In recent days, the evangelical church has been rocked by Rob Bell’s open questioning of the doctrine of hell. Dr. Sproul answers those questions in a forthcoming book, Unseen Realities: Heaven, Hell, Angels and Demons. In the following excerpt from the book, Dr. R. C. Sproul strongly affirms that hell is a biblical concept and a very real place. Unseen Realities, which is jointly published by Christian Focus Publications and Ligonier Ministries, will be released in the United Kingdom in May and in the United States in July.
I suppose there is no topic in Christian theology more difficult to deal with, particularly on an emotional level, than the doctrine of hell. In fact, the doctrine has become so controversial in the modern era that it is almost never addressed.
Old-fashioned revival preaching was characterized by the idea of “hellfire and brimstone.” This idea is especially connected with the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century and the ministry of Jonathan Edwards. No theologian or preacher is more associated with the concept of hell than Edwards. I once read a college textbook in which Edwards was used as an illustration of someone who was sadistic because he seemed to preach so often on the subject of hell. That bothered me, because while Edwards certainly believed in the reality of hell, he had a passionate concern for the spiritual well-being of the people in his congregation. The sadistic person takes some kind of delight or glee in contemplating another person’s torment or torture, and that was certainly not true of Edwards. He preached on hell so his people would not have to experience it.
What a contrast from that time to our own. We seem to be allergic to any serious discussion of the doctrine of hell. In fact, there has probably never been a time in the history of the church when more people have challenged this doctrine than in our own day. Liberal theologians, of course, completely dismiss it as part of the mythological worldview of primitive people, a concept unworthy of the love of God and of Jesus. Others, even within the professing evangelical camp, have created quite a stir by suggesting the doctrine of annihilationism, which says that the ultimate judgment of the sinner is not ongoing, eternal punishment in a place called hell, but simply the annihilation of the person’s existence, and that the great punishment, the great loss, that accompanies annihilation is the loss of the happiness promised to those who will live eternally in heaven. So we have moved away from looking very seriously at the concept of hell. People look back at Edwards and the frontier preachers as theologians who tried to scare people into the kingdom of God by holding out the threat of hell.
However, the concept of hell was not invented by Edwards, by John Wesley, or by any of the frontier revival preachers. Neither was it invented by the Reformers of the sixteenth century or by Thomas Aquinas or by Augustine. It is a biblical concept, and almost everything that we learn about hell in the Bible comes to us, oddly enough, from the lips of Jesus Himself. It is because Jesus spoke so frequently about hell that the church takes the concept so seriously, or at least should do so.
I remember my mentor, Dr. John Gerstner, giving a series of lectures on hell. In that series, Gerstner made this comment: “The idea of a hell that involves some kind of eternal punishment at the hands of a just and holy God is so profoundly difficult for us to handle emotionally, that the only person who would have enough authority to convince us of the reality of such a place would be Jesus Himself.”
Whenever I enter into discussions about the doctrine of hell, people ask, “R. C., do you believe that the New Testament portrait of hell is to be interpreted literally?” When we look at some of the statements that are made about hell in the New Testament, we see that it is described in various ways—as a place of torment, as a pit or an abyss, as a place of eternal fire, and as a place of outer darkness. When people ask me whether these images of hell are to be interpreted literally, I usually respond by saying, “No, I don’t interpret those images literally,” and people typically respond with a sigh of relief.
One of the reasons that classical orthodox theology has tended not to interpret these images literally is because, if you do, you have a very difficult time making them agree with one another. If hell is a place of burning fire on the one hand and a place of outer darkness on the other hand, that’s difficult to reconcile, because usually where there’s fire, there’s light. You can’t have fire in a total darkness. So there is a collision of images there.
If we take the New Testament’s descriptions of hell as symbolic language, we have to remember the function of symbols. The function of figurative language or metaphorical language in Scripture is to demonstrate a likeness to a reality. A symbol is not the reality itself. The symbol points beyond itself to something else. The question is whether the reality to which the symbol points is less intense or more intense than the symbol. The assumption is that there’s always more to the reality than what is indicated by the symbol, which makes me think that, instead of taking comfort that these images of the New Testament may indeed be symbolic, we should be worrying that the reality toward which these symbols point is more ghastly than the symbols. I once heard a theologian say that a sinner in hell would do anything he could and give everything he had to be in a lake of fire rather than to be where he actually is. So even though we don’t know exactly where hell is, how hell operates, and what it is really like, all of the imagery our Lord uses suggests that it is a place we don’t want to go. It is a place of unspeakable pain and torment.
Again, the question is raised whether the punishment that people endure in hell is physical punishment, since the Scriptures speak about the resurrection of the body not only for the believer but also for the unbeliever, which means that a person in hell after the last judgment will be in a resurrected body suited for his punishment. Because so much of the language of hell in the New Testament refers to corporal punishment, many have drawn the conclusion that hell does indeed involve a relentless, endless, physical kind of suffering.
