About three years ago I was standing in a long line with my son waiting to board “The Nighthawk,” a roller-coaster at Carowinds. The wait ended up being a little more than an hour – it was a busy day. A 15 year old young man in line immediately in front of us struck up a conversation.
First he asked me, “does your son live with you or his momma?” He was surprised to learn that he lived with both of us together. As the conversation continued, about 20 minutes in, it suddenly took a chilling turn. The young man began to talk about how he would kill himself if he were to carry out a school shooting. He talked about it as if it was a newly discovered strategy that would bring him victory in a video game. There was quite a bit of glee on his face as he pictured the ghoulish scene in his mind’s eye.
The three college-aged kids in front of him, a couple of young women and a guy, looked like they’d just seen a ghost when they comprehended the words flowing so effortlessly from between this troubled young man’s lips. As I leaned in to respond all eyes within earshot of this disturbing conversation were firmly fixed on me.
I asked the young man if he was serious. Nervously stuttering and stammering, he said he wouldn’t really do anything like that; he was just speaking hypothetically. To me it sounded like he was describing a “cool” horror movie in which he would play the starring role. I wasn’t convinced that he wasn’t really serious.
I talked to him about the incalculable value of human life because we’re all created in the image of God, about how murder is evil and nothing to be glorified, even in fantasy. I asked him if he believed in God. He said he did, and that he had gone to church on occasion. I could tell he knew only enough about grace to be dangerous. When he assured me he was a Christian, I asked if he thought he would still go to heaven if he were to carry out such a horrific plan. He thought he would because he had been saved, he said. He didn’t go to church anywhere regularly but had prayed to become a Christian at some point and had been baptized. Yet, most of the words about most things he said revealed a heart that had not been transformed by the love of God.
I told him about the importance of true faith and being born again. I also warned him about false assurance and the judgment to come and the possibility of hell and eternal damnation (Matthew 7:15-27). I asked him to consider the possibility that if he did such a thing that he would just go into an eternal inferno rather than out in a blaze of glory. I told him he needed to renounce his dark fantasies rather than finding enjoyment in them (1 Corinthians 13:6). I told him that God loved him so much that He sent His Son so that he would not have to perish but so that he could be delivered from evil and set free to live for God and with God forever. His countenance began to change and so did that of the other young people who were very attentively eavesdropping on our conversation. I sensed some remorse, and a more sober attitude. He said he understood. A few minutes later we were being strapped into “The Nighthawk.” I had never met the young man before and I haven’t seen him since. If I never see him again in this life, I hope to see him again in the kingdom of God.
Many, including many in the church, find the idea of hell distasteful, even offensive. A lot of pastors and churches avoid talking about it at all. Even orthodox evangelicals, who may mention it from time to time, often downplay its horror – I have myself. Some so focus on supposedly helping people have their best life or society now that they ignore the dark side of eternity entirely, if they believe there is such a thing at all. I know some will argue that the church attendance will suffer if we talk about such gloomy things, but isn’t the mainline church in pretty big trouble any way? It’s certainly not because mainline pastors have warned about hell too much. In reality it seems the more we ignore the reality of hell in the afterlife, the more likely we are to have the conditions for hell on earth in this life, sometimes in gulags and concentration camps.
I’ll never forget the woman who came to me after I preached a sermon in early 2008 in which I just mentioned the possibility of eternal damnation in passing, a tangent of about 30 seconds or less. She came to me afterwards with tears streaming and dripping onto her blouse and said, “Thank you! We really needed to hear that! We haven’t heard anything about hell from the pulpit in over 30 years.”
Some will argue that idea of God condemning anyone to an eternity in hell is incompatible with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. But they can’t really be referring to Jesus as he is revealed in the New Testament. It’s just not true that Jesus is different from the God of the Old Testament, who often warned about and carried out judgment against the wicked. In many ways the preaching and teaching of Jesus just magnifies the judgment of God.
The first words out of Jesus’ mouth when he began preaching were not, “I’m okay; you’re okay; we’re all okay” or even “God loves you,” although the genuine love of God was implicit in his words. The first words Jesus uttered when he began to preach were, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV).
With this proclamation Jesus echoed the message of the book of Daniel, which talks about worldly kingdoms founded on the sinking sand of “the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16) that rise as a high-rise house of cards. All of these kingdoms of human pride inevitably fall. There is only one kingdom that will last forever, the kingdom of God (see Daniel 2 & 7). The kingdom of God lasts forever because it is founded on self-giving, self-sacrificial love. Jesus began his ministry by summonsing his hearers to come out of the doomed kingdoms of the world and to enter into the kingdom of God (see Revelation 18). Those who don’t heed his summons on God’s terms will be left out in the cold so to speak, in “the outer darkness. In that place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:1-14).
