Here’s an interesting fact: Jesus preached about hell a lot while Paul never mentioned it by name. Have you ever wondered why?
The reason has to do with their different audiences. Since Jesus mostly preached the law to those under law, it was necessary for him to be a hellfire preacher. Hence his references to the “fiery furnace” (Mt 13:42, 50), the “eternal fire” (Mt 18:9, 25:41) and the fire that “never goes out” (Mk 9:43). As we saw in the last post, the condemning ministry of the law reaches its ultimate expression in the eternal condemnation of hell.
What does that mean for you?
If you are seeking God’s approval through the law, then you need to know about hell. Hell is for “workers of lawlessness,” said Jesus to the law-conscious (Mat 13:42). If you’re going to choose the faithless path of self-justification and law-keeping, you’d better be prepared to do whatever it takes to avoid hell, even if it means chopping off sinning limbs.
Paul, in contrast, preached mainly to those under grace. Since the bad news of hell (getting what we deserve) is inconsistent with the good news of grace (getting what we don’t deserve), Paul never mentions it. Sure, he did say on one occasion that there would be everlasting destruction for those who don’t heed the gospel of our Lord Jesus (2 Th 1:8-9). But most of the time Paul simply preached the benefits of grace rather than the consequences of rejecting it.
Like Paul, you and I have been commissioned to preach the good news of heaven rather than the bad news of hell. But lately I find myself fielding questions on the latter because of what I call the sentimental view of hell. By “sentimental” I mean romanticized and unscriptural. This view of hell is not the one you grew up with but it may be one you’ve heard about via Facebook.
The sentimental view of hell basically looks like this:
1. Hell doesn’t exist
Then why does Jesus warn against it? There are 20-plus scriptures in the New Testament that refer to a fiery hell, a fiery furnace, or eternal fire. Some say, “Those fiery scriptures are actually referring to the burning destruction of Jerusalem. Since that happened already, those scriptures have no relevance for us today.”
Certainly the destruction of Jerusalem was hellish. The Romans killed a lot of people. But they didn’t destroy anyone’s soul. Yet Jesus said hell was a place where both body and soul would be destroyed together (Mat 10:28). Either Jesus was confused or hell is real.
In fact, hell has to exist. Hell is essential for the same reason the tree of knowledge of good and evil was necessary in the Garden of Eden. Without the opportunity to make choices contrary to God’s wishes, there is no freedom of choice and without freedom there is no love.
Think of it like this: One woman is forced into a loveless marriage while another marries her childhood sweetheart. Both women are married but each has a different view of marriage. The first woman sees marriage as a hellish prison; the second sees marriage as a blessing from heaven. I’m not making value judgments about singleness vs. marriage. I’m trying to show you that the value you place on marriage depends on whether or not you are free to marry.
We will never value our “marriage” to God unless we freely choose it. We are creatures of liberty. We do not respond well to coercion. If God were to force himself upon us, many would hate him.
Thankfully, Jesus is gracious and kind and a shot-gun wedding is the last thing he wants. He hasn’t come to our door with a battering ram but a gentle knock. The Lover of our souls woos and waits to see what we will do with his love. Of course, the smart thing to do is to respond and let him in! But if you resist him, he will not force his way in.
Those who claim hell cannot exist might as well argue that lies cannot exist or death cannot exist, yet they do – not because God wants them for us but because we reject the better gifts he showers upon us.
2. Hell is not that bad – it’s a place of purification/restoration
Jesus described hell as a place for the cursed, “an eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mat 25:41). In the scriptures that describe hell, there is never the slightest hint that anything good happens there. Instead we find phrases like “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb 10:27) and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mat 13:42,50). That doesn’t sound blessed to me.
Although Peter spoke of our faith being tested by fire, he was referring to the fiery trials of life, not the consuming fire of hell (1 Pet 1:7). And Paul spoke of a metaphorical fire that tests our works (1 Cor 3:15). Hellfire, in contrast, tests nothing. It just devours and destroys.
3. Hell is neither hopeless nor permanent
Hell is typically described in the Bible as a place of destruction (see the scriptures listed in this Table). What will it be like? Jesus said the destruction of hell would be like the destruction of Sodom, meaning complete and total (Lu 17:29-30).
In the Old Testament, the Lord said no one would ever live in Sodom again (Jer 49:18). And by the time the New Testament came around, Sodom had become a byword for total obliteration.
Go look for Sodom on a map and you won’t find it. Why not? God destroyed it. It’s gone for good. “No one will ever live there again,” (Jer 49:18). That’s what hell will be like, said Jesus. There is not one scripture that hints at exit doors for hell.
4. Hell is located within Jesus somewhere – so it’s all good
And yet Jesus referred to a place of “outer darkness” (Mt 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). Wherever hell is, it is not sequestered inside the kingdom. On the day of judgment Jesus will say to the sheep “come to me” and to the goats “depart from me.” In many of the parables Jesus taught, there was a clear distinction between those inside with him and those outside without him. Paul had a similar understanding:
Jesus will render vengeance to those who do not know God and do not heed the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer everlasting destruction and be shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. (2 Th 1:8-9, my paraphrase)
As you can see, none of these four sentimental notions is based on scripture. Indeed, they are all 180 degrees opposed to scripture. So how is it that they have gained such wide appeal? Maybe it’s because no one reads the Bible any more. When you swap the Good Book for Facebook your theology is bound to be shaped by “Likes” and “Shares” rather than What Jesus actually said.
There are some loud voices on Facebook. I hear them whenever I say outrageous things like “Hell is completely unnecessary” or “The bad news of hell has no place in the good news of heaven.” Preach the gospel of grace on Facebook and you’ll encounter haters, critics, and stone-throwers. Try and engage with these folk and you will be met with the proverbial “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
I’m not bagging Facebook. I’m just saying it’s a dumb place to learn about hell.
Although, now that I think about it…
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