I have a problem with Hell.
I wish very badly that there was no Hell. It seems a very heavy price to pay for what passes in this world as “mild” misdemeanours. I would dearly love to believe that one day God will just say, “Oh, all right!!” and let us all off the hook.
But unfortunately, that’s not what I actually do believe, because that’s not what the Bible teaches. There is, however, good news in all this – so stay with me. Let’s dig.
Slight digression: I do not believe in Purgatory. Christ made one sacrifice once for all; there is nothing left of that debt to pay. The Bible talks about accepting hardship as if it were a kind of discipline; my take on this is that when bad things happen to us, we can say, “It’s less than I deserved anyhow.” It’s being willing to accept an occasional slap on the wrist as par for the course, when you’ve just been pardoned from an execution.
Think for a moment about righteousness. If there is a God, and He is love, what does it mean when the Bible claims that “righteousness and truth are the foundation of Your throne”? I believe that God would not be righteous if He were all about justice and never about compassion. The two must be blended, dare I say it, almost like yin & yang, interweaved, coooperative, complementary. (If it shakes your tree a bit too much for me to mention yin & yang … sorry. The world is amazing, the way God has made it; and this corner of it can’t hold ALL the answers.)
Think for a moment about justice.
If there is a God, and He is just, then how can He send people to Hell?
How can He not? Is not the nature of justice to punish evil and liberate good? Do we truly want a universe where these two things don’t happen?
What happens when our human ideas about what constitutes “evil” and “good” are out of whack with the Creator’s? Are we going to claim to know better than He does? What if sin is like cyanide … there’s no such thing as a “small” dose? What if the “tiniest” amount of sin looks, to Heaven, like an enormous screaming violation of all that should be? What if the desire to be independent of God carries the same weight as genocide?
So the question becomes: what is sin? And we have a textbook for that – a Book miraculously harmonious after the contributions of at least 35 God-inspired people from all walks of life across some 1500 years. If we want to know how big our spiritual debt is, the answers are in there – and the Underwriter as well. The definition of sin doesn’t change because world culture does. Legislating something as no longer illicit, does not decriminalise a sin in the courts of Heaven, which operates laughingly above our loftiest concepts. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Breathe. The miracle is that God’s compassion is just as great as His sense of justice. He paid our fines, served our time, died our execution, and by His stripes we are healed. He has done everything possible – far above and beyond our merit, but no less than a good father would do – to ensure that Hell need never be anyone’s reality. Nevertheless, if you are determined to live eternally without Him, He will not stand in your way, though it did literally kill Him to let you go.
Hell is a place where (as a greater mind once said) God finally gives in to our wish of being free of Him. So let’s examine what “without Him” might look like.
John Lennon was wide of the mark, to begin with. Imagine there’s no Heaven … then what was the point? And no religion too … but what if love itself is synonymous with true religion? Can any of us flourish without any point and without any love?
Without God, there is no music. There is no light, and therefore no colour. There is no peace. No security. In fact, we could rattle off a list of the virtues known as “the fruit (singular) of the Spirit” … love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, humility, faith-filled-ness and self-control. Without God, none of these things come into being. Pick one of those things at random, and stop and think for a second of what earthly life would be like without that one thing.
People think they are living without God already, but they don’t realise that they breathe in His grace and His cosmos-sustaining energy with every molecule of oxygen.
To be bereft of the presence of God is to forsake all virtues, and also justice.
Hell isn’t a place where mild punishments get dished out for “good” people who simply practiced unbelief, while endless days of torture are meted out against psychopaths.
Hell is a place where God deliberately isn’t. It’s a place where all perspective of justice, right, merit, paying things off – all this is gone. We would be utterly in the power of those whose motivation is not to mete out a deserved punishment for actual sins committed, but to torture human beings for the sake of it. They cannot strike at God; but they can strike at those He cares about. And if you go there with them, God will not intervene; He’s already done that, and at breathtaking cost to Himself.
At this point I need to ask you to suspend your disbelief (if you have one) of the spirit world. The Bible depicts a cosmic war between God and one of His officers, who has attempted to stage a coup, and taken a third of the troops with him. A lot of people in the Western world don’t believe in the devil and demons. And it’s true that many things are blamed on spirits that can be answered with science; but the reverse is also true. Between two schizophrenics, for instance, who can say (without powers of discernment) which one needs medication and which one needs deliverance? But nobody sane can deny that there is evil loose in the world. And few can deny that it tends to take on a life of its own. Occasionally you meet a person and there is something inhuman looking at you out of their eyes … it’s chilling. Incidentally, many people in the Eastern world have no difficulty at all in believing in the spirit world. And there are more of them than of us.
Every time you see suffering in the world, it’s a result of fallenness. Whether it be sin, sickness, cruelty, starvation, slavery – none of these things were birthed in the mind of God. They came about because sin entered the world, via the interaction between a human and a spirit bent on evil. The evils we see today come from those three causes: the general fallen state of the world, the greed and ignorance of humanity, the hatred of demons. If it makes you, as well as me, uncomfortable to talk about these things – well and good. We should be uncomfortable. These are matters that were never supposed to touch us, in the original design. That’s why decay is so disgusting and death so jarring – they were never supposed to be part of our experience. Our abhorrence of all that is a vestige that testifies to the truth of our origins.
Nobody needs to go to Hell. It’s a place prepared not for us, but for the devil and and his angels; but they are (literally) hellbent on taking as many of us with them as they can. It becomes a question of allegiance. If you do not ally yourself with Jesus Christ, your default allegiance is to the others. Many people believe they are on their own side; but they are simply denying the battle lines that surround them. There are no independent basketball players on the court in a championship game, and there are none in life, either. Whichever hoop you shoot at, the goal will be counted by one of those two opposing teams.
People who believe that suicide will bring them final annihilation and ultimate peace – what if they’re wrong? What if death outside of Christ is not peace at all, but worse torment? Would it not be better to throw yourself on the mercy of God before you must meet Him in court? In fact, what have you got to lose by doing so? The hope of rebuilding a positive life on earth, and ultimately residence in Heaven, is a very good exchange for an uncertainty about what might confront you after your final breath.
Fear of Hell is not the best reason to give your life to God through Jesus Christ. The best reason by far is to simply fall in love with all that He is and all that He’s done. (Have another look at the list of virtues … and add many more!) But the two are not easy to separate, for the one is insurance against the other. I am not saying that the character of God rests on His antithesis; I am merely pointing out that to embrace one is the same thing as avoiding the other.
It’s something to think about.