Devotional 7: Is Heaven our Default Destination... or is Hell?
(Excerpted from Heaven by Randy Alcorn, pp.24-26)
HELL: HEAVEN'S AWFUL ALTERNATIVE
Hell will be inhabited by people who haven't received God's gift of redemption in Christ (Revelation 20:12-15). After Christ returns, there will be resurrection of believers for eternal life in Heaven and a resurrection of unbelievers for eternal existence in Hell (John 5:28-29). The unsaved -- everyone whose name is not written in the Lamb's Book of Life -- will be judged by God according to the works they have done, which have been recorded in Heaven's books (Revelation 20:12-15). Because those works include sin, people on their own, without Christ, cannot enter the presence of a holy and just God and will be consigned to a place of everlasting destruction (Matthew 13:40-42). Christ will say to those who are not covered by his blood, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared from the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41).
Hell will not be like it's often portrayed in comic strips, a giant lounge where between drinks people tell stories of their escapades on Earth. Rather, it will be a place of utter misery (Matthew 13:42; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28). It will be a place of conscious punishment for sins, with no hope of relief. This is why Dante, in the Inferno, envisioned this sign chiseled above Hell's gate: "Abandon every hope, you who enter."(1)
The reality of Hell should break our hearts and take us to our knees and to the doors of those without Christ. Today, however, even among many Bible believers, Hell has become "the H word," seldom named, rarely talked about. It doesn't even appear in many evangelistic booklets. It's common to deny or ignore the clear teaching of Scripture about Hell. Hell seems disproportionate, a divine overreaction. In the words of one professor and contributor to an evangelical publication, "I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine . . . How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God."(2)
Many imagine that it is civilized, humane, and compassionate to deny the existence of an eternal Hell, but in fact it is arrogrant that we, as creatures, would dare to take what we think is the moral high ground in opposition to what God the Creator has revealed. We don't want to believe that any others deserve eternal punishment, because if they do, so do we. But if we understood God's nature and ours, we would be shocked not that some people could go to Hell (where else would sinners go?), but that any would be permitted into Heaven. Unholy as we are, we are disqualified from saying that infinite holiness doesn't demand everlasting punishment. By denying the endlessness of Hell, we minimize Christ's work on the cross. Why? Because we lower the stakes of redemption. If Christ's crucifixion and resurrection didn't deliver us from an eternal Hell, his work on the cross is less heroic, less potent, less consequential, and thus less deserving of our worship and praise. As theologian William G. T. Shedd put it, "The doctrine of Christ's vicarious atonement logically stands or falls with that of eternal punishment."(3)
Satan has obvious motives for fueling our denial of eternal punishment: He wants unbelievers to reject Christ without fear; he wants Christians to be unmotivated to share Christ; and he wants God to receive less glory for the radical nature of Christ's redemptive work.
WHAT DID JESUS SAY ABOUT HELL?
Many books deny Hell. Some embrace universalism, the belief that all people will ultimately be saved. Some consider Hell to be the invention of wild-eyed prophets obsessed with wrath. They argue that Christians should take the higher road of Christ's love. But this perspective overlooks a conspicuous reality: In the Bible, Jesus says more than anyone else about Hell (Matthew 10:28; 13:40-42; Mark 9:43-44). He refers to it as a literal place and describes it in graphic terms -- including raging fires and the worm that doesn't die. Christ says the unsaved "will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 8:12). In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus taught that in Hell, the wicked will suffer terribly, are fully conscious, retain their desires and memories and reasoning, long for relief, cannot be comforted, cannot leave their torment, and are bereft of hope (Luke 16:19-31). The Savior could not have painted a more bleak or graphic picture.
How long will Hell last? "They will go away to eternal punishment," Jesus said of the unrighteous, "but the righteous to eternal life" (Matthew 25:46). Here, in the same sentence, Christ uses the same word translated "eternal" (aionos) to describe the duration of both Heaven and Hell. Thus, if Heaven will be consciously experienced forever, Hell must be consciously experienced forever.
C.S. Lewis said, "I have met no people who fully disbelieved in Hell and also had a living and life-giving belief in Heaven."(4) The biblical teaching on both destinations stands of falls together.
If I had a choice, that is if Scripture were not so clear and conclusive, I would certainly not believe in Hell. Trust me when I say I do not want to believe in it. But if I make what I want -- or what others want -- the basis for my belief, I am a follower of myself and my culture, not a follower of Christ. . .
(1) Dante Alighieri, Inferno, canto 3, line 9.
(2) Clark Pinnock, "The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent," Criswell Theological Review 4 (1990): 246-247, 253.
(3) W. G. T. Shedd, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment (1885; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1986), 153.
(4) C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963), 76.