This post is part of the May Synchroblog on the topic of hell. Scroll to the end for this month’s link list.
I don’t really understand hell.
It has grown fashionable to doubt the existence of hell. I don’t. Scripture seems pretty plain about that. Oh yes, I know that no matter which verses I cite at this point, someone can point me to a thick stack of journal articles bristling with cutting-edge exegesis and theological thought, the sum of which is that there’s quite a bit of scholarly doubt. But I’ve known too many academics and read too many journal articles to be much impressed with scholarly doubt. (Yes, I know I’m not answering their arguments here. Some other time; this post isn’t about that.)
I believe in the resurrection of the dead — all of us — some to everlasting life, and others to damnation.
Of course, no reasonable observer of the Bible ever took the pop-culture caricature seriously — sinners being tortured endlessly by demons, that sort of thing. Neither the Bible nor the Church taught that hell was somehow an amusement park for demons at the expense of wayward humans. The traditional understanding is eternal conscious torment, variously interpreted as active punishment avenging a lifetime of wickedness and unbelief, or passive withdrawal of all grace, a la The Great Divorce.
Active punishment makes sense if you also believe limited atonement. On the other hand, if you believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world (as Scripture says), then on what grounds is there still punishment to be executed? Temporal discipline, as a means to redirect someone, sure. But eternal punishment to satisfy a death sentence that God Himself testified, in the resurrection, has already been carried out? I can’t make sense of that one.
I can make better sense of hell as a withdrawal of all grace. On the last day, when all our precious illusions have been shattered and we see, fully and finally, the grace of God, what then? Some of us have been pursuing that grace all our lives, and will draw near. Some, redeemed by that grace, will nonetheless shrink away in shame as its light reveals secrets we’ve tried to hide all our lives. The resulting purification will be a severe mercy. And others, having spent their lives pretending that no such grace existed, suppressing the truth in their hearts — well, they’ll run with all their might in the other direction. Even though there’s literally nothing there. No relationship (that’s a reflection of the Trinity.) No joy. No trees or grass or chocolate cake or marbled steak or anything else that was a divine gift — and everything was a divine gift.
Under that understanding, Sartre was wrong. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is you, all by yourself, eternally removed from all that reminds you of God — and everything points to Him. So there you are, exponentially worse off than Gollum, tormented in your own skin because everything good hurts and everything ugly is all you have left. You are the worm and the rotting meat, the fire and what it consumes, and the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. In life, you failed to recognize the divine grace that kept you from that state; in death, you have no illusions about the extent of that grace, and have rejected it all.
If we grasp the depths of God’s grace to us, then we can grasp how thoroughly horrifying the complete withdrawal of divine grace would have to be.
I can at least kinda get my head around that. What messes me up at that point is the whole thing lasting forever. If I had a dog that was suffering that much in its own skin, with no chance of recovery, I’d put it down with no hesitation at all. I don’t get why God wouldn’t do the same.
But there’s a lot about God’s behavior that I just don’t get. In those gaps of understanding, we can either refuse to believe God until He explains it all, or we can trust. I choose to trust.
If you’ve never met God and recognized Who you were meeting, then that will sound like a cop-out. How can I believe in something like this, when I don’t understand it and it doesn’t make any sense? All I can say is, I understand where you’re coming from…but I’ve met Him. He is wiser than I’ll ever be, funnier than you’d think, cares deeply, and loves well. I know Who I’m trusting. Maybe one day, if you haven’t already, you will too.
This post is part of the May Synchroblog, in which numerous bloggers around the world write about the same topic on the same day. Links to the other contributors are below. If you enjoyed my article, you may also enjoy reading what they have to say about the topic of hell.
- An Investigation into the Biblical Concept of Hell – Justin Steckbauer
- To Hell and Back – Soulcare Ministries
- The HELL You Say! – Nathan Jennings
- Forbidden Fruit = Hell’s Flames – Michael Wilson
- How long does hell last? – K.W. Leslie
- Hell – A Place of Passionate Desire – Alan
- The problem of those unable to Love, or the question of hell as a reality – Bram Cools
- Hell No! – Mike Edwards
- Five Misconceptions about Annihilationism – Wesley Rostoll
- Heretic (Belated) Fridays – Bradley Jersak – Her Gates Will Never Be Shut– Scott Sloan
- Hell – A Place of Passionate Desire – Alan Stevens
- Christians Should Go to Hell – Jeremy Myers
- Oh, Hell, NO! — Liz Dyer