By: The John Ankerberg Show
|By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2001|
|As we noted previously, many unusual events are attributable to God that are not true miracles. God acts through natural processes. Other unusual events are acts of human beings (and/or deceiving spirits, called demons). These are not real miracles either. Satan can fool, but he cannot truly work transcendently over nature— and never intentionally for God’s glory.|
By Dr. Norman Geisler(from Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Book House, 1999)
Hell has been called cruel, inhuman, and ‘barbarous. Bertrand Russell said anyone who threatens people with eternal punishment, as Jesus did, is inhumane (Russell, 593-94). Unbelievers in general have questioned both the existence and justice of hell. Orthodox Christians, however, both Catholic and Protestant, have defended both the reality and equity of hell.
The Existence of Hell
The existence of hell has been defended by arguments both from Scripture and from human reason.
Jesus Taught the Existence of Hell. Scripture emphatically affirms the doctrine of hell. Some of the strongest assertions that there is a hell come from Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. He had more to say about hell than concerning Heaven. Jesus warned, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). He added of those who reject him, “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age” (Matt. 13:40).
In the Olivet Discourse our Lord said that at the final judgment God 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”’ (Matt. 25:41b). Of the seriousness of the danger of hell, Jesus warned, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43). The reality of hell is obvious from a vivid story told by Jesus in Luke 16. This story is unlike a parable, since in it Jesus uses the actual name of a person (Lazarus). The story concerned the fate after death of a rich man and a beggar, Lazarus:
- The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” “No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” [Luke 16:19-31]
The Bible Teaches That There Is a Hell. Other inspired writings of the New Testament affirm the existence of hell. Perhaps the most graphic is found in the Revelation of John:
- Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. [20:11-15]
The apostle Paul spoke of everlasting separation from God, saying: “This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 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” (2 Thess. 1:7b-9). The writer of Hebrews adds a note of finality: “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
God’s Justice Demands a Hell. In addition to direct affirmations, Scripture offers reasons for the existence of hell. One is that justice demands the existence of hell, and God is just (Romans 2). He is so pure and untainted that he cannot even look upon sin (Hab. 1:13). God is no respecter of persons, “For God does not show favoritism” (Rom. 2:11). As Abraham declared, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Psalm 73 is representative of passages teaching that not all justice is accomplished in this life. The wicked seem to prosper (Ps. 73:3). Thus, the existence of a place of punishment for the wicked after this life is necessary to maintain the justice of God. Surely, there would be no real justice were there no place of punishment for the demented souls of Stalin and Hitler, who initiated the merciless slaughter of multimillions. God’s justice demands that there is a hell.
Jonathan Edwards argued that even one sin deserves hell, since the eternal, holy God cannot tolerate any sin. Each person commits a multitude of sins in thought, word, and deed. This is all compounded by the fact that we reject God’s immense mercy. And add to this man’s readiness to find fault with God’s justice and mercy, and we have abundant evidence of the need for hell. If we had a true spiritual awareness, we would not be amazed at hell’s severity but at our own depravity (Edwards, 1.109).
God’s Love Demands a Hell. The Bible asserts that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). But love cannot act coercively, only persuasively. A God of love cannot force people to love him. Paul spoke of things being done freely and not of compulsion (2 Cor. 9:7). Forced loved is not love; it is rape. A loving being always gives “space” to others. He does not force himself upon them against their will. As C. S. Lewis observed, “the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of his scheme forbids him to use. Merely to override a human will… would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo” (Lewis, Screwtape Letters, 38). Hence, those who do not choose to love God must be allowed not to love him. Those who do not wish to be with him must be allowed to be separated from him. Hell allows separation from God.
Human Dignity Demands a Hell. Since God cannot force people into heaven against their free will, human free choice demands a hell. Jesus cried out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together; as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37). As Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done”’ (Screwtape Letters, 69).
God’s Sovereignty Demands a Hell. Unless there is a hell there is no final victory over evil. For what frustrates good is evil. The wheat and tares cannot grow together forever. There must be an ultimate separation, or else good will not triumph over evil. As in society, punishment for evil is necessary that good might prevail. Even so, in eternity good must triumph over evil. If it does not, then God is not in ultimate control. God’s sovereignty demands a hell, otherwise he would not be the ultimate victor over evil that the Bible declares him to be (cf. 1 Cor. 15:24-28; Revelation 20-22).
