“The world will probably be converted into…a vast ocean of fire, in which the wicked shall be overwhelmed…their heads, their eyes, their tongues, their hands, their feet, their loins, and their vitals, shall forever be full of glowing, melting fire…they shall eternally…feel the torments…without any end at all, and never, never be delivered.”1
This scary description of an ever-burning hell comes from the pen of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), the most influential Christian theologian of Colonial America and one of its most powerful preachers. Edwards’ sermons, such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” taught that the unrepentant and spiritually lazy would end up in an ever-burning hell-fire. We can understand why people listening to Edwards and other preachers with a similar message might, as some did, wail and shriek in horror, writhe in fearful hysteria and even go insane.
This brand of hell-fire preaching has been a long-standing and common strain woven into the fabric of the church throughout much of its history until recent times. However, you probably won’t hear a hell-fire and brimstone sermon in church today.
Hell—to preach or not to preach?
Several evangelical scholars—including F. F. Bruce, Michael Green, John Stott, John W. Wenham, to name a few—have voiced opposition to the traditional view of hell. Clark Pinnock, a Canadian theologian and biblical scholar, didn’t mince words in the book Four Views on Hell. He wrote: “Everlasting torture is intolerable from a moral point of view because it pictures God acting like a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for his enemies whom he does not even allow to die.”2
Although Pinnock has drawn fire from some of his more conservative colleagues, his view of hell-fire preaching is shared by many Christian teachers and scholars, even if they don’t state their objections in such stark terms. They, like Pinnock and a growing number of others, “consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine” and a “theological and moral enormity.”3 This might be an understatement when we consider the fact that some who teach an ever-burning hell (such as Edwards) also teach that God has chosen only a tiny minority of people for a heavenly life and has automatically, from eternity, planned for everyone else to go to a fearful destiny in hell forever.
Not every Christian teacher and theologian agrees that the idea of an ever-burning hell as torture chamber is a ghastly teaching. Some insist that we need more preaching about hell. Larry Dixon, writing some years ago in Moody magazine, decried the lack of hell-fire preaching. “When was the last time you heard a sermon on hell?” he asked. “In your witness for Christ, have you recently warned anyone about eternal judgment?”4 Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson say we must “proclaim the whole counsel of God—yes, including hell—to Christians and non-Christians alike.”5
Some Christian teachers believe that people need to be prodded with fear to get them to commit to Christ. Dixon insists, “Self-sufficient North Americans will never really listen to the gospel if we don’t at some point warn them about judgment.” His view is, “If all we speak of is love and affirmation, comfortable pagans will politely listen for a while, say they were happy for us, and go on their way.” He concludes by saying, “Unless they fear His wrath, many won’t seek His love.”6
This approach seems to assume that Americans don’t already believe that some kind of “hell” exists. It appears to be a wrong assumption. In virtually every poll taken in recent years, a majority of Americans say they do believe in a real hell. According to a mid-2007 Gallup poll, 69 percent of respondents said they believed in hell. In some polls, the percentage of people expressing their belief in hell has been even higher.7
Where does a person’s belief about hell come from? Ultimately, from the Bible. The problem is that a lot of misinformation has been mixed in with the biblical teaching about hell. God has been all-too-often pictured as an angry Judge, ready to toss people into the torments of hell with minimal provocation. But that is an unbiblical view both of God and hell. The Bible testifies that God has no intention of condemning people to “hell” out-of-hand. His goal is to save us from our sins and heal our spiritual brokenness.
Gaining perspective on hell
Every New Testament author has something to say at least indirectly about hell by speaking of a future self-judgment on anyone who willfully rejects God’s loving grace and the good life God has purposed from eternity to give to his human children.
Here’s a saying from Jesus about anyone who remains faithless: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). In Mark 9:43, he spoke about those who might “go into hell, where the fire never goes out.” The book of Hebrews speaks of “a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (10:27).
