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.
The issue of sin and damnation isn’t so much a matter of what we actually did to deserve hell, rather it is more a matter of who we did it against, who we rebelled against, spurned, rejected, and disowned, an awesome, all powerful and holy God! King David, the adulterer and murderer, confessed to the God whom he had grieved, “Against You, You only have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight…”(Psalm 51)
Second, hell helps us understand the true nature of sin and to claim our own sin. Listen again to Isaiah 6: ‘Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.’” Isaiah 6:5 It’s when you see and experience the very presence of God, then you are confronted with your own sin. We are told by eyewitnesses to the Lewis revival of the 1950′s, that when God revealed himself to teenagers at a dance, they fell on their faces and many separately confessed, “Hell would be too good for me, O LORD….for I have seen you…have mercy upon me a sinner!” While we are quick to judge and condescend other’s sins, Pastor Tim Brister says we often try to minimize our own by trying to defend it by making excuses, pretending it didn’t happen, concealing it, blaming others, downplaying it or rationalizing it by making ourselves better than we are. We even have softened names for sin: mistakes, blundersmor we say we dropped the ball. Yet when we encounter the true and perfect holiness of God, we grasp for the first time the true nature and gravity of sin and the sin of our lives and the fact that we would never want to contaminate the holiness of God with our sin.