When was the last time you heard a sermon on hell in church? Hell has almost become a forgotten doctrine in most churches. That is until earlier this year when 40-year-old Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan came out with his new book, Love Wins. In this book, he stirred up a controversy about his view of hell. Bell’s view departs from the historical Christian view of hell and casts doubt on the doctrine of the eternal punishment of the wicked. His premise is that in the end God’s love wins everyone over, a view that comes awfully close to Universalism (the view that everyone will eventually go to heaven). However, Bell denies that he is a Universalist.
The point of this article is not to engage this controversy but rather to look at what the Bible actually teaches about hell. Now that this subject is back on everyone’s theological radar it seems like a good time to discuss this subject. Why have we heard so little about hell in our churches? In an interview with Bell on MSNBC this year, hosted by Martin Bashir, Bell was asked, “Aren’t you just amending the gospel to make it more palatable for people today?” It would appear that many evangelical pastors almost feel the need to apologize for God about the doctrine of hell. The problem seems to be how could a loving God consign people to everlasting punishment in a place of fire and torment?
A Misunderstanding of God’s Nature
The question shows a misunderstanding of God’s nature. The study of God’s nature and character would fill many pages of a theology textbook. So let us keep it simple and focus on three of His main attributes that apply to this teaching. God is love (1John 4:8), God is just (Isaiah 45:21) and He is holy (1Peter 1:16). This means God cannot stand to look upon sin nor allow it into heaven (Habakkuk 1:13). It also means that all sin must be paid for in order for God to remain just (Romans 6:23). However, God is also love and He wants to forgive our sin so that we can dwell with Him forever in heaven (Roman 5:8-9).
All three of God’s attributes must be satisfied in order for us to be forgiven and escape hell. Only God’s plan of redemption fulfilled by Christ’s death and resurrection can satisfy His love, justice and holiness. Once these three attributes of God have been satisfied, then God can complete His purpose of restoring humanity to glorifying and enjoying Him forever. In denying the reality of hell what seems to get forgotten is the nature of God and the fallen nature of man. The reality is that every person has sinned (Romans 3:23) and therefore every person deserves the wages of sin, which is death and separation from God in hell. The only reason anyone goes to heaven is due to the grace and mercy of God. God is not obligated to save anyone. God created us with free will. He then told our parents in the Garden the results of choosing to disobey Him (Genesis 2:17). Rather than looking at the doctrine of hell as God being unloving we should lay the blame where it belongs, at the feet of man’s disobedience.
Hell Never Intended for Man
God never created hell with humans in mind. It was created for the devil and his fallen angels (Matthew 25:41). Satan was originally known as Lucifer, the morning star or son of the morning. Blinded by pride, he led a rebellion against God to take over God’s throne and convinced a third of the angels in heaven to join him. There was war in heaven and Satan and his angels were defeated and cast out (Revelation 12:4,7-9). Many feel the account of Sennacherib’s fall in Isaiah 14:12-17 also refers to the event of Satan’s fall mentioned in Revelation 12. Sennacherib was an arrogant Assyrian king who thought of himself as greater than Israel’s God. Isaiah’s passage refers to his downfall and humbling.
Some Bible commentators think that because of the Law of Double Reference it also gives us insight to the origin of Satan. The law of Double Reference simply means that Bible prophecy often had more than one meaning. It would refer to a physical event not too far into the future while also referring to something of spiritual significance in the distant future. The Lake of Fire or what we commonly refer to as hell, will be the final abode of Satan and his fallen angels, which we call demons (Revelation 20:10).
The Meaning of Death
The consequence of sin is death according to the Bible (Romans 6:23). Death means separation, not a cessation of existence. Every person was created a living, eternal soul; we cannot go out of existence. There are two kinds of death – physical and spiritual. Physical death is the separation of the soul from the body. The soul awaits a new resurrected body in which to inhabit eternity. Spiritual death is the separation of the resurrected body and soul from God. This spiritual death is also referred to as the second death. This second death happens after the final judgment of unbelievers at the end of time (Revelation 20:11-15). Everyone will face the first death because that is the consequence of sin and all are sinners (Hebrews 9:27). However, no one needs to face the second death, although many will. The reason I say no one needs to face this second death is because God has made a way to escape it through Christ.
Jesus promised that all who truly believed in Him would never die; they would never taste of death (John 5:24;11:26). He wasn’t referring to the first death but the second. Christ has tasted of death for everyone (Hebrews 2:9). He has paid the price for sin which each of us owed God (1John 4:10).
However, this doesn’t automatically cause everyone to escape hell and get into heaven. Each person must exercise their free will and believe – accept God’s gift or it will not be credited to their account (John 3:16; Romans 4:1-3). So you see if someone misses heaven and goes to hell it will not be God’s fault. He has done everything possible to keep us out of hell. As it was said before, hell was not intended for man but for fallen angels. For them there is no second chance, no redemption. God only provides this for man because of His great love for us. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11); He wants them to live forever with Him. However, God is holiness and justice cannot be wiped out by His love. God must be consistent with all of His nature
No Hell – No God
When you think of it logically, if there is a God then there must be a hell. God cannot be anything less than perfect and still qualify as God. If we are honest with ourselves as humans we know that we are not perfect, far from it. We see the evidence of this everyday in the News. People get outraged all the time at the injustice in this world and ask, “Where is God?” If there is no punishment for sin then God is not just and therefore He cannot qualify as God. If there is no hell then there is no God. We also should never forget that God has the prerogative as God to exercise His justice how and when He sees fit. Someone will say, “I understand God has to punish sin but He is also loving and forgiving, so why does the punishment have to be forever? Why can’t God just annihilate people or have them serve a thousand years in hell and after enough time set them free?”
This seems like cruel and unusual punishment.
As humans, we fail to understand God’s hatred of sin and His holiness. These are foreign concepts to us sinful beings. Man was made an eternal being – that is why the punishment for sin is eternal – remember the second death? We had the choice of eternal life or eternal death given to us in the Garden. The choice was not temporary life or temporary death. God means what He says and told us exactly what to expect – that is true justice. We cannot plead ignorance now or say, “I did not think you really meant it God.” Jesus warned of the reality, the suffering and the eternity of hell during His earthly ministry. He used the garbage dump of Jerusalem where the fire was always burning the rubbish and the maggots could always be seen crawling to illustrate hell. He warned people not, “to go to hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched.” (Mark 9:43-44). Even the compassionate, loving, forgiving.
Jesus of the New Testament believed in the reality of an eternal hell. After all, if there is no hell what was the point of Jesus dying on the cross? What was He saving us from? If there is no hell, what is the mission and message of the Church. Satan is accomplishing a masterstroke of strategy by getting the Church to disbelieve in the reality of an eternal hell.
John Hawkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.