Yes, Virginia, There is a Hell

April 28, 2010

Monday, I told you that I’m an agnostic…

…when it comes to global warming.  I just don’t know if it’s happening the way so many people say it is.  I still try to do my part for the environment.  I just don’t think I need the motivation of global warming to push me.

That got me thinking about hell.

Hell, as a concept, is about as popular as global warming.  There’s plenty of people who are adamant that it exists.  There are a whole bunch of people who’d rather not believe it exists.  Either way, if hell exists, it’s bad.

I’ve actually been talking to a lot of people about hell lately.  Some of my Christian friends have serious doubts about the existence of an eternal place of torment.  Others are sure of it’s existence, because they have seen visions of it. 

I’m not going to debate the existence of hell, since it’s about as provable as global warming.  It just got me thinking about what hell does for faith…

Point: There’s No Literal Place Called Hell

If you ask me, most anyone would like there to be no literal place of torment.  If you are a fan of hell, I think you need to re-evaluate your priorities. 

I’d much rather hell not exist.  I’d rather go to heaven and find out that everyone got there.  It wouldn’t bother me in the least that I had been a Christian my whole life and fought the urge every day to smoke cigarettes and juggle cats, just to get to heaven and found my slovenly neighbor standing next to me in his beer-stained T-shirt.  I’d rather not worry about family and friends that don’t believe what I do.

The problem with hell is that there’s not nearly as many Bible verses that “prove” hell exists as you likely think.  Many times Jesus mentions “hell,” he’s talking about the real, literal burning trash heap outside of Jerusalem.  It was full of rubbish and dead things and toilet water.  He’s saying, “See how you’re acting, Pharisee Frank?  You’re religion stinks like that dump over there.”  No one was confused by the illustration.

The people I talk to who prefer to not believe hell exists are all about the love of God.  How can a loving God send people to hell, they ask.  Why would God torment people who just believed the wrong things?  They’d rather talk to people about a God who loves them enough to know them personally, without threats of torment.  Sounds great to me!

Speaking of heaven and hell, a lot of Jews, by my understanding, are not entirely positive that heaven exists.  Personally, I think it would do Christianity a lot of good to not be as sure as we are that heaven exists.  Would you be a Christian without the sure promise of heaven?  Would the “promise” of Jesus making you fabulously wealthy and blessed on Earth be enough without heaven?

Counter-Point: There is a Hell, and You’re Going There

Of course, just the day after my friend told me all about his hell-free utopia, I talked with another friend.  I was still pondering what Christianity would be like without hell.  Perhaps it would be a kinder, gentler Christianity, one with a soft, cuddly, loving God and a Messiah that truly died for everyone, even those blinded by sin to the truth.  It sounded good, though I wasn’t ready to dive in.  I asked my next friend if the love of God was enough motivation for him to share Jesus with his neighbor.


He was also giving me the stink eye that told me he thought I was going to hell, just for denying hell exists. 

He said that only hell provided a strong enough motivation to justify asking a stranger, “If you died tonight, do you know where you would end up?”  That was the classic line in my street evangelism class.  Only by striking fear into the Christian that all his friends, family, and pets were going to be engulfed in flames could he summon the strength to ruin every family gathering by obnoxiously sharing his faith…again.

Conclusion: Some People Need Hell

Some people need hell, like some people need global warming to exist.  Some people need a crisis, a threat, or a disaster hanging over their heads in order to function.  Some of us need the imminent danger of humanity being obliterated by fire to share Jesus, or recycle a newspaper.  I’d rather hell not exist, or global warming.  But some of us need it.  I’d rather believe the Earth will be fine, and heaven will be even better.

If hell exists, I picture hell as C.S. Lewis describes it in The Great Divorce – a bunch of cranky people who chose to be there.  Other than that, I just don’t know.  What about you?  Do you need hell?  Do you need heaven?  Is Christianity good enough without either of those?

35 responses to Yes, Virginia, There is a Hell

  1. Interesting post. I had a lot of mental pictures in mind as I was reading. The church that we are current members of (but haven’t been in 2 months) the pastor is always scaring people into a relationship with Jesus. He used the classic line you mentioned above.

    Personally, I believe in hell, purely based on the way that Jesus talked about it. I’m not sure I get what you were saying earlier about the trash heap outside of Jerusalem, I’m interested in understanding the idea and language used. Also, all the things Jesus said about hell and the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Plus in Revelation, the lake of fire, etc. Which I know you already know about. I don’t want to have a “I’m not going to think about it so it doesn’t exist” type kind of thinking (not that you have that).

