A friend I see often at church has been asking me questions about my books on hell. After several week’s worth of discussion, she paused and said, “Why is this important? Ultimately, we need to be preaching the Gospel. Why do we need to talk about hell?” Good question. In days of old, some theologians spent time thinking about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, but this is not one of those types of issues.

There are four reasons I think it is crucial we talk about hell. These are the reasons I have spent countless hours researching and writing; these are the reasons I cannot remain silent. It boils down to this:

1. Common conceptions of hell don’t line up very well with Scripture. If you have a high view of Scripture as God’s word to us breathed out through the writings of men, this is a serious issue. I think much of what we believe about hell is rooted in places other than God’s word (like Greek mythology and modern day cartoons) or doesn’t fit in very well with what the Bible teaches overall about judgment and punishment.

2. We give the devil much more power than he actually has. When many of our worship songs and commentaries talk about hell, they assume that Satan is the power behind hell. In reality, Satan is a weasel with absolutely no power to torment anyone in hell. He has nothing to do with hell right now, yet most often the spiritual battle in which we are engaged is portrayed as a struggle between the evil powers of hell vs. the divine power of heaven. I think Satan loves this deception because it frightens people into giving him almost god-like power, and because it causes us, in actuality, to aim our spiritual guns toward God because the power behind hell is God himself.

3. People are unnecessarily pushed away from God. The way God is often portrayed causes many to consider him a divine monster throwing his children into the fire. Is this who God is? 
 It’s one thing for the Gospel to be offensive. It’s quite another for the Giver of the Gospel to be considered a sadistic dictator. After all, why is the Gospel necessary? Is it to save us from God’s anger? Is God so insecure that he has to torment those who reject him? Why is hell necessary? Is there a specific reason that the God of love has to send much of his creation to suffer? It is not just atheists and agnostics who have trouble with this, it is Christians (some of whom abandon faith altogether) who find no relief from these questions.

Often Christians will say that God does not choose to send people to hell, people choose to send themselves. This is not an adequate answer for me or for many others. I understand that justice and God’s honor come into play at some point, but I do not think either justice or honor answers the deepest questions about the necessity of hell. 
 If the picture we paint of God is the reason that so many have rejected God, we need to search hard and long to make sure we are using the right colors in our painting.

4. Common conceptions of hell also give us a stilted view of what Christ did for us on the cross. This ties in very closely to reason #3 because it raises more questions about God. After all, what did Christ die to save us from? Why was his sacrifice necessary? What kind of God would sacrifice his son? And why does God require a human sacrifice? Why would we want to serve a God who requires a human sacrifice?

God is made out to be a despot, someone who is more of a narrow-minded dictator than anything, a tiger eager to pounce on sinners. Sometimes people feel deep in their souls that they stand on higher moral ground than God because of these issues. It is easy for some Christians to point their fingers at these people and accuse them of arrogance and pride, but I can feel where they are coming from. There is much tension. These are really good questions that demand good answers. And the faith of many rides on the answers.

Millard Erickson, a prominent conservative Christian theologian wrote, “The fact that hell, as often understood, seems to be incompatible with God’s love, as revealed in Scripture, may be an indication that we have misunderstood hell.” (see reference below) I think he’s right.

I believe the Bible teaches hell is very real, and very permanent. But if we ignore looking long and hard at what hell is and what it isn’t, I think we are in danger of misrepresenting the Gospel, and misrepresenting God. These are the reasons I believe it is crucial for us to talk about hell. It is not a theological game. It’s important. It matters. It has eternal consequences.

(Erickson, Millard. (1998). Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, p. 1247)

More on what hell is and isn’t in “The Myths of Hell” and “The Ache for Paradise”, Books 1 & 2 of the “A Beautiful Hell” trilogy. Book #3 is is slated for Kindle publishing this spring. Click the picture of the book covers to purchase a Kindle copy from Amazon.

I have a friend who is a Christian, but she does not believe Jesus rose from the dead. A person in my online discussion group recently expressed a similar sentiment when she wrote that she does not agree with the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless…If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”

I don’t understand how it is possible to be a Christian with holding tightly to Christ’s resurrection. Christians of Paul’s day were thrown to the lions in the colosseum and burned at the stake by Nero. Paul himself had to be lowered in a basket over a city wall to avoid being killed, he was stoned, whipped, put in chains, taken prisoner and eventually killed for his faith.

Christians in some places today do not fare any better. In 1979, Christians in Ethiopia were tortured with boiling oil and had their eyes sewn shut. In 1988, 200 believers in Iran were hung and 800 thrown into jail. In 2002, three terrorists opened fire in a Pakastani church, killing 75 followers of Christ. All because they believe that Jesus rose from the dead, has taken their sin away and changed them. Their hope is that someday we will be raised from the dead just like Jesus was and live forever with God in paradise.

Without this hope, without this resurrection of Christ in the past, and our own resurrection in the future, it seems to me our faith is worth nothing.

I know that Jesus said some good things about loving each other, and forgiving our enemies, and I respect people who pattern their lives after those maxims. (Perhaps that is why some who do not believe in Jesus’ resurrection call themselves Christians.)

