minimize Christ’s work on the cross.

If Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection didn’t deliver us from a real and eternal Hell, then his work on the cross is less heroic, less potent, less consequential, and less deserving of our worship and praise.

Theologian William Shedd put it this way: “The doctrine of Christ’s vicarious atonement logically stands or falls with that of eternal punishment.”[6]

ANNIHILATION

The Bible teaches Hell is a place of eternal punishment, not annihilation.

Jesus said, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). Here in the same sentence, Christ uses the word “eternal” (aionos) to describe the duration of both Heaven and Hell. Thus, according to our Lord, if some will consciously experience Heaven forever, then some must consciously experience Hell forever.

Despite the clarity of Matthew 25:46, even some evangelical Christians have affirmed that upon dying, or at the final judgment, those without Christ will cease to exist. Clark Pinnock writes, “It’s time for evangelicals to come out and say that the biblical and morally appropriate doctrine of Hell is annihilation, not everlasting torment.”[7] Pinnock makes a revealing statement: 

I was led to question the traditional belief in everlasting conscious torment because of moral revulsion and broader theological considerations, not first of all on scriptural grounds. It just does not make any sense to say that a God of love will torture people forever for sins done in the context of a finite life.[8]

Note that Pinnock admits he reached his conclusions about annihilation “not first of all on scriptural grounds.” John Stott wrote about eternal conscious torment, “Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.... Scripture points in the direction of annihilation.”[9]

But would John Stott, whom I greatly respect and who is an advocate of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, have ever said Scripture points toward annihilation if it were not for the emotional strain put upon him by the passages that clearly appear to teach everlasting punishment?

Revelation 20:10 says not only that Satan, but also the beast and the false prophet, “will be tormented for ever and ever.” Revelation 19:20 shows the beast and false prophet are humans, put in Hell a thousand years earlier. Hence, we at least know that Hell for humans cannot mean immediate annihilation at death.

The most graphic New Testament statement of the eternal suffering of the unrepentant says simply, “The smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Revelation 14:11). It’s hard to imagine a more emphatic affirmation of eternal punishment.

If we are going to discard the doctrine of eternal punishment because it feels profoundly unpleasant to us, then it seems fair to ask what other biblical teachings we will also reject, because they too don’t square with what we feel. And if we do this, are we not replacing the authority of Scripture with the authority of our feelings, or our limited understanding?

Annihilation makes no sense in light of Revelation 20.

One popular annihilationist position maintains that unbelievers cease to exist when they die. But if they no longer exist, then how can they be raised to stand at the Great White Throne Judgment of Revelation 20? Would God re-create them to stand before him in judgment? After this judgment, Revelation 20 says they will be cast into the lake of fire. Would this be a second annihilation?

Another view states that unbelievers are destroyed not at death, but sometime later. They suffer some punishment appropriate to their offenses (as the rich man experiences in Luke 16), some shorter and some longer, then are snuffed out of existence.

But as we’ve seen, two human beings, the antichrist and the false prophet, will be thrown into the lake of fire after a thousand years of suffering. If it is wrong for punishment to last forever, wouldn’t it seem wrong to last over a thousand years? If there’s an eventual end to people’s suffering in Hell, where is that indicated in Scripture? Why Christ’s emphasis on “eternal punishment” and fire that isn’t quenched and a worm that doesn’t die?

People believe in annihilation because it doesn’t seem nearly so bad as eternity in Hell. The rich man of Luke 16 does not cease to exist when he dies. But will he one day cease to exist? If so, when he begs for relief, wouldn’t we expect Abra­ham to say, “When your sins are paid for, then you will no longer suffer”? But Abraham offers him no hope for relief.

Annihilation is an attractive teaching compared to the alternative—I would gladly embrace it, were it taught in Scripture. But though I’ve tried, I just can’t find it there.

Annihilation would not satisfy God’s justice and solve the problem of evil.

Do you believe that Stalin, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin got their just punishment in this life? Do you think the life imprisonment of Charles Manson—in which he receives food, clothes, reading material, television privileges, and protection from other inmates—supplies full justice for his arrogant, unrepentant slaughter of innocent human beings? Would eternal nonexistence be a just punishment for such men? In what sense does an annihilated person, who by definition experiences nothing, experience any punishment at all?