    If you read “O Me of Little Faith” Jason talks about Zoroastrianism and how it might be feasible to believe that the Jews took some of that thinking about the afterlife, heaven and hell from that belief. It gets tricky because in the Old Testament, there’s the world Sheol which I honestly don’t know what to make of.

    If there was no heaven or a hell, I think I’d still follow Christ, just because it’s what I know and I can’t see myself abandoning my belief in him. Plus I can always whip out Pascal’s wager to make myself feel better too.

  2. “Juggle cats”?

    Is that a bad thing?

  3. Today is my last day of a nine month study on the book of Revelation. Yes, there is a Hell. Yes, there is a Heaven. Make no mistake, they are both very real, and both the completion of prophesy.

  4. Thank God for my Anglican upbringing. Hell is eternal separation from God. If we didn’t need Jesus here, then we don’t need Him there. The problem as I see it is this: there is no entertainment in Hell – not cell phones, no TV, no sports, no beer, no sex – nothing to distract me from me – just me being with me.

    The other view is the Lake of Fire created to destroy Satan and his baby juggling troupe. Some folks believe that those that do not receive Christ are destroyed – gone for eternity – others think it is for eternity.

    Me, I think there is a place that is dry and desolate – lonely. Revelation talks of time when men will want to escape the events here on earth. I suppose at that point, Hell (eternal torment) is not much of a motivation.

    Many years ago, I was seriously contemplating taking my own life. I heard a voice, “Hell will be worse than what you are feeling now.” As an atheist, I was let’s say, pretty freaked out. It was only a few months later that I was saved.

    As a Christian, I don’t get all fired up about an eternal home as a piece of real estate. What matters is that I will be in the presence of God for eternity – with my lover, my passion – and free of sickness and pain. Paul said they can take our lives and even that is gain. Amen.

  5. Heaven is as much about being in the presence of the Lord as Hell is about being apart from Him.

  6. Yup, I have a big problem with hell, and always have, especially when a young nice kid I knew growing up died in a car accident, as far as I know, never having trusted Jesus. Do I beat myself up for the rest of my life for not talking to him about my faith? Do I say he deserved it for not loving my God? I have a lot of growing to do in this area. I know the verses, and I know many of the arguments… but the only answer that I can support in the end is that God is a just God, and a merciful one.

    • I can so relate to what you’re saying Karen. I kind of come to the same conclusion, that I’ll just have to trust it all to God.

  7. I had never thought of that view of Hell as simply being a place where you are separated from God, lonely and desolate, or even questioned whether it existed at all til now. Being raised mostly Southern Baptist, Hell was always a place of fire and torture and pain.

    I personally believe that a small child wouldn’t be plummeted into the Lake Of Fire just because he died at the age of 6 before he could fully comprehend Jesus’ love.

  8. This is a can of worms subject for sure… I believe hell exists although more than fear, I see the greatest sadness represented there. Complete separation from God–and not only that, but no hope of ever having anything different. To me that’s the definition of torment…

  9. The Great Divorce was really helpful to me as I got older and starting pondering the “why would God send people to hell” issue…and I came to the same conclusion that Lewis did. I think people choose it–how they choose it/what choosing it looks like is beyond me. That’s God’s realm of understanding, and I’m ok with that.

    It’s also a very accurate observation to say that some people really need Hell to feel motivated enough to share the Gospel. It makes me really sad to know this is true…but I see it all the time. Christians are infamous for using that line you mentioned, in spite of the fact that as we all know from reading the awesome SCL post about using the Bible to witness to non believers about the Bible, it’s not very effective. I would rather know I helped someone come to Christ because they saw the light of Christ in my life and had a genuine desire to have a relationship with Him rather than have them only scared that they’re going to hell. Christianity is more than a safety net against hell.

  10. “Would you be a Christian without the sure promise of heaven?”

    No, come to think of it, I would probably resort to a life of crime.

    If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. (1 Cor 15:19)

  11. It was wild for me today to see your topic because I’ve been thinking on this same thing for awhile now and just posted about it last night.

    I don’t like what I read in the Bible about Hell. It seems mean. But there are a few things in the Bible that I’m not comfortable about, and, when it’s all said and done, I still choose to believe. For me if I’m gonna believe the Bible and follow after God, I’m gonna choose to believe all of it. Having said that, I have tons of questions and doubts. I’m sure grateful that God chooses to love me, have relationship with me, and even use me, doubts and all.

