Who is more arrogant within his soul, who is more impious than one who dares to sorrow at God’s judgment?
(Dante, The Inferno, C.20.28-30)
It would be difficult indeed to find a belief less palatable to both Christian and non-Christian than the doctrine of hell. For the Christian, it is a topic that may be glossed over, euphemized, or (worse) ignored altogether. For the unbeliever it is not only a source of contention, but an offensive weapon of debate with those who wish to communicate God’s love and mercy to others. How, one might ask, can a God of love and mercy send anyone to eternal hell? Or, How can God justify eternal punishment for temporal sins? Attacks against the gospel message centering on hell’s severity, and its population abound. What is worse, they appear to be working.
Belief always affects action, and the influence of bewilderment over the doctrine of hell can (and has) led not only to a lackluster witness, but to the loss of one’s faith. As the popularity of this important doctrine declines, pastors become fearful about teaching on the subject. Sermons on hell decrease in both frequency and fervor. When teaching on the subject grows thin, it is the critic’s views that come to the forefront, leaving the church with doubts as to hell’s truthfulness. The outcome is watered-down doctrine… homespun explanations of judgment that poorly reflect the words of the God they are supposedly defending. At this point other matters of faith may come into question. With judgment issues confused, salvation questions may surface that lead to a denial of the fundamental truths of Christianity. It is certainly imperative, then, that a proper understanding of hell’s fairness be communicated to the people of God. If we cannot grasp the fairness of God in this and other issues, how can we expect non-believers to grasp them?
This is probably the most uncomfortable topic to deal with as a Christian. The question of the fairness of God comes up when we assert that the penalty for not trusting in Christ is eternal suffering in the lake of fire. I honestly wish that I could say that non-believers will only go to a lesser level of heaven, or simply be annihilated at death. But that is not what Scripture teaches. Some error exists over this place of torment, due in part to the confusing of Greek or Roman mythology with what is taught in the Bible. A correct understanding of what hell is and is not will go a long way to understanding its place in God’s plan. For example:
- Hell is not “where the devil lives.” He is not the ruler of hell, but its prisoner.
- Hell was not created to put “bad people” in. It was created for the devil and his demons. However, any humans who do not follow God will be thrown into hell with them.
- Hell is not a cavern where demons devise cruel and unusual punishments for human souls. Demons will be in hell, but they will be being tortured, not torturing.
What is Hell?
Now that we know some of the things hell is not, let us look at what it is. The word translated “hell” in English is the Greek word Gehenna. “Gehenna” is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Genhinnom”, an actual place in Israel which we would call “the valley of Ben Hinnom.” Also known as the valley of slaughter, this place was where many horrible practices had been performed, such as human sacrifice and killing children for the pagan god Molech. Eventually this valley became Israel’s “garbage dump.” In it would be thrown refuse as well as dead animals and the dead bodies of criminals. This “dump” was perpetually on fire to rid the land of these unclean things. Jesus, who spoke more about hell than love, used this word 11 times to describe the suffering of those who do not trust in Him before death. Hell is described in the Bible in various ways. Among them:
- Fire – fiery furnace – unquenchable fire
- The lake of burning sulfur (brimstone) – the lake of fire
- Everlasting contempt
- The place of weeping and gnashing of teeth
- Eternal punishment
- Darkness – Outer darkness
- The second death
There is no doubt from a Biblical perspective that hell will be a very real place. Some believe that hell will be a perpetual burning for the one whose soul is cast into it, others believe that the use of fire to describe hell is symbolic. Either way, we can see that it will not be “a party.” If a perpetual fiery death heap is used as a symbol, what that symbol stands for must be suffering beyond imagination.
What is Hades?
