Last year preacher and author Rob Bell wrote a book about hell. The book was called Love Wins. It sparked a firestorm within the larger Christian community because it challenged traditional teaching about hell. It also fueled serious discussion within the larger non-Christian culture. For example, Time magazine followed the book’s release with an edition with these words splashed across the cover: “What if there’s no hell?” A few months from now a movie will be released entitled “Hell and Mr. Fudge.” The movie tells the true story of a Church of Christ minister who rebelled against traditional views of hell. There’s a lot of discussion in our churches and in our culture about hell.
In his book, Rob Bell points out why hell is such a provocative issue: “A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear…Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number “make it to a better place” and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” As Bell reveals, there are many difficult questions when it comes to hell.
This morning we begin a 4-part series on the problem of hell. We’ll be exploring four concerns that many have about the traditional doctrine of hell.
- We’ll look at the capacity of hell. For many, the traditional Christian teaching means there’s going to be too many people in hell—too many who do not deserve to be there. The problem is put this way: Hell is overcrowded.
- We’ll look at the severity of hell. For many, the traditional Christian teaching means that hell is too severe. A loving God wouldn’t treat people this way. The problem is put this way: Hell us unloving.
- We’ll also look at the eternality of hell. For many, the traditional Christian teaching about hell being eternal is sickening. It might be one thing for God to punish the ungodly in a severe way. But to punish them for all eternity? The problem is put this way: Hell is unrelenting.
- We’ll look also at the reality of hell. That’s where we begin this morning. The problem is put this way: Hell is fabricated.
Obviously, we will be covering a lot of ground in this series. It will demand more of your mind and heart than normal. And, I can’t answer every question fully. Thus this series may just be the beginning of your own study of hell. In this morning’s Link you’ll find some of the books I’ll refer to in this series.
We’ll begin with the last problem I mentioned: many people have a problem with the reality of hell. There are Christians and non-Christians who feel that hell is a fabrication, one big lie, which preachers and churches have created to manipulate others. They feel that Jesus never talked about hell, and the authors of the Bible, at least the New Testament authors, have no real interest in hell. As I read in the quote a few seconds ago, some feel that belief in hell is misguided and toxic. They believe Christians have made a mountain out of a molehill. If you really took the time to read the Bible, you’d find that hell is not a very big deal.
But this isn’t just a contemporary concern. It’s a concern that’s existed for a long time. Seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr. writes about the history of people’s struggle with the doctrine of hell. The first major challenge to the traditional view of hell came from a theologian named Origen. Origen believed everyone would ultimately be reconciled to God. He taught that if anyone did go to hell, it would only be temporary. But Origen’s teaching was rejected in AD 553. The church’s consensus on hell continued to be widely held for another thousand years.
During the seventeenth century and eighteenth century in Europe, some religious thinkers and philosophers began to raise serious questions about hell. One group named the Socinians taught that hell would not be eternal but that the ungodly would be destroyed completely in hell. Philosophers began arguing that hell should be viewed metaphorically, not literally.
In the nineteenth century, British Prime Minister William Gladstone stated that hell had been “relegated … to the far-off corners of the Christian mind … there to sleep in the deep shadow as a thing needless in our enlightened and progressive age.” He and others believed it was time to rid the Christian faith of the old-fashioned notion of hell.
Certain preachers and theologians in America agreed. Influential Brooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher called the doctrine of an eternal hell a “hideous” doctrine and “spiritual barbarism.” And in the 1970s and 1980s, challenges to the traditional doctrine of hell finally moved into evangelical Christianity. The point is simply that Christians and non-Christians have long wrestled with the notion of hell. If you’ve ever struggled, you are not alone. The doctrine of hell is one that raises very serious questions.
I want to address these doubts by surveying what the Bible actually says about hell. We don’t have time to look at every text, or to go into much depth with any one text. I don’t normally cover this many texts in a sermon. But this survey is essential to addressing the question at hand in this morning’s sermon. I encourage you to write these texts down and study them later on your own.
The New Testament leaves no doubt about the reality of hell. You cannot read the New Testament and believe that hell is a molehill. You cannot read the New Testament and believe that hell is a marginal and unimportant matter.
