Dear Pastor: Straight Talk on Hell

Dear Pastor,
This article was sent to me from a friend who does not believe in hell. He believes a loving father would never send His child to hell is what . I know he sent this to me because he knows I do believe in hell. How do I respond in a clear fashion?
Thanks,
[redacted]

You asked about the article that was sent to you, written by an author named Oliver Thomas. In the article, he makes some claims in the article that I want to point out, and then I’ll give you a few thoughts on how you should speak to your friend about this, as well as some resources that are available to help you. But first, let’s examine some of the author’s claims:

Hell in the Old Testament
1. Does the Old Testament teach everlasting punishment after death? The author of the article says, “Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) is the abode of the dead described as a place of eternal punishment.” The article is quite correct, in that the most common description of what awaited people after death was known as sheol, a shadowy, uncertain place. Both godly, righteous people and the wicked ended up in sheol. But sheol has a few different meanings in the Old Testament, and the author is ignoring parts of what the Bible says. For example, in Psalm 9:17 the wicked nations are wiped out by “death” (literally, sheol) and here the word refers to the abstract state of death. But in other places, sheol means a literal location, similar to the English phrase “the grave.” An example of this would be Genesis 42:38 or Ecclesiastes 9:10. Lastly (and this is what the article ignores) sheol can also refer to a place of everlasting punishment. For this view, see Deuteronomy 32:22 or Psalm 49:14 – 15.

Further, the Old Testament has other ways of speaking about unending punishment. For example Isaiah 66:24 talks about “the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah relays God’s word: “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: behold, my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, upon man and beast, upon the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched.” (7:20). Both of these passages speak of a punishment that will never end.

Jesus and the New Testament on Hell
2. What did Jesus mean by “hell?” The author of the article says, “Nearly every reference to ‘hell’ that comes from the lips of Jesus is a mistranslation. The word translated as hell by the King James Bible is the word ‘Gehenna.'” Again, the author does a good job describing what Gehenna was (a monstrosity of a constantly-burning trash heap outside of the city). But just because Jesus used the “vivid imagery” of Gehenna in His teaching doesn’t mean that he would agree with the author of the article that Jesus’ message is being misunderstood today. Thomas claims, “[Jesus] could just as easily have told them to repent or they would wind up throwing away their lives.” Yes, Gehenna was a trash heap and the city dump, but that doesn’t mean Jesus was saying that not believing in Him was “throwing away your life.” To begin with, Jesus says this punishment is “the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). Gehenna, the physical trash dump outside of Jerusalem, does not fit this description. Neither does the “torment” that Jesus describes for those in hell (Luke 16:23). (Evidently, Luke 16:23 must be one of those few references that Thomas must admit does not mistranslate Jesus, since the word for “hell” used here is the Greek word hades.) There wasn’t physical pain or torment at the trash dump.

You see, when Scripture describes hell as a place of fire and darkness (Jude 7, 13), with weeping and gnashing teeth (see above as well as Matthew 13:42; 25:30), of destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:7 – 9; 2 Peter 3:7), and torment (see above as well as Revelation 20:10), it is not using literal language, but figurative language. If there is a fire raging, that place cannot at the same time be completely dark, because the fire would provide some light. Jesus’ point by bringing all these images together is that hell is infinitely worse than we could imagine. The fire and the darkness and the torment all point to an experience of reality that some city dump called Gehenna could never wholly describe. Thomas’ problem with Jesus’ language is not that he studied the historical place called Gehenna, but that Thomas failed to notice why Jesus was referring to a place where the fires never stopped burning.

The Attributes of God and Hell
3. Can a God of justice and love really send people to a place like hell? Thomas says, “…God is a God of justice. A bedrock principal of justice is that the punishment must fit the crime. We don’t impose the death penalty for speeding tickets.” The author is failing to recognize the basic difference between the Creator and created people. Everyone recognizes that if lie to my friend, that is wrong; but if I lie to a police officer, that is even worse – now I may be obstructing justice. However, even worse than this is if I lie to a judge while under oath. Now I’ve perjured myself, and my punishment will be greater. The more important the person is that we sin against, the greater the crime. When we sin against the Almighty God, the Alpha and the Omega, our crime is committed against an infinite Being, and so for God to be just, the punishment must fit the crime. A sin against an infinitely holy and perfect Being requires an infinite punishment.