Due to the King James practice of translating both “gehenna” and “hades” as “hell” some confusion has arisen over what these terms mean. If hell is used as a term for the grave then it makes some sense, but if it is used as the final place of torment for the lost then we know that they are not the same – for Hades is thrown into the lake of fire at the end of time. Hades is better seen as “the grave.” In Hebrew it is called “sheol.” It is the place of the dead. Unbelievers go to Hades when they die to await the final judgment. Believers go to be with Christ (Corinthians 5:7; Philippians 1:21-23). It is thought that before the time of Christ, Hades had two “compartments.” One was for the righteous dead who awaited Christ (this compartment is referred to as “Abraham’s Bosom” or “Paradise”), the other was for the wicked dead and it was here that they spent the intermediate state (Luke 16:19-31). When Christ died on the cross, He said to the man who believed in Him, “today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Without going into great detail, it is believed that Christ went to Paradise to set the captives free and take them to God the Father. Hades is now only one compartment, and it will give up its dead at the final judgment where they (and Hades itself) will be thrown into the lake of fire.
Fairness: Two Considerations
The fairness of hell has been called into question on two basic levels: One, hell’s nature (including its duration), and two, the nature of those who will be suffering there.
First, we must determine what hell will be like. Is it best characterized by demons torturing lost souls with brilliantly contrived horrors like those presented in Dante’s Inferno?1 Or is hell merely a sad and lonely place outside Heaven as seen in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce? 2 The biblical description of hell needs to be understood in light of scripture and not of human imagination. Second, we must inquire into the inhabitants of this place. Is hell to be populated by those whose lives failed to tip the scales of justice on the side of good? Or is it filled with those who either did not (or, worse, could not) choose the correct religion? The answers one gives to these two questions will largely determine their conclusion as to the matter of hell’s fairness. Confusion over one or both points regarding hell will inevitably lead to false conclusions about the fairness of the God who created it.
We must use caution here, for as in other discussions of doctrine that touch on issues of eternal bliss or suffering, emotions can too easily come into play as determinative of the outcome. No Christian should have an ax to grind in favor of eternal suffering for any lost soul who will enter into it. Scripture makes it quite clear that whatever hell may ultimately be, we all deserve to be there (Romans 1-3), and surely would be were it not for the sacrifice of Christ in our place. A cavalier attitude toward those headed for eternal destruction should never characterize a heart that has become indwelt by the God Who said, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11).
Who Will Be In Hell?
Central to the question of God’s fairness is the identity of the inhabitants of hell. The modern mind seems to view eternal destiny as a direct consequence of how we lived this life, and in a manner of speaking this is true. That being said, however, it must also be recognized that the picture of God judging persons by the use of a sliding scale of worthiness based on a comparison of good versus bad deeds is false. It is a concept that may seem fair from our human point of view, but as will be shown, is contrary to the teaching of scripture.
A dichotomy is set up in scripture between two extremes of existence in eternity. In many descriptions of either state, we can find descriptions of the other (Matt. 25; Rev. 20-21). A study of who is in either, then, gives us a clearer picture of who is in the other for the two are mutually exclusive (Luke 16:19-31). Scripture makes it evident that heaven is the everlasting abode of those who had received Christ as their Lord and Savior in life, and thus were saved by Him. Those who chose to turn from Christ cannot enter heaven, and are therefore placed for eternity outside the kingdom in hell. It is not so much a question of why? as of what?. Hell is not a punishment designed to rehabilitate the wicked, but the logical consequence of an eternal state that follows from the temporal.
Many view this as a fright tactic used by God to force obedience. The logic, they might say, is like a madman who sets up an atomic bomb to explode in a certain city, later goes in and disarms it, then asks the city to honor him for saving them. The problem with this idea (using whatever imagery you choose) is that it is a false analogy. In the above story the correct telling would have a madman make the bomb, set it to kill us all, and then have the head of another city allow us to enter in safely. It would then be accurately seen that we have the choice of which city to stay in, and cannot blame another for where we end up.3
Others see hell as a method of punishing those who chose the wrong religion. This is a much more serious charge, as culture is sometimes cited as the determining influence on one’s religious choice. It may seem to some that because Christians assert that only Christians will enter heaven (and that all else, by definition, will enter hell) that Christianity is some sort of exclusive club that punishes outsiders, even those who had no chance of joining. Christianity is also accused of being exclusivist in that it allows no alternative to itself as a means for entrance into eternal happiness. Of course, the truthfulness of this teaching cannot be attacked on these grounds, for it is equally exclusivist to say that there is only one kind of gas that will not kill us if we breathe enough of it, yet it is undeniably true.