Let’s look at Paul’s writings. Surprisingly, the word “hell” does not occur in Paul’s writings. But Paul does teach about hell. We’ll look at Romans and 2 Thessalonians. In his letter to the Roman church, Paul relates some important truths about the future punishment of the ungodly.
- Paul writes that the wicked are objects of God’s wrath (9:22) and they continually store up wrath for the day of wrath (2:5–8; 3:5).
- Paul writes that the future punishment of the ungodly consists of “death” and “destruction.” Sinners, Paul states, deserve death (1:32), the wages of sin is death (6:16–23), and those who live according to the flesh should expect death (8:13). Also, Paul writes that sinners are vessels of wrath “prepared for destruction” (9:22).
- He writes of future punishment as being “accursed and cut off from Christ” (9:3 ESV).
Paul teaches most directly about hell in 2 Thessalonians. Hell, Paul writes is “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord…” (1:8-9).
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Two passages in Hebrews talk about future judgment:
- Hebrews 6:1–3 refers to the future punishment of the wicked as “eternal judgment” (6:2), which the author says is an “elementary doctrine” of the faith (cf. 6:1).
- Hebrews 10:27–30 depicts this judgment as fearful and dreadful, a “fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”
Peter and Jude write about hell.
- Peter and Jude both depict hell as “destruction” (2 Peter 2:1, 3, 12; Jude 5, 10, 11).
- Both describe hell is like a gloomy dungeon, where rebellious angels are held for judgment (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6 is similar).
- Peter likens hell to Sodom and Gomorrah’s burning to ashes (2 Peter 2:6)
- Peter also writes that hell is a place of retribution (2:13) and “utter darkness” (2:17)
- Jude describes hell both as a punishment of “eternal fire” (Jude 7) and “gloomy darkness (Jude 6).
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Revelation contains some of the most noteworthy passages on hell. Consider Revelation 14:9–11: “9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” In Rev. 20:15 John writes, “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
Perhaps most importantly, Jesus speaks of hell. Jesus gives a central place to hell in his best-known sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matt. 5–7. There, Jesus warns against hateful anger, because “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matt. 5:22 ESV). In this same sermon, Jesus urges us to gouge out a sinful eye or cut off a sinful hand because, “it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” (Matt. 5:30 ESV) Top of FormBottom of Form
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Jesus sends out the Twelve, he realizes they will be harassed, hated, and persecuted. So he gives them a speech to deepen their courage and conviction. Jesus tells them, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10:28 ESV).
Jesus accused his opponents of turning people away from God, producing a convert who is “twice as much a child of hell” as they themselves (Matt. 23:15 ESV).
There is no doubt. The Bible is very clear. Hell does exist. Hell is a critical matter in the Christian faith. It is not a creation of preachers or churches. It was taught by the most central figures in the Christian faith, including Jesus. Jesus believed in hell. He warned us against hell. It is not a thing needless in our enlightened and progressive age. I would suggest that hell has never been a more needed doctrine than it is in this age. I believe it’s critical for Christians to recapture a healthy and biblical view of hell. It is not something we can afford to dismiss or ignore.
Kathy Chapman writes about something her child once said. “One morning, my 4-year-old son, Kevin, and his grandpa went out to buy donuts. On the way, Grandpa turned to Kevin and asked, ‘Which way is heaven?’ Kevin pointed to the sky. ‘Which way is hell?’ Kevin pointed towards the floor of the truck. Grandpa continued, ‘And where are you going?’ ‘Dunkin’ Donuts,’ Kevin replied. For many of us, not much has changed since we were four. We’d much rather think about Dunkin Donuts than about heaven and hell. But the New Testament is clear. Hell is a reality. And it is a reality that must be addressed.
How do we make sense of all of these passages? That’s what the rest of this series will do. We’ll unpack some of these texts and look more deeply into them. But for this morning, I want to share three broad points. Author Christopher Morgan argues that passages like these point to three realities. These points serve as a beginning place in our discussion about the reality of hell. Morgan writes that hell represents the reality of God’s punishment, God’s destruction, and God’s banishment.
First, hell represents the reality of God’s punishment. In Matthew 25, Jesus describes hell as “eternal punishment.” In 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul discusses hell as God punishing those who disobey him. Hell represents the reality that God will punish sin. Hell is simply God finally punishing the sin that remains in the world.
