Hell is not a subject many christians talk about allot and to be frank, I can understand why – it’s not nice! However, I believe that an incorrect theology on this subject, actually inhibits the preaching of the Gospel of Grace.
Why? Because on the one hand we are preaching the love, grace and mercy of God towards sinners and then saying that for a life of finite sin, sinners are going to burn and be tormented in Hell infinitely? Is God some kind of sadist?
Think about it, do we honestly believe that men and women (possibly those we know, love or work with) are going to suffer torment for ever and ever? Does that seem fair or just by any standard let alone God’s?
I mean, even in the UK, the worst sentence anyone can get for a crime is life imprisonment. However, the courts wouldn’t send someone to prison for a thousand years for a speeding offence, that’s a disproportionate punishment – and obviously unjust!
Abraham in Genesis 18:25, said of God when interceding for the wicked city of Sodom and Gomorrah: “shall not the judge of all the earth do right?”
Incidentally, Jude refers to this judgement and punishment as suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. Obviously the fire isn’t burning today! No, eternal in this context describes the permanence of the punishment – it’s irreversible.
Jude 1:7 “Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.”
A finite sin = infinite punishment?
Therefore, it must follow surely that if God is just (and He is) then the punishment should fit the crime. Therefore, if the sentence is infinite then how can that be proportional to a finite offence? For what reasons do sinners need to burn in hell forever? Maybe we can countenance a divine punishment of eternal torture for the likes of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin – especially if we had family murdered in the holocaust – but what about those who were murdered by the nazi’s in the holocaust, many of them not believers? Will they burn in Hell for eternity – maybe with less severity – but none the less endlessly just like Hitler?
Even though these victims are sinners like the rest of us (and deserving of punishment because we all have sinned) are they really deserving of endless punishment in Hell – haven’t they suffered enough? Excuse the terrible pun, but wouldn’t their final state be like going from the frying pan into the fire!
Is God angry forever?
Surely, if the sinner is going to be punished justly (and they are) then to do so forever would mean that God is angry forever also?
Micah 7:18 “Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”
Is universalism the answer?
Now I am not a universalist, I do not believe that the Bible teaches that everyone is going to be saved eventually, (I’m not going to discuss the reasons here). I do wonder though, whether the grounds of universalism are built on this sense of injustice engendered by revivalist preachers preaching hellfire and brimstone and the eternal punishment of the sinner.
Take the infamous sermon: “sinners in the hands of an angry God” by Jonathon Edwards – part of which is reproduced below:
He said: “The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrows made ready…[by] an angry God…It is nothing but His mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction! The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked: His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire…
“You are ten thousand times more abominable in His eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended Him…and yet it is nothing but His hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment…
“O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of God…You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder.”
Is God really like this? Is He really a kind of Judge Dredd figure that hates the sin and the sinner dangling them like spiders over the flames of Hell? Is this how we are supposed to preach? I know it’s very dramatic and I’m sure everyone in the congregation was scared witless – I certainly would be! However, were the listeners only becoming christians converts out of shear absolute terror of the terrible consequences?
The coming wrath
Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t warn people of God’s coming wrath against sin and judgment to come because that is real and terrible. In fact, God has appointed a day when he will judge the world and the judge will be Jesus Christ not Judge Dredd.
Hebrews 10:31 “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
Acts 17:31 “Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”
Make no mistake , God is going to angry with those who reject his grace revealed through the Gospel. They will suffer punishment for their sins but they will not be tormented forever in Hell they will suffer eternal destruction:
2 Thessalonians 1:8 “In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;”
What is eternal destruction? Obviously eternal doesn’t mean that they will continue to be destroyed over an over again endlessly. No, it simply means that the destruction is final, absolute and permanent forever. No second chance.
The Second Death
This final punishment is described by John in Revelation 20, as the dead small and great stand before the Great White Throne and those not in the book of life are cast in the Lake of Fire -called the second death.
Revelation 20:15 “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”
This Lake of Fire therefore is not eternal torment – it is terminal and final. That is why it is called the SECOND DEATH. It’s the end. This is capital punishment.
Jesus warned us of this complete destruction in Matthew 10:28:
“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Gehenna)”
To the believer however, God has promised immortality and eternal life rather than death.
2 Timothy 1:10 “But is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel:”
The believer has a wonderful hope as we will take part in the glorious first resurrection:
1 Corinthians 15:52 I”n a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”
This is not the promise for the sinner – they will never enjoy immortality.
In the mean time though, we live in a day of grace where God is not judging or punishing men and women. As D.L Moody found out, God hates the sin but He loves the sinner. Therefore, I am a christian not because I’m afraid of the consequences of hellfire but because I’ve met a God of love and kindness in Jesus Christ who forgave all my sins.
That means, that Gospel message is the Good News that He loves us so much He sent His son so that by simply believing we would be saved from destruction and live for ever!
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, (be destroyed) but have everlasting life (live forever).
In the next two articles: “Why don’t we talk about death” and “Why don’t we talk about judgement” , I’m going to be looking more closely the scriptures and further explain what happens after death.
Lecture on hell – Edward Fudge (Video)
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