In the second century, Celsus, a critic of Christianity, labeled God a “cosmic cook.” Celsus was referring to the Christian doctrine of hell. He mocked Christianity because it portrayed God as a “cosmic cook” who was going to roast unbelievers in a fiery hell. And for this reason, and others, Celsus could not embrace the Christian faith.
On Sunday mornings we are exploring this problem of hell. For many the doctrine of hell is troubling. It keeps some from even considering Christianity. Specifically, we are exploring four concerns that people have about the traditional doctrine of hell.
- Last Sunday we looked at the reality of hell. The problem is put this way: Hell is fabricated. Some believe hell is just made up by preachers and churches.
- We’ll look at the capacity of hell. For many, the traditional Christian teaching means there’s just going to be too many people in hell who do not deserve to go there. The problem is put this way: Hell is overcrowded.
- We’ll look at the eternality of hell. For many, the thought of people suffering forever seems cruel. The problem is put this way: Hell is unrelenting.
- And we’ll look at the severity of hell.
That’s where we begin this morning. Many people have a problem with the severity of hell. Hell seems too unloving. It seems too barbaric. It comes down to this question: How could a loving God treat people in such an unloving way?
What I want to say at the outset is this: Some problematic pieces of hell’s severity are not found in the Bible. When the average person thinks of hell, she may think of images that do not come from the Bible. Instead, they come from movies, art, philosophy or non-biblical literature. Before we can truly understand the severity of hell, and attempt to reconcile it with the notion of a loving God, we need to first empty our minds of many of these others images.
I’ll illustrate some of the non-biblical images that have endured for centuries. From the second to the fourth centuries, Christians created descriptions of hell that were unbelievably gruesome. For example, in Christian literature from this time period we find blasphemers in hell hanging by their tongues. There are adulterous women in hell who hang by their hair over a boiling pit. There are slanderers who have hot irons burning out their eyes. Idolaters are driven up cliffs by demons and then they plunge to the rocks below, only to be driven up again. These were some of the images used to describe hell in the second through fourth centuries.
In the fourteenth century, Italian poet Dante Alighieri published his Divine Comedy. He imagined a hell as a place filled with the loud wails of sinners boiling in blood and people running from hordes of biting snakes. In Dante’s hell, some remain forever trapped in encasements made of lead.
We must recognize those descriptions are man-made and cannot be found in the Bible. What many people think of when they think of hell comes from works like these. It doesn’t come from the Bible. When someone says “I don’t believe in God/the Bible because I don’t believe in hell,” we might say, “Tell me about the hell you don’t believe in, because it may not be the hell found in the Bible.” When people object to the severity of hell, they may be objecting to images like the ones I’ve just described. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Bible’s portrayal of hell is not severe. It is severe. But we need to be sure that the severity in mind is the one the Bible discusses.
What then, does the Bible actually say? And how do we reconcile its severe images with the love of God? The Bible describes hell’s severity in three images: fire, weeping, and darkness. The two dominant images are fire and darkness. When the Bible portrays the actual punishment of hell, it is framed in these two images: fire and darkness. Weeping is the result of the fire and darkness.
The Jews in Jesus’ day used these three images when describing hell. Jesus affirmed their usefulness in his own teaching. Here are a couple of examples from Matthew 13. As Jesus tells a parable about “wheat” and “weeds,” He says: “30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (v. 30) Jesus goes on to explain: “40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. .” Jesus describes hell as fire and weeping.
Jesus also uses the image of darkness. In Matthew 8, He says: 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (vv. 11–12).
Thus, for Jesus, hell could be described as a place filled with fire. It could also be described as place filled with darkness. Both the fire and the darkness lead to weeping and gnashing of teeth. These are the three most common images used in the Bible to describe the severity of hell.
Oddly, the two main images are contradictory. If a place is filled with fire, that means it is filled with the light of that fire. There can be no darkness. But if a place is filled with darkness, that means no light is present. Thus there can be no fire. If these images are literal, they describe something that cannot exist. This is our first hint that there’s more to these images than we might have imagined.
