Hell is for Real
- Monday, January 25, 2016
- By Tyler Strickler
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
One day in Bible College I was walking through the library when I saw one of my friends pouring over a stack of books. I stopped to say hi, and over the course of conversation I asked what he was working on. He responded, “I am trying to figure out if I can justify the annihilation of sinners in hell.” He was struggling with the orthodox view that hell is a literal place where everyone who does not place their faith in Christ will spend eternity suffering as the just consequence of their sin. He wanted to explain it away if he could. When I asked him how that was going, he responded, “Not very good. I don’t think I can explain it away.”
Ten years later, I find that many people have tried to explain it away by accepting ‘softer’ views like annihilationism. Some even go so far as to say that God allows people the opportunity to believe after they die and see that hell is a real place. They do this while piously extolling the love and grace of God while accusing theological dinosaurs like me of not understanding the love of God because I maintain the traditional understanding of hell.
The argument I hear in support of their view goes like this: God is love (1 John 4:8), and a God whose defining characteristic is love would never find pleasure in a person being eternally tormented in hell. Therefore, they justify whatever ‘replacement option’ for the traditional view of hell they have chosen to follow. Most people I have interacted with hold to annihilationism, so they follow up this premise by saying the Bible talks about sinners receiving the full measure of God’s wrath for their individual sin. Therefore, once God deems their suffering sufficient, they cease to exist, ascribing the Biblical concept of the second death to this act. It is very similar to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, only they cease to exist after they pay for their sins rather than getting to enter heaven at that point.
These are all nice theories, but how do they align with Scripture? Well, verses like the one quoted above make it pretty clear that the eternal punishment of a sinner is equal to the eternal life of a righteous person. If eternity comes to an end for those being punished, what is to keep eternity from ending for those receiving eternal life? No one believes that eternal life leads to anything less that eternity spent in God’s glorious presence. So how could eternal punishment mean something less? It cannot, and to say otherwise has major implications on the rest of our theology. Let me highlight three implications that are unintended results of throwing cold water on the orthodox view of hell.
The first implication of a distorted view of hell is that it leads to a distorted view of God. A diminished view of hell always finds its origin in the love of God. Now, God is love (1 Jn. 4:8). His love motivated Him to provide salvation through His Son (John 3:16). But is God’s love His defining attribute through which all His other attributes function? No, it is not. The Scriptures say that God is a jealous God (Ex. 34:14) and an avenging and wrathful God (Nahum 1:2). Why don’t we adopt one of these attributes as His defining attribute? The answer is that we don’t want those to be His defining attribute because it does not fit our vision for the nature of God. And thankfully, they are not His defining attributes, for if they were, that would not bode well for men.
God’s defining attribute is His holiness. It is the only one of His attributes that is extoled three times in Scripture. It describes both His absolute otherness as God, but also His perfection in all His actions. God’s holiness describes how His love and wrath, justice and grace, vengeance and mercy, and all His other attributes, function together in the absolute perfection that is God.
God is love. He loves sinners so much that He has been redeeming them ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the garden. Yet His love does not eliminate His hatred towards sin, or the fact that His justice demands it be paid for. It is God’s holiness that describes how all these different characteristics can work together for God’s glory and the salvation of men. To eliminate hell on the basis of His love is to distort His character and make Him less than He is.
A second implication of a diminished view of hell is a diminished view of sin. We view ourselves as intrinsically valuable. For this reason, we tend to put ourselves in the center of the universe and see things from our perspective. Yet our perspective on sin is that, although it’s not good, it’s not so bad that it deserves eternal punishment in a place like hell. Most people think that they are better than average, basically good, that their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds, and that they deserve of God’s love. Yet this is not the picture Scriptures paints of sin.
Sin is a violation of God’s holy character, arouses His wrath, demands punishment, and brings death. Those who are sinners (which is everyone) are God’s enemies, destined for punishment. God hates sin so much that the only way He could be gracious to sinners was for His Son to take our sin upon Himself at the cross, literally becoming sin for us, and therefore suffering the spiritual death we deserved by drinking the full measure of God’s wrath. Hell is reserved for all those who do not personally receive God’s free gift of salvation lovingly provided through Christ. When we view sin from God’s perspective, hell begins to look like justice, not cruelty.
A diminished view of sin affects our personal piety. When we distort the biblical view of sin, we will not pursue personal holiness like we should and will lessen our vigor to share the gospel so that others can escape hell. After all, sin isn’t that big of a deal, so neither is hell. So why worry too much about striving against it and warning others to turn from it?
A third implication of the rejection of hell is that it is a rejection of the Scriptures. Matthew 25:46 speaks of eternal punishment. To reject the notion of hell as eternal punishment is to reject the Scriptures. When we reject a portion of Biblical teaching, we set ourselves as judge over God’s revelation, rather than subjecting ourselves to its standards. I believe that you can be a Christian and believe in annihilationism, but I do not understand how a Christian could ever be satisfied with accepting a view of God’s nature that is less than what He has told us in His word.
Hell is for real. Everyone who dies without Christ will spend eternity in hell suffering the just consequences of their rebellion against God. God hates sin that much. This is a sobering thought that should motivate us to strive against sin since we know how offensive it is to our heavenly Father.
Yet hell also teaches us the depths of God’s love. Hell is what we deserve. Yet it was God’s love that moved Him to save us from hell by having Jesus pay the consequences for us. The love of God is such that He does not ignore our sin or reduce its consequences. No, the love of God moved Him to do something much better…to deal with the full weight of our sin so we could be eternally free from its consequences. That is the true picture of God’s love. And it is this kind of love that should fill our lives with joy and motivate us to share our hope with those around us.