If, however, God set up a world where only a select few had the possibility of turning to Him and escaping hell, His fairness might well come into question. What must be discovered is whether or not those who enter hell had a choice on earth that would have saved them from an eternity of suffering.
Who will be in heaven?
God has revealed Himself to us, and in doing so has shown not only His perfect nature in judgment, but also His perfect love in mercy. First we see that His invisible attributes are shown in nature, in His creation (Romans 1; Psalm 89). Just as a painting reveals much about its creator, the world we live in reveals God’s majesty and creativity.
Second, He reveals Himself in our hearts. All people groups in the world share a common set of morals, despite their religious beliefs. All seem to acknowledge the existence of right and wrong, and usually the laws governing these societies are remarkably similar, although the manifestations of those laws may differ. These kinds of revelations are referred to as “general” revelations. These serve to provide man with a knowledge of something beyond himself; they manifest the questions that man has tried to answer since the beginning.
Particular manifestations of God into this world are called “special.” God has revealed Himself to the Old Testament prophets, in His word, and finally in His Son. It is this final revealing that provides the answers to the questions that general revelation poses. Through Him we see that worship of nature is worthless (Romans 1:20-23), as is striving for perfection through religion (Romans 2), or law (Romans 3:20) for no one is perfect and can hope to fulfill God’s perfect will (Romans 3:23).
Only the perfect may enter heaven.
God is perfect. He has perfect power (which cannot be diminished by sin), perfect love (which cannot be diminished by partiality), perfect knowledge (which cannot be diminished by surprise), perfect being (which cannot be diminished by change) etc. A list of God’s attributes is, in reality, a list of perfections. For in every way He is perfect, complete, lacking in no way. Anything less than this perfection is what the Bible calls sin. Sin is likened to an archery term that means “to miss the mark”, anything outside the bulls-eye is “sin.”4 Far more extensive than any list of “do’s and do-not’s”, sin is anything that is outside God’s perfect will (James 2:10 cf. 1 John 1:8; Romans 3:23). God cannot tolerate sin, and being perfectly just, He will not allow sin to remain in His presence (Psalm 5:4-6; Hab. 1:13).
Therefore, to be in fellowship with God, we must be perfect just as He is (Matt 5:48). No one is perfect, and yet God commands it. If we claim to love God, we must be obeying His commands (1 John 5:3; John 14:15). How, then, can He command us to do the impossible? What are we to do with this? The answer lies in the greatest commandment, upon which hangs the entirety of God’s law: “You shall love the Lord your God . . .” (Matthew 22:36-37).
Just as in a human relationships we strive to please the ones we love by obeying their will (especially when it goes against ours), love for God is the same. Though there are some who obey only out of fear, God’s perfect will is for us to love Him. Christ was not showing us what we must do to be good enough for God, He was showing us that we can never be as good as God… The disciples asked Jesus an important question, What shall we do, that we may work the works of God? Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (John 6:28-29). It is through our love for God, our faith in Christ, that perfection is attributed to us.
So we see that the love of God is what brings one to salvation — not good works, for we could never be good enough for a perfect God. Once this common misunderstanding is exposed, explaining hell is much simpler. Hell is where all things not of God must reside in the end. Death is separation (physically it is the separation of soul from body, spiritually it is the separation of our spirit from God’s), and eternal death is eternal separation from God and all His goodness in hell.
Our separation from God is what is known as spiritual death; it is this death that began in the garden of Eden with Adam. Spiritual separation from God is a fate which we would all continue to suffer forever were it not for His intervention. Christ’s atoning work on the cross gives us much insight into the nature of the punishment we will escape when we turn to Him.5 Death is the penalty of sin (going against God’s will separates us from Him), and yet Christ died for us. His death comprised all the penalty for the sin of mankind. He who was without sin died for those with sin (2 Cor. 5:21). If we trust in that sacrifice, and believe in the one who God sent to accomplish it, we will be saved from eternal death (forever being separated from God), and brought into eternal life (forever in the presence of God).
