The Doctrine of Hell

This is the first of a five-part series on the doctrine of hell.

Concerning hell, C. S. Lewis once wrote, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.”[1] In many ways, I agree with him. No one, Christians included, should like the idea of hell. For years I’ve felt that if you were to give me a Bible, a divine eraser, and ten minutes, I would take hell out of the Bible.

Those of us who believe in hell aren’t sadists who enjoy the idea of eternal suffering. In fact, the thought of people I know who are outside of Christ spending eternity in hell is heart-breaking. As a young Christian, when I began to learn about hell and its implications, I almost lost my faith. It was that disturbing.

Hell is a difficult reality, but it is something that the Bible teaches, and we can’t fully understand God and his world unless we grapple with it.

1. Hell is what hell is because God is who God is.

People speak glibly about “seeing God,” as if seeing God face-to-face would be a warm-fuzzy experience. But the Bible explains that God’s holiness and perfection are so complete that if anyone were to see Him, they would die (Exod 33:20). Even the slightest sin in His presence leads to immediate annihilation. When Isaiah, the prophet of God, saw God upon His throne, he fell upon his face, terrified and sure that he was about to die (Isaiah 6:5).

I know in recent days the doctrine of hell has fallen greatly out of favor. But it’s there for a reason. God tells us about hell to demonstrate to us the magnitude of His holiness. Hell is what hell is because the holiness of God is what it is. Hell is not one degree hotter than our sin demands that it be. Hell should make our mouths stand agape at the righteous and just holiness of God. It should make us tremble before His majesty and grandeur.

Ironically, in doing away with hell, you do away with the very resources that some need to believe. When a person goes through rape or child abuse, they need to know that there is a God of such holiness and beauty that His reign can tolerate none of that.

2. Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else in Scripture.

Some people try to avoid the idea of hell by saying, “Well, hell, that was the Old Testament God, back when he was in His junior high years and all cranky. But when God matured in the New Testament with Jesus—meek and mild Jesus—he was all about love and compassion.”

The problem with this is that when you start reading the gospels, you find that Jesus speaks about hell more than anyone else. In fact, if you count up the verses, Jesus spoke more about hell than he did about heaven. One of the most famous skeptics in history, Bertrand Russell, said in his book, What I’m not a Christian, that Jesus’ teaching on hell was “the one profound defect in Christ’s character.” If we want to avoid the idea of hell, we can’t ignore the problem by just focusing on “meek and mild Jesus.”

3. The reality of hell shows us the extent of God’s love in saving us.

Why did Jesus speak about hell more than anyone else in the Bible? Because he wanted us to see what he was going to endure on the cross on our behalf. On the cross, Jesus’ punishment was scarcely describable: this bloodied, disfigured remnant of a man was given a recycled, used cross, likely covered in the blood, feces, and urine of the other men who had used it previously. Hanging there in immense pain, he slowly suffocated to death.

The worst part was the separation from the Father that Jesus felt, a separation that was hell itself. “My God, My God,” he cried out, “Why have you forsaken me” (Matt 27:46)? In all of this, Jesus was taking the hell of our sin into His body.

People often feel that hell is some great blemish on God’s love. The Bible presents it as the opposite. Hell magnifies for us the love of God by showing us how far God went, and how much he went through, to save us.

4. People are eternal.

C. S. Lewis once noted that hell is a necessary conclusion from the Christian belief that human beings were created to live forever. As he put it,

“Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever. Perhaps my bad temper or my jealousy are gradually getting worse—so gradually that the increase in seventy years will not be very noticeable. But it might be absolute hell in a million years: in fact, if Christianity is true, Hell is the precisely correct technical term for what it would be.”[2]

Elsewhere Lewis said:

“Hell . . . begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. . . . Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”[3]

5. In one sense, God doesn’t send anyone to hell; we send ourselves.

Hell is the culmination of telling God to “get out.” You keep telling God to leave you alone, and finally God says “OK.” That’s why the Bible describes it as darkness: God is light; His absence is darkness. Now, right now on earth we experience light, things like love, friendship, and the beauty of creation. These are all remnants of the light of God’s presence. But when you tell God you don’t want Him as the Lord and Center of your lives, eventually you get your wish, and with God go all of His gifts.

