Tuesday, March 01, 2011

On the Doctrine of Hell, Part 1

Recently, there has been a great imbroglio on the internet over the doctrine of hell. I do not wish to get into the specifics of that particular brouhaha in this post. However, there are a few things that need to be said regarding our understanding of eternal punishment and of the reality of hell. Christians need to understand this doctrine if they are to understand themselves, their neighbors, and most of all, the glory of God manifested in the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

It is not unusual for Christians to be uncomfortable with the idea of hell. The idea of neighbors and family being in eternal torment is not an easy thing to stomach. We would rather talk about heaven. Or, we would rather talk about the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins on the cross. But there is a disconnect in our speech and thought if we speak of "heaven" or being "saved" if we do never think about hell. What is the alternative to heaven? And what, exactly, are we being "saved" from?

First, we ought to think about hell as a place. Though we might be shy about it, Jesus certainly wasn't. Jesus spoke of hell as a place "where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48). The book of Revelation describes it as a place where "the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name" (Rev. 14:11). When you compare the Revelation passage to the passages in the Old Testament which teach that burnt offerings are a pleasing aroma to the Lord, you have a very difficult teaching about the purpose of this place called hell.

Secondly, one ought to consider how hell even came into existence in the first place. The catechism we teach our children here has these questions and answers:

Question #1: Who made you? Answer: God made me.
Question #2: What else did God make? God made all things.

If God made all things, then it is certain that God made hell. Satan is not the ruler of hell. He is not there with a pitchfork dunking the wicked in pots of boiling oil. Hell is a place where Satan himself will be tormented for his crimes. Hell is a place that Satan dreads. God created hell as a place where perfect justice would be meted out to all those who hate Him and His decrees. So then, hell is not a bad place. It is a terrible place. It is an awful place. It is even a horrific place. But it is not a bad place. It is a place where we will behold, for the first time, true justice.

It has been said that hell was only created for Satan and his angels, and I think due to the misapplication of this verse: "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). The problem with this understanding is that God never does anything as an afterthought. He didn't suddenly come to the realization, "Oh my! There sure are a lot of human beings who hate me as bad as Satan does. What shall I do with them? Oh yes, I'll put them into hell with the devil then. What a great idea!" Rather, the meaning here is that rebellious people go to hell with Satan and his angels because they are like Satan and his angels.

Finally, it is my understanding of Scripture that hell will not be uniform for everyone. Jesus said, "The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows" (Luke 12:47-48). I take this to mean that hell will be a more wretched experience for some than others. I confess that I do not understand how that will be, but I trust that it is the truth. Every being in hell will have a different experience of that place, but all there will be as miserable as they can be. Conversely, I believe that there will be different experiences of heaven as well, but that all will be happy.

In the next post on the doctrine of hell, I will write about why an orthodox understanding of hell helps us to understand the grace of the forgiveness of sins through the slaughter of God's Son. Really, there are no more epic topics which we, as human beings, may discuss. I hope that you will give me the chance to explain the Biblical teachings on these things.

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