The Bible records that in the crucifixion Christ experienced conscious and excruciating pain (Luke 24:46; John 20:27-29).6 This very pain, in fact, was meant for us (Isa. 53:4-11; 1 Peter 2:21). Christ also suffered separation from God the Father evidenced by His death cry quotation of Psalm 22:1 (cf. Matt. 27:46). Christ’s spirit also separated from His body (physical death), which most people will experience as well, but with a crucial difference: although a Christian’s spirit will separate from his body, he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, (John 11:25 ). When a believer dies physically he continues to live eternally with God (Phil. 1:21-23). So in Christ’s death we have a picture of the eternal suffering we would have experienced ad infinitum had not Christ suffered in our place.
When we come to understand these things, it is much easier to see our need for Christ. Christ is God revealed in the form of humanity. He was, is, and will forever remain perfect. God’s commandment to be perfect means believing in His Son who perfects us. Being the perfect sacrifice for our sins, Christ’s death for us made it possible for us to have a relationship with a perfect God.
In the end, then, it is only those who choose to turn from God who will be in hell. God forces no one into hell, but He allows the free choices made by each person to come to fruition. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “think of this bad man’s perdition not as a sentence imposed on him, but as the mere fact of being what he is.” 7
What about those who never hear the gospel?
An apparent flaw in this logic is often pointed out by both non-believers and believers alike. We can quite easily imagine a person who never gets the chance to hear (and thus, it is argued, respond to) the good news of Christ. Surely there were people all over the world who died the day after Christ died, and they could not have heard the message in time. Even today there remain unreached people groups in remote areas of the world who have yet to have the gospel explained to them. What of these? Many would respond that they are let into heaven anyway, but is this true? Taken to its logical conclusion, the idea that the ignorant automatically inherit heaven is untenable. If this were the case, the best thing the early believers could have done with Christ’s message was to forget it, and find some way of keeping others from ever hearing it.8 That would have ensured entrance into God’s kingdom for all people for all time!
Besides this, the Bible makes it quite clear that ignorance is not an automatic ticket to heaven. Consider a few examples
which illustrate this impossibility: anyone not found in the book of life (the redeemed of the Lamb of God – Christ) is thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:12,14 ); the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Romans 1:16 ); there is no other name [Jesus Christ's] under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:10,12). If we must respond to God’s message to be saved, then how can someone who never had a chance to hear the gospel possibly be condemned?
It would appear from scripture that the theoretical unreachable person simply does not exist. Revelation reveals that people from every nation, (every) tribe, (every) people and (every) language will be in heaven (7:9).9 We also know that God will judge all people fairly (Psalm 98:9); it would hardly be fair to judge someone for not doing something of which they are incapable. So, according to scripture, there is no unreachable people group. How God manages this feat may be debated, but the answer must fall within the parameters set thus far.
Why all are without excuse
General revelation is the two-part way that God has revealed Himself to all of mankind. The first is external to the person. Romans 1:19-20 states emphatically that God has made it plain to the world that He exists. His invisible qualities have been clearly seen through what He has made. Psalm 19:1-3 proclaims that the heavens declare the glory of God… leaving all of mankind without excuse with regard to His presence.
The second is internal and deals specifically with our conscience. Romans 2:13-16 states that the requirements of the law are written on our hearts, our consciences, so that all mankind may know that they are in need of help. If this light that God gives is received and accepted, God’s message will not be hampered by people or physics. That God can and does reveal Himself in miraculous ways is evident from scripture; He did so for Melchizedek (Genesis 14), Balaam (Numbers 22), the Magi (Matthew 2), the Ninevites (Jonah 3), Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2 & 4) and Philip (Acts 8:26-40).10 In the end time, God even sends out an angel to proclaim the gospel to every living person (Rev. 14:6).
In each of the above cases it must be noted that it is always man’s choice to receive the light given, and then receive more light; or to stop along the way and refuse more of God’s revelation. In the case of creation, this external light can reveal God, but it can also be ignored. Worse, if man only receives the light of creation and chooses not to follow further, he will end up in idolatry — the worship of what has been made. In the second case, where man is made aware of morality, the light can be shut out and that man is left with only himself and his own idealistic goals; the result is humanism – the worship of mankind. God gives us the evidence we need to believe in Him, but He does not violate our free will by making it impossible to not choose Him. Our desire for God, our love for God, our faith in God will indeed influence our interpretation of the evidence (Hebrews 11:1), but that is a built in safeguard… for our love and obedience (not just an intellectual assent to the facts) is what God desires from us.
