A recent report about religion in America found that while most Americans believed in heaven, a lesser amount believed in hell. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 74 per cent of Americans believed in heaven, but only around 60 per cent believed in hell.
Of course this should not be surprising. Most people think they are going to heaven. Most people do not think they are going to hell. Most people think they are good enough and should be going to heaven. Most people do not think they are bad enough to be going to hell.
This is simply a reflection of the spirit of the times. A nation that has rejected its Judeo-Christian roots is now left with a spiritual smorgasbord of beliefs, and a relativistic view of truth and morality. The report, called the “US Religious Landscape Survey” also found that 79 per cent of Americans believe that miracles occur. It also said that of those who pray on a regular basis, 31 per cent claim God answers their prayers at least once a month, and around 20 per cent of Americans said they receive direct answers to prayer requests at least once a week.
Commenting on the heaven and hell figures, one of the Pew researchers said, “Once upon a time, belief in heaven and hell were very closely related and in many people’s views were two sides of the same coin. That does not seem to be the case anymore. Many more people believe in heaven than believe in hell.” He surmised that Americans today viewed God as “someone who is merciful, generous and forgiving” rather than as “a judge who punishes people”.
Of course. Who wouldn’t? If we reject the self-disclosure of God as found in Jesus and the Bible, then we will always go for the easy option. And the idea of a God as an easy-going chap, a sort of celestial Jeeves who is always there to do our bidding is a lot more appealing than a God who is in fact God, and will hold us to account for what we believe and the way we live our lives.
But once again it all comes down to the question of authority. This is not the place to make the case for the truthfulness of the Christian worldview. But if the Christian truth claims are in fact what we are holding onto, then of course we need to take the whole package, not just those bits and pieces which appeal to us.
It is – or should be – well known that Jesus spoke more about hell and everlasting punishment than anyone else in the whole Bible. He of course also spoke a lot about grace, mercy and forgiveness. While some Americans apparently have a problem holding the two together simultaneously, the Bible does not. Indeed, God throughout Scripture is portrayed as a loving and gracious God, as well as a holy and righteous judge.
Unfortunately too much fuzzy thinking has been allowed to go unchallenged concerning the biblical view of God. One common ploy is to argue that there are two Gods: the harsh, judgmental God of the Old Testament, and the loving, kind Jesus of the New.
But this just does not work. In truth, the holy and just judge of all things found in the Old Testament is also the merciful, longsuffering God. The OT passages describing the holiness, wrath and sternness of God are easily found. Here are just a few:
-“Then my anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them; so that they will say in that day, Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us?” (Deut. 31:17)
-“God judges the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day.” (Psalm 7:11)
-“So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.” (Ezek 22:31)
But so too are those OT passages which depict God as a gracious, compassionate lover. Consider just a few:
-“As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:13)
-“But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children.” (Psalm 103:17)
-“The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.” (Psalm 145:8)
-“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23-24)
One of the classic passages in this regard is Hosea 11:1-9. It is worth quoting in full:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them. Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent? Swords will flash in their cities, will destroy the bars of their gates and put an end to their plans. My people are determined to turn from me. Even if they call to the Most High, he will by no means exalt them. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man – the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.”
Things are the same in the New Testament. Jesus demonstrates grace, love, forgiveness and mercy throughout his earthly ministry. Examples of this are really not needed here – his life and work should be well enough known.
But consider also Jesus the judge, Jesus who displays the same wrath against sin as Yahweh in the Old Testament did. He is not always the meek and mild Jesus. “He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.” (Mark 3:5) “But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said.” (Mark 8:33)
The cleaning of the temple is a classic case of his divine anger. “And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables.” (John 2:15)
Of course the book of Revelation is all about the Lamb of God who becomes the judge of the universe, his fury poured out on those who reject him. Consider just one description of Jesus in this book: “Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron scepter. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.” (Rev. 19:15)
And the warnings of Jesus about hell and future punishment are as numerous as they are sobering. Here are a few of the many passages where Jesus speaks to this:
-“But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Mat 8:12)
-“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Mat 25:41)
-“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell.” (Luke 12:4-5)
-“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” (John 3:36)
And as John Piper reminds us, these warnings about hell are not to be seen as some abstract, natural consequences for rejecting God. Jesus “calls hell ‘punishment’ (Matt 25:46). It is not a mere self-imposed natural consequence (like cigarette smoking leading to lung cancer); it is the penalty of God’s wrath (like a judge sentencing a criminal to hard labor). The images Jesus uses of how people come to be in hell do not suggest natural consequences but the exercise of just wrath.”
Now those who think hell is unloving or unjust need to bear a few things in mind. Sin is the most monstrous thing there is, because God is the most wonderful, holy and pure thing there is. Punishment of sin is something a just and holy God must insist upon. But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus has taken our place, and suffered the punishment we deserved, so that we might be able to receive the free gift of salvation.
But if we reject that free gift, and reject the giver of that free gift, we close off all other options, and are choosing hell for ourselves. We are saying as Milton said in Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”
The only people who find themselves in hell are those who ultimately choose to be there. God has made every provision for us to escape hell. So if we end up there, we will have no one else to blame but ourselves. As CS Lewis wisely put it, “There are two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell, chose it.”
Given the utter urgency of our eternal destiny, we desperately need to get back to the H word. We need again to preach hell, as part of the whole council of God. We help no one by ignoring or downplaying this most important doctrine.