    I’ve looked and looked at what Jesus had to say about Hell and unfortunately He said quite a bit. It definitely sounds like a reality to me, and not a good one. I have to admit that I share the gospel partially because I want people to experience all the wonderful aspects of faith that I’ve experienced, but also because I can’t bear the thoughts of anyone I know going to hell.

    • Revelation says, “Behold, I am coming soon,” Even in the last lines of Revelation God is once again inviting people to him with a free gift. His justice is shown in the mere fact that he hasn’t returned. Once Jesus returns, game over. Every moment he delays is a found moment for humanity to give their lives to Jesus. He is indeed full of Mercy.

  12. I think the thought of and focus on hell does a lot to make people question Christianity and the motives of Christians. Telling someone they’re going to be eternally tortured unless they follow someone or a certain way can seem like pretty bullying stuff, even if you say that someone or a certain way is filled with love.

    Perhaps it’s more complicated than that, but try explaining that to someone after you ask them the “If you died tonight…?” question. There has to be a better way.

  13. I don’t think Lewis really thought Hell would be a gray, grumpy version of Heaven. It was an illustrative story. It answers the question of the justice and mercy of God. Lewis suggested that God doesn’t force people into Hell, they simply refuse to come to Heaven. Some of them seem to not be able to help it.

    Anyway, Lewis is another subject. I’m in favor of Hell because it gives weight to the argument of a wrathful God. I mean if God isn’t wrathful over the rebellion of his inferiors, is he really that powerful anyway? Therefore, the showing of love through Christ in the removal of the wrath of God is all the more compelling. If there’s no hell, then why would Jesus say, “not my will but thine.” and humiliate himself on the Cross?

    No, I think there’s a hell. We could argue about who really goes there, but isn’t that futile as well? The closest we can come is to work out who DOESN’T go there. That’s what I think.

  14. I meant to say “gray, grumpy version of London.”

  15. Never afraid to tackle a tough subject, are you Matt?

    I commented on Tracy’s blog at Abundant Living that the subject of Hell should make Christians uncomfortable. Not out of fear…I don’t believe you can scare someone into Heaven…but out of anguish. I look forward to being eternally in the presence of God. I don’t look forward though to accounting for the souls I could have gone another step to evangelize that aren’t in Heaven.

    To wish someone to Hell is the thoughts of the antichrist. God is love. I long to be in the presence of Love…not in the absence of it.

  16. Revelation 20:15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

    Sounds pretty cut and dry.

    • All scripture, removed from the larger context in which it dwells and used to serve as proof for one’s opinion, sounds pretty cut and dry.

      My favorite part of Revelation 20 is where Hades gets thrown into the lake of fire…wait, what?

  17. For me, Christianity isn’t a matter of needing heaven or hell, but of needing Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes unto the Father except by way of Me.” Through Christ alone, we have the promise of eternal life. John 3:16, for heaven’s sake!

    As for there being no literal place called hell, I’m a little confused by that claim. Just one peek in my concordance, showed me a plethora of verses in both the Old and New Testaments; from Deuteronomy 32:22 to Revelation 20:14.

    I think we tread a slippery slope, when we make Christianity about what WE need to believe about it, in order to follow its precepts. I would even argue that it is dangerous. What we *need* to believe, has nothing to do with the truth. Truth is truth, regardless of one’s opinion.

  18. Wow, lots of talk about hell right now. I’m always impressed at how strongly people feel about hell on both sides of the issue. Some people it seems really feel the need to have it, others really feel the need that it not exist. Not a lot of fence sitting on the issue. Here’s a fun little article just to raise some thoughts on it. Some Harvard researches have found that the defining belief that correlates to a society’s religion and its economic development is a rigorous belief in hell. Cultures that believe in hell develop more and faster. Amazing.

    Thanks for the blog. pvk

  19. If heaven doesn’t exist, just where are we going to spend eternity? If heaven doesn’t exist, what did Jesus save us? If heaven doesn’t exist, then what is this hope that Paul talks so much about? Where did the heroes of the faith listed in Hebrews 11 receive their reward? Take away heaven and Christianity falls apart. Would I be a Christian with no hope of heaven? No. I’d eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow I die.

    I don’t believe God sends people to hell so much as they send themselves. If someone wants nothing to do with God, why would God force them to spend eternity with Him?