The Bible uses these images symbolically. Many of us already recognize the Bible’s use of symbolism when it comes to the opposite of hell—heaven. For example, in Revelation 21 heaven is described as having “a great, high wall with twelve gates” (21:12). Today we would never describe a great city—like Paris, for example—as having walls and gates. But in the ancient world, every major city had walls. Until the time of gunpowder, cities were surrounded with thick walls and sturdy gates. Thus Jesus and John used that language to help the earliest Christians get a sense of what heaven is like. This description doesn’t necessarily mean heaven literally has walls and gates. These are symbols used to help us see that heaven is going to be secure and protected.
The same is true regarding the images of fire and darkness used to describe hell. As I mentioned earlier, these two images are somewhat contradictory. Fire and darkness are mutually exclusive. And Jesus is not the only one to hold these two images in tension. Jude describes hell as “eternal fire” in verse 7, and then depicts it as the “blackest darkness” in verse 13. The writers of the Bible aren’t necessarily telling us that hell is literally filled with fire and that it’s also literally filled with darkness. That would be impossible. They are using these images to help us see something about the severity of hell.
Consider, for example, the third image: weeping and gnashing of teeth. Mark Goodacre is a professor of New Testament at Duke. He tells of Irish comedian Dave Allen. Allen had a well-known piece about preachers: “In Ireland you get the fire and brimstone preaching. ‘I will tell you about the great judgment day!’ ‘I will tell you on that day the great book will be opened and all your sins will be on that book!’ ‘And the Lord will banish the wicked and there will be a great weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ At that point in the sermon, an old woman on the front says, ‘I don’t have any teeth.’ The preacher screams: ‘Teeth will be provided!’” It’s a funny attempt to be very literal with Jesus’ description of hell. In fact, Princeton professor Paul Coleman-Norton once published a scholarly paper professing to find a previously unknown fragment of the Bible. With tongue in cheek, Coleman-Norton said he found a fragment from Matt. 24 which contained a previously undiscovered dialogue with Jesus. It occurs just after Jesus has described hell as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. A disciple asks, “How can these things be if they be toothless?” Jesus replies, “Thou of little faith, trouble not thyself. If happily they will be lacking any, teeth will be provided.” It is, again, a humorous way of pointing out that Jesus’ language was less than literal. He did not mean that people would literally gnash their teeth in hell. It is a symbol for immense grief and regret. Likewise, the images of hell and darkness are images of something else. To explain, I’m going to build off of last Sunday’s message.
The darkness of hell points to relationship and role being removed. Last Sunday I mentioned that hell as banishment is the elimination of relationship with God. Hell as destruction was the elimination of our purpose or role in the cosmos. And the darkness of hell points to both of these. Darkness is us being totally removed from relationship with God and never truly in relationship with another human again. In other words, hell is that place where relationship with God and others is fully severed. Darkness symbolizes this. It is the darkness of being profoundly alone.
And darkness is also us having no purpose, no role, never being able to fulfill the reason for which we were created. It is that excruciatingly sad circumstance in which we are no longer given the chance to fulfill any higher purpose or pursue any grander scheme in life. Darkness symbolizes that we’ve lost our usefulness and we’ve been discarded.
C. S. Lewis wrote, ““There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.“ If, during our life, our will has been to live without relationship with God and without genuine relationships with others, then God will finally say, “Thy will be done.” He will banish us. And hell will be the dark absence of any life-giving relationship with him or others. It will be the darkness of being forever isolated and abandoned. And if, during our life, our will has been to not fulfill our greater purpose, to not play our kingdom role on earth, God will finally say, “Thy will be done.” And hell will be the dark absence of any larger purpose or role in life. It will be the darkness of having no meaning at all to your existence.
This darkness is not the result of a blood-thirsty and vindictive God. It is the result of a God who finally gives us what we’ve already chosen. We’ve already chosen darkness in this life. Hell will be an extension of that choice—but to a degree we can hardly even imagine.
Thus the darkness of hell points to two of the three points I made at the end of last Sunday’s sermon: hell as banishment and hell as destruction. The fire of hell also points to the third element: hell as punishment. The fire of hell points to justice being released. The fire of hell signifies God’s delivering of justice. All the wrongs that have gone unpunished are finally punished in hell.