The same is true when we consider God’s love. The author says, “…if one of our daughters turned out to be a murderer, neither of us would respond by setting fire to her. We wouldn’t torture her for a second.” The question for Thomas, then, is that if loving parents wouldn’t do this to their children, why would a God of love do this to His creations? This is a complex and difficult question, but there are a few things we can say to briefly answer it. First, God genuinely does not desire any to perish, but for them to be saved (Ezekiel 33:11). Hell is a “wage” that we “earn” by spurning and rebelling against our Creator’s kind offers of forgiveness (Romans 3:23). Secondly, while the author sets God’s love against His justice, all of God’s attributes work together in perfect harmony (Psalm 36:5 – 7). Thirdly, the author ignores God’s hatred in exchange for God’s love, but the same Scriptures that teach us that God is a God of love teach us that God has perfect wrath, anger, and hatred as well (Psalm 5:5 – 6; Romans 9:13). Fourthly, though we may never completely understand this, something of God’s glory is revealed in the unending destruction of the wicked (Revelation 19:3).

Fifthly and finally, the reason that Jesus went to the cross was to turn back the wrath of God. Jesus suffered the punishment and “hell” that we deserved to face. If Thomas is correct, and God doesn’t send anyone to hell, then why did God send Jesus to die such a terrible, humiliating, and painful death? Thomas implies that the classical view of hell makes God a monster and worse than any parent for punishing people for eternity. But in Thomas’ view, God is just as monstrous for what He forced Jesus to endure if there is no hell.

Hell & Fear
4. Do Christians believe in and teach about hell out of fear? The author says, “I suspect that a deep-seated fear of God lies behind much of the neurosis… Fear is a horrible motivator for human behavior.” It may be that there have been some people in the course of human history who have taught about hell to instill fear or out of their own fear, but that certainly wouldn’t be why Jesus spent so much time talking about hell, and neither is that the reason Christians should believe and teach on it today. In fact, believers in Christ don’t have a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7), and perfect love drives out fear because we have no fear of being punished in Christ (I John 4:18). Those who properly fear God – in holy reverence and submission, not terror – need never fear punishment!

How to Respond
5. Lastly, you asked, “How do I respond in a clear fashion?” I would suggest that the most important issue here is the question that the serpent asked Eve in the Garden: “Has God said?” In other words, your friend doesn’t want to believe in hell, and articles like the one he sent you eases his conscience because he reads them and says, “See, even the Bible isn’t really very clear about hell. It was probably made up by monks in the Medieval Ages, so I don’t have to believe it.” But as I’ve been trying to point out above, God has spoken through Scripture about hell, and what God has said about hell is actually pretty clear. In other words, your friend doesn’t primarily have a problem with hell; the primary problem is whether or not to listen to God’s Word. Ask your friend, “If the Bible clearly taught something that you were uncomfortable with, what would you do?” In other words, what is the highest authority in your friend’s life? Is it their own conscience, their own sense of right and wrong; or will they submit to what Scripture says, even if they don’t like it? In the course of your friendship with this person over the years, don’t be as concerned about whether or not they believe in hell so much as be very concerned whether they submit to what Scripture says in every aspect. Once a person is finally convinced that Scripture is God’s perfect and inerrant Word, they will inevitably come to see what the Bible says about hell.

Along all these lines, continue to love your friend and be a witness in their lives to the grace that you have found in Christ Jesus by faith alone. The reason we do not have to be afraid of hell is because of Him! When we place our faith in Jesus for the very first time, He takes all our sin upon His own shoulders and dies on the cross, burying our sin with Him. And He also gives us all of His righteousness, that in Christ we should become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). With the righteousness of Jesus freely credited to us by grace through faith, we can know that we have eternal life (I John 5:11 – 13), and that we have nothing to fear.

A few times in the article, the author mentioned a man named Rob Bell and a book that he wrote entitled Love Wins. (For more on Bell, see my article “Arius Didn’t Describe Himself As Arian”) Unfortunately, Bell is a Christian “pastor” whose book makes many of the same mistakes that this article makes. Fortunately for those who love the truth, there are several articles explaining why Love Wins is such a mistake, and there are some books coming out refuting Bell’s book. Here’s a good place to start:

Kevin DeYoung “God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True: A Review of Love Wins

Oliver Thomas, the author of the article that was sent to you, has written a book entitled 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You: (But Can’t, Because He Needs the Job). Evidently, hell is one of these 10 things that – if the economy were a little better and I wasn’t so afraid of being fired! – I would tell you something different about. That gives me a laugh! I’m happy to report what the Holy Word of God says. In fact, I stake my life on its truthfulness!

I know this might have been more than you wanted, but hopefully you’ll find some of it helpful. Let me know if you have any more questions, either about this, or anything else! Blessings!

Your friend in Christ,
Brian

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