The reality of hell and eternal punishment is not a popular topic, even among Christians. Part of the problem is that the nature of hell has been horribly distorted in our culture and portrayed as an experience that is far from what we read in the NT. When I’m asked why I believe in hell, my response is three-fold.
First, I have such unshakable and robust confidence in the inerrant truth of every word in the Bible that the matter is already settled before I even read the text. I believe, as the Apostle Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:16, that “all Scripture [even texts such as Revelation 14:9-11] is breathed out by God and [is] profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
Second, by God’s grace I have come to understand, at least to some degree, the immeasurable magnitude and majesty of God’s holiness and beauty and authority and the honor that is due to him from all of his creatures, including you and me.
Third, again by God’s grace I have come to understand the immeasurable horror and ugliness and self-centeredness of humanity’s sin and depravity and wickedness.
If hell strikes you as unreasonable or unfair…
So I can honestly say that to the degree that you and I struggle with the concept of hell and eternal punishment is the degree to which we don’t understand God’s holiness and honor, on the one hand, or the horror and depravity of mankind’s sin, on the other. In other words, if hell strikes you as unreasonable or unfair or disproportionate, it can only be due to the fact that either you don’t believe the Bible is inspired and true, or you don’t believe that God is infinitely holy and just, or you don’t believe that mankind is morally depraved and has committed cosmic treason and is thus deserving of eternal condemnation.
As noted, contributing to the problem of hell are the numerous myths or false beliefs that surround it.
Myth #1: Hell is a place to be united with unbelievers.
There is widespread belief among non-Christians that hell is a place where they will be united with their unbelieving friends and drink beer all the time in an endless party. The fact is that hell is a place of utter isolation, loneliness, and deprivation.
Myth #2: Hell is a place where Satan and his demons reign.
Another false belief is that hell is the place where Satan and his demons exercise their authority to rule and reign. The fact is that hell is the place where Satan and his demons suffer eternal punishment. Satan and his demons are inmates in hell, not its warden or guards. See Matthew 25:41 for one clear statement to that effect:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Myth #3: Satan and his demons will torment human beings in hell.
Directly related to the previous myth, there is the notion among many that in hell Satan and his demons torment human beings who also are there. No. There is not one text in the Bible that suggests Satan and his demons afflict or torment human beings. They themselves, instead, are the object of God’s punishment. There have been numerous books written by people who claim to have visited hell in which they describe a scene where demons are tormenting humans who have been consigned there. This should be the first indication to all careful, Bible-believing readers that such an experience is fabricated.
Myth #4: There are people in hell who want to reconcile with God.
Yet another misconception is that there are people in hell crying out for mercy who want to reconcile with God. Nothing in Scripture indicates this is so. Instead, those in hell are eternally defiant of God and hate him all the more with each passing moment.
Myth #5: There are people in hell who don’t deserve to be there.
One of the more blasphemous notions about hell is that there are people in hell who don’t deserve to be there. Nothing could be farther from the truth. God’s justice is impeccable and he never consigns anyone to punishment in hell who does not fully deserve to suffer there.
Myth #6: There are people in hell who wanted to go to heaven.
A related myth is the notion that there are people in hell who wanted to go to heaven while they were still alive, but God wouldn’t let them. That is utterly false. Jesus himself made this clear when he said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. . . . whoever comes to me I will never cast out . . . . For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:35, John 6:37b, John 6:40).
Myth #7: Hell holds people who will one day be released.
A seventh myth is that there are people in hell who will eventually be released and granted entrance into heaven. As much as we might wish this were true, it isn’t. The Bible does not teach the doctrine of universalism, that is, the idea that everyone will eventually be saved and given eternal life in the new heaven and new earth.
Myth #8: In hell, people will be rid of God.
Finally, there is the myth that in hell people will be rid of God and have no experience of him. That is not true. It is true they will have no experience of God’s loving and gracious presence, but they will most assuredly experience his presence in justice and wrath. In fact, we read in Revelation 14:10 that they will be tormented “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb,” that is, in the presence of Jesus Christ. As John Piper has said, Revelation 14:10is not saying that “those in hell have the privilege of seeing what they enjoy, but that they have the remorse of seeing what they rejected.”
Hell should provoke anguish and urgency.
I’ll conclude with two brief observations. First, I can’t read biblical portrayals of hell and eternal punishment or think about it without feeling a deep and unrelenting agony in my heart. We should never talk about hell without weeping, for it is real and people are going there. This is not a subject for joking or lighthearted banter. It is an issue that should provoke within us both anguish and an urgent commitment to share the gospel with those who remain in unbelief.
Hell should provoke unfathomable gratitude.
My second reaction is one of unfathomable gratitude. When I read about hell in a passage like Revelation 14:9-11 I’m reading about what I deserve. God would have been perfectly just and righteous had he chosen to consign me to eternal torment. But in mercy he has drawn me to faith in his Son. In mercy he has poured out his wrath on Jesus in my place, a wrath and judgment that Jesus lovingly and willingly embraced and endured. Every single one of us deserves damnation. God owes us nothing but justice. The fact that he has given us mercy instead, and forgiveness instead of condemnation, ought to awaken in us the most heartfelt and passionate gratitude and praise.
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