Many non-Christians attack Christianity on the doctrine of hell, arguing for the most part that consigning anyone to an eternity of suffering for sins committed during their lives is somehow wrong and, in the context of Jesus’ unlimited love, somehow ‘unchristian’. While many Christians struggle with the idea of eternal torment, let alone a place where billions of people must suffer without end, the doctrine is an essential part of Christian faith, and however difficult we find it to accept the doctrine, we must come to grips with fact of hell.
I am writing this post because I originally rebutted an argument by a professor who made the ‘Hell Can’t Exist Because That Would Make God Mean’ argument. My rebuttal was deleted, and I was asked to reproduce the rebuttal, but it seems silly to post something to rebut an argument made on another website, and in any case the topic seems important enough to me that an article here on the issue is worth the effort.
Let me start by saying that I stand with Dr. Lewis on this point. C.S. Lewis once remarked that if there was any doctrine of Christianity he could change, it would be the doctrine of hell. It does indeed seem callous and unfeeling to speak about unending suffering, eternal despair, and no chance at reconciliation. Of course, it occurs to me that this may well be why Christ Himself spoke about hell almost twice as often as he spoke of heaven. Jesus was emphatic that we must do whatever we could to avoid consignment to hell. His warning that a man should rip own his own eye rather than let it lead him into hell is an awful image, but better by far than casually ignoring someone choosing damnation.
And let’s be clear that we are in great danger of hell, all of us. In the sixteenth chapter of Luke, Jesus spoke of the beggar Lazarus and Divies, the rich man. Pretty much everyone knows that parable, but look at it closely and you may find a story scarier than anything Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft put out. Divies did not go to hell for murder, for stealing, for rape, for perjury, or any of the things we usually think of when we imagine someone going to hell. Nope, old Divies was guilty of not thinking about Lazarus and helping him. That’s it. Think about how many times we all have ignored people in trouble or need, and add to it any time we have each of us ever been selfish, and this is a very scary story.
But wait, there’s more.
If you read through the Old Testament, you’ll see that even little things could provoke terrible consequences. Moses one time tapped a rock with a stick to make water flow out of it without asking God first, and for this he was told he would die without ever setting foot in the Promised Land. King Saul, one time only, got impatient with the priests and delivered the sacrifice himself, and for this he lost his kingdom. One screw-up could easily be fatal. The clear warning to all of us is that hell is a very serious danger. Jesus described the devil as a lion, seeking to find whom he could devour.
We’re in trouble, folks. All of us.
So basically, we’re all screwed? As it happens, no. Again in the Old Testament, we see God showing mercy and compassion over and over. Jacob was a trickster, but God redeemed him, as shown by his name change from Jacob to Israel. Flipping to the New Testament just for a moment, we see the same thing with Saul, a man conspiring to commit mass murder of Christians, but Jesus personally intervenes and the man of murder becomes the greatest evangelist of his time, and again it’s marked by his name change from Saul to Paul. David, hoo boy, was a sinner in a bad, bad way – he lusted big-time after Bathsheba, had her husband murdered to get him out of the way, tried to lie his way out of it, and ended up in a bloody civil war. Yet God forgave him, which has perplexed cynics and annoyed non-believers for thousands of years. The plain fact is that we all deserve hell, but God has made it possible for us to be with God in heaven instead. We are all of us flawed, and will always be imperfect through our last breath on this world, yet God makes it possible for us to be perfected, even sanctified. It didn’t come cheap – God lived among us as one of us to show a perfect life was possible, endured poverty and rejection to prove you could live upright even without the advantages of being known for your good work, and endured false arrest, betrayal and desertion by His own followers, torture, ridicule and a slow ignominious death … to pay the price for our sins.
This brings us to the essential crisis of faith. Stating the obvious, God is God, not us. But taking that premise to its logical extension, we have to trust God even to the resolution of our souls. We live for a reason, and when we finish this life we see the results of our work and purpose. Therefore, there is a resolution, in service to God or in defiance against Him.
Those who love God will obey Him and their brothers and sisters, showing works not for reward but to help their neighbors and make the world better a little bit at a time. They will enter heaven because that is where God lives and works. But those who hate God will flee Him, at all cost. God will drag no one into Heaven. This is not only because there can be no sin or evil in God’s presence, but because eternity in the presence of God would be utter and complete agony for someone who rejects Him. In this life, those who hate God may run and hide in the shade of their egos, the pretense of intellect or wit, but these are temporary and futile, like someone addicted to drugs who destroys their future while they flee from it.
So are we doomed? If someone has honest doubts they should surrender to religion anyway, because of some terrible threat? I think not. In the first place, I do not believe Christ’s compassion is limited to human comprehension of holy offices. Christ forgave His own murderers when He was nailed to the cross, because He knew they did not understand the meaning of their actions. It certainly seems to me that Christ would offer hope to any honest seeker. There are many signs from God that we cannot comprehend fully, including the Triune nature of God. One God but three persons? God untouchable by human sin, yet also right there with us when we suffer? How is that possible? Knowing that God can and does do things which would be impossible for us, gives me hope that there is an answer which matches Justice and Mercy in full measure. I do not, however, believe for a moment that God excuses or ignores evil, that wrongdoing would ever be unaddressed, let alone rewarded because of a technicality. Hell exists yet is not unfair or wrong, and while we must be wary against turning against God and bring our own destruction upon ourselves, we need not fear being tricked or an honest victim of divine cruelty. There is a good purpose at work, one we don’t understand but which works at a divine level, even if it seems wrong to our standards.
As Joseph explained to his brothers in the book of Genesis, “what you planned for evil, God has used for good.” We do not know where someone else will end up, because only God knows all hearts. We do not comprehend the soul, even though we live our lives as souls interacting with other souls. So even though hell is real, and the danger of damnation is a threat we all need to take seriously, we should understand that the illusion of the blessed ignoring or even enjoying the torment of the damned is completely false.
There is a lot we just don’t know. The book of Revelation observes towards the end that death and hell will themselves be destroyed. Whether this means hell is temporary or just that all suffering, even of the damned, will end, it must be considered that we know almost nothing of eternal matters, and in this we must trust the One who knows, and whose plan for us has always been built on compassion and mercy. Even for those who choose destruction over reconciliation. For myself, I trust the warnings and commended course my Lord commands, and hope all will do the same.
[ to save time and present a concise article, scriptural references were left off. If you wish to know the scripture pertaining to each point, just let me know. Thanks ]