A Case for Hell (II Thessalonians 1:9)
I. Awful, But Absurd?
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. Now, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that hell is awful (Jesus himself made that abundantly clear), but is it absurd? Is the idea of hell... unreasonable? Is it... primitive... antiquated... intolerant... cruel... unconscionable?
This whole month you and I have been talking about that moment... when you die. As we've seen, God encourages us to think about that moment... about that reality... about your mortality. When we 'dwell on death', not in a morbid, but a meaningful way, it actually helps us put life in perspective, doesn't it?
If you were with us last time, or listened online, you may remember that we talked about the idea of you and me having an eternal address. For some of us that eternal address, that final and forever address, will be the “new heavens and a new earth” that God promises to those who belong to Christ, by grace, through faith. But for others... that eternal address will be someplace else... it will be something else... something the Bible calls “hell”.
But as I indicated earlier, it's extremely difficult in this modern world to talk about, to warn about, let alone, to convince people about the concept of hell. If the word itself immediately inspires labels like ridiculous, repulsive, and unreasonable, I don't see that being a real constructive conversation. And yet, hell is clearly taught by Jesus and confirmed by many other scriptures.
So what can we do? What should we do? Well, this morning, I'd like to make a case for hell. I'd like to give you five details about hell that I think will be helpful in terms of correcting caricatures & painting a genuinely biblical picture. But after that I'd also like to give you five defenses of hell for our modern world. The point of these defenses is to show that, even though you may not like the idea of hell, it isn't unreasonable. In fact, it squares with many things most people believe.
II. The Passage: "Eternal Destruction" (1:9)
Let's begin with a single verse. Look with me at II Thessalonians 1:9. As we see in verse 8, Paul is speaking here about “those who do not know God and on those who do not obey (i.e., believe) the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” What does he tell us about such people? He writes (v.9):
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might...
You may not know this, but this is the only place where the Apostle Paul speaks explicitly about hell. Notice how he describes it. Notice what he emphasizes. Now, hold on to your observations and consider the following details about what Scriptures teaches.
A. Five Details About Hell for our Modern World
1. Hell is described by means of history and imagery, rather than literality.
There are two basic images used to describe hell in the NT. The first is the “hell of fire” Jesus spoke about in 5:22 of Matthew, the first book of the NT. In the last book of the NT, the Revelation, this place of fire has become a “lake of fire” (mentioned six times in chapters 19, 20, 21). This lake imagery probably comes from Daniel 7:10, where we read about a “river of fire” flowing out from the throne of God.
But what's interesting is that in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus also speaks in several places about hell as an “outer darkness”. Additionally, in Mark 9:48, Jesus describes hell as “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: a place of darkness, but also unquenchable fire? Combined with a lake, but also worms? That doesn't make much sense as a literal description. But it does as imagery; terrifying imagery; sobering imagery. This makes perfect sense when we look at the word Jesus used 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'.
According to the OT, this was a cursed valley just south of Jerusalem; cursed because certain wicked kings of Judah once sacrificed their children there to false gods; a sacrifice 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 & history of Hinnom was a fitting picture of what as to come.
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 use words like “destroy” and “destruction” in regard to hell, and the Revelation describes it as the “second death”, the clear testimony of Scripture is that hell is characterized by suffering, not simply being 'snuffed out'. Consider the words and phrases used in describing hell: “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Luke 13:28 and six others instances), “torment” (Revelation 14:11), “they have no rest” (also 14:11). Combine those with what Paul said in II Thess. 1:9 about “eternal destruction”, and you have a truly awful picture.
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 what might Jesus mean 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 great responsibility. Everyone has some light in this world, that is, some knowledge of God and what is right; but everyone acts against that knowledge. The more light you have, the greater the accountability.
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 eternal 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 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.”
B. Five Defenses of Hell for our Modern World
Okay, go back to that idea of justice. All of us care about justice. But it's 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. I point that out because any reasonable defense of hell must be rooted in what we already believe about justice. Think about our own legal/judicial/penal practices and priorities.
Carefully consider with me the following five propositions (a lot, but trying to keep it simple):
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 bring justice.
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 imperial a child's health. Driving too fast can lead to a deadly accident. 'Little white lies', instances of what we deem harmless perjury, can ruin an individual or a whole company; etc.!
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. And 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 us. 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 his eyes.
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 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 honor of God, he or she will struggle to accept the incomparable heinousness 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' in this way is the consequence of trying to live outside society's moral order. The same is true with hell. Remember what Paul wrote 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 & civil order and sunrises & human connection.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (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. That is misery. That is agony.
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? Brothers and sisters, friends, apart from God's goodness, no person can experience true remorse over his or her sin. Because that's true, there will be no remorse over sin in hell. There will be no repentance in hell. 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.
III. What Will Happen “When You Die”?
Now... that's a lot of information. But again, my hope in providing those five details and those five defenses is to persuade someone to at least stop and think carefully before they dismiss the idea of hell. Hell is awful, but it isn't absurd. It may be unsettling, but it isn't unreasonable.
Of course, 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 this morning. If you have, please share this sobering, but saving message with those around you. Let's pray and thank God for both his perfect justice and his lavish love.