WORD FROM THE PASTOR:
Is There a Hell?
A few years ago, Michigan pastor Rob Bell put a display in his church on peace, which included a quote from Gandhi. Next to the Gandhi quote, a visitor attached a note that said: “Reality check: He’s in hell.” That observation about Gandhi’s eternal destiny started Bell along a line of thought that led him, in a recent book, to deny that hell is real. His book, Love Wins, says that God’s love in Christ is vctorious and all-encompassing, and brings all people to everlasting joy. Time magazine is quite taken wiith Bell’s teachings–two issues ago the hell controversy was its cover story, and the current issue ranks Bell among the 100 most influential people in the world.
route–a roadblock called Jesus. Christianity’s teaching on hell comes direct from Christ Himself.
When people talk about uncomfortable Christian teachings, they often play nice, sweet Jesus off against mean, unfeeling St. Paul. That doesn’t work for hell. Paul says little or nothing about hell; indeed, I am not a big fan of hell. I cringe when I read theologians who say that part of heaven’s joy will be watching people in hell suffer . (There’s a German word, Schadenfreude, that describes the pleasure people sometimes take in the misfortunes of others–but Schadenfreude is sinful and certainly has no place in heaven!) Yet I can’t go down Rob Bell’s road of “no hell”. One huge roadblock keeps me off that a few of his verses can even be read in a Rob Bell way, like: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” (Romans 5:18). No, when it comes to hell, Jesus Himself is the “meanie”. It was Jesus who talked about the bridesmaids being locked out of the wedding (Matthew 25:7), and of the man without a wedding garment being cast into “outer darkness” (Matthew 22:13). It is Jesus who talks about “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12), Jesus who depicts the rich man who neglected Lazarus being tormented in flames (Luke 16:24 ), Jesus who talks about “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched “(Mark 9:44). So to reject hell is to reject something that comes straight from the Saviour’s mouth.
Hell is eternal separation from God--a tragedy beyond words, because we were created for a personal relationship with God. Sometimes it’s depicted as fire, sometimes as darkness–but one consistent image is that hell is outside, out of God’s presence. Being locked out of a wedding reception, being cast in “outer darkness”. Even gehenna, the New Testament word for hell, suggests being outside: it refers to a place outside Jerusalem where garbage was dumped.
So when Jesus comes to save us sinners from hell, He goes outside–to Golgotha, outside the city limits of Jerusalem. And as He takes the punishment for our sin upon Himself on the cross, He cries “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”–which shows that He was experiencing what it was like to be truly “outside”, separated from God. And Jesus did all this so that, through Him, we might be forgiven and never have to experience hell.
But why would God send anyone to hell? In an odd way, hell shows that God respects us. In his classic “I Put a Spell on You”, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins sang, “I don’t care if you don’t want me, I’m yours!” But God doesn’t operate that way. If I truly do not want a love relationship with God, He respects that refusal. Anything else would be a kind of “harassment”. Perhaps instead of asking, “Would a loving God send people to hell?”, it would be better to ask, “Would a loving God force people to spend eternity in His presence when that’s really the last thing they want to do?” C. S. Lewis once said, “In hell, the locks are all on the inside”. And there’s a lot of wisdom there. In a way, people aren’t locked in to hell–rather, they have locked God out.
Opponents of hell say that eternal punishment offends a basic sense of morality. But wouldn’t basic morality also be offended by admitting some people into eternal joy? What if I went to the Holocaust Museum and, on a picture of Hitler, stuck a Post-It note that said: “Reality check: He’s in Heaven”. Or affixed the same note to a picture of Stalin, or Chairman Mao, or any of the numerous other murderous monsters that the 20th century coughed up? Would that not cause as much revulsion as the “He’s in hell” note stuck on Gandhi–or perhaps even more revulsion? Doesn’t it trivialize evil to suggest that Hitler and Stalin still get eternal joy?
I certainly would never speculate on Gandhi’s present whereabouts–that is truly “above my pay grade”. The Bible does indicate that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) “No one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6 ) This belief gives Christians powerful motivation for spreading the Gospel. If they believed Rob Bell’s thesis, the motivation to proclaim the faith would be diminished.
That said, it’s also a Scriptural truth that eternal judgement will happen on something of a “sliding scale”, rather like our income taxes. The more knowledge you have of Christ, the more God expects of you. Jesus Himself indicates this: “That servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready, or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.” (Luke 12:47-48)
The great Dante captures this well in the Inferno. Virgil, the Roman poet, is in hell–but he’s walking around, talking, not in any obvious distress. His punishment is to never see the face of God–a tragedy indeed. But the tragic loss of seeing God is not compounded by any horrific physical punishment–after all, Virgil never really had a chance to believe in Jesus. So he receives a “light beating”. But Judas Iscariot–the one who was Jesus’ friend, and who betrayed Him-- spends eternity being chewed on by Satan himself. In Dante’s vision, both Virgil and Judas are in hell–but how different their fates are! Virgil knows no physical torment, while Judas is a rawhide chew toy for the Evil One himself. Dante is not, of course, divinely inspired–but I think he captures well what Jesus was saying. Not everyone is judged with the same severity.
We can find comfort in this: that God’s judgements are always right. The God we encounter in Jesus Christ is a God of infinite love, and His judgement reflects that love. We cannot deny hell without denying Jesus, who taught it so clearly; but we can confidently entrust all people to the judgement of the Saviour who loved us and gave Himself up for us.
God loves you and so do I!