My blog posts on the Haiti earthquake have generated some great comments, both on the blog and on my Facebook site. I've read them all and benefited, so thanks to many of you.
One comment, however, took things in a different direction, raising the subject of Hell. (This wasn’t the issue in the Haiti discussion, but I want to address it now as a new subject.) Someone wrote to the commenters who were discussing God’s judgment of people:
You seem to be missing the big point here—the complete absurdity that God hurts people for any reason! Jesus told us God is not like the pagan deities who tortured people in Hades, but that he is forgiving, loving, and caring. If one is willing to look, there's substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. True, there are a few statements that made their way into the copies of copies of copies of the gospel texts which place “Hell” on Jesus’ lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death.
This comment is misinformed. The truth is that the oldest and most reliable biblical manuscripts include Christ’s explicit statements about Hell. The gospel writers didn’t make up their Lord’s words in the gospels. They simply recorded them. And the hyper-careful scribes didn’t add them to the manuscripts, they simply copied them, word for word, from one to another.
The truth is that Jesus spoke more about Hell than anyone else in all of Scripture. (Because of its importance, I devoted a chapter of my book If God Is Good to the subject of Hell.) 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.” 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”