“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment…” 2 Peter 2:4
How could a perfectly just God punish someone for eternity for a mere 70+ years of sin? Eternal punishment was firmly asserted in official creeds and confessions of the churches. It must have seemed as indispensable a part of universal Christian belief as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation. Since 1800, however, this situation has changed somewhat, and few traditional Christian doctrines have been so widely scrutinized as that of eternal punishment.
Theologian, John Stott, stuck himself out on a limb by writing on the subject of annihilation, a view not traditionally accepted by evangelicals. He did so because he said, “the true marks of an evangelical were a commitment to study the Bible and to submit to its authority not the tyranny of doctrinal traditions.” Nonetheless, Stott did get some heat for his views on hell.
“We need to survey the biblical material afresh and to open our minds (not just our hearts) to the possibility that Scripture points in the direction of annihilation,” Stott said. “And that ‘eternal conscious torment’ is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture.”
Biblical passages about hell, says Stott, use the language of destruction, and “it would seem strange, therefore, if people who are said to suffer destruction are in fact not destroyed.” The idea of an indestructible immortal soul, Stott noted, is a Greek concept, “not a biblical concept.”
Other leading Christians have taught or have been open to some form of annihilationism. C. S. Lewis, for example, rejected the word “annihilation,” because it suggests that nothing would remain. But just as a log which is burnt becomes gases, heat, and ash, he wrote in The Problem of Pain, “To have been a log means now being those three things. If a soul can be destroyed, must there not be a state of having been a soul?” That state, he wrote, could be called “torment, destruction, and privation.” Thinking along those lines helps us accept the doctrine of hell as a moral teaching, says Lewis.
Personally, I’m content to let the paradox of the goodness of God and eternal hell stand. I do not feel qualified to make a firm commitment to one view or the other. I would prefer annihilation, as it seems more just. But who am I to know, really? I cannot see all of time to know what decisions are best. Only God knows.
What is Hell?
Hell is not a popular topic to talk about at any time. That’s understandable because nobody in their right mind would want to go there. It’s a place where people will be punished with everlasting destruction, and shut out from the presence of the Lord and His glory (2 Thess. 1:9). The unregenerate will be thrown into the blazing furnace, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 13:50). Demons will be there in chains, furthermore, the Prince of Demons, Satan himself, will be cast into Hell at the end of the age (Rev. 20:10). Hell stinks, too. It will smell like burning sulfur (Rev. 19:20).
Many argue that it seems harsh that God would send someone to hell, but I believe it’s because they don’t understand just how Holy God is—sin must be punished. It’s imperative that we know that justice is a mode of holiness. God is a merciful God, yes, but He is also a Judge. Just like the laws we have here on Earth to keep the peace, God also has laws for similar reasons.
Think about it… could heaven be a perfect place if sin could enter there? That is why sin is contained in Hell.How would it be if God allowed sin to enter into Heaven? It’s possible another rebellion could occur. Remember, once Lucifer was in heaven, and yet he caused the first rebellion. That’s why Hell was created: for Satan and his demons (Matt. 25:41).
What was Lucifer’s sin? Pride – he wanted to be God. Look around you today… people are doing the same thing. They want to be their own ‘gods,’ so to speak: the captain of their souls, the masters of their destiny, to create their own reality. Sorry, there can only be one God, and you’re not it.
This is the inspiration the Prophet Isaiah wrote about how Lucifer fell into sin and was removed from Heaven:
“How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, you who weakened the nations! For you have said in your heart: “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God [angels]; I will also sit [rule] on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north [God’s government]; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.” Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the Pit.” (Isaiah 14:12-15.)
There is only one God, and He is the Judge. Justice will be the end result of all the horrors committed in human history. Hell is the place God created to contain the horrors, the evils and demons, and justice will be done because God is so Holy, He must punish sin. It’s who He is – a Holy God.
This is what escapes people these days… there is GOOD NEWS! Despite all the bad news, the fake news, the division, the good news is that God did punish sin, once for all. He punished it on the cross through the innocent blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who took the sins of all humanity away forever. Life is in the blood; sin brings death, and so, it’ through the blood of Christ, His own, that God removed sin from all who believe. This is retributive justice. It’s the best deal on Earth! So, why not take this free gift of salvation? It is received by faith.
The sin here is what many of us struggle with — pride. We see it all over the place – people want self-autonomy in everything, from the biggest of decisions, like what sex they feel like, down to the smallest of details, like options on photo software to numerous flavors of coffee. Some decisions are, obviously, fine to make on our own; others have gone to extremes.
God gave us minds to navigate life and make decisions, but for the biggest issues of life, there is only one God, and we’re not Him. He made the rules on which to live by and if we violate those rules, it won’t go well for us in the end.
Who can go to heaven?
The way I understand Hell is that it’s a place for those who chose to be their own “god” (self-rule), and who have rejected Christ as Lord and Savior. I am not sure heaven would be “heavenly” to those who don’t want God to be their God or try to usurp His authority.
Who, then, can enter heaven? To enter the gates of heaven, people need to be covered by the cleansing blood of Christ, who washes sin away, and we must have the renewing of the Spirit of God within us. This makes a person able to enter into heaven, to be in God’s presence eternally. How this actually occurs in the spiritual realm is a mystery, but it happens when someone believes (faith) what Jesus did for them. This requires an act of humility: to recognize your own sin, to repent of it, and to accept your need for a Savior. Upon that faith, we are regenerated.
“He (Jesus) saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,” Titus 3:5.
God’s whole purpose in this amazing salvation story is to redeem people who believe in Him, who want God to be their God, and who desire to spend eternity with Him.
God is working all of this out by allowing our free will; this takes time, but God is patient (2 Peter 3:9). He wants a heaven full of those who love Him freely, as free will still exists in heaven* to love God forever, as He first loved us. Love cannot be forced because if love is forced, can it be true love?
Think Divinely: “If heaven represents unutterable joy,
then hell should be unutterable sorrow.”
~ John Stott
* Some fear this freedom in heaven, as if we may sin again. I doubt that. For one, Earth is the place where we’ve learned the sin is bad! In addition, Satan and his demons will not be in heaven to tempt us or deceive us. What a relief that will be!