At the centre of the Christian faith are the great Easter events – Jesus’ death on a cross, and on the third day his bodily rising to new life, victorious over sin and death and the devil.

Australians embrace these events as a holiday but most regard them with sentimentality. For Christians, however, the days could not be more weighty, for in Good Friday and Easter Day we glimpse hell and heaven. 

Our culture’s trivialisation of hell is tragically misinformed and Christians should know what the Bible says. In the Bible, we find that the person who speaks most about hell is not a New Testament apostle or an Old Testament prophet. It is the man at the centre of the drama of Easter, the friend of sinners, the Saviour of the world, the Lord of glory and of grace: Jesus himself. 

When we say that ideas of hell are barbaric, spiritually crass or morally objectionable we are claiming moral and spiritual superiority over Jesus Christ. Author and translator Dorothy Sayers put it this way:

Let us face the facts. The doctrine of hell is not “medieval”; it is Christ’s. It is not a device of “medieval priestcraft” for frightening people into giving money to the church: it is Christ’s judgement on sin… it confronts us in the oldest and least “edited” of the gospels; it is explicit in many of the most familiar parables and implicit in many more… We cannot repudiate hell without altogether repudiating Christ. 

Any person who spends even a few moments in serious contemplation of hell immediately feels the emotional stress it creates. This is not surprising, but it is revealing. We were not made for hell. It is not anyone’s home. We were made for fellowship with God, to know and enjoy him forever. But hell is the just punishment of our wilful rejection of God and rebellion against him. 

What Jesus teaches about hell 

In Luke 16, Jesus explains that a rich man who did not lift a finger to assist the beggar Lazarus at his door has earned hell. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that words of hateful anger spoken to another person, and lustful adulterous desire, earns hell. In Matthew 25, Jesus says those who did nothing for his brothers and sisters who were hungry, thirsty, naked and in prison deserve hell. In Matthew 7, Jesus says religious hypocrisy deserves hell.

Jesus also teaches that hell is destruction and banishment. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says:

Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.     (Matt 7:13b-14)

In the New Testament the word for destruction can mean “made unfit for its purpose”. The word “destruction” is applied to the “wasteful” pouring of perfume on Jesus’ feet in Matthew 26 and the burst wineskins of Matthew 9. When coupled with images of the unending nature of hell, this suggests the destruction of hell is not the annihilation of those who go there but their total ruin; the disintegration of their being.

The other description of hell is banishment from the Lord’s presence. In Jesus’ account of the final judgement, he welcomes the sheep into eternal blessedness. But banishes the goats into eternal punishment with the words, “Depart from me” (Matt 25:41). In Mark 9, Jesus speaks of a person being thrown into hell: far away from God’s gracious presence, into the darkness. Outside.

In this life, we can turn our backs on God and still enjoy the greenness of grass and the sun’s warmth; the joy of relationship and the companionship of a shared meal. Even if we ignore God, we benefit from his providential activity in the world. But when God sends us from his presence all that will be taken away. Our banishment is a punishment that destroys.

What Jesus did about hell

So often people say to me, “I cannot understand why Jesus had to die”. The answer is, to save us from hell. Perhaps the reason Jesus speaks of hell more than anyone else in the Bible is because he, unlike anyone else in the Bible, would face hell for us. Jesus’ death saves me from the hell I deserve, and does so because, on the cross, he experienced hell for my sake, though he was innocent and deserved it not at all.

In the events of Good Friday, we see the same characteristics of hell that Jesus spoke of in his ministry. 

First, punishment. At Gethsemane, Jesus tells his disciples he is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Three times he prays to his Father, “if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me”. What was this “cup” that so filled him with anguish? It was the cup of God’s punishment of sin. Hell is punishment. Yet as Jesus contemplated his coming death he still prayed, “not as I will, but as you will”. Willingly he offered to bear the punishment due for the world’s sins. 

It is not right to say God punished Jesus. Rather, God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. God himself received, in the person of his Son, the punishment for sin. Jesus was no third party, he was the God/man bearing in his body God’s punishment for human rebellion. 

Second, destruction. As Jesus was crucified, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Son was eternally begotten of the Father. Their mutual love and joy in companionship was from the beginning, and infinitely deeper and more complete than the most intimate and passionate human relationship. But on the cross the Son is accursed.

For Jesus the cross was everything that makes hell, hell – darkness, pain, isolation, sin-bearing divine judgement, curse, alienation, utter darkness and separation from God. But for us the cross is everything that makes heaven possible – wisdom, righteousness, justification, forgiveness, cleansing, redemption and adoption. And love! Amazing love.

Our worthy King

For Christians, the cross on which Jesus suffered hell for us is the reason for our joyful, self-abandoning devotion to Christ, our constant wonder and praise in his presence, our contentment despite present temporary affliction, our perseverance in doing good and serving others, our resolve to declare his praises. He did it for us, he did it for me, he did it for all. Jesus suffered hell for my redemption! How excellent a Saviour! How mighty a redeemer! How worthy a King!

Without hell we would not understand the cross. But without the cross we would not love God. Hell does not create love for God. Only the knowledge of God’s amazing love in Jesus’ death upon the cross breaks through our stubborn heart of sin and produces repentance that leads to life.

Will you come to the foot of the cross once again, or perhaps for the first time, and see there, in the face of the crucified Lord, the immense sacrifice he made for you? Will you turn away from self-rule, self-righteousness and self-reliance and take hold of the hand of the Saviour who gave himself for you? Will you see how greatly you are loved, how right it is that he should claim first place in your heart, and how wonderful it is to have him as King?