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.