In his book Simply Christian, N. T. Wright says that there is a fundamental human longing for justice. This hunger for justice is found in every culture and in every generation. It exists because there is so often a lack of justice in our world.
And the fire of hell points to that justice finally being released. It is the fulfillment of what humans have dreamed of for millennia. Rob Bell points to this in his book Love Wins. He shows that the Old Testament prophets dreamed of this time of justice. Bell writes, “Their description of life in the age to come is both thrilling and unnerving at the same time. For the earth to be free of anything destructive or damaging, certain things have to be banished. Decisions have to be made. Judgments have to be rendered. And so they spoke of a cleansing, purging, decisive day when God would make those judgments. They called this day the “day of the LORD.” The day when God says “ENOUGH!” to anything that threatens the peace (shalom is the Hebrew word), harmony, and health that God intends for the world. God says no to injustice. God says, “Never again” to the oppressors who prey on the weak and vulnerable… And that’s what the fire of hell points. It is God finally saying “Enough!” It’s God finally releasing that justice longed for by so many.
And while it might be hard to reconcile the images at the beginning of this sermon with the love of God, it is not that way with these images of fire, darkness, and weeping. The severity of hell does not disprove but rather proves the love of God. Miroslav Volf, a Christian theologian from Croatia, used to reject the concept of God’s wrath. He thought that the idea of an angry God was barbaric, completely unworthy of a God of love. But then his country experienced a brutal war. People committed terrible atrocities. And suddenly, he realized that the wrath of God was necessary. He writes this in his book Free of Charge: My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love. Only an unloving God would refuse to release justice. Thus, rather than disproving God’s love, the fire of hell actually proves his love. It’s God finally delivering what so many so desperately need.
Timothy Keller refers to author Becky Pippert: “Becky Pippert writes, ‘Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it…. Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference.’ Pippert then quotes E. H. Gifford, ‘Human love here offers a true analogy: the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor.’ She concludes: ‘If I, a flawed, narcissistic, sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone’s condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.’” God’s love necessitates the darkness and fire of hell. Because God loves us, he will not force us to choose relationship with him or force us to choose his role for our lives. He wants us to freely choose those things. Thus, in the end, his love necessitates letting us have what we’ve chosen. And God’s love will not stand by forever while injustice overwhelms the human race. His love demands that eventually this injustice be dealt with. His love requires finally dealing with the cancer of sin. The darkness and fire both bring us back to the love of God.
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. Last month Kendra and I ate dinner with parents of a girl on Jordan’s volleyball team. When the father learned I was a preacher, he told me a religious story (that happens a lot). He said that one day when his son was about ten years old, the son came home weeping. “What’s wrong?” the father asked. Through tears the son said he had been talking to a neighbor. The neighbor was a very devout Christian. And the neighbor said this to the ten-year old boy: “You’re going to hell.” Because the boy was not a devout Christian, the neighbor felt it critical to warn the boy of hell. Hell is very important. But it’s not what we lead with. It’s doesn’t summarize our message. The word gospel means “good news.” Our message and our faith is primarily about good news, the love of God.
But second, because hell is a severe reality, it ought to stir our mission. There are millions of people in danger of the darkness and fire of hell. We must do all we can to help them experience a different future in Christ. Hell stirs our mission.
And finally, because hell is a severe reality, it ought to spur us toward greater spiritual maturity. There should be no greater priority in our own lives than to grow in our relationship with God, in fulfilling our role in his kingdom, and in praising him for the one who went through hell so that we never would.
 William V. Crockett in Four Views on Hell John F. Walvord, Zachary J. Hayes, Clark H. Pinnock, William V. Crockett, (Zondervan, 1996), 50, Kindle edition.
 Ibid., 46-48.
 Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell (David C Cook, 2011), 50-74.
 Crockett, 54-61.
 N. T. Wright Simply Christianity (Harper One, 2006).
 Rob Bell, Love Wins (HarperCollins, 2011), 32-38.
 Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge (Zondervan, 2006), 138-139.
 Timothy Kellerin Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, editors, Is Hell Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? (Zondervan, 2011) Kindle Edition, 1201-1212.