But Jesus also said some very difficult things about God’s future wrath being poured out on the wicked, and that there is no way to God except through him. He also made it clear that someday resurrection would happen both for him and for his followers. It seems to me that resurrection is the bedrock of our faith. Not even Christ would have embraced death on earth if he did not believe in “taking up his life” again. The author of Hebrews says it “was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross” (Heb 12:2). It is easy in America and some other parts of the world for a person to claim Christianity because there is no persecution or potential execution for holding onto faith. But for others, being a Christian is a life or death decision.

If Jesus has not risen from the dead, I would not be a Christian. It wouldn’t be worth it. I would cobble together some good things that many people like Buddha or Ghandi or other leaders (including Jesus) have said, and try to live a good life. But if someone threatened my life if I did not abandon faith in Christ, I would give it up in a heartbeat. Why should I die for no reason?

For my friends who call themselves Christians but reject Jesus’ resurrection, if I have misunderstood you, I am sorry, but will you please help me understand why you claim Christianity if you do not believe Jesus rose from the dead?

More on life after death in “The Myths of Hell” and “The Ache for Paradise”, Books 1 & 2 of the “A Beautiful Hell” trilogy. Book #3 is is slated for Kindle publishing this spring. Click the picture of the book covers to purchase a Kindle copy from Amazon.

In the past three weeks my mother tripped on an uneven sidewalk and broke her arm in five places, my father had an urgent 4-way heart bypass (the doctor said he is lucky to be alive), and my daughter broke her wrist.

Some might call this a run of bad luck, while others might begin to question, “Why is all this happening?” Good question. Some land in the age-old classic opinion that “they sinned, therefore, they suffer.” But going in that direction leads to a massive theological mudpuddle because any time something bad happens, e.g. the tower of Siloam falling and killing 18 Israelites (Luke 13) or a tsunami in Indonesia killing thousands, it is because those people sinned. The only time this works is if we’re talking about the nation of Israel in the Old Testament where God specifically told them if the nation persisted in sin they would be punished, which is exactly what happened. It doesn’t work this way, though, with individuals then or now.

It is not uncommon for people of faith to try to make sense of suffering by saying, “There must be a reason. God has a purpose in all this suffering.” I’m not convinced. This may be true sometimes (as in the case of Joseph), but if I follow this line of thinking, it means that God plans all sorts of terrible, gut-wrenching things to happen to us in order to accomplish some purpose. Not only does this not sit well with me emotionally, I don’t see this often in Scripture either.

It is very clear, though, that God uses suffering to help us become strong and sharpen our character (Rom 5), and he will make all things work together for good for those who love him (Rom 8). These verses are filled with hope and promise because no matter what is thrown our way, it will immediately be taken by our Father and turned to his purposes. That’s part of the wonder and magnificence of God. From the broken bits of glass and shards of pottery, ripped t-shirts and moldy bread of our lives, God is able to create a breathtaking mosaic.

That doesn’t mean everything works out well here on earth for God’s people: some will continue to suffer, and some will die, but ultimately, we will see how God used the pain of our lives to help shape us, and to broaden his Kingdom. Who knows? Maybe our pain has been instrumental in opening up the doors of faith in another’s heart. Eternal dividends from brief suffering. Pretty good investment plan. Perhaps it would help if we re-imaged suffering as a sort of divine bank account where each tear increases the joy we experience later.

So why do bad things happen? Well, for starters, there is a spiritual war going on, and Satan and his minions will do whatever they can to make life miserable for us. But the even bigger problem is we live in a world that is broken and soaked in sin. Our world is messed up and we’re messed up, which means, most often, I don’t think there is a specific reason bad things happen. They just do. There is a famous bumper sticker that expresses this a little differently, but we won’t get into that here. People make evil choices and hurt other people, we trip on sidewalks and break arms, our blood vessels get clogged up, we slip and break wrists, and tornadoes touch down and destroy towns and lives.

These things do not occur because God intentionally sends trouble into our lives. Occasionally he may do so, but I think this is more the exception than the rule. Whatever happens in life sifts through his fingers, and he will use all of it to make the mosaic of our lives and of his kingdom. To me, this makes God even bigger and more amazing. Nothing will be wasted from our lives; it all will fit together someday.

And when that “someday” comes, life will be different. Someday God will restore paradise and get rid of evil once and for all, which will be wonderful for those who have been changed by God through Christ’s blood, but will be terrible for those who have not. That is our future, but in the meantime, we suffer.

The good news in all of this is that we do not suffer alone. God knows suffering very well because he suffered here on the earth. And I think, in the same way parents suffer when their children suffer, God also suffers as he witnesses our troubles. In addition to this though, God is right there with us in the midst of our pain, giving us the strength to make it through. The bad news is, in spite of God’s presence in our lives, we will still suffer and die. There is no way around it for now. We ache for the day when pain and sorrow will be done with…so does God.

More on suffering and paradise in “The Myths of Hell” and “The Ache for Paradise”, Books 1 & 2 of the “A Beautiful Hell” trilogy. Book #3 is is slated for Kindle publishing this spring. Click the picture of the book covers to purchase a Kindle copy from Amazon.