Sunday, 21 May 2017

Is hell for real?

Here is an article I was asked to write an article on this subject.

Hell is a word that almost everyone uses, yet it is a subject that almost no one thinks about. It is thrown into sentences and used as an exclamation thoughtlessly and flippantly all the time, but perhaps it’s not something to be flippant about, maybe it is worth thinking about. What if it’s actually a real place? It’s worth considering, because, after all, if there’s the slightest possibility that there is a hell then nothing is more important than ensuring you don’t go there.

We will look at two questions on this subject.
1.   Is it there?
Surely it’s far too ridiculous to be credible. Is it not just an invention of the medieval church to keep people submissive or a tool of the fundamentalist preacher to get converts? Can sensible people really have sensible reasons for believing in hell? Let me give you three.
a)     Justice demands it
I spoke to a man who told me he didn’t believe in any life after death. I asked him if the same applied to Hitler.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Hitler did what he did, murdered all those people, caused all that misery, then took his own life and that’s it?”
“Oh no.” he said, “There’s justice coming for Hitler.”
He was absolutely right. We know that there is right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice, but this points to the reality of a righteous God who has made us in His image. C. S. Lewis argued that for every natural and innate desire that we have, there is something that satisfies that desire: we have hunger and there is food that satisfies that desire; we experience thirst and there is water that satisfies that desire; we desire companionship and there are friends that satisfy that desire. But there is another desire we have and that is for justice. The fact that justice is not done in this world leaves no other conclusion but that it will be done in the world to come. This is something that ought to comfort us – justice is coming for Hitler, but it also ought to concern us – justice is coming for us all, and the sad fact is, we all know that we have done wrong and violated God’s just law. Justice demands punishment for sin, and that’s what hell is.
b)    Scripture declares it
It may seem naive to believe something just because the Bible says it, but bear in mind that the Bible has proven itself to get it right when it talks about things to come. It is full of prophecies that were indisputably given before the events and that indisputably came to pass. The fulfilment of these prophecies couldn’t have been naturally anticipated or influenced by the prophets. They stand as proof that the Bible is God’s word. Given that the Bible has provided this proof that it speaks with accuracy and authority about the future, that is a very good reason to take it seriously when it speaks about our future. It tells us death is not the end, there is a God to meet, an eternity to face, a judgment to come, and hell awaiting us because of the sins we have committed.
c)     Christ described it
The one who spoke about hell most frequently and most graphically in the Bible was Jesus Christ. He claimed to be the Son of God and He rose from the dead in vindication of that claim. That means that what He says comes with all the authority of God Himself. Therefore His warnings about hell can’t be dismissed as the rantings of some madman, but rather solemn statements of sober fact uttered in deepest compassion by one who knows full well what lies ahead of those who never have their sins forgiven.
He taught that hell is a place of eternal conscious punishment. Think of each of those words:
Hell isn’t for correction and reform. It is a place where people receive punishment for the crimes they have committed against God. The Lord taught this explicitly when He said that people will go away into everlasting punishment (Matt 25.46).
Some have taught that the punishment in question is annihilation, that is, being put out of existence. Let me point out a few of the many problems with this. First, annihilation is not righteous punishment. Annihilation fails to make any difference between different people. Whether you sin more or less than anyone else makes no difference to the punishment you get and therefore it is unrighteous.
The second problem is it is not real punishment. Were you being punished before you were conceived? Of course not, non-existence isn’t a punishment, in fact, it is what many atheists hope to be true. Furthermore, we aren’t owed eternal existence, so the removal of it can’t be said to be a real punishment for the sins we have committed.
Thirdly, annihilation is not the revealed punishment. The Lord Jesus revealed that the punishment involves suffering. He spoke of torment (e.g. Luke 16.23; see too Rev 14.10-11), weeping and gnashing of teeth (e.g. Luke 13.24-28; see too Rom 2:8-9).
The Lord taught that the punishment never ends – it is everlasting punishment (Matt 25.46, see too Rev 20:10).
You may not believe in the existence of hell, but to hold that view sensibly you have to abandon the reality of justice, you have to find a non-divine explanation of the many fulfilled prophecies in Scripture, and you have to overturn all the evidence that Jesus is the Son of God. That is no small task.
Let’s look at our next question.
2.   Is hell fair?
“70 years of sin, eternal punishment?! Talk about an overreaction! The punishment doesn’t fit the crime. 70 years of sin should result in 70 years of punishment – an eye for an eye.” This was the content of a (very understandable) rant from a man I was speaking to.
I suggested that his reasoning wasn’t altogether sound. We never base punishment for crimes on how long it took to commit them. I asked him how long it took to commit a murder. Say it takes someone a week to plan it and carry it out, are we suggesting that the appropriate punishment for the murderer is a week in prison? See the problem? The punishment is not based on the length of time it took to commit the crime but on the gravity of the crime.
When we look at it like that it is no surprise that the Bible teaches eternal punishment. God is infinitely holy and sin-hating. Every sin defies His authority and it also defaces His image – He has created us in His image, as His representatives, and when we sin we demean Him, and “Hell is God’s declaration to the universe that what every sin demeans is of infinite worth.”[1] To sin against Him is to commit a crime of infinite seriousness and it carries with it an infinite penalty. That is why the punishment lasts forever – as finite creatures we can never pay an infinite penalty. As one Bible teacher put it, “Sin is an offence against the infinitely holy God. Its gravity cannot be computed. The supreme dignity of the One against whom man has sinned makes his wrong-doing infinite in gravity.”[2]
The picture is pretty bleak and the prospect is horrendous. We have sinned and, even if we could never sin again, that does nothing to pay for the sins of the past. No matter how good you are, or how hard you try, the sins of the past need to be paid for, and we can never pay that price.
That is why the gospel is such good news – it provides what no religion on earth provides – a substitute. Only one who was Himself infinite could pay an infinite penalty, and so God, in the person of the Son, came into this world to give Himself as the great sacrifice for sin at Calvary. When He hung on the cross He wasn’t merely suffering the physical pains of crucifixion, He was suffering the judgment of God against sin, and He was able to say what no soul in hell will ever be able to say, He said, “It is finished” (John 19.30), and as proof that the price was paid He rose from the dead.
So now you have a choice, you can either take what you deserve (and bear it forever), or you can honestly plead guilty, gratefully accept God’s offer of a substitute, and go free.
The idea of demons running around with pitchforks and people shovelling coal is certainly a man-made idea and worthy of ridicule. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. The Biblical teaching of people being punished forever for their sins against God is neither funny nor fanciful.
Hell is what we deserve, but it’s not what God desires. Salvation is available through Christ. Don’t let anything keep you from receiving that salvation – it just isn’t worth it.

[1] John Piper, Jesus: The Only Way to God – Must You Hear the Gospel to be Saved?, Baker Books, 2010, p. 32.
[2] E. W. Rogers, Treasury of Bible Doctrine, Precious Seed Publications, 1977, pp. 432-433.