by C Michael PattonMay 17th, 2010 181 Comments
No one likes the doctrine of hell. No Christian likes the doctrine of hell. If they do, they have issues. It is that simple.
I have often said that the doctrine of hell is simply the most disturbing doctrine thing known to man. If I could get rid of one of my beliefs, this would be it. Hands down. Better, I would just have God elect all people rather than some and kill two birds with one firecracker!
I have been talking to this guy whom I am pretty sure is not a believer. Let’s just say for the sake of argument he is not. He is a really great guy. While, like everyone, he has his rough edges, he is a very giving person. He has the temptation to horde, but I can see his heart break for people who are in need. He gives and gives consistently. It is hard for me to believe that, according to my theology, he is going to spend eternity suffering in a place of unimaginable horror.
Eternal fire, outer darkness, lake of fire, bottomless pit, weeping and gnashing of teeth: These are all ways that the Bible describes this place we call hell. No matter how we might spin it, it is not good. R.C. Sproul put it this way:
“We have often heard statements such as ‘War is hell’ or ‘I went through hell.’ These expressions are, of course, not taken literally. Rather, they reflect our tendency to use the word hell as a descriptive term for the most ghastly human experience possible. Yet no human experience in this world is actually comparable to hell. If we try to imagine the worst of all possible suffering in the here and now we have not yet stretched our imaginations to reach the dreadful reality of hell.” (Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, 285).
Most people don’t realize this, but almost everything we know about Hell comes from the lips of Jesus.
Listen to the words of Christ here:
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:42-48)
I don’t think it is necessary to take any of the descriptions of hell literally. It could be, but it is hard to see how darkness and fire exist together in a bottomless pit! I am not sure that the mere statement that hell is outside the presence of God does the biblical teaching any justice either. There is simply no place in all of creation that is outside of God’s presence. All of the teachings about hell are simply meant to describe a place that is worse than anything we can imagine, but probably unlike anything we have ever experienced.
While C.S. Lewis’ statement “The doors of hell are locked from the inside” does provide some valuable believers therapy in one respect (and I think it is true), it is what goes on behind those doors that is so troublesome.
It is not so much the pain that I have a problem with. As bad as the pain may be, the duration is the most terrifying. Hell is eternal. I don’t like this. I would be much more comfortable with the annihilation of all the ungodly, as some have opted for (conditional immortality). However, it takes too much doctrinal gymnastics for me to concede with the idea that hell is nothing more than the cessation of existence after a period of suffering. Again, I am well familiar with the alternative theories and I certainly understand why people bite the first chance they get when presented with an alternative, but, in the end, these amount to nothing more than “consulation heresies.”
If eternal life is everlasting, so is eternal death (Matt 25:46).
Therefore, as much as I would like to shed this doctrine and mark it up as some archaic vestige of a former and naive form of Christianity, I cannot. I live with the reality that many (perhaps most) people who have ever been created are going to an eternal place of pain and suffering.
How do I deal with it?
There are so many things that God has let us in on. There are quit a few that he has not. Sometimes he does not tell us things because we simply could not understand them. Sometimes they are yet to be revealed. Many times God withholds information that could help us to understand and be comforted. Take suffering for instance. We all go through times of trials and suffering. Most of the time we don’t know why and God is not going to tell us. Look to Job. God never told him why those terrible things happened to him. He could have. Had he, I am sure that Job would have been comforted. God simply let Job know that he knows what he is doing and he is in charge. That is it.
Concerning the doctrine of Hell, I simply must trust that God knows what he is doing. I am sure there is information and understanding that is withheld from us that might make such things more palatable, but he has obviously chosen not to reveal this to us. Belief is not always easy. Sometimes it is. Love, grace, forgiveness, hope, and the new earth are all easy to believe. Election, righteousness, judgment, and hell are not. That is why the latter is so difficult to accept and why, I believe, we have so many alternative answers continually being proposed. We simply want our faith to be more palatable rather than trust that God knows what he is doing. It is very hard to believe God sometimes.
However, I don’t have a vote in truth. My emotional disposition toward a doctrine has absolutely no effect on the truthfulness of the doctrine itself. As I have often said, the palatability of a doctrine does not determine its veracity. God is on the throne and he knows what he is doing. Whenever I begin to feel more righteous than him, I must remember who I am and who he is. “Will not the judge of the earth do what is right?”
- God loves all people.
- God is not willing that any should perish.
- God is in control.
- Those who don’t trust Christ will spend eternity in hell.
These seem paradoxical. Perhaps they are. But this does not mean that they are not true.
One passage of Scripture that I often think of when I begin to whine about hell is Rom. 3:4:
Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”
We all have our temptations to bring divine tribunals against our Maker. We all have our temptations to call him and his word into account. We all have those times when we want to judge God. However, being a believer does not mean that we believed him once. Neither does it mean that we selectively believe him. Being a believer is a characteristic mindset that trusts God always, even when it is hard or it seems unnatural—even when our belief is going to station people we love in hell. But above this, we must believe that God knows what he is doing and he will aways do what is right and good in accordance with his perfect character.
Having said all of this, I don’t believe that God does loves hell anymore than we do.
- Hell: Across the Spectrum of History
- Hell and the Happiness of Heaven – Part 1 (Sam Storms)
- Loopholes for Hell: A Response to Jeff Cook’s Response to Francis Chan
- Reflections on Heaven: How can Heaven be Heaven when People you Love are in Hell?
- Hell and the Happiness of Heaven – Part 3 (Sam Storms)