One recent book on hell begins with this line: “If you are excited to read this book, you have issues.” Hell is a terrible reality that rightly makes us shudder. C.S. Lewis was bluntly honest: “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.” But Lewis was well aware that his disdain for hell could not change reality. The doctrine of hell, he acknowledged, “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.” With only a few radical exceptions, the church has understood the Bible to teach the reality of a place called hell. Sincere readers recognize that hell, despite its offensiveness, is not a fringe topic of Scripture. Rather, it is at the center of the warnings of Jesus and the apostles (for example, Mark 9:43–48; 2 Peter 2).
It is appropriate to not like hell. In fact, we can be stronger: it is not right to savor thoughts of eternal punishment. Those who delight in the topic of hell or who love to emphasize hell beyond biblical warrant betray hearts that poorly reflect the attitude of God. At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus wept (John 11:17–37). Of course—he loved his dead friend. But he also wept over the hardness of heart of the unbelievers at that funeral. Jesus cried because he knew that for some in that crowd, he would not be the resurrection and the life. Later Jesus wailed over Jerusalem, over the scores of hard-hearted people who rejected his offer of refuge (Luke 13:34). God does not love hell; he does not delight in the destruction of the wicked (Ezek. 18:23).
We cannot erase the Bible’s testimony of hell as a place of unending negative judgment against the unsaved. The Bible writers talk about hell, not for the purpose of sadistic speculation nor to frighten those who have accepted Jesus’ invitation to find rest in Him (Matt. 11:28–30); while hell is entirely negative, the doctrine is meant to be used positively. So what should I do with the Bible’s teaching on hell?
Hell Urges Us to Fight against Sin
Sin always brings misery. When nurtured and cultivated, sin grows into a sort of hell: life with all the best parts sucked out. For this reason, hell is even—especially—a warning to religious people who know better about sin and judgment. Jesus was intentionally provocative on this point: very religious people can go to hell (Matt. 7:21–23, 23:15). Hell invites sincere turning from sin and trust in Jesus.
Hell Demands that We Warn Others
Believers push back against the gates of hell by pulling out of the fire, even with fear (Jude 1:23, Zech. 3:2), those who do not know the terror of God (2 Cor. 5:11). Augustine teaches us the proper attitude of true Christians: “Our desire ought to be that all may be saved; and hence every person we meet, we will desire to be with us a partaker of peace.” Charles Spurgeon said, “If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay, and not madly to destroy themselves. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.”
Hell Rounds out Our Understanding of God
That hell is shocking to our sensitivities confirms something about God that we might have missed apart from this dreadful doctrine: God is far less tolerant of evil than we are. Precisely because of our aversion to the notion of sustained condemnation we can better appreciate God’s plan to create an eternity in which beauty and peace is inside, and dark arts, sexual perversion, murder, self-worship, and untruth are kept outside (Rev. 22:15). Hell assures us that God is dead serious about sin. True to his hatred of everything that detracts from human and cosmic flourishing, God will one day make “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
Hell Deepens Our Love for Christ
For centuries Christians have confessed the punchy phrase from the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.” Christians have not always agreed on what these words mean, but every believer can say that “Christ my Lord, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which He suffered in His soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell” (Isa. 53:10; Matt. 27:46). Christ knows hell by virtue of personal experience; he endured its horrors in the place of those he came to save. The doctrine of hell is an unflattering servant to the gospel. But even as believers shudder at that terrible doctrine, by faith we can sing,
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood,
Sealed my pardon with his blood:
Hallelujah! What a Savior.
Adapted from William Boekestein, The Future of Everything: Essential Truths about the End Times. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019. Used by permission.
Episode 269 | Dr. Michael Horton and Adriel Sanchez answer questions about family devotions, feeling saved, God's command to slaughter people in the Old Testament, and how to understand God's work...