Hell Is Needed
When I say “the doctrine of hell,” I mean the teaching that those who do not repent of their sin and trust in Christ spend an eternity in conscious torment under the displeasure of God. Here at the outset I want to get clear in our minds that hell is not a problem. The absence of hell would be a problem. Hell is the affirmation that God is a God of justice, of fairness, of dealing with humans in a way that is right.
We can be at peace. We who know God can hold our heads high and walk through this miserable world calmly, come what may. No matter how we are mistreated by the world, God will bring perfect retribution and vindication in his own way and time. God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31).
Hell Is Awful
Here are three truths from Scripture:
Hell is experienced by the whole person. In Matthew 5, Jesus twice speaks of one’s “whole body” going to hell (Matt. 5:29-30). In another place he warns us to “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Humans sin against God with both their body and their soul; they suffer judgment by him, accordingly, in both body and soul.
Hell is painful. The New Testament speaks of hell as a place of “chains of gloomy darkness” (2 Pet. 2:4), a place of “torment” (luke 16:23) and “anguish” (Luke 16:25).
Hell is eternal. When the New Testament speaks of hell as a place of “destruction,” that does not mean that those in hell cease to exist at some point, but that hell is a place of torment and chaos and breakdown. That’s why Paul refers to “the punishment of eternal destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9). Scripture is clear: hell is an unquenchable fire (Mark 9:48).
Hell Is Deserved
Ask yourself what you believe—what you really believe, in your gut—you deserve. Is it not quite easy to slip into thinking that we deserve heaven? That maybe we’re not perfect,but heaven certainly seems more fitting for our lives than hell? That to go to hell would be unjust? Don’t we tend to compare ourselves to others? The trouble is that as long as we’re looking out horizontally, we’re not looking up vertically. And that’s the view that shows us who we really are.
God is perfectly holy, supremely beautiful and pure and radiant. In him there is nothing ugly or cruel or bent. When he revealed himself to Isaiah, the seraphim (magnificent angelic beings) were crying out, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:3). Nowhere else in all the Bible is God given this kind of threefold repeated refrain. His holiness is his supreme Godness, his utter deity—everything that makes him other than his fallen creatures.
Think of the difference between a window and a mirror. Both are pieces of glass, created to be looked at. But a window is looked through while a mirror reflects back and shows us ourselves. We naturally look out at others like looking through a window, but seeing God is like being given a mirror. We see ourselves. We stop comparing with other people.
Hell Is Avoidable
Unlike every other religion, Christianity does not provide step-by-step instructions for what we must do to avoid hell; it provides a Savior who endured hell in our place, if we will simply have the humility to admit it should have been us. The Bible does not give us steps to take or a list of duties to fulfill as if avoiding hell were like building a bunk bed. The Bible gives us a Rescuer. “God has not destined us for wrath,” the Apostle Paul wrote to a group of believers, “but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us” (1 Thess. 5:9–10). We are to collapse into his arms.
What we are talking about in this brief final section is the good news, the best news, the most astonishing announcement that has ever been made or ever will be made in the history of the world. You can avoid hell. Anyone can avoid hell. Heaven is not for the deserving. It is for the repentant. Hell is not for the undeserving. It is for the unrepentant.
The astonishing surprise at the heart of the universe is not that there is only one way to get to heaven. The astonishing surprise is that there is any way to get to heaven for miserable sinners such as us.
Hell is avoidable.