John 3:17-21 records that, He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. . . (see also John 6:45). God will indeed judge fairly, and as all men receive a measure of faith (Rom. 12:3), so they will each be judged by the amount to which they responded.
It also appears from scripture that certain people will be judged differently based on their ability to understand the light they are given. For instance children who die before a certain age (2 Timothy 3:15, Matthew 18:3) go to be with God (2 Samuel 12:22-23), along with those who lack the mental ability to understand the gospel (James 4:17; 1 Corinthians 1:26-30, 3:18-20) and, possibly, the “person who would have turned to God, but dies” (Psalm 139; Matthew 11:21). 11
While it would seem incoherent to presume to pass a moral judgment on the source of our morality, it is also unreasonable to presume that we can see flaws in a plan that an omniscient God initiated. Furthermore, it is crystal clear that God cares much more than we ever could for the lost. Ezekiel 18:23, 32 says, “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD.” And Hebrews 11:6 tells us, “He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” We know from John 6:37 that, “the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” Why? “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Hell’s Inhabitants: First Conclusion
We have seen that God has made it possible for all people to receive His salvation. Although we may disagree on the exact methods God uses, we know that He does in fact use them. He has provided enough evidence for a true faith based on facts, although He allows those who wish to ignore Him the ability to do so. Someone might ask, Why didn’t God give him just a little longer? The reason: it would not make a difference. Given 100, or 1,000 years, a person could make the same choice; in fact experience seems to show that longer life spans do more to harden hearts than to soften. God alone knows our hearts perfectly, and He allows us the time necessary to make a decision for or against Him. When that final decision has been reached, He allows it to remain so.
Hell was not created for people, but for Satan and his demons (Matt. 25:41), they will exist forever in the place that God has set aside for evil when it is removed from His presence forever (Matt. 13:24-30). Although few would consciously choose hell in particular as their final destination, no one will be in hell who did not, by conscious choice, reject God. For God to force people into hell would violate their freedom of choice to love. A person who chooses separation from God in life is rewarded in kind — and that is hell, separation from God for eternity. In agreement with the atheist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, C. S. Lewis writes that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. In another place Lewis observes, “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.’”14
Scripture references taken from The New American Standard Bible, (La Habra, California: The Lockman Foundation) 1977.
1. Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, trans. John Ciardi (New York: Mentor Books, 1954, Paperback 1964), 205-210.
Dante’s Inferno is a type of the medieval world’s ideas of what hell might be like. Consider the fate of the thieves
in the eighth circle of hell (Canto XXIV): they are bound at the hands (which they used to steal) by serpents that
strike them. When bitten, the sinner burns in fire and is later reconstituted… only to assume the form of the
reptile itself (his body stolen). –See note 15 as well–
2. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (Macmillan, 1964; New York: Touchstone, 1996), passim. Lewis pictured hell as a drab city in this allegorical book.
3. This bomb threat illustration prompted a question answered by Glenn Miller on his Think Tank website: http://www.webcom.com/ctt/gutripper.html
4. See “Hamartia” in BAGD.
5. Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1984), 102.
6. See Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks, When Skeptics Ask (Wheaton: SP publications, 1990), 120-123; or Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 221-225; for medical details.
7. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Macmillan, 1962; New York: Touchstone, 1996), 109.
8. Christian Research Institute president Hank Hanegraaff uses this illustration often when this question is asked on the
Bible Answer Man broadcast.
9. See Glenn Miller’s examples from Think Tank website: http://www.webcom.com/~ctt/HNoHear.html
10. From Glenn Miller’s Think Tank answer to this question http://www.webcom.com/~ctt/HNoHear.html
11. Ron Rhodes, The Complete Book of Bible Answers (Eugene: Harvest House, 1997), 221.
12. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 114