What is hell, and why does God threaten to send us there? For the past two days, we have been looking at the challenges of this email we received:
“How can you expect me to believe in a God who created me against my wishes and without my consent, and then because I don’t do things the way he thinks I should, sends me to eternal suffering in hell? That is a product of a twisted mind and is not something I can believe in or serve. I didn’t ask to be born, and I won’t spend my life worshiping an evil, abusive God who rejoices in bringing pain to everything he touches.”
The emailer’s understanding of hell is traditional, not biblical. No one can answer all the questions about hell with authority, because no one has been there and returned to tell about it. Works like Dante’s Inferno have influenced us. Preachers who have used hell as a scare tactic to control their audiences. Misconceptions abound.
So what is hell? We tend to portray hell as a place of eternal punishing rather than a place of eternal punishment. There is a difference. When Jesus talked about hell, He used clearly symbolic words. He spoke of hell as a place of flames and burning sulfur (brimstone). Another time he called it a place of darkness (see Matthew 8:12; 22:13). Sometimes we hear hell explained by the story Jesus told of the rich man and Lazarus. The description of hell is presumed to be taken as literal. However, no Christian sees it as an instruction to pray to Abraham or that Abraham is the judge. Those things are presented in the story.
What we can say about hell is that it is total separation from God. An atheist who never wanted anything to do with God in life is going to be granted that same wish in hell. God never forces himself on any person. We are always free to reject God if we so choose. The only problem is that we must also suffer the consequences of that rejection of God. God is love, light, good, compassion, justice, etc. All of those things will be a part of heaven. None of those things will exist in hell. Being lost is frequently described in the Bible as “the second death” (see Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). Theologians argue endlessly over what this means, and whether the soul can die. I certainly have nothing to add to the discussion, but I know that being separated from God and all the blessings of God is not something I wish even to consider.
The emailer states everything in diametric opposition to the truth. God is good, not evil. God is love, not hate. Hell is simply the separation from God that the emailer claims to desire. God clearly says that He does not want anyone to be lost, but for all to inherit eternal life (2 Peter 3:9). However, God also allows us to reject Him and all He offers. This is like the parent who painfully releases a child to travel a road the parent wishes they would not travel, hoping they will learn from the wrong choices and return to the parent’s loving embrace. The Prodigal Son story in Luke 15 makes this so obvious that no one can miss it.
Our rejection is not what God desires, and He always is there to welcome us back. What is hell? Our wrong choices can bring us death and eternal separation from God. That is hell, and you do not want any part of it. Come to God, obey His love and blessings. Enjoy eternal life with love, peace, joy, compassion, forgiveness, and freedom from pain that we can only dimly imagine.
— John N. Clayton © 2019