    • I’m fixin to preach a the wek series on Rev 21-22. To answer your first question, to the looks of it, we won’t actually live in heaven, we’ll live in the new creation. so, we’ll live right here after God’s Extreme Creation Makeover has come through (I just hope Jesus doesn’t scream all the time like the dude on that show.) It seems like the rest of your questions are contingent upon a human understanding of the passage of time. it makes me think of the dude on the cross that jesus promised that today he would be with him in paradise. Al sorts of problems in that statement, but all those problems disappear when you take our very inconvenient linear perception of time out of the equation.

      the hope Paul talks about is illustrated in Rev. 21.3-7. The folks in hebrews? New Jerusalem.

      Anyway, the word “heaven to the first century dudes who wrote/talked about it considered it to be a solid dome that sits over a flat earth. God lived above the firmament of the heavens.

      ‘Course, I have a amillennial realized eschatology (that’s the fancy-pants seminary way to say I don’t really worry myself about the end-times). Amillennial, ’cause I don’t worry about tomorrow (let alone the last days), tomorrow has enough worries as is. Realized, cause heaven and hell doesn’t start later, we live in them now. And my reward has never been heaven. What a crappy reward. My reward is a relationship with Jesus, regardless of where or when it is. That’s enough for me.

  20. I believe Hell exists. I choose not to contemplate it. It is bad, and I flee from it to God’s loving embrace.
    Do I need Heaven? You betcha! I most certainly do need to be surrounded by God’s love.

  21. I believe hell/hades exists, whether it is eternal or not is what confuses me. I grew up a good Southern Baptist and then I went to Bible college and it’s making me question everything I ever thought I knew.

    Rev 20:14 speaks of a second death, that hades and the grave are cast into the lake of fire.

    Also, John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not PERISH*, but have eternal life.”

    That does not say, “…shall not burn forever in Hell but will live in Heaven with Me”
    *PERISH- Greek transliteration: apollymi, verb, “to destroy”.

    Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is DEATH, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    There seem to be many promises in Scripture of eternal life for the believer, so I wonder where the concept that all of fallen humanity has an eternal soul/spirit came from in the first place?

    What about that doctrine that Heaven is eternal? I thought we were looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth?

  22. I’m pretty sure that if there was such a thing as atonement by works, juggling cats would be #1.

    As far as hell, it also seems cut-and-dry to me by scripture. Rev 20:15 states this perfectly, and Rev. 21:27 tells us that those who are in the Lamb’s Book of Life will enter new Jerusalem.

    What’s my motivation for believing the Gospel? It seems like Christianity is “more like falling in love, than something to believe in,” as the cheesy song says. My falling in love with my husband could never have been provoked by the fear of torture if I didn’t fall in love. I love him because of who he is. It’s kind of that way for people who are so passionate about going Green: they are in passionately in love for their cause. Most of a person’s spiritual work gets done when they are passionately in love, instead of passionately spewing off their knowledge of scriptures of fire & brimstone. Christ showed that perfectly. So, although hell exists, it shouldn’t be necessary for falling in love with God.

    • Rev 20:15 says anyone not found in the book of life will be thrown into the lake of fire. What I question at this point is whether they are incinerated in the lake of fire or just sort of stay there and burn forever.

  23. I would have to disagree with the guy who said that Hell is the only thing strong enough to push people to witness. I would say that love is the only thing strong enough. Isn’t that why God sent His Son? And don’t we have the same Spirit in us? And the same Love?

    Good thoughts…

  24. It seems to me that hell is essential for God to be loving at all. The absence of it would not make him more loving but less, because it would mean he disregards the justifying work of Christ on the cross, dishonors his own passionately holy perfection, and permits a “heaven” that would end up being not really any better than what we have now. I find that hell is the necessary corollary to what Rich Mullins described as “the reckless, raging fury they call the love of God.” Without it, it seems God’s love is milquetoast boring.

  25. So, Jesus told people they would suffer God’s punishment when they die by going to a garbage dump? “Depart from me, ye accursed, into the city dump where things smell bad because the fire burns garbage”???? I am as in favor as anyone of making things as palatable as possible and avoiding cliche and hackneyed fundamentalism. There comes a point, though, where you simply have to let Jesus say what he really said, and not what you think he ought to have said.

  26. Matt,

    For me, if there is no hell (however you define it), then I’m not interested in worshiping the Christian God. If there is no hell, then a sick, twisted, sadistic Father sent his only Son to be tortured and killed upon a cross all because some day I’m going to pass into a nice, deep eternal sleep. No thanks. Believing in hell often offends my sense of justice and fairness. But denying hell cheapens the gospel. The gospel is scandalous and sometimes offensive. I’m o.k. with that.

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