We have two options: live with God, or live without God. If you say, “I don’t want God’s authority. I would rather live for myself,” that’s what hell is. C. S. Lewis put it this way:

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ . . . To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does. . . . In the end, there are only two kinds of people– those who say to God “thy will be done” and those to whom God says in the end ‘thy will be done.’”[4]

6. In another sense, God does send people to hell; and all his ways are true and righteous altogether.

We may be tempted to rage at God and to correct him. But how can we find fault with God? As Paul says in Romans, who are we—as mere lumps of clay—to answer back to the divine Potter?

We need to realize that we are not more merciful than God. Isaiah reminds us that all who are currently “incensed against God” will come before him in the last day and be ashamed, not vindicated (Isaiah 45:24), because they will then realize just how perfect God’s ways are. Every time God is compared with a human counterpart in Scripture, God is the more merciful of the pair. Every single time.

When we look back on our lives from eternity, what will amaze us is not the severity of his justice, but the magnanimity of his mercy.

7. It’s not enough for God to take us out of hell; he must take hell out of us.

Some people see a problem in using hell as a way of coercing people to submit to Christianity. It’s as if God is saying, “Serve me or else!” And that seems manipulative. It may surprise you, but God agrees.

If people are converted to God simply because they are scared, or because God has done some great, miraculous sign (cf. Luke 16:31), they might submit, but it wouldn’t change their heart attitude toward God. If you accept Jesus just to “get out of hell,” then you’d hate being in heaven, because heaven is only enjoyable for those who love and trust God. If you don’t love the Father, then living in the Father’s house feels like slavery. It would be like forcing you to be married to someone you didn’t want to marry. The only way you’ll enjoy heaven is when you learn to love and trust God again.

Only an experience of the love of God can rearrange the fundamental structure of your heart to create a love and trust of God. It’s not enough for God to take us out of hell; he must take hell out of us.

[1] C. S. Lewis, “Hell,” Problem of Pain.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 74.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 77–78.

[4] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, “Hell,” 116 and The Great Divorce, 69.

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  2. Kenton   •  

    Well, let me start with #1. So wasn’t Jesus God in flesh? John chapter 1 says as much, yes? So, doesn’t the fact that God became flesh and dwelt with us completely undermine the idea that God is so royally pi$$ed off at us that He can’t stand for us to be in His presence? (And also undermine the idea that we could never survive being in His presence?)

    That kind of holiness-as-transcendence is incompatible with a doctrine of incarnation. Yes, Jesus was/is/always will be Holy, but it’s because He is both divine and human that makes Him so.

  3. Bob Heussner   •  

    Dear JD, I’m 61 years old and continue my spiritual journey. I was raised a Protestant and for decades had a strong (but always searching) faith. Over the last several years, I have come to seriously question organized religion and specifically, the Christian faith. I’ve searched my soul and searched for “truth” (to the degree it can be found).
    My searching led me to your article and I must tell you I found it insincere and ultimately, dishonest. You state at the outset that you would take the hell out of the Bible. But then spend the entire rest of your article defending its presence and explaining its necessity.

  4. Brian   •  

    There are several problems:
    i) It is weird to equate “holiness” with punishing and not forgiving. Usually, we think it a mark of greatness when someone forgives what seems unforgiveable (think of a Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, or even a heroic Xn couple I read about who forgave the man who murdered and raped their daughter). Yet God responds with immeasurable violence and this shows us his greatness? Where else does violence indicate greatness? Anyone can act with vengeance. Great this is not.

    ii) It corrupts God. If my neighbour and I suffer from pride, our sins pale compared to having someone suffer for a million years. Such brutality is not a sign of disliking sin, but rather is its own sin. Such a god is not admirable and your next door neighbour would act with more basic decency.

    iii) It corrupts Xns. So, Martin Luther King goes to heaven, sees others suffering immeasurably, endlessly, and he does…nothing? He rejoices that at least HE has been saved, that HE is with Jesus? Is heaven where social justice and compassion go to die? When the good stand by in the face of endless suffering and do nothing. It’s a narcissistic portrait and if every good person is doing this, that seems not like heaven, but a picture of true hell. It should make us weep.

