Why contemporary Christianity still needs to speak of hell
I was asked recently whether, as a modern Christian, I still believed in hell.
Yes, I said, I most certainly do. What’s more, I don’t think this is a fundamentalist oddity (oh, I have some of those) but actually a doctrine which contemporary humanity needs more than ever.
Of course the problem with hell is that we think of the Bible’s teaching on the afterlife in a very cartoonish way, partly because of the way cartoonists have depicted hell in all its fiery cliché. Different chambers, under the ground, pitchforks, flames.
In the cultural imagination, the emphasis is on the sheer unrelenting cruelty of the place – the physical torments and the eternal agony of the damned.
The Bible’s reticence to describe in detail the actual geography of hell seems to have been forgotten.
And this leads to a second, more difficult problem with hell: how can it be true to the character of the God revealed in Scripture to have a place of eternal ongoing cruelty and torment from which there is no escape? Why would we send people there who are guilty only of making a theological error - namely, worshipping the wrong or no god?
Added to this is the awful reality that human beings have been graphically capable of creating hell in history and on earth. Can anyone imagine a worse hell than Rwanda in 1994 or the Killing Fields of Cambodia? Or the horror of Auschwitz? Is that something that a good and loving God has a place for in the final analysis?
These are better questions than orthodox Christians sometimes realise.
But at the same time, you still hear the cry from the heart in the midst of unimaginable pain and in the face of terrible evil: “I hope you rot in hell”. That heart felt cry of righteous anger is a cry which points to the limits of human justice. Human justice cannot do what we hope for it, though it is better to live with it than without it of course.
There still stands the plea from the midst of human experience for a justice that can only be described as divine.
So what are we to do with hell?
The first thing we should not do is simply water it down. Some evangelicals have spoken of annihilation rather than an eternally conscious state. While I think there is more to this position exegetically than meets the eye (what can ‘eternal destruction’ mean in 2 Thess 1?), if the goal is to ameliorate the apparently harsh justice of God, then it is disastrous. We have no business in making the judgement of the holy God more palatable, as if cushioning the blow will somehow convince others that it is all ok. Our God is a consuming fire; it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. The wrath of God has been revealed against all human outrages – and why would we want it otherwise, even as we come to the realisation that we are included in the verdict?
The second mistake is to say that all human beings are saved. It is true that the Bible speaks of the complete reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth by the power of the cross (Col 1). Could a hell remain in such a picture? But to say that all are saved is to make a judgement that it is not given to us to make, and for which Scripture gives us no confidence. We are not God! I think we should certainly desire that all are saved – that is after all what God himself wants. But we cannot take the position of the judge of all things.
A third misstep is to say that hell must be temporary – that it must serve the purpose of reform and restoration, so that those in it still as yet have a chance to repent. While I like that as a prospect, Scripture gives me no grounds to think that God’s final judgement is anything other than exactly that – final. I cannot speak of second chance, much as I hope for one.
The Bible’s teaching on hell uses metaphorical and mythological language to describe something real and unavoidable: that God’s reconciliation of all things to himself must involve an exclusion of all that opposes him. The language Jesus uses is exclusionary language: ‘outer darkness’ ‘where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’ and so on. In 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul speaks of being ‘separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might’. In Revelation 21, it is clear that evil and evildoers are shut out from the eternal city and have no place in it.
In the New Testament, there are two particular contexts for teaching about hell. The first is to provide comfort and reassurance to the persecuted. We see this 2 Thess 1, among others. God will vindicate his people from their enemies – and his people can be reassured that their cries for justice do not go unheeded or unanswered. This means they do not need to pursue vengeance themselves, but can witness within history to the righteous mercy of God in Christ.
The second context is religious hypocrisy. Jesus has particularly strong words to say to those who presume that they are insiders, but who are corrupt, unjust and egotistical. It is they who cause the little ones to stumble, and who refuse to regard his disciples. As in the Old Testament, the particular fury of God is reserved for those who perform religious acts, but who ignore the demands of righteous living in the world.
Hell is not given to us so that we can focus on the lurid and the horrific possibilities of the hereafter. It is given to warn us to not presume on God’s grace and favour, and to comfort us that evil will not go unanswered.
When we speak of hell, then, we need to speak actually of the character of the holy and righteous God and derive our understanding of hell from that. Whatever hell is, it does not undermine or contradict or disturb his holy character. His judgement is serious. He takes us seriously, and if we arraign ourselves against our creator and the source of all that is good in human life, then we cannot hope to deceive him.
But we must also remember that, as much as we are sinners in the hands of an angry God, the clearest sign to us of the wrath of God against human creatures is the cross of Jesus Christ, the son of God. We are also invited as sinners into the arms of a merciful God.
It is not accidental that it is human beings, in all their wickedness, who carry out God’s sentence against human beings. This hell is of our own devising. We do not need to imagine a divine cruelty, since his judgement vectors through the vicious circle of human cruelty, permitting it to run its own course to the degree that Christ bears it on his own body. He is not sadistic: we are.
In fact this moment of the striking revelation of his wrath against all the wickedness that human beings do is also the sublime revelation of his grace which overcomes it. We encounter much to fear in the cross, since we see how nakedly self-destructive human beings are in the determined rejection of all that is good and that comes from the hand of God. And yet our fears are relieved when we gaze at it, since we see how the grace of God absorbs our sin, and turns aside his wrath.
Feature photo: gustavo