Thursday, December 07, 2006

Some thoughts on hell

I've been giving some thought recently to the Bible's teaching about hell, having been asked to give a lunchbar on 'Why Christians deserve hell'. My thoughts are very much work-in-progress, but here are some of the ideas I've been wrestling with.

On speaking of hell: the background
  • Our basis for speaking about hell at all comes from Jesus. Jesus himself warned his hearers of the eternal punishment awaiting those who reject Him [see Matthew 13:40-42 etc.]. If we clearly and compassionately expound the truth about hell, we should expect to find people responding to it in faith.
  • However, Christians should speak about hell, as Francis Schaeffer put it, 'with tears'. Ultimately God's justice is something in which to rejoice, but the sort of self-righteous triumphalism common in some Medieval Christianity is something we must reject. Biblical teaching on hell must be set in its proper setting and spoken of with prayer and compassion. I'm reminded of Jesus' words as he mourns the fate of Jerusalem - see Matthew 23:37.
  • Hell is an emotional and emotive subject of conversation. Nearly 75% of Britons believe in heaven, but only 28% believe in hell. Of course, this proves nothing - but if hell really does exist, belief in its non-existence is just a psychological crutch.
  • The Bible's teaching about hell is misunderstood and by many people, both Christian and non-Christian. In particular, hell is often raised to 'prove' that the God of the Bible is primitive, barbaric, old-fashioned, hypocritical and immoral. When there is talk of hell, it's not at all unusual to hear people say things like, 'Well I wouldn't punish people forever, and if God is good, then he wouldn't do that to me. Your God is morally inferior to people like me.'
  • It's generally assumed that only the really evil people - the Hitlers, Stalins and Shipmans - will suffer punishment in hell.
Jesus on hell
  • People sometimes say that the Old Testament God showed a God of wrath and judgment, but Jesus proclaimed a message of love. But this is not true at all: most of what Christians teach about hell came straight from the mouth of Jesus, who claimed to be God in human form. In fact, read through Jesus’ teaching and apart from teaching about his own identity, Jesus spoke about judgement and hell more than anything else. More than half of his parables were about these subjects.
  • One of Jesus’ most common ways of describing existence after death was 'Gehenna'. This comes from the name of a place: the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. In Israel’s history, this was the place where the Israelite kings Ahaz and Manasseh had sacrificed their children to pagan gods, by burning them in the fire. It was an infamous place. The nearest equivalent today would be somewhere like Auschwitz, with a horrific reputation. By Jesus’ time, Gehenna had become the city’s rubbish tip, thereby explaining several of Jesus’ metaphors: it was a place of decay, where the maggots and worms never stopped feasting; it was a place of burning, where the fires never went out. And so Gehenna is the place that came to be used as a symbol for the place of final judgment on the evil.
  • Jesus uses a lot of picture language when he speaks about hell, and it’s sometimes difficult to know whether he’s using these words as a literal description of hell, or whether it’s metaphorical. Either way, hell is a horrific place. Jesus spoke of hell as a place of outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth. He spoke of hell as the consequence of God’s holy wrath upon the ungodly – a place of torment and agony, where Jesus says the fire is never put out. Although much of the description of hell appears symbolic, this is only because the reality of hell is unimaginable; it is greater than what symbols could convey. Either we accept that Jesus knew what he was talking about, and meant what he said, or we decide that we know better than he does.
Sin, God's holiness and the cross of Christ
  • As Douglas Groothuis helpfully states, 'The doctrine of hell does not stand alone as a kind of ancient Christian horror story. Rather, hell is inseparable from three other interrelated biblical truths: human sin, God's holiness, and the cross of Christ.'
  • Our inclination is to think that it is unjust that people should face the suffering of hell for sin. But the Bible claims that hell is a place of dreadful justice. In other words, when the question, 'Why do good people go to hell?' is asked, the Bible's clear and loving answer is this: they don't. The problem is that none of us is good.
  • We long to see justice in our world. When people are exploited or snubbed, we cry out for justice. Hell is God's place of justice for our rebellion against him.
  • Each of us has ruled God out and rebelled against him. We have crossed him out, having taken his good gifts – including our every breath, on which we depend from God. We’ve taken all of the good things that God has given us in his word, but then snapped our fingers in his face and told him we don’t want him to be God. We are sinful - see Romans 1:29-32.
  • And so as rebels against God, we all deserve punishment, Christians included. But is hell too extreme? Jonathan Edwards argued that because God is "a Being of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory," he is therefore "infinitely honorable" and worthy of absolute obedience. And so he goes on: "Sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and deserving of infinite punishment."
  • Left to ourselves, we have no grounds for confidence before God and every reason to fear hell. God, who is angry with sin, could justifiably send the sinner to hell at any moment. Jesus himself warned, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell" [Matthew 10:28].
  • And so, JI Packer states: ‘Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God's action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less.’
  • We convince ourselves that we are innocent, we’re fine, and that we do not deserve to be judged. But there are no innocent people in hell - only the evil go there, and there is no second chance. The idea of purgatory is not a Scriptural idea. But it’s not rejecting a second chance that would make us guilty. We are already guilty.
The good news of the gospel
  • The truth of John 3:16 is that God so loved the world that he'd rather sacrifice his Son, Jesus Christ, God in human form, than send people like us to hell.
  • Sin against God is so serious that only the death of the sinless Son of God could atone for it. We see the reality of hell when Jesus screams out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" [Mark 15:34]. Paul explained, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" [2 Corinthians 5:21]. At the cross, the sinfulness of sin, the holiness of God, and the reality of hell are satisfied through Jesus' sacrifice. Only through Christ taking on our hell through his death could sinners be reconciled to a holy God. Once this is understood, hell takes on real clarity. Other than the cross, there is no hope for forgiveness or reconciliation. Hell is the only alternative.
  • Only by understanding hell can we grasp the immensity of God's love. God's love took His Son to the hell of the cross for our sake. This is a costly love that has no parallel in any of the world's religions. Although other religions [particularly Islam] threaten hell, none offer the sure deliverance from it that Christianity offers through the sacrificial love of God himself.
  • We have been given a incredible opportunity! All we deserve is hell. The really amazing thing is not that there is a hell, but that God has given us an opportunity to repent, to turn back to him and to place our trust in Jesus’ sacrifice [see 2 Peter 3:8-9]. The amazing thing is not that there is a hell, but that we are not all there today! The amazing thing is that heaven will be populated by humans at all – this comes only through God’s intervention.
  • Heaven is not made up of good people – none of us is good, but it will be made up of forgiven people. Those who are trusting Jesus can know their place in heaven is secure, because they can say with confidence that Jesus has paid the price for their rebellion against God. And because it is paid, it does not need to be paid again.
'This the power of the cross: Son of God, slain for us! What a love! What a cost! We stand forgiven at the cross.'

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