Hell is definitely not my favorite doctrine. Even though I intellectually understand hell, even though I recognize the need for a God who stands for justice, defends the oppressed, and conquers evil, I don’t always emotionally like it. I write this not to glory in hell, but to inform my friends, family, and all you wonderful readers about what God saves you from: through faith in Jesus, God saves you and me from hell. My hope is that whoever reads this may have a greater sense of compassion for people who have not yet come to know the mercy of God.
Here are three ways we should all frame our understanding of hell. I could say more, but I think these are the three basics everyone should first grasp.
1. Hell is a real place.
The Bible teaches that hell is a place of torment (Luke 16:23). It pictures hell as a lake of fire (Rev. 19:20, Rev. 20:14–15), a place of darkness (Matt. 8:12 and Matt. 22:13), and a place of God’s abandonment (Acts 2:31).
Historically, Christians have understood that God is the source of all joy, love, and blessedness. This is most clearly seen in the Psalms (see Psalm 16:11), and it is here that hell is rightly understood—hell is the absence of God’s goodness for all eternity.
2. God offers salvation from hell.
It’s impossible to find goodness, blessedness, or joy apart from God’s blessing, and God has freely chosen to bless people who currently rebel against him. God’s blessings come to both the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45).
The apostle Peter teaches that God waits patiently, delaying judgment for sin and injustice so that people might turn to Christ in faith and find mercy (2 Pet. 3:9). It’s not God’s desire that he punish the entire world; that is why he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to pay for the sins of the world. God offers salvation to anyone who would believe (John 3:16).
3. Hell is more than you realize.
Tim Keller argues that there is a sense in which the bondage of sin, especially seen in addiction, reflects the beginnings of hell and is the current sign of God's wrath against sin:
Hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity. We see this process “writ small” in addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, and pornography. First, there is disintegration, because as time goes on you need more and more of the addictive substance to get an equal kick, which leads to less and less satisfaction. Second, there is the isolation, as increasingly you blame others and circumstances in order to justify your behavior…In eternity, this disintegration goes on forever. There is increasing isolation, denial, delusion, and self-absorption. When you lose all humanity, you are out of touch with reality. No one ever asks to leave hell. The very idea of heaven seems to them a sham (Tim Keller, The Reason for God, 78).
Romans 1:18–32 pictures what Tim Keller explains. Addiction to dark forms of life that destroy our relationships with loved ones reflect the sufferings of hell in miniature. Through the effects of sin in our society, we see a picture of hell.
To such cases, we should respond not in judgment or hate, but in compassion and mercy. We should seek to show the goodness and mercy of God both through our words and our actions. We should not remain content to simply tell people about God’s mercy and Jesus’s love, but we should seek to help people, to show God’s mercy any way we can. In fact, Jesus taught that when we show kindness to others it is as if we are showing kindness to him (Matt 25:31–40).