I wish I didn’t have to believe in hell.

While seeing the need for eternal justice, the thought of cruel and unusual punishment that lasts forever sounds morally wrong to me. Yet, the Bible describes God as a great King who creates a lake of everlasting fire for rebels who want no part of His kingdom.

As a child, I thought of hell as being like the agony of falling into a real fire. More than fifty years later, I’m trying to believe no more and no less than what the Bible requires us to believe.

I’ve thought a lot about the story Jesus told of a callous rich man who died and found himself in Hades. Even before the final judgment, the man was suffering in flame and torment (Luke 16:19-31). Whether Jesus was speaking in a parable or not, I’ve found some solace in the fact that the man in the fire was able to carry on a conversation. He was not suffering in the way I imagined as a child.

Admittedly, Jesus didn’t tell the story to comfort us. He went on to describe how the man in the flame asked for a messenger to be sent back to the land of the living. He wanted his five brothers to be warned about this place of torment. But he was told, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

The end of Jesus’ story raises a question. What did Moses and the prophets say that amounted to fair warning?

Hell in the Old Testament

Moses describes the Lord of heaven as the judge of all the earth. Like the New Testament that follows, he even describes God as a consuming fire of judgment (Deuteronomy 4:24; 9:3; Hebrews 12:29). Together with the rest of the prophets, he warns about the dangers of death and “the grave.” Beyond such warnings, however, the Hebrew Scriptures say little if anything about suffering after death. Daniel gives the most information when he predicts, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

In a specific example of judgment, Isaiah uses the language of unquenchable fire to describe the fate of those who die on the battlefield at the end of the age. Speaking in apocalyptic language, the prophet says, “For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24). The revulsion Isaiah speaks of has a physical setting. It occurs as living people look on the dead bodies of those who have fallen under the judgment of God. A Jewish reader in Isaiah’s day would probably not have seen anything in these words about conscious suffering after death.

Hell in the teachings of Jesus

In some versions of the New Testament, “hell” is a translation of the Greek word Gehenna, a place known in Old Testament times as the Valley of Hinnom. Jesus uses a word picture of the garbage dump to the south of Jerusalem where the refuse of the city was burned. Jesus uses this real place of burning rubble to illustrate the fate of those who gain the world but lose their soul (Matthew 16:26).

On several occasions Jesus speaks of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that will accompany final judgment (Matthew 13:42). Three times in Mark 9, He draws on the words of Isaiah when He describes the danger of “the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘their worm does not die.’ ” If Jesus uses these words in the same way as Isaiah, He is warning about the horror of divine judgment without telling us for how long or to what degree such persons suffer.

Hell in Revelation

The language of “eternal conscious torment” comes most clearly from the last book of the New Testament. In a book that uses strong symbolic language to sound clear warnings of judgment, we read that all those who worship the beast (14:11), the beast himself, the false prophet, and the devil will all be cast into the lake of fire where “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10). Chapter 20 goes on to say that Death, Hades, and everyone not found written in the Book of Life also will be cast into the lake of fire (vv.14-15).

So how do we take these warnings to heart without losing our minds over lost loved ones? Our challenge is to believe as Abraham did, that “the Judge of all the earth [will] do right” (Genesis 18:25). Such a God understands infinitely better than we do how to exercise justice that is consistent with His own character.

Degrees of punishment

Jesus repeatedly indicated that judgment will be more tolerable for some than for others (Matthew 10:15; 11:22, 24; Luke 12:46-48).

In addition, Revelation 20:15 does not explicitly say that everyone who is cast into the lake of fire will suffer in the same way as the devil and those who worship him (14:11; 20:10). Trying to read between the lines ignores the principle that “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

For what we cannot understand, those of us who bear heartache for lost loved ones need to trust the One who loves them far more than we do. He has told us as much as He wants us to know. The rest we need to leave in His hands.

Father in heaven, forgive us for saying more or less than You have revealed. Thank you for assuring us that You take no delight in the death of those who reject you (Ezekiel 33:11). Help us to lovingly warn those who still have an opportunity to accept Your mercy. And when we are overwhelmed with concern, please help us to remember that everything You do in judgment is right, and necessary, and good.

By Mart De Haan via RBC Ministries Oct. 5, 2006

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