One of the biggest questions I run into is the question of hell. 20/20 did an hour show on it recently. They featured Carlton Pearson, a mega-church pastor who had made the switch from a very orthodox, if fundamentalistic, view of hell to a much more “compassionate” view where hell was what humans create in the killing fields of Rwanda and Thailand. He spoke against the burning hell where God tortures nice people who don’t say the right words before they die, preaching the “gospel of inclusion,” which states that everyone, including the most evil persons, are going to heaven.
What do we make of hell? Is it a lake of fire where gentle Buddhists suffer endless, terrible torment alongside Hitler or Robert Mugabe?
I have a traditional — which is to say biblical — view of hell. It is separation from God and punishment as summarized well in 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9: “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.”
The first element in this passage is punishment. No one is in hell because God wants them there. Bible is quite clear that He desires the salvation of all (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:3-6). They refuse to know God, refuse to obey His gospel. This is people who reject the universally present kindness of God that leads everyone to repentance (Rom. 2:4-11), defying His calling that goes to every creature (John 12:32), refusing relationship with Him whom they know because He made Himself known to them (Rom. 1:19-20). They worship and serve other gods, powerful spiritual beings who set themselves up against the Most High, gracious God like drug dealers in the neighborhood. These are not innocent, ignorant people, but ones who prefer other gods to the LORD. They are punished with destruction.
The destruction there is not annihilation but ruin. It is the word used of the lost sheep, coin in Luke 15 and translated “lost.” The word never means cessation of existence as a quick word study will show.
They are punished. But remember, there are levels of punishment in hell. Jesus said so in Matthew 11:20-24.
The other second element in this passage is final and complete separation from the presence of God. It’s a horror to imagine being left totally on our own resources, without any gracious support from God, given over completely to ourselves.
So is there hell on earth? There is. Unfortunately, we do create hellish things, knowingly and unknowingly. The hell of suicide bombers in schools is along side the emptiness of ruptured relationships. Children forced into the savagery of warfare coexists with anger that destroys children’s play time. The terror of attack lives with the persistent depression from missing deep friends.
Hope is in the forgiving and renewing work of the LORD. May His power is real if hidden in this broken, hellish world.