Second, hell represents the reality of God’s destruction. In 2 Peter 2, Peter writes of hell as “destruction.” In 2 Thess. 1 Paul describes hell as a place of “destruction.” New Testament scholars point out that when biblical authors speak of destruction, they are referring to something that loses the essence of its nature or loses its function. One writes, “[in the Bible when God destroys things or people] they cease to be useful or to exist in their original, intended state.” Thus hell is the state we exist in when we cease to be useful to God or when we cease to function in our intended way. Hell is not just God punishing sin. It is God destroying creations who have chosen not to function in the way they were intended to function; not to pursue the purpose for which they were created.
Finally, hell represents the reality of God’s banishment. This idea of hell as a banishment from God is prominent in the teachings of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims that he will judge the world and declare to unbelievers, “depart from me!” (Matt. 7:23). Jesus later portrays the wicked as being excluded from the kingdom: “Depart from me … into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Hell is banishment. Hell is not just God punishing sin. It’s not just God destroying creations who have chosen not to function the way they were intended to function. It’s also God banishing those who’ve chosen in their lives to live apart from him anyway. It’s them being removed from his goodness and grace.
We can put it this way. Hell is a real place where justice is finally served–punishment, relationships are fully severed–banishment, and our life’s purpose is fatally stopped—destruction. That’s the reality of hell.
Why is all of this so important? Because without this reality, we could not truly understand the cross. The reality of Hell sheds light on the reality of the cross.  On the cross, Jesus takes on himself the punishment that is ours because of our sin. Justice is finally served—but on Jesus not on us. And, on the cross, Jesus faces complete destruction. From the pre-crucifixion torture to the cross itself, Jesus is completely destroyed. Even though we were the ones who refused to serve the purpose for which we were created, on the cross, Jesus was fatally stopped. And, on the cross, Jesus is banished from God. That’s why he cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That divine relationship is fully severed. Bell wants to argue that to accept the reality of hell is to subvert the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love. I would argue just the opposite. It’s only when we accept the reality of hell that we can truly understand Jesus’ message of love and Jesus ultimate act of love on the cross. Because on the cross, Jesus went through hell for us. Jesus experienced hell so we would never have to.
I want to close each of these lessons with three brief words of application. Here they are: Hell stirs our mission, spurs our maturity, but does not summarize our message. First, hell does not summarize our message. There are too many who assume that Christianity is solely about escaping hell. It’s fire-insurance. Rob Bell writes this sad story: …Several years ago we had an art show at our church. I had been giving a series of teachings on peacemaking, and we invited artists to display their paintings, poems, and sculptures that reflected their understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker. One woman included in her work a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, which a number of people found quite compelling. But not everyone. Someone attached a piece of paper to it. On the piece of paper was written: “Reality check: He’s in hell.” Hell is a reality. But it’s not what we lead with when we engage others. It’s not the center of our faith. And too often we turn people away because we make hell our first conversation.
But second, the reality of hell ought to stir us to greater mission. Because hell is real, we’ve got to reach out to people who don’t know God or Jesus and try to persuade them to become followers of Jesus. Charlie Peace, a criminal in England, on the day he was being taken to his execution, listened to a minister reading from the Word. And when he found out he was reading about heaven and hell, he looked at the preacher and said, “Sir, if I believed what you and the church of God say, and even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it on hands and knees and think it worthwhile living just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that.” The reality of hell ought to stir us to greater mission.
Finally, the reality of hell ought to spur us to greater personal maturity. Because hell is real, not only do we not want people around us to go there, we don’t want ourselves to go there. We should therefore be doing all that is within our power to live the kind of holy life that keep us from the possibility of hell. We should repent of anything that might lead us down that broad way that leads to destruction.
 Rob Bell Love Wins (HarperOne, 2011), Kindle Edition.
 “What if there’s no hell?” Time (April 25, 2011).
 R. Albert Mohler Jr., Chapter One, “Is Hell for Real?” in Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, editors, Is Hell Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? Zondervan, 2011 Kindle Edition, pages 11-21.
 Kathy Chapman, North Lauderdale, FL. Today’s Christian Woman, “Heart to Heart.
 Christopher Morgan, Chapter Three, “Four Pictures of Hell” In Morgan and Peterson, Is Hell Real, pages 37-47.
 Ravi Zacharias, “The Lostness of Humankind,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 118.