Summary: What is hell? a) punishment, b) separation from God, c) ruled by evil. Why would God send people to hell? What should we respond to the reality of hell?
Last week, we talked about heaven, and this week, we talk about hell.
Why talk about hell? It is not something we talk about with strangers, or even casual acquaintances. Some people—even people we know well—might consider it taboo, worse than talking about politics or religion or sex.
Yet if there is life after death, we need to talk about hell. What is hell? Will some people go to hell? How should the reality of hell affect us?
Jesus talked about hell, and one day he told a parable that answered some of our questions. Read Matthew 25:31-46.
WHAT IS HELL?
***Maybe you have heard the urban legend that Russian scientists discovered hell. They bored 14.5 kilometers into the earth, where the temperature was 1100 degrees Celsius. (That much is true.) The legendary part was that a gigantic winged demon came out of the hole, and a microphone recorded the screams of the damned, which could then be heard on the internet. The legend was debunked by an article in CT in 1990, which traced its origins to a fringe paranormal newsletter in Finland.**
Hell is not deep down in the earth. It is not a place in the universe at all, since the universe will not last forever. In fact, we don’t know much about the “place” called hell.
What do we know? Jesus’ parable implies several things about hell:
-Hell is punishment.
As Jesus put it, “They will go into eternal punishment.”
In the parable, hell is described as “eternal fire,” which was a common conception of hell in that time. The word for hell was “gehenna,” which literally referred to the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, just outside Jerusalem. That valley had an evil history, as a place where some Israelites sacrificed their children to heathen gods! (See Jeremiah 19:4-6.) Later, garbage was burned in the same valley, giving the image of a hot place, a place of fire and smoke. Jesus said that in gehenna, the fire never goes out, although of course he might have been speaking metaphorically.
Jesus also referred to hell as “the outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12). Of course, darkness implies no fire for light or heat. Jesus gave other descriptions, of worms that don’t die, or weeping and gnashing of teeth. Most likely he was using metaphors to portray the horrors of hell.
Yet the suffering of hell is not limited to physical pain.
-Hell is separation from God.
In the parable, the master says, “Depart from me, you who are cursed.
Paul said in 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10, “God will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed.”
In heaven, God is in the midst of his people. His glory shines, his blessings flow, and his righteousness is established. Life is good, because God is good.
In hell, God is absent. His glory is absent, his blessings are cut off, and life is un-right.
Some people who are headed for hell don’t see the absence of God as a problem. They would rather not have to think about God and his righteousness. But what happens to humanity, when God abandons them? In Romans 1, Paul observed that people who “neither glorified God nor gave thanks to him…[found that] their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…[so that] they worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Paul went on say that “God gave them over to a depraved mind…filled with envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice.”
Of course, Christians are not immune to the sins common to humanity, but God does not give up on them. He has redeemed them, and they will be perfected and made righteous as they enter their eternal home.
But there is no redemption in hell. There are no signs of God’s glory and goodness, no moral authority, no ultimate justice. There is no hope of perfection, and no power to change. As eternity wears on, what will happen to people without hope and without God? Will they be filled with envy, strife, deceit and malice? Who wants to live with that?
-Hell is ruled by evil.
If God is not in hell, who will be in charge? Who will have the power, and how will it be used?
***There are places in the world that I would rather not live. I would not want to live in a place where drug lords control the countryside. I would not want to live in a prison where the guards allow the worst of the worst prisoners to run the place. I would not want to live in an oppressive society, where the rich and powerful take every good thing, and abuse the powerless. There are places like that in the world, and people who are oppressed by evil powers experience a hellish existence.**