    iv) It makes God unwise. Take 10 minutes in the car and think about ways a just and wise God might deal with a Hitler or a rapist. I bet you will quickly imagine possibilities that would teach the perpetrator what they did and offer the hope of genuine contrition (and thus a deep healing for the victim). Seriously, it’s 10 minutes. When you do this, you realize the binary picture of eternal joy vs eternal pain seems like something a young child might come up with in about 30 seconds. I don’t mean that to be rude. It’s just a portrait that shows so little wisdom, so little beauty. What is inspiring or wise about this vision?

    v) The notion we do this to ourselves is false and an attempt at justification. It is always phrased as people “rejecting” God to make them sound mean or something. Perhaps on occasion this is true but mostly people don’t “reject” God, they just don’t think he’s there. Imagine there is a God, but it’s Allah (or Shiva). Billy Graham comes before him and Allah says, “you rejected me, to hell you go.” That is unjust. There is no denying that Billy Graham has honestly done the best he knows to do. If he is mistaken, it is not a mistake of intention but simply that he has limited knowledge and limited life experience to know the truth. No one has perfect information. In the same way, punishing people given how little information or evidence there is for which religion is right, is vindictive and unjust.

    vi) God doesn’t need hell, religion does. Why does God need hell? If you don’t believe, he can choose to show you anytime he wants. If you never believe, he can show you in the next life. You still have eternity to know the truth and in comparison, your time here is but the tiniest fraction of your existence. You ignored him but hey, I understand he’s a big guy, he can probably deal with it. And he knows the evidence here is paltry so how much can he blame you? But…you know who needs hell? Religion. Without hell, conversion does not seem so desperately important and the institution of religion becomes threatened. God can do whatever he wants, show you whatever he wants. Religion cannot. Religion is a human institution desperately in need of a stick. Hence the most unjust stick one can imagine.

  5. Kenton   •  

    Bob Heussner-

    You’re not alone. If the idea of a two-faced God – who on the one hand tells us He loves us and on the other tells us He’s ready to beat the $#!+ out of us – sounds coercive and unstable, then welcome to the club! Rob Bell wrote “Love Wins” for people like us. It’s short and too the point. Also there is a movie by Kevin Miller called “Hellbound?” that’s worthwhile. And there’s lots more where those came from. Keep pushing back. The truth will eventually set you free, not leave you in fear.

    Grace to you.

  6. David Freeze   •  

    What about the Jews? Aren’t they God’s people? From what I understand they do not believe in hell.

  7. Peter Warner   •  

    Thanks be to God for this excellent series on Hell. It is instructive and uplifting, strange as that might seem to the skeptical.

    If there is no sadness in Heaven, there can be no joy in Hell. We need to understand that God cannot allow sin in His presence, so Heaven must also be pure, not in any way defiling His glory. Would you be comfortable with rotting garbage on your living room carpet?

    Only faithfulness allows us to enter heaven. Works don’t bring us into heaven, neither do works take us to hell: it is not believing upon Him that removes us from His presence. Jesus is the way the truth and the life, and the ONLY way to the Father. That’s exactly what it means.

    In fellowship, Peter Warner.

  8. William   •  

    Very well said. However, just like the great truth of salvation through Jesus Christ, the horrible truth of hell can not be comprehended or believed without one being truly born again.

  9. Semaj   •  

    1. God IS love.
    2. Which “hell” did Jesus mean? Gehenna (garbage dump), hades (literally imperceptible or unseen or obliterated).
    3. See above number 1.
    4. Please. “Soil you are and to soil you shall RETURN.”
    “Dying, you shall SURELY die”.
    At death, the body returns to the soil, the soul returns to the unseen (sheol/hades), and the life-spirit returns to God Who gave it. Look it up.
    5 thru 7. There is no hell. When you’re dead, you’re dead. God is the Saviour of all mankind (1 Tim 4:9-11). A Saviour saves or He can’t be called a saviour.
    Eventually, at the consummation, all will have become reconciled to God and He will be All in all. 1 Cor. 15.

  10. Brian   •  

    I think Peter Warner’s comment says a lot in referring to flawed people as “rotting garbage.” Again, this view of an unforgiving, intolerant God is not really indicative of ‘holiness’ but rather makes him rather mundane (and honestly, not worthy of admiration).

