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.
The biblical metaphors are just that: metaphors. The various metaphors speak to horrors we are familiar with. The reality is worse than any picture, I’m guessing.
But my guess is you are headed for a deep circle for lying: “no pun intended” should be “pardon the pun” or “be sure you don’t miss my cool pun, you idiot.”
Anniliationism comes from compassion, as Mark suggests. But when one does as much work with true evil as some of us do, it’s not really compassion to think that the next stage of existence is going to be just as messed up as this one!
An excellent yet sobering post! 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 is stunning. The horror of hell is the eternal separation from God’s presence and the majesty of his power. That’s what will make this eternal, conscious punishment so painful and horrible. The more I read Scripture, the more convinced I am that the storyline of the Bible is about God re-establishing His presence among His people. Greg Beale’s work, THE TEMPLE AND THE CHURCH’S MISSION, has been a major influence.
Along this line, would you agree or not that some who believe in a literal hell (like you and I do) have taken some of the biblical descriptions of hell too literally? For example, how does a lake of fire coexist with utter darkness or with the need for chains, etc.? Surely there is some metaphorical language here. Yet the metaphorical language heightens rather than softens the horror of hell. That is, whether or not there will be literal flames, there will be horrible pain and suffering because of the utter lack of God’s presence. Jesus captures this with the Gehenna image. Now this is a much different perspective than the annihilationism or unconditional immortality view which concludes from the metaphorical language that hell itself is metaphorical.
I don’t want to water down hell (no pun intended). What I’m advocating is a nuanced literal view rather than a strict literal view which does not recognize metaphorical language. Where do you stand on this?
Thank you for your solid, Biblical presentation of hell as the literal eternal punishment and complete, final separation from the presence of God. What lies behind the alternate presentation of a kinder, more compassionate presentation of hell now being published by some as evangelical annihilism? What is the bigger picture on the theological landscape?