On the matter of Hell …
Warning: Contrary to how it may appear, I really don’t set out to be controversial, but I do try to be truthful and balanced, and that includes writing articles on subjects like this, that many may avoid.
A rationalistic, unbelieving friend / acquaintance recently challenged me on the subject of Hell: “It is an inescapable, incontestable fact that Hell has to be a part of Christian teaching. For centuries, children and vulnerable adults were terrified by the fires of Hell etc. Frightening small children is child abuse and utterly unacceptable. You cannot cherry-pick and pretend otherwise … Small children believe utterly in Father Christmas, which is delightful. But they should NOT believe that they could end up burning in an everlasting fire. l defy any person to offer a convincing argument.” I said I would think about it, and what follows is my response, not just to the concerns raised but my concern the subject is not properly taught in church contexts. Given how many have thought and written in depth on the subject down the ages, and how much is said or implied in the Bible, this is at best rudimentary and at worst does not address peoples’ concerns.
I begin by setting the scene so to speak, with this extract from my recent book “Prophets of the Bible”, where I consider a number of Bible themes – this one to do with the subject of eternity.
“The matter of Hell is a problematic one and I doubt few if any find the notion of eternal punishment for unbelievers a palatable one humanly speaking and most could name those close to them who we cannot, hand on heart say, died as believers, and therefore they stand condemned. If we avoid the sentimentality that often surrounds loved ones who die, we cannot say with assurance we will be reunited with those who died as unbelievers. Harking back to the previous section on suffering, for some the idea of Hell is the most difficult example of suffering to stomach. But it was Jesus who called Hell (however we wish to describe it) a place “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” Mark 9:48 and “where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” Luke 13:28. One of the most sobering verses in the whole Bible because of its grave warning is what happens following the Day of Judgement: “whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” Revelation 20:15.
Our eternal destiny should be a cause of great concern for self and others, including, however hard it is to fathom, what a person’s eternal destiny is, yet God will always do what is right and we leave it with Him, as I and many have done, contemplating the death of a loved one. For our part, we are responsible both for making the right decision and not resting there but living a holy life, and for telling others how they stand before God and what they must do to be saved. Like the apostles, we must proclaim: “neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” Acts 4:12. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” Hebrews 9:27. The question of where “after this” is of paramount importance. The idea of spending eternity with one’s Saviour, is one that should bring great comfort.”
It has been over forty years since my dad died. One day he left the house but never came back because he had been killed in a road accident. The first church service I attended following his death was conducted by a well-respected Baptist minister. His message was along the lines – Heaven is a wonderful place and isn’t it lovely that one day we will meet our loved ones, who have died, there. It struck me even then as a load of sentimental claptrap, made worse because of my grief and my fundamentalist leaning upbringing that only allowed for believers in Jesus to go to heaven (ref. the above, the most well known text in the Bible) – and as far as I was aware, Dad was not a believer in the way my early spiritual mentors understood belief. I mention this to set the record straight and make the point that just us I find the thought of God allowing millions of children to go missing each year only to be abused and killed by Satanists hard to fathom, it is even harder concerning the notion that God consigns good people, including them who have not heard the gospel of salvation, to eternal punishment, which is what has traditionally been understood as what Hell is. Of course, these days, Hell is treated lightly and often the butt of jokes by non-believers, and the majority of Christians, especially among the leadership, get round the dilemma by either ignoring the subject altogether, claiming Hell does not exist, or it is something temporal or more palatable than what was believed in times past, which is neither true nor balanced.
At this point, I could go off and do my typical Genesis to Revelation search on hell related texts, exploring context, meaning etc. of each, or look up on the Internet what the good and the great down the ages have had to say about Hell. But I won’t! But two points I will make. Firstly, while the Old Testament alludes to eternity, it doesn’t say much and the focus seems to be on the here and now. Indeed, one major sect in Jesus’ time, the Sadducees, appeared not to believe in the after-life. When people died, especially kings, including bad kings, it was often euphemistically stated that “he slept with his fathers” and there the matter ends and the story moves on. Secondly, one translation of hell is Gehenna. The Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna), just outside Jerusalem, was where children had once been sacrificed to the god, Molech, and it was considered cursed. It was where rubbish was dumped and human excrement was deposited. It was where the remains of executed criminals were disposed of. If His body had not been claimed for burial, that would have been what happened to the body of the crucified Jesus. The only other point I would want to make is that while believing was the key consideration when I heard the gospel preached as a youth, if we were to go through the New Testament especially, there is a lot else besides that could cause us to end up in Hell, and is a solemn, serious subject and, as with the fear of God, one not to be neglected.
But back to my friend’s concerns, especially those relating to child abuse, I suspect, I will not have alleviated them, other than when I share my own naturalistic qualms. But God is far above the natural – He is supernatural. Just as He acts in judgement, He also acts in mercy and ours is not to understand everything (impossible), but it is to obey, and this includes, besides living the good life, teaching others what God teaches us and to trust in a good God whose ways are love, and yet is also holy and righteous, and to be revered. As for what to tell children, consider there are parts of the Bible that might be deemed X-rated (sex and violence) and wisdom says that we only go there when the time is right. As for encouraging children, anyone in fact, to flee from the wrath to come and believe the gospel, the matter is too important not to share, for the time is always right.