Hell is not a fun place to be. If it is real, that is. In the middle ages people used to believe hell was a place underneath the earth where people would be tormented according to the gravity of their sin. The popular idea of hell was largely shaped by Dante’s famous Inferno. But since humanity has discovered that the universe is neither flat nor the center of the universe (and a whole lot more) the notion of hell has come under fire. Pun intended.
It’s not just the location of hell, but also the increasing uneasiness with the whole idea of people being tortured by demons as something belonging to fairy tales and myths. The modern times brought about a de-enchantment of the world and with it ideas of an actual place of torment called hell. In addition people have a hard time with the idea of people being eternally tormented. How can a loving God, who sends Jesus to save the world, really end up condoning, or even executing, eternal torment of actual human beings? How could such a God live with himself after let’s say 1 month of torment, or 100 years, or 1.5 millions years?
In this explainer I will endeavor to represent the case in favor of hell (not that hell needs favor, but if it is real, we better know about it), but also the case against hell (of course everybody is against hell, but I’m talking here about the denial of its existence). In a third article, I will discuss various ways Christians can think meaningfully about the afterlife. Let’s first present the position that hell is a real place.
1. The Word of God Talks about Hell a Lot
Perhaps the Old Testament isn’t too clear about hell, but the moment you arrive in the New Testament, exactly where and when Jesus, the world’s savior, appears on the stage of the world, language about hell explodes. The audience of the books of the New Testament is clearly being warned strictly and sternly that hell is real and that those who do not repent and do not follow the Lord are going to end up in hell. Jesus tells us to cut off our limbs and pluck out our eye if said limb and eye cause us to sin (Matthew 5:29-30). Paul even provides a whole list of people who will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:10). When we come to Revelation, people are urged to drink from the living water of God’s grace (Revelation 22:14-17) or else face the terrible fate of the unbelievers: the pool of fire (Revelation 20:14-15). Those whose name is not written in the Book of Life will not participate in the resurrection.
In short, anyone who would take the Bible seriously as the Word of God cannot in good faith defend the position that hell would not be real or that Christians would not be compelled to understand the Bible to be real according to God’s Word. You cannot be a Bible believing Christian and not believe hell to be real, whether you like that or not, whether that is politically correct or not.
2. Jesus Taught the Reality of Hell
We cannot overlook Jesus’ teaching in this regard. This god-man, the Word incarnate, who came to save the world, warned often with many words and with many examples about the great chance of ending up in hell (Mark 9:48; Matthew 23:33). Broad is the road that leads to perdition and narrow the path that leads towards life; broad is the gate toward hell but narrow the entry way toward eternal life (Matthew 7:13). The threat was so real for Jesus that he urged believers to cut off limbs and cut out their eye if that’s what it takes not to sin (Matthew 5:29-30). He often mentioned that there will be those thrown outside where there is gnashing of teeth, maggots that never die, and fire that will never be extinguished (Mark 9:48). Jesus taught little about heaven or paradise but more than anyone else in Scripture about hell.
3. The Rich Man Found Himself in Hell
Then there is this remarkable story about Lazarus and the (unnamed) rich man in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 16:19-31). There is no indication that this is a parable. It is nowhere mentioned. That should give us pause. It might well be that Jesus told this story as one of his parables but that it actually happened, or that at the very least that Jesus held the content of this story to be a realistic scenario of the afterlife. In any case, in this story, Lazarus, poor and destitute, always begging in front of the rich man’s house, dies. The rich man dies too and when he opens his eyes, he finds himself in hell with a parched throat and no drop of water to quench his thirst. Then he spots Lazarus in the presence of Abraham and desires that Abraham will let Lazarus bring him but a drop of water to quench his thirst. How much more real do we want it to be?
4. In Revelation Hell is Shown to be Real
The book of Revelation shows us the shocking panorama of the world’s end, how those who are evil are getting even more evil and how God’s truth marches triumphantly in defiance of the devil and his hordes. Evil will be overcome and those who sided with evil against the Lamb of God will find themselves to be thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20). They end of in the pool of fire together with the Antichrist and Satan as well as the realm of the dead. As the book draws to an end it is clear that there is a narrow line that divides evil doers from the justified. Those whose name is not written in the Book of Life will suffer an eternal loss. They will loose their lives and find their eternal destiny in hell.
5. Justice Demands Punishment for Wrongdoings
It is not just because the Bible teaches the reality of hell that we should believe it. There are also theological reasons. One of these is that there is so much wrongdoing in the world, so much evil that human beings perpetrate against God and fellow human being, that simply goes unpunished (cf. Revelation 6:10-11). Hitler, for instance, managed to get away, so to speak, with being responsible for the killing of millions and millions of people by one simple act of suicide. Muslim extremists hardly suffer when they detonate the bombs strapped around their bodies thereby killing and maiming countless innocent bystanders. Rapists, drug dealers, those committing fraud… so many people commit heinous crimes without ever getting caught while they yet have caused so much harm, pain, and destruction in other people’s lives.
If there is no hell, there is no justice. If these people do not get paid for what they did, it simply isn’t fair. Justice demands consequences. Justice demands the God of heaven and earth to exact punishment on those who committed evil.
6. A Holy God cannot Bear to Co-exist With Sin
Evil and sin are not just committed by human beings against other fellow human beings. Ultimately, sin is rebellion against and hatred toward God (cf. Exodus 10:16; Jeremiah 14:20; 2 Samuel 12:13; Psalm 51:4; Daniel 9:8). God’s honor is violated. Sin is an assault against God. That is not all. God is holy. God is sinless and blameless. God indwells the purest light as God is Godself that purest light, as God is also the purest beauty and the purest love. There simply is no way that unrepentant sinners can dwell in the presence of such a God or that such a God could ever tolerate the presence of such sinful people (Think of the parable about the man without wedding clothes at the wedding banquet Matthew 22:11-13). And after deaththere are only two options: (a) You either dwell in the presence of God (which is heaven) or you do not dwell in the presence of God (which is hell). There is no middle ground the way our earthly lives are lived in a degree of uncertainty as to whether God exists or not.