The topic of hell usually generates more heat than light, pun intended. The doctrine gets used as a bludgeon against those who claim to follow Jesus, who is said to be meek and lowly of heart, yet spoke so often of this harsh subject.
The late outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens said, “not until the Advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing the dead.” You hear many thinking believers say they’d prefer to get rid of the doctrine if it didn’t have such scriptural support. CS Lewis said, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this if it lay in my power.” Yet Lewis affirmed and defended the teaching of hell.
But Jesus didn’t apologize about the doctrine of hell, tiptoe around it or mince words about it. While we should speak with grace about the subject, Christians need not be ashamed.
HOW JESUS DESCRIBES HELL
Jesus describes hell as consuming fire. (Matthew 5:22) He also calls it a place of outer darkness. (Matthew 8:12) Because these things don’t go together, most biblical scholars say that Jesus is using metaphors. That’s not to say that hell isn’t terrible. Jesus calls it a place of eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46), destruction (Matthew 10:28), torment, and agony. (Luke 16:23-24)
Jesus says that hell was created for the devil and his angels, which implies that it wasn’t originally for man. (Matthew 25:41) So why would a loving God send anyone to such a place?
WHO’S WHO IN HELL, ACCORDING TO JESUS
Jesus gives us a rundown of the who’s who in hell. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says that hell is for those who call their brother a worthless idiot. (Matthew 5:22) Jesus says it for those who treat the opposite sex like a piece of meat. (Matthew 5:29-30) He says it is for those who tempt innocent children into sin. (Matthew 18:6-9) Sowing dehumanizing acts leads to reaping being dehumanized.
Jesus calls the Pharisees sons of hell for their showy religion and neglect for mercy and justice. (Matthew 23:15) Jesus says that those who refused to visit prisoners, feed and clothe the poor will go into eternal punishment. (Matthew 25:41-46) Jesus tells several parables regarding who goes to hell. In one parable, he speaks of a wedding feast. Many received the invitation, but many were too preoccupied to respond, and some who came didn’t show the proper honor. (Matthew 22:1-14) In other parables, he speaks of outer darkness as a place for those who aren’t ready for his coming because they neglect to develop the gifts he gave them. (Matthew 25:28-30) Jesus says there are degrees of punishment for those who are in hell, not everyone is punished the same. (Luke 12:47-48) Ultimately hell is for those who love darkness rather than light. (John 3:19)
Jesus says that hell will be a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. In the Bible, gnashing of teeth is an expression of extreme anger. When Stephen preached to a hostile crowd, Luke says that they “gnashed their teeth at him” right before they stoned him. (Acts 7:54) People in hell weep, but it’s not a weep of repentance. They are sorrowful only for themselves, and it’s coupled with rage against God.
JESUS’ LONGEST SERMON ON HELL
Jesus goes into the most details about hell in his story about the rich man and Lazarus. While many scholars say it is only a parable, even if that’s the case, the lessons from the story provide some very big insights about hell.
1. We see that while hell is a place of torment and agony, God wasn’t actively torturing the rich man there. There were no devils with pitchforks brutalizing him. He was able to remember his past life and aware that there was still a world outside of hell. He still had his consciousness and was coherent enough to carry on a conversation.
2. Hell isn’t somewhere “good” people go. God isn’t sending good people to hell. The rich man is someone who ignored Lazarus for decades while he had plenty. On the Biblical view, there just is no such thing as a “good, moral” human being. All have sinned and acted selfishly. (Romans 3:23) There is no one who is righteous by their own efforts. As William Lane Craig has said, the question isn’t so much “why would a good God let people go to hell?” as it is “why would a just God let people into heaven?”
3. The damned are nameless. As Tim Keller puts it “Hell and heaven essentially are our freely chosen identities going on forever.” The rich man identified with his status and wealth, without that he was nothing.
