Hell on Trial
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), the Scottish physician and author best known for his creation of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, once wrote, “Hell, I may say … has long dropped out of the thoughts of every reasonable man.” He would get a lot of support for that statement today, and not only from those outside of the Christian church. The idea that untold billions of human beings, including many who would have seemed decent, law-abiding citizens, will spend eternity exposed to God’s unrelenting anger, is simply unacceptable to many people. Even some holding high ecclesiastical office have rejected the idea. John Robinson (1919–1983) the liberal bishop of Woolwich, whose book Honest to God reduced the Creator to “the Ground of Being,” said of the idea, “[God] cannot endure that … and he will not.”
By far the most persistent attack on hell comes in the form of a question: how can a God of love send anyone to hell? The British philosopher and theologian John Hick (1922–2012) argued that hell was “totally incompatible with the idea of God as infinite love.” The argument here is perfectly straightforward: sending people to hell is not a loving thing to do, so a God of love could never do it. How do we answer that?
God’s love is beyond question, and 1 John 4:8 (“God is love”) confirms that love is an integral part of His very essence. Yet to isolate one of His attributes as a way of demolishing hell leaves us with a lopsided caricature of God. In fact, the dominant biblical attribute of God is not His love but His holiness; He is called by His “holy name” more than all other descriptions taken together. He has zero tolerance for sin. He is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Hab. 1:13), a fundamental fact utterly ignored by today’s permissive society. The question hell’s undertakers should be asking is, how can a God of holiness allow anyone into heaven? As “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) and as “nothing unclean will ever enter [heaven]” (Rev. 21:27), they face a difficult task.
There is a sense in which God sends nobody to hell, but that people send themselves there. God has revealed “his eternal power and divine nature … ever since the creation of the world” and all who reject this revelation are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). There is no law forbidding people to acknowledge God’s existence, power, holiness, love, and goodness, or to live in ways that “honor him as God” (v. 21). People have an option—and countless millions opt out of giving God His rightful place, not realizing that in doing so they are “storing up wrath” for the day “when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed” (2:5). J.I. Packer pinpoints this tragic truth: “Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications; nothing more, and equally nothing less.” C.S. Lewis adds the chilling comment, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
Others reject the biblical picture of hell by saying that though God hates sin, He loves the sinner, and so could never condemn anyone to eternal punishment. But is this the case? I have traced thirty-three places in Scripture where God’s hatred is expressed. In twelve He is said to hate sinners’ actions (including the practice of false religion) but in the other twenty-one instances He is said to hate the sinner. One example covers all the others: we are told that “[God’s] soul hates the wicked” (Ps. 11:5).
Although God shows His love by pouring out His common grace on all people—“He makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45)—we dare not confuse this with the saving grace that enables sinners to see their desperate danger and to turn to God in repentance and faith. Those who see God’s love as eliminating hell are ignoring God’s justice and the fundamental fact that He “will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7). As Packer says, “It is not possible to argue that a God who is love cannot also be a God who condemns and punishes the disobedient.”
Many reject biblical teaching on hell by claiming that condemning all unforgiven sinners to eternal punishment in hell violates the principle that a penalty should always fit the crime. How, they ask, can God punish a mere earthly lifetime of sin with suffering that lasts forever? Surely those who lead reasonably respectable lives will not be treated in the same way as mass murderers, rapists, child abusers, and the like? Both questions have straightforward answers. In the first case, time spent committing a crime is usually irrelevant in determining the sentence. For example, a violent, life-threatening assault may be over in less than a minute, but would less than a minute in jail be the right sentence for such a crime? In the second case, there are no “little sins,” because there is no little God to sin against.
The decisive issues are the nature of God and the nature of the sin, and every sin, without exception, is an offense against the majesty and authority of our Creator. What is more, even a highly respectable person has broken what Jesus called the most important of God’s commandments—“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30)—and is therefore guilty of committing the greatest sin. The Bible makes it clear that there are degrees of punishment in hell—Jesus spoke of those who would receive “the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:40)—but no “respectable” sinner can take any comfort from this. Man’s failure to give to God “the glory due his name” (Ps. 29:2) is an infinite evil deserving infinite punishment, and as in hell there is no opportunity or inclination to repent, God’s justice requires that it go on forever.
Yet another attempt to tweak the Bible’s teaching on hell is the suggestion that when the Bible speaks of eternal punishment, it is the punishment that lasts forever, not the punishing; there comes a point at which God, in effect, says, “Enough is enough,” and ends the punishment by annihilating the sinner. But if annihilation is the goal of the suffering, what is the purpose of the suffering? This kind of scenario would condemn God as the supreme sadist. The suggestion also runs headlong into the Bible’s clear teaching that those in hell “have no rest day or night” (Rev. 14:11). In his book The Fire That Consumes, the author Edward Fudge comes to the curious conclusion that although the wicked “are not guaranteed rest during the day” and have “no certain hope that relief will come at night,” this “does not say within itself that the suffering lasts all day and all night.” This sounds suspiciously like special pleading, to say the least.
All other ways of trying to limit the duration of hell collide with the simple fact that in a single breath Jesus spoke of those who “will go away into eternal punishment” while the righteous will go into “eternal life.” In both cases “eternal” translates the identical Greek word—aiōnios. Why would Jesus use the same word to describe the “punishment” of the lost and the “life” of the saved if He meant that only one would be endless? More than fifteen hundred years ago, Augustine wrote, “To say that the life eternal shall be endless [but that] punishment eternal shall come to an end is the height of absurdity.”
Nobody can think properly about the fearful reality of hell (let alone preach on it) and remain emotionally and psychologically unaffected. Yet hell is good news. It confirms that God is eternally sovereign, and that He has the last word about human destiny. It vindicates God’s character, showing that He is utterly holy and just. It guards the new creation against the possibility of ever again being invaded by Satan or infected by sin, and ensures that the “new heavens and a new earth” will be a home “where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13) and where God’s redeemed family will live in His glorious presence forever. It assures all the redeemed that in glory “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
It could even be said that the Bible’s teaching on hell is good news for unconverted people. It alerts them to their appalling danger, and, in countless cases, leads sinners to seek the Savior and to find Him as He “who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10).