Having performed countless funerals over 30 years, I can say that the idea of not going to heaven is one that rarely occurs to most people anymore. Most Americans think that all we have to do to go to heaven is to expire. The idea that accountability for sin, absent repentance, extends beyond this life is becoming rare. In the Bible, however, it is clear:
“Each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
(Paul, Romans 14:12).
The Christian Doctrine of Hell:
It is hard to distinguish what the Bible teaches about hell from the plethora of pagan and extra-biblical sources that lead many astray. Greek myths tell of an underworld and a purging place for the dead. Medieval artists terrified church-goers with graphic demon-filled portrayals of hell. Poets like Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and John Milton(1608-1674) profoundly shaped Christendom’s ideas about hell. Preachers like Jonathan Edwards illustrated hell as a fiery oven in which after millions of ages, “your torment would be no nearer to an end than ever it was.” We may value great art and literature but we must form our understanding of hell purely from Scripture.
The New Testament Greek word for hell (gehenna) comes from the name of the Valley of Hinnon just outside Jerusalem (featured image). It was an ancient battle scene, a place of pagan (child) sacrifices and a place where the dead were tossed. Later, it served as a garbage dump. Many burnings took place there to get rid of the stench. I have been there and I managed to escape alive.
Gehenna comes from the lips of Jesus more than from any other NT figure (it occurs once outside the synoptic gospels) but he did not use it to describe a literal city dump. For him, gehenna was God’s judgment (Matthew 23:33) and the final destiny of the lost. To Jesus, the reality of hell was something to fear: “Fear him who after the killing of the body, has the power to throw you into hell.” (Jesus, Luke 12:5). So, it is worse than mere death and there is no escaping alive.
Reconstructing hell or defining the nature of one’s experience or existence (or not) in hell are questions subject to ongoing debate. Reasonable Bible students can differ on how to interpret the parabolic and figurative speech used in the NT for hell. But the moral meaning of hell is unmistakably clear. Jesus referred to “hell” to warn not only against murder but against murderous anger and mean-spirited name-calling (Matthew 5:21-22). He thought it better to lose an eye or arm than to have your whole body thrown into hell (Matthew 5:29-30). In his parable of the sheep and goats, he told the goats, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41). He cited the moral shortfall of the goats who selfishly neglected the needy, and added, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment.” (vs. 46).
The Christian doctrine of hell is rooted in the biblical conviction that God holds sinners accountable, sooner or later. Jesus promised that “men will have to give account on the day of judgment” for careless words.” (Matthew 12:36). Peter spoke of God holding the unrighteous “for the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:9). Paul called it a “day of wrath” (Romans 2:5) and John encouraged “confidence on the day of judgment” for those in whom love is made complete (1 John 4:17).
God’s judgment will be “righteous (Romans 2:5), deserved (13:2), universal (14:10-12) and it will begin with the family of God (1 Peter 4:17). God’s judgment is every man’s destiny regardless of when or how we live or die: “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). That sin must be punished testifies to the justice, honor and integrity of God. That He sent His own Son to pay our sin debt testifies to God’s mercy. How the sin-cleansing blood of Christ is applied (and to whom) is up to God who alone sees the whole hearts of men.
In a world where unrepentant sinners teach children to lie, torture or rape them (then rub their deeds in the faces of crushed parents), kill babies, enslave people, commit genocide, mow down civilians and behead innocents, hell makes good sense. God is not bound by our theories about hell but we are bound by His judgments.
A Serious Though!
One of the greatest orators to serve in the US senate, Daniel Webster, was once asked, “What do you consider the most serious thought that has ever entered your mind?” He replied, “The most solemn thought that has ever entered my mind is my accountability to my Maker.” In an age when politicians and people from all walks of life are easily corrupted and bought, we need more Daniel Websters.