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. Mike, I’ll tell you that I’ve thought an awful lot about “Hell” myself. I try not to include it in anything I present because I believe it brands a person with heresy too easily and my desire is to reach as many people as possible with the gospel of God’s love which is stronger than death. And of course, love is stronger than hatred, good is stronger than evil. Every knee must bow and every tongue must confess. That is God’s purpose for man in Christ. Satan will not triumph over God in the end! love barbara

  2. Hi, Mike —
    I doubt you’ll remember me. I was in my early-mid teens at Laurel Park toward the end of your ministry days there. A mutual friend pointed me your way, as I am struggling through some of my own theodical questions these days… including the one you’ve raised here. Could I offer a few different scattered thoughts in response?…
    1. Only a few months ago, I finished a seminary class in which we examined various strains of universalism, pluralism, inclusivism and exclusivism. In the context of that course, I was exposed to these words about hell by John Stott: “Well, emotionally I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.” Whether the Scripture will let me join Stott and other universalist types, I already share with them this revulsion toward the idea of hell. 2. Frankly, I find anything other than some form of exclusivism (or very narrow inclusivism) biblically impossible. But the thought makes me sick. But if it is even possible that I could have a more loving attitude toward the lost than God has, then I am more freaked out than ever.
    3. It also seems true to me that more liberal soteriologies (i.e. less exclusive ones) seem to kill any sense of urgency for missions/evangelism.
    4. Having read The Shack, I was more put off by the silliness than affected by the sentiment. But I have been appreciating the artistic expression of universal ideas in the art of song-writers like Josh Ritter (e.g. see the lyrics of Thin Blue Flame) and Mark Erelli.

    1. Thanks for your comments, KC. Based on your blog, you’re doing a lot of thinking about biblical faith in everyday life. But I can’t find an “About” page on your blog. What else are you up to these days?

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