10 Reasons Why, Though Awful, the Idea of Hell is Not Absurd1
Five details and five defenses of what the Scriptures reveal about this difficult doctrine
Of all the teachings of Christianity, the one that may seem most out of place in the modern world is what the Bible tells us about hell. To be clear, when we consider what the Bible tells us about hell, it is undoubtedly awful. But is it absurd? Is the idea of hell unreasonable? Is it primitive? Antiquated? Intolerant? Cruel? Unconscionable? Some people believe so.
But hell is clearly taught in Scripture. In fact, Jesus spoke about it more than anyone else. So what can we do? What should we do with this Christian concept of hell in a 'hell no' society? Well, let me attempt to make a case for hell. I'd like to do so by first giving you five biblical details about hell that I think will be helpful in terms of correcting caricatures. But after that I'd also like to give you five defenses of hell. The point of these defenses is to show that, even though you may not like the idea of hell, it isn't an unreasonable idea. In fact, it squares with many things most people today actually believe.
Five Details About Hell for Our Modern World
But as promised, let's start with five biblical details about hell.
1. Hell is described in Scripture by means of history and imagery, rather than literality.
There are two basic images used to describe hell in the New Testament. The first is the “hell of fire” Jesus spoke about in Matthew 5:22 (depicted at the end of the New Testament as a “lake of fire” in Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15). But interestingly, Jesus also speaks in several places about hell as an “outer darkness”. Add to this the fact that, in Mark 9:48, Jesus describes hell as a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (a quote from last line of the book of Isaiah).
Now think for a minute about these descriptions: a place of darkness, but also full of fire? Unquenchable flames, but also a lake? A consuming inferno, but also worms? That doesn't make much sense as a literal description. But it does as evocative language. And this is exactly what it was intended to be: terrifying imagery; sobering imagery.
This is confirmed by Jesus' word choice in Matthew 5:22 (and six other times in that Gospel). “Hell” is an Anglo-Saxon word. Jesus spoke of Gehenna; in Hebrew, 'the valley of Hinnom'. This was a valley south of Jerusalem, just outside the city walls. It was considered an accursed place. According to the Old Testament, wicked kings of Judah once sacrificed their children to false gods in the valley of Hinnom; sacrifices by fire. Later, God promised the people, in Jeremiah 7 and 19, that the valley would be renamed the “Valley of Slaughter”, because God's judgment would fall and the valley would be filled with their bodies. In fact, even earlier, Isaiah (30:33) spoke of God's fiery judgment coming upon his enemies in this same place. Thus the imagery and history of Hinnom was a fitting picture of what was/is to come in terms of judgment.
2. Hell is not the devil's fiery domain, but his final destination.
Popular imagery of the devil with a throne in hell, overseeing the work of demonic torturers, is based on folk tales not Scripture. Matthew 25:41 and Revelation 20:10 both confirm that Satan and his associates will be consigned to hell in the end.
3. Hell involves agony not annihilation.
Though Jesus' and Paul's use of words like “destroy” (Matthew 10:28) and “destruction” (II Thessalonians 1:9) may be confusing at first, the clear testimony of Scripture is that hell is characterized by suffering (or we might say, a 'perpetual process of perishing'), not simply being 'snuffed out'. Consider the words and phrases used in describing hell: “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (i.e., grief and anger)(Luke 13:28 and six others instances), “torment” (Revelation 14:11), “they have no rest” (also 14:11). Again, it is a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). Similarly, Jesus described this fate as "eternal punishment" (Matthew 25:46), not 'eternal non-existence' (this is contrasted in the same verse with "eternal life", that is, an ongoing experience of life with God). And this "eternal punishment" is said to take place in "the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). What does Revelation tell us about the devil's fate and that final "fire"? "And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever." (Revelation 20:10)
4. Hell's darkness will be experienced differently in light of the 'light' each person had.
This concept is not spelled out explicitly in Scripture, but carefully consider what Jesus might have meant when he said:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works [i.e., miracles] done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.  But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.  And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.  But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” (Matthew 11:21-24)
That repeated idea seems to line up with how Jesus warned every one of his professed followers in Luke 12:47, 48: with greater knowledge comes greater responsibility. Everyone has some 'light' in this world, that is, some knowledge of God and of what is right (creation and conscience—cf. Romans 1:20; 2:15). But everyone acts against that knowledge. The more light you have, the more for which you are accountable; less light, the more “bearable” or “tolerable” it will be.
5. Hell is the eternal experience of God’s justice against those who reject Him.
Whatever we might imagine about hell, whatever images have been etched on our minds, if we want to have a biblical understanding of the topic, we have to understand that hell is completely about God doing what is just. Hell is not simply divine destruction handed out by a sadistic God who loves to watch people suffer. Hell is a demonstration of a good and perfect Judge rendering a just verdict against cosmic criminals like us.
And please know this: the sentence handed down by the High Court of Heaven, by an eternal God, is an eternal sentence. It has no end. In addition to the worm that does not die and the fire that is not quenched of Mark 9:48, we also read this in the Revelation 14:11, “and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever...”. And again in 20:10, “...and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
Five Defenses of Hell for Our Modern World
As I mentioned at the outset, it's also important we consider, in addition to these biblical details, five defenses of hell. Each of these are rooted in our beliefs about justice. Justice is kind of like electricity: when we have it we take it for granted. But when it doesn't work, we notice its absence right away. Thus, we all know justice matters. Therefore, let's think about hell in light of our own legal/judicial/penal practices and priorities.