“He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” Luke 13:22-28
In fact, Jesus was alluding to Daniel 12:1-3 when he warned about the final judgment for which we must be prepared when he said at his second coming he would separate the sheep from the goats, and the latter would “go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).
The fact is Jesus warned about eternal damnation more than anyone. And Jesus’ warning did not just apply to those outside his inner circle in general or just to the hardhearted religious leaders who opposed him; they also applied to his closest followers. Indeed, some of his most terrifying warnings were directed toward his own disciples. To them he said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). This was to encourage them not to deny him or be ashamed of him and his words even if their lives were threatened by worldly human authorities (see Matthew 10:16-33; also Mark 8:31-38). This, basically, is the gist of the message given by the resurrected and exalted Jesus to the churches in the book of Revelation. According to Jesus there is a fate worse than physical death when it comes to compromising with evil.
Fear in itself is not a bad thing. It’s when we fear men more than God that it’s a problem. Fear properly directed toward God in faith is the beginning of wisdom (i.e. Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10), which keeps us out of real trouble. It is the lack of the fear of God that deceives one into thinking he can commit sin and perpetrate evil with impunity (i.e. Psalm 36). Fear is the beginning of wisdom; love is its goal.
The message of Jesus is not a threat, but a warning. To me the basic difference is a threat is issued out of a desire to coerce one against one’s will for selfish ends in order to use and manipulate. A warning on the other hand, is to appeal to one’s free will to choose a better path for themselves out of a sense of love for the person and concern for the person’s best interests in the long term.
Too often these teachings of Jesus are approached from how they make us feel. But the best approach is to ask ourselves, not whether we like what Jesus is saying, but whether or not the content of Jesus’ warning is true?
Jesus’ message was that we need to repent, change the orientation of our lives, turn away from sin and return to God, to come out of the worldly kingdoms of darkness and come into the kingdom of God because eventually the kingdom of God will be the only truly safe place left. The question is not whether we like it or not, the question is, is Jesus telling us the truth? IF we trust him then we are going to make our way into the kingdom on his terms. If we don’t we will either reject Jesus altogether, or we may try to reinterpret his warnings so as to soften them, which really just amounts to the same thing in the end I’m afraid.
Hell is just the end result of continuing in sin, which already cuts us off from the abundant life available through relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Sin renders us dead to God (Ephesians 2:1-3). Continuing in that state without repentance and faith in Jesus and his words leads to what Revelation calls the second death (2:11; 21:8).
Of course when it comes to hell there is much that is symbolic. When Jesus used the word that is translated “hell” in most English translation, most of the time it is the Greek, “gehenna.” Gehenna was a burning dump for trash and refuse down in one of the valleys outside the city walls of Jerusalem. In times past it had been the sight of child sacrifice to pagan gods like Molech when Israel fell into apostasy. Jesus used this literal sight as a symbol for the horrors of a real place for those who refuse to enter into the kingdom of God through repentance, faith, and the new birth. The symbolism in no way indicates that hell is not real, but points to a reality that is beyond full human comprehension.
When it comes to eternal damnation and the fate of the damned, there is much mystery. There are indications that even in hell there is some measure of mercy; as Jesus implied that there are varying degrees to the punishment therein (see Luke 10:14).
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” Matthew 23:13,15
Dante’s “Inferno,” written in the 14th century, follows this idea of varying degrees of punishment for the wicked allegorically. Nonetheless, compared to the kingdom of God any level of hell is nothing less than a horrific tragedy of eternal proportions.
Finding the thought of eternal, conscious existence in hell unreasonable, many have resorted to the idea that hell, if it exists at all, is only temporary. Some insist that all will eventually be saved and welcomed into the kingdom (universalism); others have insisted the wicked are immediately or eventually put of existence (a state of no consciousness) altogether (annihilationism). At one time, I was in the latter camp. Both cases seem to me to be an exaltation of reason and emotion above the revelation of God’s word. Both are hopeful speculation at best. I think if either is actually the case it will be a surprise, and we should just leave it at that. Who are we to ignore or downplay Jesus’ warnings?!
Rather than holding out the hope of universalism or annihilationism, we should place our hope in “nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness [and] dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name” (from the hymn “My Hope is Built” – Edward Mote 1834).
For some the scariest thing is death. But according to Jesus what should scare us most is hell, cutting ourselves off from the life of God forever. What may actually be scarier than the idea that the way we live now doesn’t really matter in the end, is that it really does matter for eternity. God takes no pleasure in the death and judgment of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23) – he does not desire that anyone should perish (2 Peter 3:9). Anyone who turns from sin and returns to Him, he will never turn away!
But neither does God take pleasure in his prophets refusing to warn the wicked of the judgment to come.
“If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.” Ezekiel 3:18
** For further study see: “Hell: The Logic of Damnation” by Jerry Walls and “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis