“There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that he believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.”1Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian, 17. Bertrand Russell isn’t alone in this sentiment either. Lots of people find the very idea of hell repugnant and beyond the character of a loving God.
Do they have a point? Is it overly harsh or unfair of God to consign people to hell for all eternity? No, it’s not. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite. But before I get into why, let me first lay some ground work.
What is Hell?
Hell is a place of eternal conscious punishment where people are separated from the grace of God. Jesus describes it as a place of both “outer darkness” (Mt 25:30) and “unquenchable fire” (Mk 9:43). While these two descriptions seem to contradict one another, no contradiction exists when you understand Jesus uses figurative language in these texts.
Before anyone accuses me of bending the truth, I simply want to point out that none of us take every part of the Bible literally. For example, no one takes Jesus literally when he says, “I am the door” (Jn 10:9) or “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6:35). Furthermore, none of us believe we’re literal pottery when the Bible calls us “clay in the potter’s hands” (Isa 64:8) or that we’re literally supposed to hate our relatives (Lk 14:26). We rightly recognize the genre that’s being employed and interpret those phrases accordingly.
I believe the same is true for the fire and darkness language. All throughout Scripture, authors use fire figuratively to describe God’s judgment. Deuteronomy 4:24 says, “God is a consuming fire,” and Daniel 7:9 declares, “his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning with fire.” In Jeremiah 4:4, God warns that his “wrath will flare up and burn like fire because of the evil you have done — burn with no one to quench it.”
Likewise, darkness is a figurative expression as well. John 1:5 says Jesus is the light that shines into the darkness. Again, a literal interpretation just doesn’t fit.
Thus, “We may conclude from many passages of Scripture,” affirms John Calvin, “that [eternal fire] is a metaphorical expression.”2John Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, 200-201.
Does this soften the severity of hell? Quite the opposite actually. For figurative language seldom does justice to the realities it seeks to describe. This is true of heaven, which will be far greater than we can possibly imagine. And it’s true of hell — far worse than we can possibly imagine.
Is Hell Eternal?
It’s increasingly popular to deny that hell is a place of eternal punishment in favor of a shorter finite punishment. I don’t think, however, we have biblical warrant for the annihilationist view. Jesus, for example, declares that the wicked “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Mt 25:46). In this text, Jesus makes a parallel between eternal life and eternal punishment. Both, that is, will last the same length of time — eternity.
For some, this raises a justice question. Would God really punish someone eternally even though they committed sins for a finite time? Wouldn’t this be unfair of God? I have two responses to this question.
First, we know that the duration of the crime has nothing to do with the severity of punishment. For example, it might take me two seconds to murder someone and two hours to steal their bedroom furniture. Yet, my punishment will be much more severe for the two second crime. That is to say, it’s not the duration of the crime that matters; rather, it’s the nature of the crime that’s important.
Second, who you commit your crime against also factors into the severity of the punishment. For instance, if you punched me in the face, you’ll get a small slap on the wrist. But if you punched the Queen of England in the face, you’ll get a lengthy jail sentence. Why? Because she’s more important and powerful than I am. Yet God is the most important being in the universe. He’s the infinite creator. Any offense against an infinitely great being justly receives infinite punishment.
Who Goes to Hell?
John 3:18 declares, “Whoever believes in [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already.” In other words, people who deny they’re sinners in need of forgiveness through the cross of Jesus will go to hell.
Even though the Bible portrays hell as a painful place, it never indicates that the people there wish they were with God instead. According to New Testament scholar D. A. Carson, “There is no hint in the Bible that there is any repentance in hell.”3D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? 102. Instead, it seems that people in hell will continue to consciously reject God for all eternity.
C. S. Lewis affirms as much when he remarked, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”4C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 122. For Lewis, it was his view that those in hell don’t want to leave. None of them wish they were in heaven because that would mean being with God — the very one they despise so much. In essence, God has given them exactly what they wanted.
What about Moral People?
Some question whether it’s fair for moral people, like Ghandi, to receive the same judgment as murderous people, like Hitler. According to the Bible, they don’t.
We read in Luke 12:47-48, “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving of punishment will be beaten with few blows.” Additionally, Jesus declares to Chorazin and Bethsaida in Matthew 11:22, “It shall be more tolerable on the day of judgement for Tyre and Sidon than for you.” Both texts indicate different degrees of punishment for unbelievers.
We must also remember that even though we perceive the likes of Ghandi as moral people, they still have committed the worst sin imaginable. Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God with every fabric of our being. Therefore, those who don’t love God, are by definition, committing the worst sin imaginable. They have rejected the one who created them, loved them, and sent his Son to bear their judgment. For them, they don’t need God or his forgiveness.
Additionally, Jesus affirms everyone will get perfect justice when he says, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Lk 12:2-3). God will mete out judgment in the end. He’ll leave no stone unturned. No one will be able to say God judged them unfairly — including Ghandi.
Is there Justice without Hell?
If hell doesn’t exist, all the injustices done in the world will never be righted. Joseph Stalin, whose godless regime was responsible for millions of deaths, won’t ever receive justice for his cruelty. After all, he died an old man in his bed. Even Adolf Hitler got off pretty easy by killing himself. His pain was brief, but compared to the six million Jewish lives, I’d hardly call that justice.
Additionally, every rapist, murderer, corrupt politician, and powerful person who preys on the weak will never get justice unless hell exists.
Imagine if God didn’t judge people for their sins. What kind of God would that be? After all, if someone raped your friend or murdered your mom, and the judge let the person go free, you’d rightly condemn that judge. You’d say he’s not a good judge, and you’d be right. God, however, is a righteous judge who always judges rightly. He cannot turn a blind eye to the sins in the world. Therefore, because God is good, hell exists.
Jesus is the Answer to Hell
This entire post has been about bad news. Hell is a horrible place to think about, but it’s only part of the story. The better part — the Good News — is that Jesus came down from heaven to experience God’s judgment in your place. When he died on that Roman cross, God poured out his wrath on Jesus as if he had lived our rebellious lives. In other words, Jesus experienced hell so we wouldn’t have to.
This is good news, because if we’ll confess that we’re sinners deserving of God’s judgment, and believe that Jesus’ death paid the just penalty for our rebellion, God will forgive us of our sins. Instead of getting eternal judgment, we get eternal life.
On the cross, we see both the justice and mercy of God coming together. Justice, because God rightly condemns all our sins. He doesn’t leave one of them uncovered. And mercy, because he’s able to forgive anyone who trusts in Jesus. So for those who put their faith in Jesus, God judged their sins on the cross. For those who don’t put their faith in Jesus, God will judge their sins in hell. Either way, God judges everyone’s sins.
In the end, some people receive justice and some receive mercy. Nobody will be able to say that God judged them unfairly.