Some months ago, R.C. Sproul held an open forum on Twitter. He was asked which doctrine he struggles with the most. His answer? Hell. How comforting to know that a theological giant like Sproul wrestles with something that I have wrestled with my whole Christian life.
For almost twenty years, now, I have believed in the infallibility of the Bible. I believe every jot and tittle, every nuance, every literal word, every bit of it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t wrestle with some of it. Maybe even a lot of it. When I wrestle, faith picks up where belief leaves off, and then I can rest.
When I talk to a non-believer or even a believer who takes issue with the notion of Hell, I am able to spout reasons based in scripture why I believe the doctrine to be true. If I’m honest, though, internally I am raising the same objections. How can a loving God inflict such a harsh punishment? Why didn’t God just banish people from Heaven to stay on an earth-like place for eternity, like C.S. Lewis’ “Grey Town” in The Great Divorce? Can’t he just destroy people who don’t accept the grace of Christ? Judge them. Make sure they understand their earthly error. Then zap them into oblivion. Or at least sentence them to a hundred or even a thousand years. A sentence of an eternity of anguish seems eternally steep.
As God’s image bearers, we humans understand the concept of justice and discipline. Parents, governments, societies, all operate under a system of actions and consequences. And civilized systems seek to make the punishment fit the crime. We weep over Les Miserables and grit our teeth in frustration over Jean Valjean’s nineteen-year prison sentence for stealing bread for his starving family. Perhaps people who deny the justice of Hell might view Javert as a type of God and his church, seeing God as a severe judge, relentless in his pursuit of sinners. I don’t blame them. The justice and even existence of Hell is hard to defend when I want to agree with every dissenter.
However, as unpleasant (to say the least) as the doctrine of Hell is, our belief about it greatly influences our view of the Gospel, God’s holiness, and our depravity. We must ask ourselves if our belief about the infallibility of the Bible is real and thorough. If we’re not sure, we must take on the attitude of the father in Mark 9:24 who exclaims, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Then we must run straight to the source.
An authentic follower of Christ does just that: follows Christ. And an authentic follower of Christ believes in the infallibility of God’s word. The Bible is to believed. All of it. Our belief about Hell is as crucial as our belief about the Gospel. Hell is real. It is because of the reality of Hell that we need the reality of the Gospel. This is why Christ came. Christ talks about Hell more than any other person in the Bible did. He knew the reality of it, and he died so that we wouldn’t have to endure it.
I don’t know why God set up his world the way he did. I wish that we could just all be together with him, and that the price of following or not following him wasn’t so steep. But what is the alternative? We can’t be lax, or trite, or easy going about being human. We were created by a being that is so above us that we can barely keep him in our mind. He is holy. And it is his holiness that requires him to set up his world in such a way that only a relatively few honest seekers can find him. It would be impossible for half-hearted creatures to be where he is.
In Isaiah we read, “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.’” This is just so good! Although God is far, far above us, he tells us that we can rise to him if we lower ourselves. All the way. With no reservation. God gets all of the glory and we get God. That is more than a fair deal!
Trip Lee, Christian rap artist and speaker said, “God’s glory is not only good for God, it’s good for us.” God is not arrogant or unjust when he says that he must get all of the glory. His glory is for our good. Hell is not a place where he sends people when they are bad. Hell is the alternative to not giving God all of the glory. And because of our depravity, it is our default destination. There are only two choices here. One is to stay in our state of depravity and remain separated from God. The other is to submit to the Savior, and accept his gift of redemption.
Even if the fire the Bible talks about when referring to Hell was not literal, separation from God forever is a fate I fear more than anything else in this world, or the next. Even if I were to spend eternity in the most opulent accommodations, to do it apart from God’s presence would be, well, hell.
Yet even as I write this, knowing it to be true, I still blench at the notion. I know some reading this will, too. But our belief about Hell (or any truth) doesn’t influence or change the reality of it.
God created us. We rebelled. He loves us, so he made a way for us to be with him without compromising his holiness.
C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, puts it this way:
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. Those who knock it is opened.