A formerly evangelical writer, whose last name is more famous than his first, came out last year as a “universalist,” a theological position that argues everyone will eventually be saved. This man said he refused to believe in a God who “had less compassion than he did” and who would send someone to hell for all eternity.
This is, undoubtedly, the “politically correct” view. No doubt, most people in Hollywood find the thought of hell abhorrent. Producers love to make movies about evil people doing evil things, but the thought that evil people should spend eternity in an evil place—that’s vile. Oh, they may want to send Pat Robertson or President Bush there, but not a serial killer, and certainly not an abortionist.
So let me come out and state up front that I’m a big fan of hell.
No, you read that right: I’m a big fan of hell. It was better than a good idea; it’s a glorious one, the only right choice for eternity. Any eternity without hell would be less of an eternity. If I, personally, could change eternity, and had the choice to do away with hell, I wouldn’t; not for a second.
Why am I a big fan of hell? Because I’m a big fan of a supremely wise Being who I believe actually knows what He’s doing. Further, I am convinced that He is able to see things I can’t, that He brought an understanding to His creative process that I lack. Since God designed an eternity with hell in it, there can be no better eternity.
To say that I’d do without hell is to suggest that I could do a better job fashioning an eternity than God can. That is the height of arrogance that our formerly evangelical friend fell into head first; he’s raised himself up above God. I can’t say that I truly respect and honor God if I critique His handiwork; As soon as I become God’s critic, I raise myself above Him. And since God-in-flesh, Jesus Christ, spent so much time talking about hell, God and hell come as a package: Accept one, you accept the other.
By God’s own revelation to us, there is no God without hell.
Our Arrogant Opinions
Even those who admit that the Bible is pretty clear about the reality of hell sometimes voice their wish that it didn’t have to be so. “Well, if I were God, I certainly wouldn’t send someone there,” I heard one perhaps well-meaning but supremely ignorant believer say.
If eternity would be a better place without hell, God would have made it so. If love and hell can’t co-exist, God never would have allowed hell to come into being. When I attack hell, when I call it heartless, or sadistic, or act like I wish it wasn’t there, I am blatantly telling God that He blew it; that He should have tried just a little bit harder to make a world where hell wasn’t necessary.
How arrogant is that?!
Hell is really a benchmark for how we view ourselves and how we view God. We all have a responsibility to cultivate a life of humble surrender to God. When a single man or woman feels the heat of sexual desire, they may be tempted to think, “Yeah, the Bible, in general, seems to suggest that premarital sex is wrong, but God just doesn’t understand our particular love. For us, it must be OK.”
And then, when you finally get married, and the marriage gets difficult, you might think, “Yeah, the Bible pretty clearly condemns divorce, but this marriage is miserable. I don’t think God intends for me to put up with this.”
As a slightly older man, I look back on my single days and think, “God knew what He was talking about when He said it is better to save sex for marriage. I wish I had followed that more explicitly.” As a man married for over 20 years—not all of them easy ones, by any means—I can also look back and say, “God knew what He was talking about when He said it’s better to grow in grace and be reconciled to your spouse than to get a divorce.” I’m so glad I’ve followed God’s plan on this.
I believe we’ll have the same eureka moment with hell. When eternity surrounds us and God sweeps temporal time into the past, we’ll all agree, “Oh, now I understand. God did know what He was doing.”
If you challenge hell, you’re going to challenge everything else—those who reject this biblical truth inevitably go on to question virtually every major Christian doctrine. Once God stops being God in your mind—once you put Him on trial instead of seeing yourself as the one who will be judged—there’ll be no end to your arrogance and confident opinions.
So yeah; I’m a big fan of hell, because I’m a big fan of God. He has gotten it right on every point I can verify, and I have no reason to doubt Him on this.
To say that I’m a big fan of hell is not to say that I want anyone to go there. In point of fact, I don’t. Let me say it right up front: I certainly do not want the former evangelical now turned universalist to go there. I don’t want Bill or Hillary Clinton to go to hell, or even Michael Moore.
