Summary: Questions: 1. What is hell like? 2. Is hell forever? 3. How can a good God send people to hell?
It is captivating to watch the movie industry and their fascination with spiritual issues — twisted as they may be at times. There are any number of films dealing with angels, the spiritual world, and even heaven and hell. One of the most graphic of these was the film Ghost starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. They play the characters of Sam and Molly, an upscale Manhattan yuppie couple who have moved into their first apartment. They have it all. But as they return home one night, Sam is mugged and killed in what, at first, appears to be a robbery attempt. The intense chemistry between Sam and Molly makes his death feel profoundly tragic. But Sam’s “ghost” rises from his body and justice must be done before he is allowed to leave this world for his appointed place in the afterlife. In some of the most graphic scenes I have ever seen, Sam’s murderers individually meet their demise in the movie, and at the time of their death, shadowy demons appear from the underworld and commence to drag their screaming victims into hell to meet their doom.
While the secular world seems more and more interested in the spirit world and the afterlife, the church is often astonishingly silent. We talk about morals, and even how to succeed in this life, but we say very little about heaven, and almost nothing about hell. We are supposed to be people of another kingdom and rooted in eternity, but we spend too little time thinking about any world other than the one in which we now live. At the same time, people outside the church are concerned with what eternity will be like. They want to know about heaven, and they want to know about hell. For many, the very idea of hell seems mysterious, but incongruous with the concept of a loving and merciful God. Some even walk away from the Christian faith because they don’t like the idea of a God who would send someone to hell. Bertrand Russell, the atheist, was fond of saying, “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.” He is not alone in his objections.
I would like to address these issues today, and try to answer some of the main questions that people have about hell and God’s justice. There are many questions people have, but one of the most central questions is: What is hell like? To put it in simplest terms, hell is separation from God. It means that for all eternity we will live apart from God and all that is good. Those in hell will be banished from the presence of the most wonderful and loving being in all the universe. They will also be excluded from everything of value and beauty, and everything that ultimately matters. They will live in a crush of people, but be terribly alone. They will be plagued by desire and know nothing of fulfillment. Hell is living forever in the presence of shame, regret, anguish and conscious failure. Never again will a person experience a meaningful relationship or know anything of love.
Jesus described hell in this way: “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:41-42). He also said, “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:47-48). Obviously, Jesus wanted us to avoid hell at all costs. It is full of fire. But the kind of fire Jesus spoke of is not the kind of fire we know. He is speaking metaphorically. If it were an actual fire, the people in hell would be consumed and it would be over quickly. But he is speaking of the reality of existing apart from God in the most appropriate terms available in human language and experience. We speak of “burning shame” in much the same way, only hell is burning shame without relief. The suffering produced by unforgiven sin and shame is worse than a literal flame, for there is no end to it.
Anyone who has known deep, personal moral failure knows something of what hell feels like. Anyone who has lost something of great value in life knows something of what hell feels like. Anyone who has suffered from great feelings of inadequacy and inferiority knows something of what hell feels like. Anyone who has felt the searing pain of personal rejection and the loss of significant relationships knows something of what hell feels like. “The worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” It is living with the eternal pain of what could have been. It is living with the eternal suffering of knowing what you should have done, but were not willing to do. It is the eternal torture of knowing that you spent your life on things which had no lasting value. You lived out your days self-centered and self-indulgent — addicted to pleasing yourself. And now your choices are fixed. You are the slave of your passions and your peevishness. You lived life in the shallows. You avoided God. You despised what was good. You were angry and unforgiving. You were sated with selfishness and filled with apathy toward things that really mattered. And now you do not have the strength, or the appetite, for values or moral goodness, the deep things of life, and friendship with God, therefore you are separated from it all forever. Isaiah the prophet asks, “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?” (Isaiah 33:14). This is what hell is like.