Can you imagine God saying to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao at the final judgment, “For all your evil rebellion against me and your unspeakable crimes against humanity, your punishment is to no longer be conscious”? The “pain” of nonexistence is no pain at all. To cease to exist is to not be held accountable for sin. How could God satisfy his justice if he responded to despicable sins against himself and humanity by merely flicking a switch into nothingness?

Annihilation is no solution to the injustice of evil and suffering. If it were true, annihilation might itself raise a serious moral problem, for it suggests that our sins are not so grievous and the consequences for committing them are painless, or at worst exist only for a limited time.

If, as the Bible teaches, Christ’s redemptive work is so magnificent that it delivers us from an eternal Hell, then it should elicit maximum worship from us. But if it delivers us only from nonexistence—which is exactly the end atheists, naturalists, and materialists believe in—then we may feel grateful to God for what we are rescued to, Heaven, but not so grateful for what he rescued us from, mere nonexistence.

Although the doctrine of annihilation continues to gain ground among believers, Christians must realize that embracing this doctrine minimizes, or worse, eliminates altogether the horrors of Hell. This doctrine in its most popular form merely confirms what most unbelievers already think, that their lives will end at death, and therefore there’s nothing to be concerned about. In contrast, the Bible speaks of an eternal Hell as something that should motivate unbelievers to turn to God, and motivate believers to share the gospel with urgency.

IS HELL A PROBLEM OR A SOLUTION?

Many see Hell as the ultimate cruelty and injustice.

Jesus said God prepared Hell “for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Humans go there only as they align themselves with that cosmic minority of fallen angels who reject God.

Clark Pinnock writes, “I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine....How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God.”[10]

It’s hard to imagine a more serious accusation, since Jesus, the second member of the triune God, makes the clearest statements in Scripture about everlasting punishment. Can any Christian really believe that in doing so Jesus was saying God is “cruel” and “like Satan”?

Many atheists believe early Christians invented Hell as a doctrine to frighten people into conversion. But Christ’s followers merely repeated their Lord’s teaching. They didn’t make it up.

Doesn’t our main objection to Hell center in the belief that we are far better than we really are? We may accept in theory that we’re sinners; we may even be able to list some of our sins (though we can give quite good reasons for many of them). But we do not even begin to see the extent of our evil in the sight of an all-holy God.

If we regard Hell as a divine overreaction to sin, we deny that God has the moral right to inflict ongoing punishment on any humans he created to exist forever. By denying Hell, we deny the extent of God’s holiness and the extent of our evil. We deny the extreme seriousness of sin. And, worst of all, we deny the extreme magnificence of God’s grace in Christ’s blood, shed for us on the cross. For if the evils he died for aren’t big enough to warrant eternal punishment, then perhaps the grace he showed us on the cross isn’t big enough to warrant eternal praise.

Suppose that

  • God is far more holy than we realize.
  • We are far more sinful than we realize.

If these premises are true—and Scripture demonstrates they are—then why should it surprise us that God decisively and eternally punishes sin?

If we better understood both God’s nature and our own, we would not feel shocked that some people go to Hell. (Where else could sinners go?) Rather, we would feel shocked—as perhaps the angels do—that any fallen human would be permitted into Heaven. Unholy as we are in ourselves, we are disqualified to claim that infinite holiness cannot demand everlasting punishment.

The more we believe in God’s absolute holiness and justice, the more Hell will make sense to us.

Are you tired of all the evil and corruption in this world? Do you long for a world in which such things don’t exist? Then you long for a Heaven without evildoers. And that requires either that God forces everyone to repent, come to Christ, and embrace his righteousness, or that God provides an alternative residence for those who do not. Hell is that place.

It saddens me to think of people suffering forever. But if there were no Hell, that would diminish the very attributes of God that make Hell necessary and Heaven available.

Should we want Hell eliminated if our righteous God determines it should exist? I believe we should leave Hell in God’s hands, trust him, and submit to his judgment, not our own.

