3:16 The Numbers of Hope, Ch.10: Hell’s Supreme Surprise
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 NIV
The hero of heaven is God. Angels don’t worship mansions or glittering avenues. Neither gates nor jewels prompt the hosts to sing . . . God does. His majesty stirs the pen of heaven’s poets and the awe of her citizens.
They enjoy an eternity-long answer to David’s prayer: “One thing I ask of the LORD . . . to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD” (Ps. 27:4). What else warrants a look? Inhabitants of heaven forever marvel at the sins God forgives, the promises he keeps, the plan he executes. He’s not the grand marshal of the parade; he is the parade. He’s not the main event; he’s the only event. His Broadway features a single stage and star: himself. He hosts the only production and invites every living soul to attend.
He, at this very moment, issues invitations by the millions. He whispers through the kindness of a grandparent, shouts through the tempest of a tsunami. Through the funeral he cautions, “Life is fragile.” Through a sickness he reminds, “Days are numbered.” God may speak through nature or nurture, majesty or mishap. But through all and to all he invites: “Come, enjoy me forever.”
Yet many people have no desire to do so. They don’t want anything to do with God. He speaks; they cover their ears. He commands; they scoff. They don’t want him telling them how to live. They mock what he says about marriage, money, sex, or the value of human life. They regard his son as a joke and the cross as utter folly.1 They spend their lives telling God to leave them alone. And at the moment of their final breath, he honors their request: “Get away from me, you who do evil. I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23 NCV). This verse escorts us to the most somber of Christian realities: hell.
No topic stirs greater resistance. Who wants to think about eternal punishment? We prefer to casualize the issue, making jokes about its residents or turning the noun into a flippant adjective. “That was a hell of a steak.” Odd that we don’t do the same with lesser tragedies. You never hear “My golf game has gone toprison.” Or “This is an AIDS of a traffic jam.” Seems a conspiracy is afoot to minimize hell.
Some prefer to sanitize the subject, dismissing it as a moral impossibility.
“I do not myself feel that any person,” defied atheist Bertrand Russell, “who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.”2 Or, as is more commonly believed, “A loving God would not send people to hell.” Religious leaders increasingly agree. Martin Marty, a church historian at the University of Chicago Divinity School, canvassed one hundred years of some scholarly journals for entries on hell. He didn’t find one. “Hell,” he observed, “disappeared and no one noticed.”3
Easy to understand why. Hell is a hideous topic. Any person who discusses it glibly or proclaims it gleefully has failed to ponder it deeply. Scripture writers dip pens in gloomy ink to describe its nature. They speak of the “blackest darkness” (Jude 13), “everlasting destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9), “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12).
A glimpse into the pit won’t brighten your day, but it will enlighten your understanding of Jesus. He didn’t avoid the discussion. Quite the contrary. He planted a one-word caution sign between you and hell’s path: perish. “Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Jesus spoke of hell often. Thirteen percent of his teachings refer to eternal judgment and hell.4 Two-thirds of his parables relate to resurrection and judgment.5 Jesus wasn’t cruel or capricious, but he was blunt. His candor stuns.
He speaks in tangible terms. “Fear Him,” he warns, “who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28 NKJV). He quotes Hades’s rich man pleading for Lazarus to “dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue” (Luke 16:24 NKJV). Words such as body, finger, and tongue presuppose a physical state in which a throat longs for water and a person begs for relief—physical relief.
The apostles said that Judas Iscariot had gone “to his own place” (Acts 1:25 NASB). The Greek word for place is topos, which means geographical location.6Jesus describes heaven with the same noun: “In My Father’s house are many mansions. . . . I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2 NKJV). Hell, like heaven, is a location, not a state of mind, not a metaphysical dimension of floating spirits, but an actual place populated by physical beings.
Woeful, this thought. God has quarantined a precinct in his vast universe as the depository of the hard-hearted.
Exactly where is hell? Jesus gives one chilling clue: “outside.” “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness” (Matt. 22:13). Outside of what? Outside of the boundaries of heaven, for one thing. Abraham, in paradise, told the rich man, in torment, “Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us” (Luke 16:26 NKJV). No heaven-to-hell field trips. No hell-to-heaven holiday breaks. Hell is to heaven what the edge of our universe is to earth: outside the range of a commute.