I think of the rich young ruler who approached Jesus and what good thing he must do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus commended him for his obedience to the Torah. Yet when Jesus asked him to sell all he had and be his disciple, he went away sad, because he “had great possessions”. (Mark 10:17-22) We see in the cases of both rich men that their status and wealth was more important to them than any identity or purpose that God could give them. They neglected to do anything with what they were truly supposed to do with their lives, at the expense of others.
4. Hell’s gates are locked from the inside. Notice also how out of touch with reality this man in hell is. He doesn’t Abraham to tell Lazarus he was sorry for ignoring him. He asks for Lazarus to join him as a servant. He wanted him to relieve his pain a little bit. He didn’t want to join what was going on in Paradise. Even in hell, the rich man was still unrepentant and selfish. Regarding the damned, Lewis famously said “The damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; the doors of hell are locked on the inside. …They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved.”
5. Those who are in hell are not there because of a lack of information. The rich man moved on from looking for temporary relief. He was willing to settle for Lazarus going and warning his brothers, implying that he had insufficient information himself. Abraham replies that they have already had sufficient evidence with Moses and the Prophets, and they could hear them.
Elsewhere in the Bible, we read that non-Jews also have sufficient evidence for God found in nature and conscience. (See Romans 1:19-20, Romans 2:14-15) The late Dallas Willard expressed it this way:
“We should be very sure that the ruined soul is not one who has missed a few more or less important theological points and will flunk a theological examination at the end of life. Hell is not an “oops!” or a slip. One does not miss heaven by a hair, but by constant effort to avoid and escape God. “Outer darkness” is for one who, everything said, wants it, whose entire orientation has slowly and firmly set itself against God and therefore against how the universe actually is.”
Lewis again is on the money here: “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. To those who knock it is opened.”
God knew Cornelius and his band of soldiers would respond to the gospel, so he gave Peter a vision so he’d go with them and preach them the gospel. (Acts 10) He knew that people would respond to the gospel in Macedonia, so he called him to go. (Acts 16:9) In Corinth, Jesus told Paul in a vision “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” before many of them were born again. (Acts 18:9-10) Those who seek the truth, find the truth. God will send a man, send a vision or a dream or whatever else he may need to in order to reach them.
6. Jesus knows that some won’t believe, even with the most extraordinary miraculous evidence. Lazarus then insisted that his brothers will repent if someone rises from the dead. Jesus, foreseeing his death and resurrection, says they won’t. There are some who will remain rebellious to the very end. God ratcheting up the evidence won’t matter. Revelation 16:9 says that even during the apocalypse itself happens and God’s power is on full display, people will still curse God and refuse to repent.
7. Abraham does not say the rich man would have been better off to have never been born. Abraham tenderly calls him a son and says that he experienced good things in his life. Some might say Lazarus would’ve been better off if he wasn’t ever born. He was sick. He was in poverty. But now he was experiencing eternal comfort. Both now testify to God’s justice and kindness, as hard as it is for us to swallow emotionally. It’s interesting to note that Abraham and Lazarus’ joy was not in any way hindered in the rich man’s torment, but that’s not to say they took pleasure in it, either.
Jesus suffered punishment so you didn’t have to
Jesus endured all of the punishment we deserve so that by repenting and following him we’d not ever have to go to hell. There’s no condemnation for those who are in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 8:1) For all our lust, all of our greed, all of our indifference to the suffering around us, he still took the punishment on himself. At the cross both justice and mercy meet. But we have to be willing to let go of our lives, everything we’ve based on identity on, and begin to trust and follow him. (Mark 8:34-38) It’s only in this do we extinguish the fires of hell within our own selves do we find real life.
You may still find some of this unsatisfying or unpalatable. But we have to set our emotions aside and find out if what Christianity claims is true. Is there evidence for the resurrection? Did Jesus really say what the Bible says he did? Then our feelings about God’s judgment must take a backseat. Quoting Keller in closing:
“If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.”
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.