The Trouble with Hell

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

In looking at what happened on the cross, I have looked at:

Understanding Biblical sacrifices

How we explain what Jesus accomplished on the cross

If God is good, why do the innocent suffer

You can also read the redemptive stories of Gomer and Ruth in my book, 'As the Stars'!

I think most agree that the big thing that happened on the cross was Jesus dealt with death and sin, and conquered both! (I wrote that sentence, and then sat and frowned at it. How do I adequately convey how astonishing and marvelous this victory is?)

I think most also agree that Jesus' dealing with sins means that our faith can save us from God's judgment. Or, to put it better, our faith allows us to let God do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We then breathe a sigh of relief because we are not going to hell.

I remember watching a parade float once, filled with zealous youth playing Christian rock and waving poster board telling people they were going to burn if they didn't believe. Even as a baptized Christian, I was put off by this. The crowd sat back with furrowed brows. This did not feel like “good news”, this felt like a threat.

Are some Christians trying to scare people into faith? Is fear more effective than the promise of hope?

The idea most of us have of hell isn't actually Biblical. There are no mentions of little red creatures with long spiked tails and horns. There is no mention of demons stabbing people with pitchforks. There are certainly no nine circles. Much of our modern imagery comes from Dante's Inferno, a poem written in the 14th century, one that influenced many artists to paint some pretty horrific art.

Sometimes though, crazy as it seems, there are times when the idea of hell is something we want! We want to know that people who committed unspeakable cruelty will not get off with anything so easy as a long sleep in oblivion.

So judgment after death is a fear, but it also gives us hope for righteous justice.

When we soberly stop to consider hell, who do we feel deserves to burn for more than a trillion, trillion years without mercy?

I feel the trained answer on the tip of my tongue, "all of us", yet something about that sits wrong with me. Eternity is a long time. God knew we would be sinners. Is He eagerly waiting with a hammer to smash us, but Jesus leaps in to rescue those who cry out for help? I don't see that in the scriptures. There has to be more to it than this rote answer. Not that it is necessarily wrong, but that it is too simplistic.

Quick pause here: I'm not trying to distort the gospel!

I've known since I was a child that all have sinned, and our justification is in Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23-24). I have learned that sin runs deeper than breaking rules, it is about separation and severing relationship to God. It is about being swept up in the great sin that began in Genesis 3 when death and decay and destruction were brought not only into mankind but into the whole creation that has been suffering ever since. (Romans 8:21)

Sin is real, and it's deadly!

God has provided a way out of judgment throughout all the centuries. He knows we will mess up and has graciously and lovingly provided a means of atonement and forgiveness. This is a great comfort to those who are in Christ. It is harder, however, when we look out at the world at average people living average lives, but apart from Christ.

Is an eternal hell fair?

The trouble with hell is, if ALL are sinners, if no matter how hard we try we mess up, is an eternal hell fair? Is it fair that someone can be a loving humanitarian, but because they don't subscribe to Christianity, they're doomed to eternal torture, flames, and flesh-eating worms and all? Is the person who stole a chocolate bar going to get the same punishment as the one who ordered the murder of millions? Or what about those who are so broken by their childhoods that they commit horror without remorse because of the torture they were put through? Is it a one-size-fits-all when it comes to eternal justice?

What I'm getting at, is phrased well by Jim McGuiggan, “It is critically important that the wrath of God remains personal rather than mechanical or automatic. As Rabbi Heschel has taught us, a careful reading of Exodus 32:10 stresses the personal involvement of God who decides whether or not, in this case or that, to punish or withhold punishment. Jonah 3:9-10 reveals that God” changed his mind” about punishing Assyria. In Hosea 11:9 he decides not to carry out his fierce anger and in Isaiah 48:9 he delays his wrath for his name's sake. All these texts and more make the point that wrath doesn't