Just as most people in prison don’t think they belong there, so most of us can’t imagine we deserve Hell. But when at last we begin to grasp that we do deserve it, we praise God for his grace on a far deeper level.

Our opinion about Hell’s existence holds no sway; God doesn’t give us a vote.

Simone Weil wrote, “One can only excuse men for evil by accusing God of it.”[11]

Some in ancient Israel claimed the way of the Lord was not just. God replied, “Is it not your ways that are unjust?” And then he reiterated that everyone will die for his own sin (see Ezekiel 18:25–29).

Just because I don’t like the idea of Hell doesn’t make Hell unjust. Of course, sinners oppose the idea that they deserve eternal punishment, just as a little boy opposes the idea that he deserves punishment because he hit his little sister.

Why do we have more difficulty accepting the doctrine of Hell than ancient people did? Perhaps because our tolerant, therapeutic, positive-thinking culture assumes our basic goodness.

In a day of television and Internet news polls that determine what percent of a population approves of certain issues or candidates, it’s easy to think that our opinion about Hell carries weight. But God doesn’t take opinion polls. He refuses to adjust his revelation about Hell to fit our modern sensibilities.

Hell will have degrees of punishment; each person’s punishment will exactly correspond to his sins.

All whose names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will be judged by God in relation to their works, which have been recorded in the books of Heaven (see Revelation 20:12–15). The severity of punishment will vary with the amount of truth known, and the nature and number of the sins committed (see Luke 20:45–47; Romans 2:3–6).

Jesus said the Day of Judgment would be more bearable for some than for others (see Matthew 11:20–24). Some will be “beaten with many blows” and others “beaten with few blows” (Luke 12:47–48).

Hell is not one-size-fits-all. Revelation 20 explicitly says that God records all human works so that all punishment will be commensurate to the evil committed (verses 12–13, see also Matthew 5:21–28; 12:36; 1 John 3:15).

Eternal punishment is not disproportionate or infinite.

People commonly ask, “Why would God inflict infinite punishment for finite sins? Isn’t that disproportionate punishment and therefore unjust?”

Scripture nowhere teaches infinite punishment; rather, it teaches punishment proportionate to the evil committed. The confusion comes in mistaking eternal for infinite. No one will bear in Hell an infinite number of offenses; they will bear only the sins they have committed (see Revelation 20:12–13).

The length of time spent committing a crime does not determine the length of the sentence for that crime. It may take five seconds to murder a child, but five seconds of punishment would hardly bring appropriate justice. Crimes committed against an infinitely holy God cannot be paid for in finite measures of time.

John Piper, agreeing with the viewpoint of Jonathan Edwards, says, “The length of your sin isn’t what makes the length of suffering just, it’s the height of your sin that makes the length of the suffering just.”[12]

Since the absence of God is the absence of good, Hell is a place without the slightest trace of good.

In Luke 16 Abraham and Lazarus dwell together in paradise, but the rich man stands alone in Hell. Expect no comforting company in a place from which God has withdrawn. “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Hell is horrible because it means being locked out from God’s presence.

Since God is the source of all good, there can be no good where God is not. No wonder Dante, in the Inferno, envisioned this sign chiseled above Hell’s gate: “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”[13]

The vast majority of those who believe in Hell do not believe they are going there.

Many more Americans believe in Heaven than believe in Hell. For everyone who believes he’s going to Hell, a hundred and twenty believe they’re going to Heaven.[14] This optimism stands in stark contrast to Christ’s words in Matthew 7:13–14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Our culture considers Heaven the default destination (when did you last attend a funeral in which a speaker pictured the departed in Hell?). But since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14), none of us will enter the presence of an infinitely holy God unless something in us radically changes. Until our sin problem gets resolved, Hell will remain our true destination.

Once this life ends, the unbeliever’s sin nature becomes permanent, likely assuring future evildoing that demands future punishment.

At death, God will transform his children so that righteous men will be made perfect (see Hebrews 12:23). But he can do nothing more for those who have refused his grace. Hell isn’t simply a sentence that falls upon us; it is the inevitable destination we choose with every sin and every refusal to repent and turn to God for grace.

When developing photographs, technicians immerse negatives in different solutions; so long as the photograph remains in the developing solution, it can change. But once it gets dropped into the “stop bath,” it’s permanently fixed. So will it be when we die and enter eternity; our lives on Earth will be fixed, never to be altered or revised.[15] “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

D. A. Carson argues that rebellion may continue eternally in Hell, and if so, then Hell is eternal precisely because the sinful rebellion is eternal. Hell would then be a place where “sinners go on sinning and receiving the recompense of their sin, refusing, always refusing, to bend the knee.”[16] Hell would be ever-ongoing punishment for ever-ongoing sins.

This position makes perfect sense if we recognize death as forever sealing or making permanent our natures. The believer has been granted an eternal identity with the nature of Christ, and this identity allows him to enter Heaven. But at death the unregenerate person, the unrepentant sinner, forever remains unregenerate. There is no longer a possibility of transformation. Yes, he will acknowledge God’s existence, but so do the demons even now, shuddering (see James 2:19). He will regret being punished, but that doesn’t mean he will repent, nor will he cease to sin against God in thought and word (and action, if action is possible in Hell). Because his nature is unrepentant, and that nature cannot change after death, he can continue for all eternity not to trust God, not to value Christ’s work, and to otherwise commit sins against God.

Hell’s torment may be to unendingly experience lusts, greed, and other sinful desires with no hope of fulfillment, coupled with ongoing judgment for these ongoing sins.

Fairness doesn’t demand that God give people a second chance after death, since he gives us thousands of chances before death.

God grants every person a lifetime to reform, to turn to him for grace and empowerment. For those who die young or otherwise lack the mental capacity to respond to Christ, many Christians throughout the ages have believed God may extend the atonement of Christ to cover them, as an act of grace. I agree.

God gives people on this fallen Earth adequate opportunity to turn to him in their “first chance.” He has revealed himself to us in the creation and in our conscience so that “men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). If people respond to God, I believe he will send them further revelation of himself through human agents, angels, direct intervention in dreams or visions, or however he chooses.

God gives us second chances and third and tenth and hundredth chances every day of our lives. The chance to respond to the message of creation that cries out, “There is a God,” is repeated multiple times daily, over a lifetime. Every breath is an opportunity to respond to a conscience that convicts people of their guilt.

If God allowed everyone to die first and then decide whether to trust God, it would make faith irrelevant. In the end all people would submit to Christ by sight, not faith; instead of trusting, they would merely be acquiescing to his infinite power. He has no desire for this.

If a woman were given a choice between being buried alive in a swamp and marrying a certain man, she would choose to marry the man. But what man would want such a wife? God doesn’t need our love, but he does want it. He doesn’t want people who merely desire to escape Hell. He wants people who value and treasure him above all else, who long to be with him.

Because our choices in this life orient us for eternity, God-rejecters might be as miserable in Heaven as Hell.

C. S. Lewis spoke to those who questioned the doctrine of Hell:

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.[17]

Lewis said the doors of Hell are barred from the inside. If he means those in Hell refuse to give up their trust in themselves to turn to God, I think he’s right. But if we imagine that people in Hell won’t want to get out to avoid its sufferings, that’s certainly false. The rich man in Luke 16 desperately desired to have his agony relieved; he even requested a drop of water from paradise. Wanting out of Hell, however, is not the same as wanting to be with God. And God desires us to be with him only if we want to be with him. Feeling sorry for the consequences of our sins is not the same as repenting of our sins.

The redeemed say, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11, esv). But what do the unredeemed say when exposed to God’s presence? “They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!’” (Revelation 6:16).

Heaven and Hell are places defined, respectively, by God’s presence or absence, by God’s grace or wrath. They’re real places, but also conditions of relationship to God. Whose we are, not where we are, determines our misery or our joy. To bring a man from Hell to Heaven would bring him no joy unless he had a fundamentally transformed relationship with God.

Three times in the final two chapters of Scripture we’re told that those still in their sins have no access to Heaven and never will (Revelation 21:8, 27; 22:15). The condition of the unbelieving heart remains unchangeable at death. God’s grace, even if offered, would remain forever repugnant to such a rebellious heart.

To the person sealed forever in righteousness, God will remain forever wondrous; to the one sealed forever in sin, God will forever remain dreadful.

We live our present life between Heaven and Hell and so get foretastes of each, which prepare us for one or the other.

Just as God and Satan are not equal opposites, neither is Hell the equal opposite of Heaven. God has no equal as a person, and Heaven has no equal as a place.

Hell will be agonizingly dull, small, and insignificant, without company, purpose, or accomplishment. It will not have its own stories; it will be a mere footnote on history.

I don’t believe Hell is a place where demons take delight in punishing people, since Hell was made to punish demons, not reward them, and there will be no delight in Hell. People will not take solace by commiserating, since there will be no solace. More likely, each person remains in solitary confinement (the rich man of Luke 16 appears to have no company in Hell).

Both Heaven and Hell touch Earth—an in-between world leading directly into one or the other. What tragedy that this present life is the closest nonbelievers will ever come to Heaven. What consolation that this present life is the closest believers will ever come to Hell.

Our present suffering warns against the suffering of Hell; for unbelievers, the fear of Hell serves as a merciful call to repentance.

Suffering can help the Heaven-bound fall out of love with this life and live in light of the coming one. The sufferings of the present give us a bittersweet reminder of the horrors from which God has delivered us.

For the Hell-bound, suffering can serve as a frightening foretaste of Hell. Suffering reminds us of our imminent death, the wages for our sin. In our suffering we should look at our own evils and failures and beg God for mercy.

Spurgeon said, “If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay....If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned or unprayed for.”[18]

Imagine how much of Spurgeon’s passion and urgency would have disap­peared if he’d believed no one would suffer eternal, conscious punishment.

Many speak of the fear of Hell as something wrong, primitive, and cruel. But Jesus said we should fear both God and Hell: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

Bart Ehrman makes an honest and chilling admission:

When I fell away from my faith—not just in the Bible as God’s inspired word, but in Christ as the only way of salvation, and eventually from the view that Christ was himself divine, and beyond that from the view that there is an all-powerful God in charge of this world—I still wondered, deep down inside: could I have been right after all? What if I was right then but wrong now? Will I burn in hell forever? The fear of death gripped me for years, and there are still moments when I wake up at night in a cold sweat.[19]

I think this is God’s Spirit confirming a truth that Ehrman doesn’t want to acknowledge. Every time he “suffers” these thoughts, it’s another opportunity to bow to the God of holiness and grace, who in Christ offers him pardon from Hell and citizenship in Heaven.

If we reject the best gift that a holy and gracious God can offer us, purchased with his own blood, what remains, in the end, will be nothing but Hell.


[1] Os Guinness, Unspeakable (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005), 24.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002), 76.

[3] Dorothy Sayers, Introductory Papers on Dante (London: Methuen, 1954), 44.

[4] Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), 17.

[5] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 118.

[6] William Shedd, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment (New York: Scribner, 1886), 153.

[7] Clark Pinnock and Delwin Brown, Theological Crossfire (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 226–27.

[8] Pinnock and Brown, Theological Crossfire, 226.

[9] David L. Edwards and John R. W. Stott, Essentials (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 314.

[10] Clark Pinnock, “The Destruction of the Family Impenitent,” Criswell Theological Review, 4 (1990), 246–47.

[11] Simone Weil, in Os Guinness, Unspeakable, 62.

[12] John Piper, message entitled “The Echo and Insufficiency of Hell,” Resolved Conference, June 16, 2008.

[13] Dante Alighieri, Inferno, canto 3, line 9.

[14] K. Connie Kang, “Next Stop, the Pearly Gates...or Hell?” Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2003.

[15] Randy C. Alcorn, Money, Possessions, and Eternity (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2003), 120.

[16] D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? (Grand Rapids, IL: Baker Academic, 2006), 92.

[17] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 128.

[18] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Wailing of Risca” (sermon 349, New Park Street Pulpit, December 9, 1860), www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0349.htm.

[19] Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 127.

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