Last week we learned about Heaven and Hell at a high level. We characterized each place as representing the relationship we hold with God; Heaven is where we achieve perfect unity with God and Hell is where we achieve complete separation. This week we dove down into the specifics of Hell a bit more closely.
The Bible Doesn’t Focus on Hell
The first thing we have to realize is that the Bible doesn’t really focus on Hell the same way it does on Heaven. When we discuss Heaven, there are visions of the physical dimensions and activities in Heaven throughout the scriptures. We don’t really have the same level of detail in the Bible with regards to Hell. Why not? Simply put, the Bible isn’t trying to scare us into a deeper relationship with God. The purpose of the Bible is to discuss how God came to save us from the jaws of sin to regain the relationship we once had. Why, then, would we waste time talking about visions of Hell? This may seem like a small point or little more than an interesting side note, but we have to begin any conversation about Hell by understanding that Hell isn’t “the point”. We aren’t trying to scare anyone into believing something simply because they don’t want to suffer the horrors that await people who deny Christ (though that is certainly “a thing”). At the same time, we can’t simply avoid recognizing Hell as a real place because it may be ‘scary’ or inconvenient to discuss. Hell is a real place and by understanding what it is, we better understand the love God has for his creation as evidenced through his providing a pathway to righteousness through Christ.
The second thing we have to realize about Hell is that it is not a place characterized by little red pygmies with pitchforks. Our cultural understanding of Hell amounts to, essentially, one piece of literature.
Around 1300AD, Dante Aligheri wrote what is considered one of the oldest examples of modern literature called The Divine Comedy. This poem-styled novel follows the journey of the main character, Dante, who travels through Hell, Purgatory, and eventually ascends to Heaven. It’s an interesting read, but it’s just the imagination of a 14th century novelist and nothing more. His work isn’t necessarily inspired by God and if you actually take his book at face value, than there are several theological issues potentially posed by Dante’s vision of Hell.
The biggest problem with Dante’s vision of Hell is it envisions a place where man must pay for the relative severity of their sin. Why is that an issue? Isn’t murdering someone worse than being a liar? This is where we have to stop and acknowledge the nature of sin. Sin is an offense against God, but God is not a finite person. That means you can not measure an offense’s relative severity against him because his righteousness and purity is immeasurable. In essence, every sin committed makes us infinitely guilty which is likely why we read things like…
As the Scriptures say,
“No one is righteous—
not even one.
No one is truly wise;
no one is seeking God.
All have turned away;
all have become useless.
No one does good,
not a single one.” (Romans 3:10-12)
As a human you read this and think, ‘well, surely there are many people who aren’t born-again Christians who are decent enough people’, but when you compare their “relatively little sin” to the infinitely perfect standard of God, you are left with an infinitely sinful person. If we are all infinitely sinful, in absence of God, then by what standard are people “punished” in Hell? Dante envisions different people being punished according to the severity of what they did on earth, but I’d suggest that every one of us, without grace, are infinitely guilty and therefore deserve the most infinitely severe punishment.
A popular misconception about Hell is that it’s a place where God punishes bad people. That’s not exactly true (it is in an indirect way, but that’s a deeper discussion). I encourage all our youth to think of Hell as the place where those who reject Christ get exactly what they wanted: eternal separation from God. We read about this separation in 2 Thessalonians…
And God will provide rest for you who are being persecuted and also for us when the Lord Jesus appears from heaven. He will come with his mighty angels, in flaming fire, bringing judgment on those who don’t know God and on those who refuse to obey the Good News of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with eternal destruction, forever separated from the Lord and from his glorious power. (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9)
The picture painted is not of a place where people did something evil and are therefore punished with Hell. Rather, it is a place where those who are not covered by Christ’s grace are judged for exactly what they are, infinitely guilty of choose separation from God, and sent to a place to be separated from God forever. If we want (or insist) on thinking of Hell as a “punishment”, it is “punishment” that every one of us deserve. Does that mean that those who go to Hell “deserve” it less than us? No, it means that the debt for our punishment has been paid through the punishment of an infinitely pure person in Jesus Christ.
If Hell is “just separation from God”, then why is it necessarily “bad”?
If you really wanted to play the devil’s advocate (no pun intended), then you could ask me why Hell is obviously a “bad place” if it’s just separation from God and not directly a “punishment for bad people”. The answer is found in the source of all “good”.
So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. He chose to give birth to us by giving us his true word. And we, out of all creation, became his prized possession. (James 1:16-18)
If God is the source of all good and Hell is a place absent of God, then you are only left to conclude that Hell is clearly a place filled with nothing but “bad”. That leads us to ask the question “what is it in Hell that makes it bad?” Previously we established that the Bible doesn’t give us a lot of physical descriptions of Hell. It does give us some implied insights into what someone will experience in Hell.
First, Hell will be a place of pain. We see this in Mark when Jesus tells us, with pretty extreme imagery, to avoid Hell at all costs.
If your hand makes you sin, cut it off! Better that you should be maimed but obtain eternal life, rather than keep both hands and go to [Hell], to unquenchable fire! And if your foot makes you sin, cut it off! Better that you should be lame but obtain eternal life, rather than keep both feet and be thrown into [Hell]! And if your eye makes you sin, pluck it out! Better that you should be one-eyed but enter the Kingdom of God, rather than keep both eyes and be thrown into [Hell], where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:43-48)
The second thing we see is that Hell is a place full of regret. We see this in the descriptions of Hell as a place where people will cry and grind their teeth.
So it will be at the close of the age — the angels will go forth and separate the evil people from among the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace, where they will wail and grind their teeth. (Matthew 13:49-50)
No matter how you cut it, Hell isn’t a pretty place. It’s important to note that Hell is not a “punishment” for one people over any other. The truth is that we all ‘deserve’ Hell because we are all infinitely guilty of sinning against God. The only difference between those who go to Hell and those who go to Heaven is that those in Heaven have been made righteous in the eyes of a just and merciful God through the sacrifice of his son on the cross. This is why it becomes so imperative to understand the Jesus Christ truly is the one and only way ‘to the Father’. Nothing else on earth… no position, action, act of kindness, or reputation… is capable of paying the infinitely large bill for our salvation.