By Victor Knowles
Hell is firmly fixed in the volatile vocabulary of the world. You hear the word used nearly every day. Yet Hell is not so firmly fixed in the religious beliefs of Americans. A 2013 Harris Poll revealed that only 58 percent of Americans believe in Hell. That’s down from 62 percent in 2005. And hardly anyone sees themselves as bound for Hell—many people think, You might be going there, you should be going there, but not me!
Does Hell Exist?
Jesus always taught with eternity in mind. He once spoke to a rich young man about eternal life. In the Sermon on the Mount he talked about the kingdom of Heaven and the fire of Hell. In his final parable he juxtaposed the sheep and the goats and described the two final destinations of humanity—eternal punishment or eternal life (Matthew 25:31-46).
Francis Chan said, “Deep down in the heart of every person is a hidden desire to reinterpret Jesus in light of our own culture, political bent, or favorite theological belief. We do the same thing with hell.” But we can’t do that. Jesus is still the Son of God, the head of the Church. Everything he said about anything is total truth and remains the final word. So what did Jesus say about the existence of Hell?
Jesus described Hell (gehenna) as a place where people are sent because of unrepentant sinful deeds or thoughts (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; Mark 9:45). Hell is a place of eternal fire (Matthew 18:8), unquenchable fire (3:12), eternal punishment (25:46), and outer darkness (8:12, 25:30, New American Standard Bible).
Prophets and apostles gave additional teachings on Hell, describing it as a place of everlasting shame and contempt (Daniel 12:2), everlasting destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:9), a place where fallen angels have been sent to await judgment (2 Peter 2:4), and a place of eternal fire and blackest darkness (Jude 13). Four times in Revelation Hell is described as a lake of fire (Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15, NASB). Perhaps the worst aspect of Hell is being “shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). W. R. Matthews concluded, “The essence of hell is complete separation from God, and that is the ultimate disaster.”
The existence of Hell actually makes sense. If there is a north, there must be a south. If there is a Heaven, there must be a Hell. Chuck Colson noted, “In a sense, the concept of Hell gives meaning to our lives. It tells us that the moral choices we make day by day have eternal significance, that our behavior has consequences lasting to eternity, that God himself takes our choices seriously.”
If there is a Heaven to gain then there surely is a Hell to shun. That’s why Jesus gave us so many warnings about Hell. If it were not so he would have told us so. Knofel Staton wisely noted, “To pretend that there is no Hell to fear is to contradict Jesus. It is to misunderstand the words ‘save’ and ‘salvation,’ for those words communicate that there is something dreadful to be saved from.”
We can’t pretend there is no Hell. Jude told us that to earnestly “contend for the faith” includes merciful efforts to “save others by snatching them from the fire” (Jude 1:3, 23).
Why Does God Send People to Hell?
Many sincere people, including some Christians, struggle with this question. Notice that the question begins by questioning God himself. The ancient sufferer Job, who wrestled with many questions, discovered that we won’t always comprehend God’s ways. God answered Job out of the storm and asked, “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? . . . You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers? . . . Will you discredit my justice?” (Job 38:2, 40:2, 8, New Living Translation).
It is not so much God choosing to send unrepentant sinners to Hell as people themselves making that choice. Billy Graham said, “God will never send anybody to Hell. If man goes to Hell, he goes by his own free choice.”
Though we do not have all the answers, we can trust the one who emphatically declares, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3).
In his famous sermon “Blockades on the Road to Hell,” the late Archie Word said that God has placed several roadblocks on the road to Hell; the greatest roadblock of all, he said, is the bloodstained cross of Jesus Christ. “In the pathway of every unsaved man stands the cross of Jesus Christ. Every man or woman who goes on toward Hell has to step on or over the cross of Christ.”
God’s amazing love for all humanity was proven once and for all at Calvary. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). Jesus did more than talk about Hell. He died to save us from Hell.
Hell is the blazing backdrop of Calvary. To quote Francis Chan again: “While Hell can be a paralyzing doctrine, it can also be an energizing one, for it magnifies the beauty of the cross. Hell is the backdrop that reveals the profound and unbelievable grace of the cross. It brings to light the enormity of our sin and therefore portrays the undeserved favor of God in full color.”
How Do We Respond?
The existence of Hell should give us pause and cause for reflection. Although Hell was prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41), it will also be occupied by certain people. John names some of them in Revelation 21:8: “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
So, am I practicing any of these sins that would result in my being consigned to such a dreadful place? What about my language? Saying, “You fool!” can put me in danger of Hell (Matthew 5:22). What about my lust? That puts me in danger of Hell too (vv. 28, 29). Why would I want to think, say, or do anything that would risk my going to Hell?
Are we complacent about others going to Hell? In the Seinfeld episode “The Burning,” Elaine’s boyfriend David, a “Christian” in name only, has virtually no concern that Elaine, an unbeliever, is going to Hell. “Gonna be rough,” is all he tells her. In the midst of a heated argument Elaine says to him, “You should be trying to save me. . . . If you think I’m going to Hell, you should care that I’m going to Hell—even though I am not.”
How much do we care that someone might go to Hell? How could really believing this truth impact our Sunday school teaching, small group discussions, and preaching in the church? Jesus cared much about people going to Hell, and we must have the same compassionate approach. Dwight L. Moody said, “When we preach on Hell, we might at least do it with tears in our eyes.” Carry a cross in your pocket. Every time you feel that cross, feel compassion for those who need to hear what Christ has done to rescue them from Hell.
God has reconciled us to himself in Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). Let the doctrine of Hell energize us with greater concern and efforts to be ambassadors for Christ in the all-important ministry of reconciling sinners to God.
Victor Knowles is founder and president of POEM (Peace on Earth Ministries), Joplin, Missouri (poeministries.org).