That may be the case, but other theologians have suggested that the essence of the punishment is in the torment of the soul, in being cut off from the blessedness of the presence of God and from His grace. Even to carry around that spiritual distress within a resurrected body would be torment enough. But, in the final analysis, these are issues about which we can only speculate.
Let’s look for a moment at some of the passages in the New Testament that speak of this place called “hell.” In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the talents, and toward the end of this chapter, Jesus says: “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vv. 29-30).
One of the questions people ask me is this: “Do you think that hell is separation from God?” I usually give a kind of enigmatic reply to that. First I say, “Yes, hell is a separation from God.” Again, people breathe a sigh of relief when I say that. I think that when they hear me say that, they imagine that hell is simply a place where God is completely absent, not something terrible like a lake of fire. They imagine that it is just a place where people gather, such as in Jean-Paul Sartre’s little play No Exit, where they’re confined and condemned to a miserable existence dealing with each other, without the presence of God. But I then say, “Before you breathe a sigh of relief that hell represents the absence of God, let’s think about that for a moment.”
In the normal language of our culture, I see frequent allusions and references to hell. You’ve heard them. Someone comes back from a tour of duty in the military and uses the expression, “War is hell.” Or someone who has endured great physical suffering says, “I went through hell in that experience.” Those kinds of statements must be understood as hyperbole, that is, as obvious exaggeration. If we could find the person who is the most miserable person in the world today, the person who is experiencing suffering at the worst possible level, that person still is deriving certain benefits from the presence of God. God’s graciousness, His benevolence, what we call His common grace, the grace that He gives to all people, is not totally removed from any individual during this lifetime. But in hell, it is removed. Being in a place where the blessings and the grace of God are utterly absent would be far worse than anything that could possibly befall us in this world. So, I don’t take a lot of comfort in thinking that hell is the absence of God.
When someone asks me, “Is hell the absence of God?” I answer by saying “Yes” in the sense that it is the absence of God’s benefits, the absence of His benevolence, His graciousness, and so on. But I think that if the people in hell could take a vote or have a referendum to deport one person from their midst, to expel one person from hell, I think that the universal vote would be given to God, because the person who is most unwelcome in hell is God Himself. As far as the people in hell are concerned, it would be wonderful if God would desert them altogether.
The problem with hell is not simply the absence of God’s graciousness. It is the presence of God that is so difficult. God is present in hell because He is omnipresent. The psalmist declares, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there” (Ps. 139:7-8). If God is everywhere in His being, then certainly He is in hell as much as He is anywhere else. The problem, then, is what He is doing there. He’s there in His judgment. He is there in His punitive wrath. He is present in hell as the One who executes His justice on those who are there. That’s why I say that anyone who is in hell would most want God, more than anyone else, to leave. This is our fundamental nature as sinners—to be fugitives from the presence of God. The very first sin provoked Adam and Eve to flee from the presence of God and hide themselves from Him. The last thing they wanted after they experienced guilt and shame was for God to be present. And that, if you can multiply it infinitely, is the experience of those who are in hell.
Jesus says that hell is the place of outer darkness. To understand the force of that, we have to think of it in light of the Old Testament imagery about the outer places and the outer darkness. We remember that God described two alternatives for those who received His law. To those who kept the law, He promised blessedness, and for those who renounced, rejected, or disobeyed His law, He promised His curse. The whole concept of curse in the Old Testament was articulated with the imagery of darkness, of an outer darkness, the darkness that was outside the commonwealth of Israel, outside the camp. Conversely, the presence of God was described as a place of light where the glory of God radiated all around. So when Jesus warns about the outer darkness, He’s warning about the place of the curse, the place where the light and radiance of God’s countenance does not shine.
Also in Matthew 25, Jesus says that those who will be cast into the outer darkness will experience “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This is a concrete image that any Jew would understand, and one I think we can all readily comprehend. There are different kinds of weeping. There is the weeping of those who mourn. There is the weeping of those who are in pain. And there is the weeping of those who are deliriously happy. But when we add to this notion of weeping the idea of gnashing of teeth, it is obvious that Jesus is not describing a pleasant circumstance. He is talking about a deep, mournful kind of wailing. But the gnashing of teeth, as we see in the New Testament, is often associated with hatred. When the crowd heard Stephen proclaim the Word of God, they gnashed their teeth in fury (Acts 7:54).
When a person spends time in hell, his relationship with God does not improve. The person goes to hell in the first place because he is hostile toward God. As he experiences the outer darkness where he weeps, he gnashes his teeth in ever-greater hatred of his Maker.
The nature of hell is not completely clear to us. That is why people often ask me questions about hell, questions to which I do not always have easy answers. However, because our Lord tells us so much of what we know about hell, I believe these questions are important ones.