What the hell?
Talking about hell, we’re in good company. Jesus talked about it a lot. But we don’t like to talk about it, do we? It’s hard to like the idea of hell. Whether that’s because we can’t stomach the idea that our friends and loved ones might be heading there. Or because we are appalled at the way some Christians have used hell to scare people into religious observance and obedience. Is it really true the world around us going to hell in a handbasket?
What’s interesting is that Jesus talks about it mainly with the religious insiders rather than the outsiders. It wasn’t an evangelistic approach to convince people to turn back to God, but a warning to those who felt they’d already arrived. But he does talk about it. Jesus used strong language and words of warning, and he did this out of love, he thought it important.
The question of so many lips is how can God be loving and still send people to hell?
Well, here’s a few thoughts.
1. We know that God is love, it’s there all over the Bible (1 John 4:7-21). But what does it mean to say God is love? If God is love, he is the definition of it, and like a good parent he determines what the most loving thing is for his children, even if we think it unfair or unreasonable. It requires our trust to submit to God’s ultimate wisdom, a wisdom that is beyond our comprehension.
2. If God is God, who are we to say otherwise? Whilst it is true that many reject God on the basis they couldn’t possibly want to worship such a God, that doesn’t make it any less true. What matters is not what sort of God we want to worship, but what God is really like! And if the Bible, God’s revelation of who he is, suggests there is a hell then we can’t pick and choose.
3. There is more to God than his love. That’s not to say his love is balanced out or watered down by his sovereignty, wisdom, wrath, holiness and justice, but they give us a deeper picture of who God is. God’s love does not balance out his wrath, but the two are worked out in God’s infinite wisdom.
Certainly one of the very human objections to the idea of hell is our rejection of eternal judgement. It seems we’ve grown so accustomed to the idea of God’s love and forgiveness that we forget the cost of sin, the reality of evil and the holiness of God.
We hear it all too often that all religions in some way lead to the same God. But it really doesn’t take much of an investigation into the world religions, to see how dramatically different they are in what God they believe in and how radically opposed they are in their way to and indeed definition of salvation. They can’t all be right. Christianity claims to a relationship with a living God, and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the way to participate in that relationship.
Whether here and now or in a future beyond this lifetime, eternal torment is what we find when we turn away from God and live life apart from infinite love. Some of us may be more conscious of it than others, but through the choices we make we can find ourselves living in a hell on earth. When we reject God, we look for love in all the wrong places and are restless until we turn back to God. Just like when we turn away from the sun, or hide in the shade, we find ourselves in the darkness – we’ve done it by our own choosing. God’s light is unconditional, it is attractive, it is grace, love and mercy, but if you don’t want it, then you’re not going to have it, now or for eternity.
Eternal judgement becomes pretty unappealing when we think of our own lives or the lives of our friends and family. ‘I live a pretty good life’ or ‘I’m a good person’ springs to mind, the prospect of an unfair judge who expects me to live up to his holy standards doesn’t seem right. But that all changes when we’ve been desperately hurt or wronged. It’s not a paradox to be both loving and angry at that point. Think of a person you love, and then think of harm coming to them. Do you feel angry? Do you wish you could repay the person who caused the harm?
At this point eternal judgement is our only consolation and prevention from descending on a desperate pursuit of revenge. For those who seek the justice of capital punishment for the murderers of their loved ones, even when justice is ‘executed’, they more often than not still feel unsatisfied. Parents tell us again and again ‘life’s not fair’, it may be true, but in the end all will be made just and fair, thanks to not only a just judge but a merciful one. A holy, loving God who watches over his people, and will bring justice in the end.
Christians may disagree on what exactly hell will involve, whether it’s an existence of eternal torment or an annihilation of immortality. But the reality of warning, judgement and eternal consequence cannot be denied on any biblical grounding.
Does this affect the way you live your life? Are you sticking your head in the sand? Or is your idea of hell more one of medieval superstition than biblical description?
None of this denies the truth of the gospel that:
“God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16