What about hell?

Dante & Virgil in Hell
A discussion of "last things" (eschatology) necessarily addresses the subject of hell. It's a hot one right now (forgive the pun!), due in large part to Rob Bell's book, "Love Wins" (click here to read a helpful review of Rob's book written by Jonathan Stepp, who agrees with most of Bell's conclusions, but notes that Bell does not reason out of a theology that is fully Trinitarian and incarnational).

So what are we to think about hell? What does the Bible say? And how do we understand what it says in the light of the revelation about God and humanity given us in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ?

It seems to me that the biblical revelation concerning hell is often misrepresented. People routinely read back into Scripture modern conceptions of hell that have more to do with Dante's fanciful imagination (in the epic poem, "Divine Comedy") than with what Scripture actually says. A case in point is what Jesus says in Luke 12:4-9.
4 "I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. 8 I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. 9 But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God."
In Luke 12:5, Jesus mentions the idea of punishment in hell (Gehenna). He is referencing the traditional Jewish conception of a place where the incorrigibly wicked are punished. Jesus makes this reference not to comment on what hell is like, but to remind his audience of God's complete and ultimate authority and power over both life and death. We are to fear God, says Jesus, not humans (like the influential, yet hypocritical Pharisees mentioned in Luke 12:1).

In making this point, Jesus reveals what this powerful God, his Father, truly is like. Unlike the Pharisees who are on a power trip, God is lavishly (even shockingly) loving toward his creation (humankind included). Not even one sparrow dies without his caring attention (Luke 12:6). And so Jesus' admonition is to give allegiance and trust to this God, and also to Jesus his Son.

Note that Jesus refers here to himself not as "the Son of God" but as "the Son of Man" (Luke 12:8). By doing so, Jesus not only identifies himself as Israel's promised Messiah, but shows his close identification with all of humanity - all are his brothers and sisters and thus objects of God's unconditional love.

The God who has power over life and death, loves all of humanity so much that he has come, in the person of his Son, to be with us as one of us. In Jesus, God has joined us in our darkness, pain, sorrow, suffering and sin in order to deliver us and to grant us entrance with him into the life that is eternal - the life of love enjoyed by the Father, Son and Spirit.

Why then this warning about hell (life apart from God's love and joy)? So that we will focus on the loving God who saves, giving to him alone our trust and allegiance. In doing so, we will not fear human powers (or demonic powers or even the power of death itself). We will be freed up to fear (reverence) only God.

Is hell then real? Yes, and in two ways:
  • It is real now. Many, in this life, live in hell - a condition of alienation from God with all the darkness and suffering that brings. Through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God, all people are included in God's love and life. But not knowing it, or knowing it and rejecting it, some continue in darkness. It is a living, present hell for them.
  • It is real in the future beyond the final judgment. All humanity, at Jesus' return, will know who Jesus is and in knowing, will face the ultimate decision: to receive and embrace the one God has given them as their salvation, or to reject and turn away from him. The possibility of such rejection creates the possibility of its consequence, which is hell. 
Thus, hell has to do with the exercise of the freedom that God extends to his children. Why such freedom - even to reject our Creator and Savior? Because God is love, and love never coerces. Could God force from us the decision he prefers? Of course. Will he? Never. If we decide, ultimately, against God, which is to reject his salvation, we decide for hell. Thus hell, ultimately, is a place of our own choosing. As C.S. Lewis has said, hell's door is "locked from the inside."

What will this "place" be like? Scripture says little, and what little it says is couched in metaphors that simply point to the agony and emptiness of living in alienation from the God who is love. Will God cease to love those who consign themselves to hell? No, God cannot cease being who he is. Inhabiting the new heaven and earth will be God's dearly loved, forgiven, accepted and included children, who embrace this God of love. Inhabiting hell will be God's dearly loved, forgiven, accepted and included children, who refuse this love and thus reject this God. That's the hell of it.

P.S.  One question remains: Can people in hell, after the final judgment at the eschaton, get out? Note two things:
  • God, who forever is loving and forgiving, will not ever forget his children (even those in hell).
  • The story given by John in the book of Revelation, which employs highly symbolic, apocalyptic imagery, ends with the vision of the arrival of a new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:1). At this time, the unrepentant have been consigned to hell, which John likens to a "fiery lake burning with sulfur" (Rev. 21:8). He also likens hell to a place outside "the Holy City, Jerusalem" that has come down to earth from God and now is the center of a new reality where heaven is joined with earth (Rev. 21:10, 27; 22:15). Stunning! But note an equally stunning (and unexpected) detail: the gates to this new Jerusalem are left wide open (Rev. 21:25; 22:14)!
Thus the book that puts a "wrapper" on the story of God, ends with this open-ended invitation: "Come...let all who wish take the free gift of the water of life" (Rev. 22:17). Clearly this is an invitation to those now living in alienation from God. Could it also be an invitation to those in hell following the great judgment at Jesus' return? God knows. And so, like all things, we entrust this to him, trusting him to be always who he is: the triune God of love. And as Rob Bell helpfully notes, love wins!

Note: For a helpful short article on this topic from GCI president Joseph Tkach, click here