Summary: Can we have a heaven without a hell? Not if, according to the three prophetic religions, we all live under divine justice. So why do we need a hell?
Why We Need Hell
Isaiah 6: 1-5
Kevin Miller of the Huffington Post writes, “After Wade Michael Page allegedly opened fire in a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee, a commenter expressed his disgust online: "Meet Wade Michael Page, white supremacist and latest entrant to the gates of Hell." Lynn Johnson, who was in the Chicago theater with her children when James Eagan Holmes started shooting, expressed her hope that he would "burn in hell" for his crimes. And when Seal Team 6 assassinated Osama Bin Laden, Mike Huckabee responded to the news with a glib, ‘Welcome to hell, bin Laden.’ As these and numerous other examples demonstrate…. “We demand it (Hell) as punishment when human perpetrators are involved. How should we interpret this phenomenon? Does it merely reflect the faith position of the observers? In some cases, definitely. But when one considers that only 58% of Americans believe in Hell, why would people still be so quick to grasp for” hell?” Some have said we need it to give meaning to tragedies. It gives us hope for justice, especially when we feel powerless in a situation, and hope in knowing someone is out there who cares, who knows our suffering and who has the power to hold the perpetrators to account for their crimes.
Can we have a heaven without a hell? Not if, according to the three prophetic religions, we all live under divine justice. Judaism, Christianity and Islam each envision a Last Judgment on all the living and the resurrected dead at the end of time. Jews have concluded that the wicked perish and go to Sheol and only the righteous will be resurrected to eternal life when the Messiah comes. According to the Qur'an, the wicked suffer a painful wrenching of soul from body. Even in the grave, the hot flames of hell sear the bodies of sinners, while their errant souls writhe in a foul pit of snakes. Christianity says that each individual is judged and consigned to heaven or hell based on the sin and the severity of their punishment is directly tied to the severity of their sin. The punishment fits the crime.
So why do we need a hell? First, we come to understand God’s holiness. In order to believe in Hell and judgment, one must believe that there is a God, who is so exalted, so high and lifted up, so Holy and awesome, that to reject and to spurn him, is the greatest sin of all! Our problem is that in our theology, we have brought God down to our level, thinking of him as our friend and almost one of us. We did it to make him more accessible but in doing so, we have stripped away our awe and His holiness and power. But when we encounter God’s holiness, it changes everything. Listen to Isaiah’s encounter with God’s holiness: “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips…’” (Isaiah 6:1-5) When you understand perfect holiness then you understand that sin cannot be in His midst. What’s interesting is that we don’t think twice about keeping a hospital or a crime scene or our food or water clean and uncontaminated but when it comes to God and our sin, it seems to be another matter. When we are given some sense of God in his majesty, Holiness and goodness, we can begin to understand an ultimate banishment from the presence of God.