Hell is serious, so we don’t want to discount it, because the witness of Scripture does not do this. We must seriously think about the fact that some kind of hell does exist, whatever its nature might be, if we believe the testimony of the Bible. The question remains: What kind of a hell does the Bible teach and who actually ends up there?
Many Christians have a legalistic view of God’s relationship with humanity. They see God as a condemning Judge, who is angry with the world and throws “bad people” into the flames of hell for all eternity. He carries only “good people” with him into an eternal heavenly bliss.
God is for us, not against us
The witness of Scripture gives us a different picture. It tells us that the Triune God has opened the door of his accepting love for everyone. God, who is love (1 John 4:8), is so devoted to saving humanity from the destruction of sin that he took the human condition on himself. He entered his creation as a human being in the Person of his Son.
Jesus, God in the flesh, took on our fallen human nature and remade it in his perfect and righteous image, forgiving and destroying human sinfulness. In Christ, we are enabled “to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness,” which means we are his own work, created in Christ in his image (Ephesians 4:24). It’s all God’s doing for us and in us through Christ and by the Spirit.
Robert Farrar Capon writes, “The old baloney about heaven being for good guys and hell for bad guys is dead wrong. Heaven is populated entirely by forgiven sinners… and hell is populated entirely by forgiven sinners. The only difference between the two groups is that those in heaven accept the forgiveness and those in hell reject it.”8 Capon’s words resonate with Scripture. In Christ, God reconciled humanity to himself even while people were still his enemies and in spiritual darkness. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” wrote the apostle Paul (Romans 5:8). Even when people hated God and were totally ignorant of his eternal promise for all humanity, they “were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” (verse 10).
Paul insists this gift of God’s grace and love is meant for everyone! “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Everything in heaven and earth has been reconciled to him in Christ (Colossians 1:19-20).
What does this have to do with hell? If we’re going to talk about how anyone could end up in hell, alienated from God, we have to first understand that this is contrary to what God wants for everyone. That’s why he has already acted to save everyone. No one need ever go to hell, except by their own stubborn choice.
Who’s in hell and why
“Whatever we say about hell must be said under the rubric of a universal and effective reconciliation of all things in Christ,” says Capon. “If we choose to explain how hell can be, we must somehow say that Jesus accepts our choosing of it without willing us into it in any deterministic way.”9 God wants everyone to be saved, to experience forever the joy of fellowship with him. But love is not love if it is forced. God will, in the end, let us have what we want. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’”10
Hell is not a jail or a place into which God tosses people he hates. Hell is a state of denial of who God is and who God created us to be—reconciled in Christ, in eternal relationship with him, sharing his life. Hell is refusing to accept the love of God, preferring instead the selfish world of our own making. Those in hell are there because they want no fellowship with the God who made them and loves them. Those in heaven are there because they throw in their lot with Christ, accept him as Savior, follow him as Lord, and trust in his loving and free grace. Lewis wrote, “No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”11
People in hell are there in spite of God’s will for them, not because of it. They have what they want, not what God wants for them. God condemns no one to hell by predetermined decree. The testimony of Scripture gives us the gloriously good news that God our Savior “wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). He is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Hell is a dismal, tragic, gloomy and unnecessary disaster. It contradicts everything God wants for us.
1 Jonathan Edwards, The Works of President Edwards, vol. 7 (Worcester, MA: Isaiah Thomas, 1809), 486-502.
2 William Crockett, editor, Four Views on Hell (Zondervan, 1992), 149.
3 Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A Peterson, Hell Under Fire (Zondervan, 2004), 34.
4 Larry Dixon, “Whatever Happened to Hell?” Moody magazine, June 1993, 26.
5 Morgan and Peterson, 240.
6 Ibid., 28-29.
7 Gallup Poll conducted May 10-13, 2007.
8 Robert Farrar Capon, The Mystery of Christ …And Why We Don’t Get It (Eerdmans, 1993), 10.
9 Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three (Eerdmans, 1997), 269.
10 C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (Simon & Schuster, 1996 edition), 72.