WHAT ABOUT HELL?
By Douglas Groothuis
Is the doctrine
of hell a hindrance or a help in witnessing? Many evangelicals are
ashamed of this biblical doctrine, viewing it as a blemish to be covered up by the
cosmetic of divine love. The doctrine of hell often evokes images of “hell-fire and
brimstone” preachers venting their vehemence with lurid descriptions of burning,
worm-eaten bodies crying out for impossible relief. The very word "hell" is often
replaced by friendlier phrases such as "separation from God." Although this
description of hell is accurate, it lacks punch for those who know little of God’s
goodness, holiness, and hatred of sin. To them, separation from God may seem
like freedom from a domineering spouse or parent. Why fear that?
a daunting dilemma when it comes to hell. Often, our first impulse is
to soften or avoid the doctrine. However, this dishonors God’s word. Jesus
forcefully warned his hearers of the eternal punishment that awaited those who
refused to serve him (Matthew 13:40-42; 25:46). A person who has been
rescued from this fate through Jesus Christ cannot in good conscience downplay
his or her redemption. This would be like someone whose life was saved by a
uniquely skilled brain surgeon saying merely that "the doctor helped me" when, in
reality, the surgeon delivered that person as no one else could have done. If, on
the other hand, Christians openly affirm their belief in hell, they risk repelling the
unbelievers they want to reach. If hell puts people off, how will they be saved from
it? Is there a solution to this dilemma?
There is no
solution in hollowing out biblical doctrines to suit modern tastes. Paul is
our example when he declared to the Thessalonians, "we have been approved by
God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to
please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts" (1 Thessalonians 2:4-5,
NRSV). Our only aim must be to adhere to God’s truth. The gospel message
always has and always will offend human pride (1 Corinthians 1:18). The teaching
that our sin deserves eternal punishment will never serve as a quick psychological
pick-me-up for those with a low self-esteem. Nevertheless, if we clearly explain
and compassionately expound the truth about hell, we may be surprised at how
people respond to it in faith.
The doctrine of
hell does not stand alone as a kind of an ancient Christian horror
story. The logic of hell is inseparable from three other interrelated biblical truths:
human sin, God’s holiness, and the cross of Christ.
relativistic culture, the very concept of sin must be elucidated and defended
vigorously. If morality is relative to each person, then there is no higher moral
standard to meet or to break. But, as C.S. Lewis powerfully argues in Mere
Christianity and The Abolition of Man, the idea of an objective moral law is
inescapable. When we are snubbed or exploited, we call out for justice. When we
encounter people of grit and grace we praise them as moral examples. Our
conscience is more than mere instinct or social conditioning. Yet because there is
often a great gap between our ideals and our actions, we suffer guilt and regret.
Despite our denials and excuses, our abused consciences dog us throughout our
While much of modern psychology assures us that guilt can be gutted
humanistic methods, the gospel faces the problem head-one. Guilt is real because
we have violated the standards of goodness. We have put self above God. Left to
ourselves, we can do nothing to undo our wrongs. Forgiving ourselves is never
sufficient because we are in no position to exonerate the guilty party--anymore
than a murderer can grant himself a stay of execution.
Christianity explains the global stain of human guilt
by placing it in a theological
framework that not only sharpens its sting, but makes relief possible. Sin is a moral
condition that offends the holiness of God and removes us from his approval. When
Isaiah received a vision of God as "holy, holy, holy,"—the Hebrew way of expressing
ultimate holiness—he cried out that he was ruined because he was a sinner in the
midst of a sinful people (Isaiah 6:1-5). Only after God atoned for his sin and took
away his guilt, was Isaiah ready for his prophetic work (vs. 6 -8). Likewise, King David
understood the reality of sin when he confessed that he had sinned against God by
committing adultery and arranging for Bathsheba’s husband to be killed (Psalm 51:4).
Although David had wronged a throng of people, the root of his error was
disobedience to God’s holy law. Jesus taught that the tax collector who humbly cried
out "God have mercy on me, a sinner" went home justified before God
because—unlike the prideful Pharisee—he admitted his sin against God (Luke 18:13-14).
Although polls tell us that over ninety percent of Americans believe in
people do not connect God’s holiness with their uneasy conscience. Because God is
infinitely holy, any moral wrongdoing--in thought, word, or deed--offends his
unchanging character. If God is the Creator of the cosmos and the supreme source
and standard of morality, how could he grade on the curve? If we fail to love God with
all of our being and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37), we have no
hope of pleasing God on account of our merit. We have broken the Lawgiver’s law.
"Sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4). Law breakers deserve punishment. But is not hell
The great American theologian Jonathan Edwards took
this up in his essay, "The
Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners." Edwards argues that because God is "a
Being of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory" he is therefore "infinitely honorable"
and worthy of our absolute obedience. "Sin against God, being a violation of infinite
obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and deserving of infinite punishment."
Edwards’s much maligned but solidly biblical sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry
God," presses home the point that a sinner without Christ has no grounds for
confidence and every reason to fear hell. God, who is angry with sin, could justifiably
send the unrepentant sinner to hell at any moment. Jesus himself warned, "Do not be
afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the One
who can destroy both body and soul in hell" (Matthew 10:28). The book of Hebrews
echoes this message: "It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God"
To fully fathom the horror of sin and the holiness of
God we must kneel before the
cross of Christ. Although Jesus is the supreme moral example because of his perfect
obedience to his heavenly Father, this does not exhaust his work on behalf of our
salvation. The Scriptures command us to be like Christ, but this is never presented as
the basis of our salvation. Christ’s sinless perfection is impossible for us to attain;
all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Because Jesus
flawlessly obeyed God’s moral law in our place, he is uniquely qualified to be our
Savior. On the cross, Christ offered himself to God the Father as a spotless sacrifice
for our sin. He accepted the cross in love because it was required to save those who
would otherwise perish (John 3:16-18).
The magnitude of sin against God was so severe that
only the death of the sinless Son
of God could atone for it. We see the reality of hell when the crucified Christ calls out
to his Father, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). The
Son’s perfect fellowship with the Father—a love enjoyed from eternity past—was
broken when Christ bore the penalty for our sins. Paul explains, "God made him who
knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of
God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). We can avoid being forsaken by God (in hell) and inherit
heaven only through faith in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8).
In the cross of Christ the sinfulness of sin, the
holiness of God, and the actuality of hell
are all writ large with the blood of the Lamb. Only through Christ taking on our hell
through his death could sinners be reconciled to a holy God. Once this is understood,
hell takes on a clarity not otherwise perceived. Apart from the cross, there is no hope
for forgiveness or reconciliation with God. Hell is the only alternative.
Only by understanding the logic of hell can we grasp
the immensity of God’s love.
God’s love took his son to the hell of the cross for our sake. This is a costly love, a
bloody love, that has no parallel in any of the world’s religions. Although some other
religions (particularly Islam) threaten hell, none offer the sure deliverance from it that
Christianity offers through the sacrificial love of God himself.
In this rich theological context, we can courageously
incorporate the doctrine of hell
at the heart of our evangelistic enterprise. Jesus asked what a person’s life would be
worth if he were to gain the whole world but forfeited his very soul (Matthew 16:26).
Hell is the loss of the soul, a reality so terrible that Scripture uses a variety of ways to
describe it. The graphic and horrible reports of hell given in Scripture--such as the
abyss (Revelation 9:1-11), the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14), the blackest darkness
(Jude 13), the gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:30)--disclose the stark reality of
eternal separation from a just and loving God.
We can apply these truths in several ways. First, we
should encourage biblical
preaching and teaching on hell set in its proper theological setting and presented with
much prayer and compassion. As Francis Schaeffer said, the doctrine of hell must be
taught "with tears." I recently preached a sermon that spoke of Jesus’ many warnings
about hell. No one in the audience left or jeered. After the service a young woman
came forward to accept Christ! Similarly, when I gave a campus lecture on the New
Age view of Christ, I emphasized that the biblical Christ came to save people from hell.
This did not repulse people, even though it was a very secular campus. Students
pondered what was said and many stayed to ask questions after the lecture.
Second, our everyday witness must involve a warning as
well as a welcome. We
welcome people to find eternal life in Christ, but we must also warn them of the
eternal death that awaits those who reject the gospel. Pascal said, "Between heaven
and hell is only this life, which is the most fragile thing in the world." Given the biblical
warnings about hell, the nonChristian ends up betting his or her eternity that
Christianity is a lie. We should challenge people to investigate intently the claims of
Christianity, considering all there is to gain and all there is to lose.
Third, we must beseech God to alert both our
nonChristian friends and the church at
large to the reality of hell. Without this doctrine firmly in place, Christians will lose their
evangelistic edge. And without a proper fear of God’s holiness, no one will come to
Christ for his gift of forgiveness and eternal life.
Copyright © 2002 by Douglas Groothuis and InterVarsity Christian
Fellowship. Permission kindly
granted to Faith & Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.
Douglas Groohuis (Ph.D., University
of Oregon) is associate professor of philosophy at Denver
Seminary in Denver, Colorado. A well-known public speaker and writer on apologetics (particularly
the New Age movement), he has published several other books including The Soul in
(Baker, 1997) and On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2002).