One of the most controversial doctrines in the Christian Church is ‘Hell’. It is a favourite topic of attack from atheists and other non-Christians. You’ve probably heard questions (or accusations) along the lines of, “How can a loving God condemn people to Hell?” Some might say there are those that deserve it, but then the more difficult question is, “How can a loving God condemn people to Hell who have never heard of Him?” Even within the Christian community and amongst theologians there is disagreement around exactly what Hell is. However, I don’t want to get into specific questions or look at the details of the actual doctrine, but simply want to make a few statements, which are foundational and then from which the subject can be further approached.
Hell is real.
Firstly, we need to understand that the Bible talks about Hell and that it is real. Once again please keep in mind that I am not defining what it is, or isn’t. Simply stating the fact that it is mentioned numerous times. Believe it or not, the person who speaks the most about Hell the New Testament is Jesus. So whether we like it or not it is a reality that cannot be ignored.
It cannot be dealt with in isolation
The second point is that the subject of Hell cannot be discussed or explained without Heaven. In other words, in the same way we cannot discuss or understand light without also discussing darkness, or hot without also discussing cold, we cannot talk about Hell (and more importantly understand it better) without dealing with the reality of Heaven at the same time. And Heaven is always portrayed as a beautiful, loving, desirable place to be.
Hell is not the focus
The Bible talks more about Heaven than Hell. Although a simple word count is not really helpful, it is still worthwhile noting that in the New Testament the word ‘Hell’ is used about 162 times, while ‘Heaven’ is used about 255 times. The count varies slightly depending on the Bible translation and the fact that the subjects are sometimes discussed without using the actual word. For example, Jesus spoke about ‘Heaven’ as the ‘Kingdom of God’. Then we also need to realise that different Greek words are translated as ‘Hell’, including the grave (or the concept of the grave). The point is that the focus of the Bible, of God, and of Christianity is the good news that God sent His only Son to die for us that we might have life (1 John 4:9). The focus is not on Hell, the focus is that by pure love God (through the Son) came into the world to save the world and not to condemn it (John 3:16-17).
God is a loving God
God is a loving, caring, gracious God who only desires the best for us, and not evil or suffering (Jeremiah 29:11, Rom. 8:28). He loves us unconditionally and with everlasting love (John 3:16, Jeremiah. 31:3). God doesn’t just show love, He is Love (1 John 4:8,16). If you truly want to know what God is like then look at Jesus. Also read 1 Corinthians 13 (the love chapter), that is who God truly is. The ultimate love is ‘agape’ love. This is also known as ‘Godly love’ because it is only God that has that type of love and it can therefore only come from him. It is not within us as humans. The concept of the ‘Agape’ love is ‘loving the unlovable’. We are the ‘unlovable’ who God loves. We (not God) are hateful, revengeful and selfish.
God condemns no one to Hell
C.S. Lewis wrote in the book, The Problem of Pain, that the doors of Hell are locked from the inside. In other words, we condemn ourselves to Hell, we put ourselves there, and then lock the doors, or the gates, so that God cannot get us out again. It is not God’s will or desire that any should be lost, but that all should be saved (2 Peter 3:9). Neither God the Father nor Jesus Christ condemn us. Agreed, God does not condone sin, but that is a different matter. We see this love and attitude of God beautifully illustrated in the story of the woman who is caught in adultery and brought to Jesus (John 8:1-11). He says to her, “I do not condemn you, but go and sin no more”. Notice that it is her fellow human beings that condemn her, not Jesus.
In conclusion, the reality of the doctrine of Hell can be difficult to fully understand, but there are also many misconceptions. Even Christian writers and theologians like CS Lewis and T.F. Torrance said that the doctrine was difficult and they did not necessarily like it. However, when we first understand some foundational issues upon which to approach the subject, it is easier to put into perspective. In the end, all those that love God and seek Him will be with Him for all eternity. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “Heaven will be Hell to those who don’t want to be there.”