Hell is also outside the realm of conclusion. Oh, that hell’s punishment would end, that God would schedule an execution date. New Testament language leads some godly scholars to believe he will:
Fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28 NKJV)
Whoever believes in him shall not perish. (John 3:16)
Destroy. Perish. Don’t such words imply an end to suffering? I wish I could say they do. There is no point on which I’d more gladly be wrong than the eternal duration of hell. If God, on the last day, extinguishes the wicked, I’ll celebrate my misreading of his words. Yet annihilation seems inconsistent with Scripture. God sobers his warnings with eternal language. Consider John’s description of the wicked in Revelation 14:11: “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (ESV). How could the euthanized soul “have no rest, day or night”?
Jesus parallels hell with Gehenna, a rubbish dump outside the southwestern walls of Jerusalem, infamous for its unending smoldering and decay. He employs Gehenna as a word picture of hell, the place where the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48 ESV). A deathless worm and quenchless fire—however symbolic these phrases may be—smack of ongoing consumption of something. Jesus speaks of sinners being “thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12). How can a nonexistent person weep or gnash teeth?
Jesus describes the length of heaven and hell with the same adjective: eternal. “They will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46 RSV). Hell lasts as long as heaven. It may have a back door or graduation day, but I haven’t found it.
Much perishes in hell. Hope perishes. Happiness perishes. But the body and soul of the God-deniers continue outside. Outside of heaven, outside of hope, and outside of God’s goodness.
None of us have seen such a blessingless world. Even the vilest precincts of humanity know the grace of God. People who want nothing of God still enjoy his benefits. Adolf Hitler witnessed the wonder of the Alps. Saddam Hussein enjoyed the blushing sunrise of the desert. The dictator, child molester, serial rapist, and drug peddler—all enjoy the common grace of God’s goodness. They hear children laugh, smell dinner cooking, and tap their toes to the rhythm of a good song. They deny God yet enjoy his benevolence.
But these privileges are confiscated at the gateway to hell. Scofflaws will be “shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:9). Hell knows none of heaven’s kindnesses, no overflow of divine perks. The only laughter the unrepentant hear is evil; the only desires they know are selfish. As the Scottish professor James Denney describes it, God-rejecters “pass into a night on which no morning dawns.”7 Hell is society at its worst.
More tragically, hell is individuals at their worst. It surfaces and amplifies the ugliest traits in people. Cravings will go unchecked. Worriers will fret and never find peace. Thieves will steal and never have enough. Drunks always craving, gluttons always demanding. None will be satisfied. Remember: “Their worm does not die” (Mark 9:48 ESV). As one writer put it, “Not only will the unbeliever be in hell, but hell will be in him too.”8
Death freezes the moral compass. People will remain in the fashion they enter. Revelation 22:11 seems to emphasize hell’s unrepentant evil: “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy” (RSV). The God-less remain ungodly.
Hell is not a correctional facility or reform school. Its members hear no admonishing parents, candid sermons, or Spirit of God, no voice of God, no voice of God’s people. Spend a lifetime telling God to be quiet, and he’ll do just that. God honors our request for silence.
Hell is the chosen home of insurrectionists, the Alcatraz of malcontents. Hell is reserved, not for those souls who seek God yet struggle, but for those who defy God and rebel. For those who say about Jesus, “We don’t want this man to be our king” (Luke 19:14). So in history’s highest expression of fairness, God honors their preference. “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezek. 33:11). It is not his will that any should perish, but the fact that some do highlights God’s justice. God must punish sin. “Nothing impure will ever enter [heaven], nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev. 21:27). God, inherently holy, must exclude evil from his new universe. God, eternally gracious, never forces his will. He urges mutineers to stay on board but never ties them to the mast. C. S. Lewis wrote, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”9 How could a loving God send sinners to hell? He doesn’t. They volunteer.
Once there, they don’t want to leave. The hearts of damned fools never soften; their minds never change. “Men were scorched with great heat, and they blasphemed the name of God who has power over these plagues; and they did not repent and give Him glory” (Rev. 16:9 NKJV). Contrary to the idea that hell prompts remorse, it doesn’t. It intensifies blasphemy.