Why do I not want any person to go to hell if I’m a big fan of hell? Because God doesn’t want any person to go to hell. The Bible tells us that God is not wishing that anyone should perish (2 Peter 3:9). Hell was created for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). It can accommodate human beings, but that’s not God’s original intent. To honor God, I need to adopt God’s heart, and God’s heart is that He doesn’t want anyone to go there.
But hell does exist, by God’s design, decree, and oversight, and the fact that it does provides several helpful lessons.
What Hell Teaches Us
To begin with, hell reminds us of the seriousness of sin. There was a time when a positive test for HIV was a virtual death sentence. The fatal effects were so severe and so likely that people actually started talking about reforming some very unhealthy sexual habits. They saw the seriousness of their behavior, and changed their ways.
Then scientists developed some drug cocktails that push the effects of AIDS off into the future; people can now live decades with this disease. And certain sectors of our society are going right back into the same unhealthy sexual practices. Remove the consequences, and immediately, they start misbehaving. Again.
Theological universalism makes it more likely that people will slowly destroy themselves, because the ultimate consequence of that destruction—separation from God—is removed. Remember, Satan’s biggest tool is deception—and it is rather a simple deception for him to pull us away from the truth by dangling something that, on the surface looks pleasant, fun, or pleasurable, and then says, “In the end, what does it really matter? Hell doesn’t exist; they’ll be no consequences for living this way.”
How serious is sin? So serious that God had Israel completely wipe out Jericho, slaughtering every human being (except for Rahab and her family) so that they would not pull God’s chosen people astray. Israel carried the hope for the salvation of all who would believe; the stakes were so large that an entire city was murdered by God’s decree to protect Israel’s faith.
In the words of my teenagers, that’s way serious.
It’s All About Jesus
While it might sound compassionate to be a foe of hell, the reverse is actually the case. Remember, Jesus talked about hell a lot (Matt. 5:22; 10:28; 18:9; 23:33, among many others). To separate hell and compassion is to separate Jesus and compassion.
It is not possible to deny the co-existence of a loving Jesus and the reality of hell without questioning the authenticity of the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ preaching. To question those is to question everything we know about Jesus.
That is why denying hell is ultimately an attack on Jesus Christ, as we know Him. It suggests that the Scriptural account isn’t trustworthy, and if the Bible isn’t trustworthy, how do we know anything about Jesus? Once you open this door, you can have a married Jesus, a materialistic Jesus, a hot-headed, lose-his-temper Jesus, or a drunken Jesus. You can’t wipe out the historically accurate accounts we have about Christ without opening up the door to any and every opinion; then every special interest group can have a field day remaking Jesus in their own image.
Maybe Jesus really didn’t care about the poor; maybe a “bleeding heart” liberal disciple decided to add that one in. Maybe Jesus actually commended the rich young ruler, telling him that his wealth was a sign of God’s favor. Perhaps Jesus really didn’t care about the Gentiles; maybe the suggestion that He was willing to talk to non-Jews was thrown in by a later writer who wanted to help Paul’s apostolic mission outside Jerusalem, and that in Jesus’ real teaching, a non-Jew has no more chance of entering God’s Kingdom than a fish has of climbing a tree.
These heresies are as far-fetched as Dan Brown’s ridiculous assertion that Jesus secretly married Mary Magdalene. Some people actually believe this—telling us that some gullible souls will believe anything as soon as we wittingly or unwittingly destroy the only absolute historical evidence we have about Christ, namely, Scripture and its teachings.
Why Hell Matters
Ultimately, it all comes down to this: Any attack on hell is ultimately an attack on the God who created it, and the Scriptures that describe it. Attacking hell, though popular and seemingly compassionate, is not a parlor game; it is a full frontal assault on God’s goodness, sovereignty, lordship and love. That’s why I hope you become just as big a fan of hell as I am.
Gary Thomas is the founder and director of the Center for Evangelical Spirituality, a writing and speaking ministry that integrates Scripture, church history, and the Christian classics. This article was published on Boundless.org on January 25, 2008.