According to the Pew Research Center, a much higher percentage of people believe in heaven than in hell. Yet the same Bible which tells us about heaven also has a lot to say about hell.
Some think the doctrine of hell is at odds with the loving and merciful character of Jesus Christ as he’s presented to us in the Gospels. What many don’t realise, however, is that most of what we know about hell comes from a single source, namely, gentle Jesus, meek and mild.
Professor J.I. Packer once said, “All the language that strikes terror into our hearts – weeping and gnashing of teeth, outer darkness, the worm, the fire, Gehenna, the great gulf fixed – is all directly taken from our Lord’s teaching. It is from Jesus Christ that we learn the doctrine of eternal punishment.”
Jesus, the Lord of Love and the Author of Grace, spoke about hell more than any other person in Scripture. In fact, he spoke about hell more than he spoke about heaven. Astonishingly, this fact doesn’t seem to prevent people from objecting to the reality of what Jesus so often, and so clearly warned us about.
Usually, the objection to hell originates from a lack of understanding of the infinite nature of sin as contrasted to the infinite righteousness and goodness of God. We simply can’t see how the punishment fits the crime, but this notion only demonstrates an inadequate comprehension of the sinfulness of sin.
As Tom Ascol points out, it would be a miscarriage of justice for sinners to be consigned to anything less than eternal punishment:
How can God exact infinite punishment for a finite sin? First, because the person against whom all sin is committed is infinite. Crimes against the infinitely holy, infinitely kind, infinitely good, and infinitely supreme Ruler of the world deserve unending punishment. In addition to that, those condemned to hell will go on sinning for eternity. There is no repentance in hell. So, the punishment will continue as long as the sinning does.
Similarly, Professor John Gerstner said: “If we recognize degrees of heinousness between a crime against one human being and another, we can see that the difference between a crime against a human and against the divine Being as infinite, and requires an infinitely more severe punishment.”
We recognise this to some extent in our day-to-day life. The punishment for a crime increases depending on who the crime is committed against. Lie to your sister, and there may be no consequence. Lie to your parents and you might get a stern talking to. Lie to your university and you might be expelled. Lie to the police and you might be fined. Lie to the government and you might be jailed.
But supposing one was still to protest this fact, in the long-run, as C.S. Lewis once brilliantly said, the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: What are you asking God to do?
Are you asking God to wipe out your past sins and, at all costs, give you a fresh start? Are you asking God to smooth every difficulty and offer you every miraculous help in doing so? God has already done that. That’s the whole point of the Gospel. That’s what makes the message of Jesus “good news.”
Are you still objecting to the doctrine of hell? What are you asking God to do? Is He to forgive your sins? Should God leave you alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does in hell.
The difficulty that the modern man has in accepting the idea of hell is that we’ve almost entirely given up on the notion of sin.
Peter Kreeft explains:
In the past, the difficulty with accepting Christianity was its second point, salvation. Everyone in pre-modern societies knew sin was real, but many doubted salvation. Today it is the exact opposite: everybody is saved, but there is no sin to be saved from.
Thus, what originally came into the world as ‘good news’ strikes the modern mind as bad news, as guilt-ridden, moralistic and ‘judgemental’. For the modern mind is no longer ‘convinced of sin, of righteousness and of judgement’ (John 16:8). Yet the bad news is the only part of Christianity that is empirically verifiable, just by reading the newspapers.
Unless people have an understanding of God’s righteous requirements and our desperate need of a substitute who can meet those requirements, misunderstandings about sin, eternal judgement and hell will prevail to the detriment of society.
It was A.W. Tozer who once said, “The vague and tenuous hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions.” No doubt many of the troubles in society today find their root in the false notion that there is no such thing as sin. Because if there’s no such thing as sin, then ultimately, there is no such thing as hell and no real consequences for doing the wrong thing.
The idea of eternal punishment makes no sense to a society that’s convinced there’s no real standard we ought to live up to. And in such a society, as we’ve so often seen, the only “sin” that will not be tolerated is the sin of labelling something sinful.