I wish I could have spent some time talking about life after judgment. Particularly hell.
Except I think the problem with many of us pastors talking about hell is that our hearts aren’t sufficiently broken for those who don’t yet know Jesus. Our warnings sound hollow at best. But here's my best shot.
Isn't there incongruity with a God of love and a place of final punishment called hell?
If we think of Jesus as being the ultimate expression of God’s sacrificial love, then His words should carry a special weight because no one else taught more about hell. Jesus pushes us to see life from an eternal perspective. In Luke 12, He tells His followers not to be scared of hyper-religious terrorists who could persecute and murder them: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”
But if God can throw someone into hell, how can He possibly love?
Let me give you another picture of hell: it is the one place where the self-centered are protected from the dangers of love, as C. S. Lewis put it. Jesus actually said that hell was created for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). The word most commonly translated in the New Testament as hell is Gehenna. Gehenna is derived from a literal place called the “valley of Hinnom” found in the Old Testament—a place where pagan Jews would commit human sacrifice by throwing their children in an ever-burning city garbage dump. When Jesus referred to Gehenna, he borrowed literal images of worms and flames and burning refuse. Every Jew could understand that description because of the awful reality of the human garbage dump. It was a frightening illustration for hell.
But if we can’t conceive of a God who would send someone to such a place, what does it say about that same God who would give His own son over to a tortuous death to rescue us from that end?
The story is this: our condition is so heinous, so unapproachable, so hideous, that only the drastic measure of a perfect sacrifice could destroy the disease of sin in us. The entire race is infected with an AIDS-like virus that destroys the soul...and only one antidote exists. Sin so miniaturizes the human condition that the first step into God’s presence is as high as Everest...we cannot step up; we are unable. That puts hell in another light for me: God, who will separate the infected from the healthy, comes to us with a vaccine drawn from His own veins. The looming of hell makes the God of Love even greater to me. Hell is the only refuge from holy, perfect love.
But does it last forever…and with no hope?
We are creatures locked in time and space; eternity & infinity are impossible concepts to grasp—our understanding of time is stringing minute after minute together in a linear fashion. Eventually, even Death and Hell—as personified in the book of Revelation—are thrown into a lake of fire. And who knows what that completely entails?
So do I believe in a literal hell?
What makes the difference? A dream is just as frightening if you never wake up. If the images used by the New Testament writers were metaphorical, is that preferable to the awful reality they are trying to convey? I would say hell is hell; and if the Captain of the ship says get in My Son’s lifeboat, I would trust His judgment.
Simply put: our pictures of hell are made dangerously real by the integrity of the Messenger.