One topic which is rarely discussed today – even by Christians – is that of hell. Yet it is a topic which should often be on our lips for the simple reason that the Christ we claim to follow spoke more about this reality than any other biblical writer.
But if hell is seldom considered today, or preached about, it does come up every once in a while, especially by those who want to do away with it altogether, or at least present major objections to it. That seems to be the case, for example, with Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins.
Since the book will not be released for a few more days yet, I perhaps cannot speak directly to it. But what I can speak directly to is what the Bible says about this topic. While people like Bell may find the teaching about hell to be problematic, I find no such reservations in Scripture.
Indeed, there is far too much biblical material here to appeal to, so let me just focus on what Jesus himself said about this issue. Of interest, Scot McKnight, who aligns himself with the emerging church movement, and is a keen defender of Bell, admitted back in 1999 that “What Christians have believed about hell has been constructed almost entirely out of what Jesus teaches in the Gospels.”
But even in the Gospels there are far too many passages to consider, so let me narrow things down even further, and just concentrate on Matthew’s Gospel. As mentioned, Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone else in the New Testament. So if we wish to be biblical, as well as Christlike, we need to agree with our Lord about this matter. Consider then just a sample of what he taught on this subject as found in Matthew.
Let’s begin with Matt. 3:11-12 wherein John the Baptist speaks about the coming of Jesus and his role in divine judgment. John says this about the one who will come after him: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Craig Keener notes the realistic imagery employed by John, and then goes on to comment, “John does not simply echo the Jewish consensus of the day, because opinions divided on the character of hell. He specifically affirmed the harshest image of his day: divine judgment involved eternal torment.”
And as Craig Blomberg reminds us, the “adjective ‘unquenchable’ (literally fireproof [Greek asbestos]) implies that fuel will always remain to keep the fire burning and speaks against the doctrine of annihilationism (the idea that unbelievers simply cease conscious existence upon death).”
Consider also the Sermon on the Mount. Many believers enjoy this portion of Matthew’s Gospel, although they tend to go quiet on discussions of hell. But this is mentioned at least three times quite clearly and indirectly several other times in the Sermon. In Matt. 5:22 for example Jesus discusses those who “will be in danger of the fire of hell”.
The word Gehenna stands behind the NIV’s word ‘hell’ and is used as a metaphor for it. The term refers to the Hinnom Valley outside of Jerusalem where garbage was apparently burned day and night in the times of Jesus, “making it a perfect metaphor for eternal fiery judgment” as Grant Osborne puts it.
Matt 7:23 presents these momentous words of Jesus concerning the lost: “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” Being cast out of God’s presence is one of the many biblical images for hell. In the next chapter Jesus speaks also of “utter darkness” (8:12).
Also in Matt. 8:11-12 we read about the fate of the unredeemed as involving “weeping and gnashing of teeth” which “vividly portrays the unspeakable anguish of separation from God,” as David Turner puts it. He continues, “This frightening imagery marks one of the most sobering moments of Matthew’s story of Jesus.”
In Matt. 13:42 Jesus again uses the phrase, “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. As Leon Morris reminds us, “This expression occurs 6 times in Matthew, once in Luke, and nowhere else in the New Testament. It leaves no doubt about the unhappiness of the final state of the wicked.”
And in Matt. 25:41,46 we read about the twin fates of humanity: heaven and hell. At the final judgment Christ himself will separate people into one of two destinies: eternal bliss or eternal wrath. Jesus says quite clearly that the wicked “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life”.
It is interesting how very often Jesus pairs eternity in heaven with eternity in hell. If the annihilationists are right, then it seems we should not keep finding such constant pairings. Indeed, to be consistent, if the annihilationists want to deny eternal suffering of the wicked, then they should deny the eternal joy of the righteous.
Long ago Augustine wrote about this: “The phrases ‘eternal life’ and ‘eternal punishment’ are parallel and it would be absurd to use them in one and the same sentence to mean: ‘Eternal life will be infinite, while eternal punishment will have an end’.”
Or as Turner much more recently put is, “This passage speaks clearly on the most awesome matter, humanity’s eternal destiny. The juxtaposition of eternal life and eternal punishment in Matt. 25:46 renders the notion of the annihilation of the lost, sometimes called conditional immortality, as theological wishful thinking.”
And Robert Peterson is right to say, “even if Matthew 25:41 and 46 were the only verses to describe the fate of the wicked, the Bible would clearly teach eternal condemnation, and we would be obligated to believe it and teach it on the authority of the Son of God.”
Other texts in Matthew could be discussed. This then is only the briefest summary of some of the data which Matthew makes use of, which in turn is only a small sample of the larger Gospel testimony, and just a tiny part the overall biblical witness. Anyone who simply reads through the Gospel accounts will see how time and time again Jesus broaches this subject.
Kenneth Kantzer says by way of summary, “Those who acknowledge Jesus Christ as lord cannot escape the clear, unambiguous language with which he warns of the awful truth of eternal punishment.” His teachings make it clear that not everyone will be saved (thus refuting universalism) and those who reject him will suffer endless punishment (thus rejecting annihilationism).
Carl F.H. Henry concurs, “Jesus’ teaching makes it patently obvious that no correct view of final judgment can be elaborated that empties hell of its terrors and depicts God’s last judgment as benevolent toward the impenitent and ungodly.”
Seeking God’s heart
To make the biblical case for hell is of course no light thing, and it only can be done with a heavy heart and with tears. As J.I Packer has said, “To announce the reality of hell is a testing and gruelling task. The compassion and fellow-feeling that should mark all Christian communicators require us to do it, not with gloating and contempt, but with tears, if not in our eyes, then in our hearts.”
And we must recall that God does not send people to hell; they send themselves there. As C.S. Lewis famously said, “There are only 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, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find; to those who knock it is opened.”
Or as Dallas Willard put it, “The ultimately lost person is the person who cannot want God. Who cannot want God to be God. Multitudes of such people pass by every day, and pass into eternity. The reason they do not find God is that they do not want him or, at least, do not want him to be God. Wanting God to be God is very different from wanting God to help me.”
The simple truth is this: even a cursory reading of the Gospels will review that Jesus spoke much more about hell than about heaven; and much more about the wrath of God than the love of God. If that was the emphasis Jesus placed on these key themes, then perhaps that should be our emphasis as well.
Spurgeon once remarked about those who say, “I could not rest comfortably if I believed the orthodox doctrine about the ruin of men.” He replied this way, “Most true. But what right have we to rest comfortably?” Absolutely. The doctrine of hell should make us squirm, weep and grieve.
But it is a doctrine everywhere affirmed in Scripture, and no more so than by Jesus himself. Yes it is a terrible doctrine, but one which we must proclaim if we really love the lost. It seems it is those who don’t really care about the lost who want to deny or whitewash the clear teachings of Jesus here.
May God break our hearts with what breaks his heart.