The Horrors of Hell and Its Hope

No one is more loving or just than Jesus. And no one in the Bible spoke more about hell than Jesus. For Him, hell posed no problem for the love or justice of God. He freely and unashamedly warned people of its dangers. These days, hell is not a popular subject, but it is one Jesus obviously wants us to be aware of. With that in mind, here are five points expressing the Bible's teaching on hell.

The experience of hell is conscious and miserable

There is a popular idea of hell called ‘annihilationism’. This idea states that people in hell will be annihilated. That is, they will cease to exist. The fire of hell will consume them completely so that they will be no more. The comfort in this idea is that eternal suffering is removed from hell. There is no consciousness because there is no existence, therefore there is no suffering or misery. This is an attractive idea, but does it fit with Jesus’ teaching? Consider His words in Mark 9:43-48

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 'where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.' ( Mark 9:43-48)

The valley of Hinnom was a garbage dump outside Jerusalem. It was also the dumping ground for the bodies of criminals. As you can imagine, fires and maggots were aplenty. It became a symbol among the Jews for hell (greek: gehenna). Jesus picked up on the imagery, talking about the unquenchable fire and the worm that does not die.

Think about worms and fire for a moment. Worms die and fires are quenched when there is nothing left to feed on. But Jesus says in hell the worm doesn’t die and the fire is not quenched. In other words, those in hell are not consumed into non-existence. They will not be annihilated. The worms will go on eating forever, and the fire will go on burning forever.

Moreover, Jesus’ description of the experience of hell shows that it is very much conscious and miserable.

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:41-42)

Weeping and gnashing of teeth are expressions of utter misery.

Hell is eternal

One of the horrors of hell is that it is forever. Have you ever put your hand to a flame? Your hand recoils almost immediately from the pain. The pain is unbearable, even for a second. When I was younger, I liked those rescue programs on TV. I’ve seen a few about people trapped in a burning car, only to be rescued in the nick of time. I sometimes wonder at the horror I would feel if I were trapped in a burning car and not able to get out. How agonizing it would be to be trapped in a fire that I can’t pull away from. The only comfort would be unconsciousness or death. But hell is worse. You can’t get away; there is no rescue and there is no end.

‘and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.’ (Revelation 20:10)

The torment of hell will go on, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, year after year, forever and ever and ever; no break, no holiday, unrelentingly and without hope. Perhaps the clearest expression of this truth is at the end of Jesus’ teaching of the sheep and the goats. “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." The punishment of hell is paralleled with eternal life. Both are unending.

Hell is just

Hell is portrayed in the Bible in the context of judgment. But it is at this point that many of us struggle. It doesn’t seem just for God to send someone to eternal torment for telling a lie.

In Isaiah chapter 6, the prophet Isaiah tells us about his vision of the throne room of God. He was privileged to a scene of absolute splendour and glory. He beheld the LORD upon His throne, and the seraphim flying around Him crying, "holy, holy, holy." What was his response to such a vision?

And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:5)

Why did Isaiah react this way? Did he suddenly become sinful? No, he suddenly understood his sinfulness. In the presence of the Holy God, he saw his sin for what it really was, and he was terrified.

We will never understand the justness of hell until we truly understand sin. We talk about sin. We admit we are sinners. But we haven’t yet even begun to understand how evil sin really is. When you stand before the great white throne of God and you behold God in all of His glory and holiness, you will understand the rightness of hell, and you will give God praise.

In a sense, we must accept the justness of hell by faith. God is just. God tells us hell is what sin deserves. So even if we don’t understand it now, we bow trembling before His judgement and trust that one day we will understand.

In saying that, a little more can be said. Jonathan Edwards is possibly the greatest thinker and theologian America has ever produced. He wrestled with this idea in a sermon entitled, ‘the justice of God in the damnation of sinners.’ In that sermon he said this,

“Nothing is more agreeable to the common sense of mankind, than that sins committed against any one, must be proportionably heinous to the dignity of the being offended and abused.”

That might sound incomprehensible to you, so let me try to explain it. The other day I committed a most horrific crime. Ants were all over our kitchen, and so I planted ant poison and killed them all; Hundreds upon hundreds of ants purposely murdered in cold blood. Now if I marched myself off to the police station and handed myself in, what would they say? Probably not much.

As a boy living on Waiheke Island, I had a neighbour who hated dogs. When he came across a stray dog, he would lock it in a cage and poison it. I don’t know what the penalty in New Zealand is for killing a dog, but I read that in one state in the US, you can get up to 5 years in prison.

Now imagine I purposely poisoned a human so that he died. What kind of punishment would I get? At this time in New Zealand, the penalty is life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 10 years.

Consider the three scenarios. Why the difference in punishment? It’s the same action. I poison an ant and get away scott free. I poison a dog and get a fine or a short prison sentence. I poison a human being and get life. The difference, says Jonathan Edwards, is the perceived dignity of the one sinned against. A dog is considered to have more dignity than an ant. Therefore a sin against a dog is a greater offence than against an ant, and requires a greater punishment. A human has more dignity than a dog, and so a sin against a human is a greater offence than against a dog. You get the picture? Now when we come to a sin against God… How great is God’s dignity? It is infinitely greater than ours. Therefore an offence against Him is infinitely heinous and deserves infinite punishment. Hell is just.

Hell is the measure of God’s love for us

You have probably watched Mel Gibson’s, ‘The passion of the Christ.’ In it we are exposed to 2 hours of the most gruesome physical suffering experienced by our Lord. We see the nails driven into his wrists and feet. We see the dislocation of his bones. We see His terrible agony, as He strains to push himself upwards against the nails to gain a breath. We see His lacerated back rubbing against the rough wood. All this suffering for us.

But when we come to the book of Mark, his focus is different. Mark sums up all the horrible physical suffering of crucifixion with the words, ‘and they crucified Him.’ There is no detailed explanation of the physical suffering of Christ on our behalf. Mark gives us details about another kind of suffering. He talks about a darkness that was over the whole land for three hours. And he quotes Jesus’ words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Mark wants us to see that Jesus experienced hell itself for us. The physical sufferings were horrible. But the anguish of experiencing the wrath of God and being forsaken by Him was unbearable. This is the measure of Jesus’ love for us. He went to the cross to suffer the horrors of hell, so that we would not have to.

You may say, "my God is so loving, he would not send anyone to hell." I say, "my God is so loving, He suffered hell for us in our place."

Hell is certain for all outside of Christ

All sin is worthy of punishment, and because God is just, all sin will receive punishment. There are only two places where this punishment will take place. It will either be suffered by Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners, or by sinners themselves in hell. There is no third option.

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death." (Revelation 21:8)

Where will you go when you die? Are you depending on Jesus as the one who experienced hell for sinners so that you could know Him and enjoy Him forever? The promise of God to you today is that if you believe in Jesus, you will not perish in hell, but have eternal life (John 3:16).

Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. What does love look like in light of hell? For the Apostle Paul, it meant weeping over the lost, and doing whatever it takes to bring them the gospel. He said, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10). And, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). What will it mean for you?

1 comment:

  1. You write: "Therefore an offence against Him is infinitely heinous and deserves infinite punishment." I can't help feeling people are already suffering enough condemnation. The grace of God is a more powerful and effective message. Noah (drunkard), David (adulterer), Moses (killer), Abraham (liar), Peter (Christ denier), Paul (persecuter) were all great sinners. But what does it matter? Jesus saved them all. Jesus did not come to condemn the world he came to save it.


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