I recently read a series of posts and discussion where the initial author was lightly challenging the idea that hell was only a temporary time of discomfort for those apart from the Lord. A couple of people wrote to encourage the author and made statements about hell being a Scriptural concept. Then a woman wrote and gave this challenge, “Those who believe that hell is an eternal place of punishment are happy that some people are going there. They want people to go there.”
Well, aside from that being a categorically incorrect and extremely judgmental statement, it certainly didn’t help the discussion. When challenged, the woman backed away from what she said by simply asserting that we didn’t understand and she wouldn’t discuss it with us any further.
I think I do understand. Some preachers do seem to enjoy the idea that people who don’t fit with their way of thinking will be in hell. They suggest that justice will be served best by the torments of hell and there are some who deserve that justice. They think they are honoring God by their definition of and stand for His justice.
There’s a little story about a preacher who wrote and published a booklet called, “Come to Jesus.” The booklet was an effective outreach tool and was well received. But sometime later the preacher found himself in a heated debate with another teacher and became very angry. He wrote another booklet refuting the other man’s ideas and the tone was very strong and unkind. The booklet was finished except for the title when he took it to be read by his publisher. The publisher was shocked at the tone of the book. When the author asked him what he thought might be an appropriate title, the publisher said, “I think you should call it: ‘Go to Hell! By the author of ‘Come to Jesus.’”
The Scripture does teach about an eternal separation from God suffered by those who refused the gift of salvation in Jesus. But I, for one, do not enjoy the thought of anyone remaining in that condition or place. There are people close to me who never trusted Jesus, people I love and have loved. For their sakes, if for no other reason, I cannot teach joyfully the truth of hell. We don’t have to want people to go to hell in order to believe the teaching. Nor should we—not anyone—not ever.
I want to pause here for a while to write about the real gospel. Some people seem to have the wrong idea of just how things stand. Lately I have been reading some things by people who think that everyone will eventually be saved, regardless of their faith or relationship with Jesus. They teach that there is no hell or that hell isn’t as bad or as permanent as we have taught. Some think that all people are already saved.
These writers say things that sound right. They say, “It doesn’t make sense that God would send people to hell just for a few years of sins, especially when they didn’t even know they were doing anything wrong.” They believe that any concept of God as judgmental is opposed to His over-riding characteristic of love. So they suggest that there will be a way for people to turn to the Lord after death or that people don’t even have to turn to God to be saved. “After all,” they say, “What kind of loving God would send people to hell?” But there is an error here, an important one.
God doesn’t send anyone to Hell.
The message of the Scripture is that all have sinned and all already fall short of the glory of God. All people are born separated from the Lord. Mankind is naturally sinful and unclean. The normal destination for all people is hell because the normal state of all people is separation from God. God doesn’t have to send anyone there.
Now, I agree with the idea that we don’t really know much about hell. I think it is one of those doctrines that has been preached way past our real knowledge. Fire and brimstone, eternal suffering, demons with pitchforks—I can’t say what hell will be like. What I can say is that no one has to go there. If hell is simply (!) a state of separation from God, then it isn’t God’s fault that anyone is there.
You see, the whole Bible is about one message—God loves us and made a way of escape from hell. God has initiated, has worked, a way of salvation for us. The message of the gospel is good news! Jesus is the one way God has provided. Anyone who comes to God in Jesus will be saved. Anyone who does not will continue on his or her own way, and that way leads to hell.
You know, it isn’t up to you and me to like the idea of hell. In fact, if we hated it as much as God does we might be more compassionate. But we are not free to take it out of the gospel message just because we don’t like it.