  11. Brad   •  

    As J. D. Greear writes, struggle with hell as we may (judging it by our own lights, not God’s), we cannot, must not deny that it exists, for if we do we plainly deny Christ as well. We know that God is perfectly just, and, therefore, that this mysterious eternal punishment must also be just. And it’s justice, really, that throws us for a loop. We wonder how it can possibly be just that we, who are not self-caused, who come into being involuntarily, carry the burden of endless suffering for actions we imperfectly understand.

  12. Eddie Armstrong   •  

    As a former Atheist, I used Hell as the reason to continue in unbelief. Here is what is typically taught about hell. If you die a death without a saving relationship with Jesus, you are cast into a fire in a place called hell where you are fried without end. You will desire to “really” die and find the sweet release of eternal non-existence, but are denied and continue to spend day after day feeling the intense flames on every part of your flesh. No bathroom breaks, no lunch breaks…only torture…
    The 70 years spent on earth exchanged for billions and trillions of years….in torture!
    Really?….Here is the problem. The wages of sin is death, not eternal life. John 3:16 says that the “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son that whosoever believes in Him should not PERISH.” Only the believers have eternal life. The unbelievers PERISH. When Jesus talked about hell, he used the Greek words for grave. I would challenge anyone that Jesus talked more about a place of eternal punishment than death in the grave (SHEOL)that is created by the fires of heaven that do there work of “burning up” 2 Peter 3:10. Unsaved man is not immortal and does not have an immortal soul, “For the soul that sins, it shall surely die.” Ezekiel 18:20. “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to DESTROY both SOUL and body in hell (GRAVE). Matthew 10:28
    My brothers and sisters, think again about a God who tortures your uncle (for example) who was a good man to his wife and family but never professed Jesus, so he is tortured like Hitler throughout eternity….Where is the mercy and justice of God in a place of torture for years you can’t even count?

  13. Glenn Pettit   •  

    Does the soul suffer eternal torment? Do our own choices condemn us? Jesus seems to answer YES to both of those questions in Luke 16:19-31. And yet, even though Jesus taught and talked about Hell, people who claim Christ deny the reality of Hell.

    As for God’s holiness, I believe the author has adequately addressed this, as it is clear that an utterly holy God would not suffer someone in His presence who denied Him. As the Israelites rightly feared, any sinner coming into God’s presence is in grave danger of destruction. Only by His grace does God make the offer of repentance from sin and faith in His Son Jesus. Without that gracious offer, we’d all be dead already.

    And yet, even having made the offer of salvation, there are still many who will deny God and Christ. What then should happen to them? God’s solution is just, because it is the punishment He has long warned about. And His mercy also shows His justice, but even mercy requires repentance and faith. Or should the sinner just go on sinning? Absolutely not!

    Here’s the real issue: Either you accept ALL of what the Bible says–no creative editing, no historicizing–or you accept NONE of it. This especially applies to Jesus Himself–you know, the Savior who mentioned hell more than anything else.

  14. RenA   •  

    This is one of the best articles on hell I’ve read.

    I too struggled with the doctrine of hell. Perhaps in everybody’s journey of faith, we will be left grappling with the existence of hell. Like yourself, God eventually taught me about grace and that hell largely is a choice we make.

    Thanks for the incredible insight with which you have shared on a subject that for everybody is so difficult to confront.

  15. Larry Stephens   •  

    In reading the people’s responses to your article. I find that they are from hearts which mostly do not know God. Hell was not prepared for mankind but for Satan and his angelic followers.

    God does not send us to hell but instead it is our choice by not accepting the salvation provided by Jesus Chris. We reject the way to heaven and the sacrifice God gave and then wonder why the fate we face is Hell. There is no greater act of rebellion than that.

    God was willing to give his most precious gift to you and only require that we accept that gift in faith but instead we want to blame Him for our own destruction.
    What more can He do? Nothing, It’s your choice now.


    please,is it possible to have this series emailed to my email inbox, i am currently developing a series of teaching sermon on hell, with the aid of my wife Carol, and with your permission, would use some of your research in this.we go to kenya and teach in outlying rural churches , and are planning to do the same in india in 2015, this seems ideal in that need.
    yours sincerely
    Allister Watkins

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