The Cross of Christ Implies Hell. At the center of Christianity is the cross (1 Cor. 1:17- 18;15:3). Without it there is no salvation (Rom. 4:25; Heb. 10:10-14). It is the very purpose for which Christ came into the world (Mark 10:45; Luke 19:10). Without the cross there is no salvation (John 10:1, 9-10; Acts 4:12). Only through the cross can we be delivered from our sins (Rom. 3:21-26). Jesus suffered great agony and even separation from God on the cross (Heb. 2:10-18; 5:7-9). Anticipating the cross, Jesus “sweat as it were great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). But why the cross and all this suffering unless there is a hell? Christ’s death is robbed of its eternal significance unless there is an eternal separation from God from which people need to be delivered.
The Nature and Location of Hell
The Bible describes the reality of hell in forceful figures of speech. It is said to be a place of darkness (Matt. 8:12; 22:13), which is “outside” [the gate of the heavenly city] (Rev. 22:14-15). Hell is away from the “presence of the Lord” (Matt. 25:41; 2 Thess. 1:7-9). Of course, these are relational, not necessarily spatial, terms. God is “up” and hell is “down.” God is “inside” and hell is “outside.” Hell is the other direction from God.
The nature of hell is a horrifying reality. It is like being left outside in the dark forever (Matt. 8:12). It is like a wandering star (Jude 13), a waterless cloud (Jude 12), a perpetually burning dump (Mark 9:43-48), a bottomless pit (Rev. 20:1, 3), a prison (1 Peter 3:19), and a place of anguish and regret (Luke 16:28).
To borrow the title of the book by Lewis, hell is the “great divorce”—an eternal separation from God (2 Thess. 1:7-9). There is, in biblical language, a great gulf fixed” between hell and heaven (Luke 16:26) so that no one can pass from one side to the other.
Nowhere does the Bible describe it as a “torture chamber” where people are forced against their will to be tortured. This is a caricature created by unbelievers to justify their reaction that the God who sends people to hell is cruel. This does not mean that hell is not a place of torment. Jesus said it was (Luke 16:24). But unlike torture which is inflicted from without against one’s will, torment is self-inflicted.
Even atheists have suggested that the door of hell is locked from the inside. We are condemned to our own freedom from God. Heaven’s presence of the divine would be the torture to one who has irretrievably rejected him. Torment is living with the consequences of our own bad choices. It is the weeping and gnashing of teeth that results from the realization that we blew it and deserve the consequences. Just as a football player may pound on the ground in agony after missing a play that loses the Super Bowl, so those in hell know that the pain they suffer is self-induced.
Hell is also depicted as a place of eternal fire. This fire is real but not necessarily physical (as we know it), because people will have imperishable physical bodies (John 5:28-29; Rev. 20:13-15), so normal fire would not affect them. Further, the figures of speech that describe hell are contradictory if taken in a physical sense. It has flames, yet is outer darkness. It is a dump (with a bottom), yet a bottomless pit. While everything in the Bible is literally true, not everything is true literally.
The Duration of Hell
Many unbelievers would be willing to accept a temporary hell, but the Bible speaks of it as everlasting.
Hell Will Last as Long as Does God. The Bible declares that God will endure forever (Ps. 90:1-2). Indeed, he had no beginning and has no end (Rev. 1:8). He created all things (John 1:3; Col. 1:15-16), and he will abide after this world is destroyed (2 Peter 3:10-12). But God, by his very nature, cannot tolerate evil (Isaiah 6; Hab. 1:13). Hence, evil persons must be separated from God forever. As long as God is God and evil is evil, the latter must be separated from the former.
Hell Will Last as Long as Heaven Does. Heaven is described as “everlasting” in the Bible. But the same Greek word (aionion), used in the same context, also affirmed that hell is “everlasting” (Matt. 25:41; cf. vs. 46; 2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 20:10). So, if heaven is forever, so is hell. There is absolutely no ground in Scripture for supposing that hell is temporal and heaven is eternal.
Nor is there a possibility of getting out of hell. A great gulf is fixed so no one can leave (Luke 16:26). Judgment begins immediately after death (John 8:21; Heb. 9:27). This is not unlike the fact that some decisions in life are irreversible. Suicide is a one-way street.
People are conscious after they die, whether they are in heaven (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil 1:23; Rev. 6:9) or in hell (Luke 16:23). The Beast was still conscious after a thousand years in hell (Rev. 19:20; 20:10). It makes no sense to resurrect unbelievers to everlasting judgment (Dan. 12:2; John 5:28-29) before the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11-15) unless they are conscious.
Next time we will consider some objections to the doctrine of hell.