1. Hell squares with our instincts about a reckoning beyond this life.
Human beings throughout history and around the world have expressed a deep sense that justice is bigger than any human court can decide; even bigger than what is experienced only in this life. We often believe the criminal who escapes justice in the here and now, will one day, beyond this life, be held accountable for his wrongs. We often carry secret sins, weighed down by the sense we will still have to answer for them. We create and enjoy books and films in which some superhero or mystical principle intervenes to restore justice where there is only injustice. We long for it. And if there is a God, then it's not unreasonable to believe he will one day bring justice in precisely this way.
2. Hell squares with our recognition that every law matters.
Though horrible crimes like mass shootings and child abductions often grab the headlines, all of us understand, or at least are able to recognize that every law matters, even the ones that seem trivial or mundane. Stealing copyrighted material hurts content creators. FDA violations can imperil a child's health. Driving too fast can lead to a deadly accident. 'Little white lies' in a legal setting, instances of what we deem harmless perjury, can ruin an individual or a whole company (thus impacting every employee and his or her family)!
Sure, lawmakers can pass frivolous laws. But most rules and regulations and statutes were enacted for a very good reason; to address some real concern; to offer some real protection or safeguard. Therefore, most of us believe there should be consequences for violating the law... any law, 'big' or 'small'.
And so, if we move from man's moral order to God's moral order, then it's not unreasonable to believe God also cares about every violation of goodness and truth; about every distortion of his life-giving design for our world. And if hell is the divine Judge's sentence, then hell addresses every wrong deed, every wrong word, every wrong attitude, every failure to act of which a person is guilty. Remember, nothing is hidden from God's eyes. His record keeping is perfect. Today, you may be most aware of your current struggles, and possibly those past regrets you cannot seem to shake. But God is aware of everything. Thus, it should not be surprising that your record of wrongs is far longer than you imagine.
3. Hell squares with our belief that 'the punishment should fit the crime'.
No one believes public urination or a speeding ticket deserves a life-sentence in prison. On the other hand, a serial rapist should not be sentenced simply to a $500 fine and 20 hours of community service. No. The punishment should fit the crime.
This is certainly true with God's moral order as well. Though our tendency is to downplay our failures, we mustn't forget that every me-centered mindset, word, and action (or in some cases, inaction), is an act of distortion; an act of defacing God's beautiful design. It is rebellion against His good and gracious will. It is 'playing god'. It is spurning His gifts. It is cosmic arrogance. It is an attempt to steal His glory. And in most cases, it is a defilement of His image in other people.
Though you might cringe when you hear about a vicious crime, you will never understand the ugliness of that offense better than the victim. But that same distinction is true when it comes to God's moral order. As repeat offenders, we are unable (and often unwilling) to see the true ugliness, the monstrous magnitude of every me-centered violation of God's moral boundaries. Until a person can rightly appraise the incomparable goodness and unimaginable greatness of God, he or she will struggle to accept the incomparable heinousness and unimaginable destructiveness of all sin, especially their own.
The severity of hell must be understood in light of the severity of our sins.
4. Hell squares with our experience of suffering as an 'outsider'.
The pain of being incarcerated is the loss of both freedom and connection. Even inside prison, solitary confinement intensifies that same kind of loss. But being on the 'outside' by being locked inside a prison is the consequence of trying to live outside society's moral order. The same is true with hell. The Apostle Paul wrote this about hell:
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might...
The incomparable goodness of God I mentioned a moment ago is not simply a concept. No. It's the air you breathe every single day. It's the food that fills your stomach. It's warmth and laughter and hope and art and second chances and civil order and sunrises and human connection. Scripture tells us, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above...” (James 1:17).
The suffering one experiences in hell is first and foremost the pain of being cut off completely from all of this; from any taste of the goodness of God and the 'common' grace he shows to all people at all times in this life. Such deprivation is truly misery. To be shackled eternally by your own unfettered lusts and unfounded pride, that is agony. With this in mind, fire and darkness seem to be fitting images for that kind of suffering.
5. Hell squares with our practices regarding the remorseless offender.
Listen to the following parole guidelines from the state of Michigan:
A prisoner must not be given liberty on parole until the board has reasonable assurance, after consideration of all of the facts and circumstances, including the prisoner’s mental and social attitude, that the prisoner will not become a menace to society or to the public safety.
When it comes to parole, a remorseless offender is a poor candidate, right? Similarly, it's important to remember there will be no remorse over sin in hell. There will be no repentance in that place. A person's rejection of God in this life will be honored in the next life. Even as sinners suffer the penalty for their sin, they will continue to reject God. Some may want him to send relief, some may want Him to change his mind, but they will never want him. That's simply the nature of our sin.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat touched on these same ideas several years ago:
...to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either... The doctrine of hell... assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.
What About 'The Mercy of the Court'?
Of course, when all is said and done, more important than me convincing you about the concept of hell is God convincing you about the reality of hell. With all of the legal/judicial/penal concepts we discussed, I can imagine someone say, “But what about clemency? What about rehabilitation and reform? What about someone throwing themselves on the mercy of the court?” Yes! That is precisely what we should ask. That's exactly where God wants us looking.
The life to come is not the time or place to think on God's mercy. This time is now. The window of clemency, the door of mercy, the path to forgiveness and deliverance is open today. That's why John emphasized what he emphasized in his best-known verse:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Jesus Christ suffered hell on the cross, that those who trust in him as both King and Redeemer, as both Savior and Lord, will know eternal living, not eternal dying. The heavenly Judge who is rightly full of justice for our world, is also the heavenly Father who is wonderfully full of love for that same world. If you haven't already, please turn to him today. If you have already done so, please share this sobering, but saving message with those around you.