Remember the rich man in torment? He could see heaven but didn’t request a transfer. He wanted Lazarus to descend to him. Why not ask if he could join Lazarus? The rich man complained of thirst, not of injustice. He wanted water for the body, not water for the soul. Even the longing for God is a gift from God, and where there is no more of God’s goodness, there is no longing for him. Though every knee shall bow before God and every tongue confess his preeminence (Rom. 14:11), the hard-hearted will do so stubbornly and without worship. There will be no atheists in hell (Phil. 2:10–11), but there will be no God-seekers either.
But still we wonder, is the punishment fair? Such a penalty seems inconsistent with a God of love—overkill. A sinner’s rebellion doesn’t warrant an eternity of suffering, does it? Isn’t God overreacting?
A man once accused me of the same. Some years ago, when my daughters were small, we encountered an impatient shopper at a convenience store. My three girls were selecting pastries from the doughnut shelf. They weren’t moving quickly enough for him, so he leaned over their shoulders and barked, “You kids hurry up. You’re taking too long.” I, an aisle away, overheard the derision and approached him. “Sir, those are my daughters. They didn’t deserve those words. You need to apologize to them.”
He minimized the offense. “I didn’t do anything that bad.”
My response? That verdict was not his to render. Those were my daughters he had hurt. Who was he to challenge my reaction? Who are we to challenge God’s? Only he knows the full story, the number of invitations the stubborn-hearted have refused and the slander they’ve spewed.
Accuse God of unfairness? He has wrapped caution tape on hell’s porch and posted a million and one red flags outside the entrance. To descend its stairs, you’d have to cover your ears, blindfold your eyes, and, most of all, ignore the epic sacrifice of history: Christ, in God’s hell on humanity’s cross, crying out to the blackened sky, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). You’ll more easily capture the Pacific in a jar than describe that sacrifice in words. But a description might read like this: God, who hates sin, unleashed his wrath on his sin-filled son. Christ, who never sinned, endured the awful forsakenness of hell. The supreme surprise of hell is this: Christ went there so you won’t have to. Yet hell could not contain him. He arose, not just from the dead, but from the depths. “Through death He [destroyed] him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14 NKJV).
Christ emerged from Satan’s domain with this declaration: “I have the keys of Hades and of Death” (Rev. 1:18 NKJV). He is the warden of eternity. The door he shuts, no one opens. The door he opens, no one shuts (Rev. 3:7).
Thanks to Christ, this earth can be the nearest you come to hell.
But apart from Christ, this earth is the nearest you’ll come to heaven.
A friend told me about the final hours of her aunt. The woman lived her life with no fear of God or respect for his Word. She was an atheist. Even in her final days, she refused to permit anyone to speak of God or eternity. Only her Maker knows her last thoughts and eternal destiny, but her family heard her final words. Hours from death, scarcely conscious of her surroundings, she opened her eyes. Addressing a face visible only to her, she defied, “You don’t know me? You don’t know me?”
Was she hearing the pronouncement of Christ: “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt. 7:23 ESV)?
Contrast her words with those of a Christ-follower. The dying man made no secret of his faith or longing for heaven. Two days before he succumbed to cancer, he awoke from a deep sleep and told his wife, “I’m living in two realities. I’m not allowed to tell you. There are others in this room.” And on the day he died, he opened his eyes and asked, “Am I special? Why, that I should be allowed to see all this?”
Facing death with fear or faith, dread or joy. “Whoever believes in him shall not perish . . . ” God makes the offer. We make the choice.
1. 1 Cor. 1:18
2. Robert Jeffress, Hell? Yes! . . . and Other Outrageous Truths You Can Still Believe(Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2004), 71–72.
3. Martin Marty, Newsweek, March 27, 1989, quoted in John Blanchard,Whatever Happened to Hell? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1995), 15–16.
4. Jeffress, Hell? Yes! 73.
5. Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? 105.
6. W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words: A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Original Greek Words with Their Precise Meanings for English Readers(McClean: VA: MacDonald Publishing Company, n.d.), 867.
7. James Denney, Studies in Theology (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1904), 255, quoted in Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997), 31.
8. Thomas Vincent, Christ’s Certain and Sudden Appearance to Judgment, quoted in Eryl Davies, The Wrath of God Evangelical Press of Wales, 50, quoted in Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? 145.
9. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: MacMillan, 1962), 127, quoted in Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? 152.