By Nick Brzozowski
A little girl was talking to her teacher about whales. The teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because although it was a very large mammal, its throat was very small. The little girl stated that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Irritated, the teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible. The little girl said, “When I get to Heaven, I will ask Jonah.” The teacher asked, “What if Jonah went to Hell?” The little girl replied, “Then you ask him.”
Do you know how to make holy water? You boil the hell out of it.
Jokes aside. Let's talk about a pretty heavy topic!
Hell and My Spiritual Journey
I became a Christian when I was six years old. A pastor told me I had to believe that Jesus died for my sins or else I would spend eternity in hell.
I asked how much I had to believe.
He replied, "100%."
I paused and then answered, "Deal!"
Later, when I was 12 years old, I attended my cousin's funeral. She was 19 and it was tragic. I stood over her coffin, wreaked with shame that I didn't save her.
Still, later, I became a youth pastor to save people from hell. One night at youth group, in an attempt to inspire students, I gave the most horrifying message on hell that I could.
For my whole life, hell has been a source of shame and fear.
My spiritual journey was shaped by descriptions like these:
“I know of no one who has overstated the terror of hell…we are meant to tremble and feel dread.” John Piper
“Hell is a place of unrelieved torment and horrible misery…a place of impenetrable darkness…a place of fire…” John MacArthur
“It is an experience of intense anguish…a sense of loneliness…There is the realization that this separation is permanent…Thus, hopelessness comes over the individual.” Millard Erickson
Does Anyone Believe in Hell Anymore?
Nowadays, I find fewer and fewer people who believe in hell. Atheists and Christians alike have given serious hesitation to this belief.
“I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in Everlasting punishment.” (Atheist philosopher, Bertrand Russell)
“I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so planning language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother and almost all my friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” (Charles Darwin)
Rob Bell questions the perception that an all-loving Heavenly Father would become a cruel tormentor in the blink of an eye just because someone died before becoming a Christian.
C.S. Lewis captures the difficulty Christians face: “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.”
So, you are left with two questions:
How can you be a Christian and reject the doctrine of hell?
How can you be a human and accept it?
After hours and hours of reading and listening and praying and grieving and suffering over these questions, I want to offer you these four surprising truths.
Truth #1 - Hell is.
Doesn’t it appear narrow-minded and even hateful for me to say that there is a hell? What gives me the right to say that two-thirds of the world is lost and I know the answer?
Tim Keller offers a helpful thought experiment. Let’s imagine there is a cookie on the counter. Jack says the cookie is poisonous. Jill says it is not. They both believe two different things about the cookie. Jill is not narrow-minded for having beliefs. But, neither is Jack. And just because Jack believes that there are high stakes for rejecting his belief (that the cookie is poisonous), does not mean that he is any more narrow-minded than Jill.
Jesus talked about hell about a dozen times, describing it as a place people go to after death. He was so confident about hell’s existence that there is very little room for anyone to follow Jesus and still reject hell.
Truth #2 - Hell is an expression of God’s love.
Paul says in Galatians 6:7: Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.
I searched online for a karma story and found this one: An Indian woman was eating breakfast with her family in a restaurant next to a hospital. Her mom had a tumor and she was waiting for the test. Then, a dog howled. Now, there is a superstition that dogs howling means that there will be a death of someone around you. The woman didn’t believe the superstition, but it still made her feel uneasy. Then, the restaurant owner cracked a joke - “a dead body is sure to come.” As it turns out, he cracks that joke every day, taking entertainment from people’s fears and grief. That morning, a man confronted him for his cruel joking, but he ignored him. The next morning, the restaurant was closed. That owner had been hit by a milk van and was admitted to the same hospital.
There are consequences for our actions. But, what about the evil restaurant owners who don’t get hit by vans? What about those who act cruelly and nothing ever happens to them? What happens when the villain wins?
That’s where hell comes in.
Hell is a promise to every child who has lost their parents to war, every woman who has ever been abused, everyone living in poverty because of the greed of the few using their power to maintain a system that advantages some for the sake of many, everyone who lives under a corrupt dictatorship, and everyone who has survived genocide. Hell promises that the wrongs you faced will be dealt with. Hell promises that if anyone thinks they got away with injustice and greed and abuse, their current win will not have the last word. Hell allows us to forgive and show compassion to our enemies because they will face justice. Hell allows us to heal and move on when people who hurt us are not held accountable.
Hell is an outworking of God’s justice. And justice is love in action.
Truth #3 - Hell is a choice.
In Luke 16, we are introduced to a man who remains nameless. He is only known as the rich man. Right outside his house is a beggar named Lazarus. They both die - Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man to hell. While in hell, the rich man calls out to Abraham making two requests. First, he asks that Lazarus would get him some water. And second, that Lazarus would go warn his family about hell.
Do you know what is strange about this story?
Nowhere in the story does the rich man ask to escape hell. Obviously, he is not too afraid to ask bold requests. Why wouldn’t he ask to leave hell? What would have happened if he cried out for forgiveness and mercy and to escape his suffering?
As far as I know, there is no occurrence in the Bible where anyone cries out to God and is ignored.
Over and over again, people cry out to God. And he answers their prayers.
“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.” CS Lewis.
Truth #4 - Hell is a mystery.
Paul speaks of the mystery of the age to come in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known.”
The Bible actually leaves room for debate over the nature of hell. Depending on the verse you read, you will get a different impression.
Hell appears to be eternal torment according to Matthew 25:46, where Jesus separates the sheep and the goats and says that the goats will go into eternal punishment.
But, the writer of Hebrews says in Hebrews 10:39, “But we are not those who draw back and are destroyed, but those who have faith and are saved.” So, are sinners punished forever and ever or just destroyed once and for all.
But, Paul says in Romans 5:18, “So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act there is justification leading to life for everyone.” So, is everyone going to be ultimately saved through Jesus?
Now, there are very important debates over terms like “eternal punishment,” “destroyed” or “everyone.” Instead of resolving those questions here, I just want to point out that there is a lot about hell we don’t know.
The image of fire comes to symbolize several things, including punishment and torment, destruction and refining.
God, himself, is pictured as a consuming fire. And just like we don’t fully understand God, we don’t have the full picture of hell.
What is the Right Response to Hell?
Besides these four descriptions, there remains one last question about hell. What does hell mean for us? What is an appropriate response to this belief?
Maybe, your whole life, you felt fear and shame. Maybe, you have tried to avoid the topic as much as you can.
But, Jesus talked about hell a decent amount. What was he trying to do? I don’t think Jesus wanted to cause fear and shame, but instead humility and compassion.
In Matthew 7, Jesus said that many will say on that day, “‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers!’ I don’t think Jesus was trying to scare people, but instead to humble them.
In Matthew 25, he says that the sheep will get eternal life because they fed the hungry and visited the lonely. I don’t think Jesus was trying to shame anyone, but instead to inspire compassion.
How might hell be confronting your pride and selfishness today?
I'd love to talk more about this with you if you have questions or comments. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org