Oh Hell

‘Hell, where horror is habitual, deliberate,
systematic and eternal.” – Paul Johnson

Most Christians who emphasize the amazing grace, love and forgiveness of God ignore the fact that these attributes are actually conditional. What negates them are death and the judgment that follows, i.e. hell.


the Great Condition that trumps unconditional love in the end;
the elephant in the room of grace no one talks about;
the expiration date on divine forgiveness;
the darkest doctrine in holy scripture;
the severest sentence in the creeds.

This side of the grave:

  • “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? … ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’” (Matt 18:22).
  • “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son … not … to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16, 17).
  • “Love keeps no record of wrongs … always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1Cor 13:5).
  • “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise … not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).

But the minute AFTER death, God’s attitude appears to drastically change toward everyone without faith in Christ. Now there is:

  • no possibility of forgiveness (Rom 9:22-28).
  • Eternal condemnation for those who do not believe in the Son (John 3:18).
  • Evidently there is a list being kept of all sins of omission and commission, which serves as the basis for judgment (Matt 25:31-46).
  • No opportunity for effectual repentance (Luke 16:19-31).

The idea of a literal hell is horrifying to any compassionate person, especially when you recall that hell isn’t about rehabilitation. It isn’t about restitution. It is eternal punishment for temporal sins, including the sin of sincerely believing the wrong things about God (2 Thes 1:6-9).

The words of Billy Joe Shaver are straightforward and disturbing; “If you don’t love Jesus, go to hell.”

But what about the justice of God. Doesn’t it require him to be tough on sin? A hallmark of justice is that the punishment should fit the crime. This is central to the Mosaic Law and every other judicial system. Granted, sin is heinous, but so is torture. Torture is a vindictive practice having nothing to do with restitution or rehabilitation. How do we reconcile it with what we know about the character of God and the person of Jesus?

Statistics on the world’s religions translate into more than two-thirds of the human race winding up in perdition, including many of our family and friends. And yet those who make it to heaven evidently won’t feel the loss. Just the opposite, according to Thomas Aquinas, who taught, “That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned in hell.”

The belief in an eternal torture chamber run by God is based on a literal reading of scripture, so let’s consider some of its implications within the biblical milieu.

The Thief on the Cross

A few moment before death, Jesus forgave the repentant thief on the cross, wiping away a sinful enough past to have earned the man capital punishment. But if that thief had the same reaction to Jesus ONE SECOND after death, presumably Jesus would have cast him into outer darkness with the words, “Depart from me, I never knew you.”

The Prodigal Son

The father of the prodigal son is a picture of the heavenly Father. He waits with open arms to forgive and bless his wayward child. But should the son have had a coronary a few feet before reaching home, the understanding father would instantly turn into an unmerciful judge. Unconsummated repentance would be ignored and the son consigned to the Lake of Fire forever.

What do these alternate endings do to your notion of God? After you grapple with that question, try these:

  • Does the definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13 only apply to certain people—the elect? And only for a limited time—before death?
  • What would you say to a human ruler who tenderly loved his family and cared for his people but who imprisoned and ceaselessly tortured all who weren’t his people (Rev 20:14)?
  • If Christians are capable of changing and growing in their understanding of God after death, why not non Christians? Why couldn’t they change and grow once they saw God and realized the error of their ways?
  • What if the idea of hell reflected the culture of the time and not the character of God? What if concepts like holiness and justice were taught using the metaphors of fire and brimstone?
  • What if the majority of the church has gotten hell wrong all these years?

The typical way of dealing with the anomaly of Hades is not to think about it; not to consider its implications or the shadow it casts across the Father’s face. A more honest approach is to wrestle with it like Jacob struggled with Jehovah. Drag it into the divine presence and ask, “Please help me understand this.”

You can also read, If Grace Is True by Philip Gulley for a scripturally “grace-full” way of looking at this onerous doctrine.


10 thoughts on “Oh Hell

  1. I agree with most of your analysis in your post. It seems so common sense and is the view I have held for years. I am more in the school of Pinnock and advocate conditional immortality. We are not all immortal- only God is immortal(1 Tim. 6:16). That is why grace is grace: those of us who will die like animals and perish are given the gift of immortality in Christ. The idea that people will suffer forever is simply irreconcilable with the nature of God as revealed in Scripture. The dogma is built on a very flimsy base, mostly due, I believe to the very common fundamentalist error of being over-literal with passages that are idiomatic. If sinners are punished forever in hell, and if Jesus died for our sins, why isn’t He still in hell suffering eternally? Lots of issues. If grace has an xpiration date, it isn’t grace.

  2. Wow, Mike, I love to read what you write. I had to read this several times and ponder it for a while. My struggles is meshing grace with judgement for believers after death. I know I’m forgiven yet why if I’m forgiven am I to receive judgement regarding what I’ve done – maybe I misinterpret scripture but it is a little scarey for me. Thanks for being open to comments and for listeing. We’re praying for you all. pam

  3. I’ve thought about this a lot too. One thing I realized is that I have absolutely no problem with Satan and the fallen angels being cast into eternal punishment. Lake of fire, good. Torment, they deserve it, right? But they too are created beings, created in love by God. Their sin was and is rebellion – any chance for their redemption?

  4. This IS one I wrestle with.

    I think ALL people will be surprised on the other side — even (especially?) the ones who have their doctrine clearly defined.

    I know I’m unsettling to some people as I speak my questions, and you know you are too. And, sometimes it makes me sad that I can’t “fall in line”.

    I am thankful for people like you who think deeply and wrestle with these things, and at the same time model care for people and encourage me to do the same.

    Thinking of you as the harvesting of cells goes forward.

  5. Yep, that pretty much sums up the two issues on hell that I’ve never fully felt at peace about.
    ** eternal punishment for temporal wrong-doings
    ** that there’s no ‘second chance’ after death. (Although that may vary depending on the denomination.)

    I’ve studied & heard teachings on it, and the answers involving God’s holiness & justice and the ways he tries to reach us while we’re alive, seemed sufficient at the time. But usually within a couple days, it bothers me again.

    The only explanation I’ve heard so far that made sense has been: Hell is the removal of God’s presence and spirit. If we decide we don’t want him, he gives us what we want. Which at first doesn’t sound too bad, but then when you think about “common grace” and the ways in which we see God every day but don’t realize it: general goodness in people, a natural love that parents have for their kids, birds singing, people generally obeying laws. . . all that would be gone. And all that is left, then, is the bitterness, hatred, loneliness, fears, anger, and no restrictions on what one person can do to another.

    But even if that’s the case. . . for all eternity?

    These are legitimate questions. My intention isn’t to criticize God for this, but rather, to legitimately sort out truth vs. traditional assumptions. Thanks for your post, Mike.

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