Is hell for real?
Dr Crispin Fletcher-Louis
Throughout church history almost all Christians have believed that sinners will suffer eternal punishment in the afterlife or at the return of Christ – the righteous will experience resurrection to a life of eternal bliss and the wicked its polar opposite. Although God is a God of mercy and love, he is also one of justice. The righteous tend to suffer at the hands of the wicked during this life – Jesus in his death is the pre-eminent example. He was vindicated at the resurrection and rewarded with his seat at God’s right hand. The Hitlers of the world who spread misery and pain, especially for the weak and vulnerable, and who reject Jesus’ way of life and gospel, will get their comeuppance.
Nowadays many Christians doubt this traditional view and prefer instead what is called “annihilationism”: sinners are simply destroyed. There are good biblical and theological reasons for holding to annihilationism. The NT sometimes speaks in terms of destruction (Matthew 10:28; Matthew 13:40-42; 2 Peter 2:6; James 4:12) or just death and nothing more (Romans 3:23, cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18; 2 Corinthains 2:15; 4:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:10). Also, language that has traditionally been taken to refer to unending torture should be read with care since religious language can over use metaphors and the seemingly illogical, but paradoxical, to express truths which are difficult or profound. When, for example, Jesus speaks of a "consuming fire" and of "burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:12; cf. Luke 3:17) John Stott comments, "The fire itself is termed 'eternal' and 'unquenchable' but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proved indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed forever, not tormented forever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which 'rises forever and ever' (Rev. 14:11; cf. 19:3).”
To the modern mindset eternal damnation is an abhorrent, politically incorrect proposition. Some theologians will say, quite rightly, that that is one very good reason why we should stick to it – God’s truth cannot be reduced to our feelings. By our own standards and feelings God’s mercy, forgiveness and love is scandalous – so too is his justice. Certainly, God’s standards are ultimately beyond our comprehension. But on the other hand, there are important theological considerations which tell against the traditional view of hell. At the heart of biblical theology is the conviction that God is one. There is no other eternal reality – if there were, that too would be divine and a threat to the one God’s uniqueness. If then the punishment of the righteous and of the devil with all his angels in hell goes on for ever and ever, then God’s uniqueness is threatened – the devil, hell and its suffering exists forever alongside God.
There are a couple of NT passages which are particularly difficult for an annihilationist position (Matthew 25:41, 46; Revelation 14:9-11; 20:10). But on the whole, there is far less evidence for an ongoing timeless suffering for the wicked than is usually thought. It is particularly significant that although the NT speaks throughout of a resurrection of the righteous to new and eternal life, unlike many of their contemporary Jewish thinkers, the early Christians did not expect a resurrection of the damned followed by their eternal punishment. If the damned are not brought to life to be punished then they do not really exist beyond death and destruction, and destruction is their punishment.
Which ever of these two views we favour, there is now much that we can all agree on:
1. A rejection of Jesus and the gospel will inevitably lead to separation from God. There is no biblical basis for believing in an absolute universalism according to which everyone will, in the end, be saved. As a genuine pure love, God’s love allows the world to go its own way. Only a smothering, controlling love that denies creatures their freedom could insist that everyone is saved. And if we are all forced into “salvation” at the expensive of our freedom then we are little more than robots and our “salvation” is nothing at all.
2. The end, like the beginning, is a mystery, the details of which only God knows (Mark 13:32). Lurid speculations on the character of hell crop up throughout church history (the writings of Dante and the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch spring to mind) but they do not figure in the NT. We can affirm without question what we do know about the God who is revealed in Jesus; that he is both loving and fair. According to Matthew 25:31-46 you don’t have to be a fully paid up Christian on earth for Jesus to welcome you into eternity – there are many who have not consciously followed Jesus during their lives because they have not heard the gospel or met a Spirit-filled Christian, but for whom the moment of judgement will be the first moment of open-armed recognition. Then they will say, “You are Jesus! You are the one I have always wanted, known in my heart of hearts and tried to follow.”
3. Recent study of the NT in its first century Jewish context, drawing, for example, on the evidence of the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls, has given us a better understanding of many passages which have before now been wrongly taken to refer to experiences after death. One prominent strand of Jesus’ message was a prophetic warning that if his people, Israel, did not adopt a way of peace, forgiveness and blessing to the wider “pagan” world, then they would suffer a cataclysmic political, social and religious catastrophe. Many of his fellow Jews did indeed reject Jesus’ warnings and his offer of a new way of being Israel. They went to war against Rome in AD 66 in a bid to realise their own vision for national freedom and vindication. Four years later their temple was destroyed, hundreds of thousands had been killed, towns and villages laid waste and many were deported into slavery. Jesus wept over this coming tragedy (Luke 19:41-44) and its full theological significance could only be expressed in cosmic language – just as we might speak metaphorically of recent “earth-shattering” events in Iraq. Many of Jesus’ predictions of coming judgement refer to these events within history (e.g. Mark 13; Matthew 24; Luke 21; Luke 10:12-16; 17:26-37).
Jesus’ prophetic message of judgement was motivated principally by a deep compassion for his people, for their present and their future experience of “hell on earth”. Today too, people’s immediate need is for rescue from addictive destructive behaviour, depression, dysfunctional relationships and isolation, poverty, sickness and hopelessness.