I would be insincere if I were to say I like the doctrine of Hell.
I’ve heard of Evangelicals who somehow delight in this doctrine. To be fair, I just can’t for the life of me relate. Perhaps there is some sort of Puritanical prowess to be found in a dispassionate approach to eternal punishment.
To be honest, Hell kind of makes me mad. I can relate to the British theologian John Stott’s words:
Emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal conscious torment] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it . . . my question must be — and is — not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say?
Stott reconciled his emotions with the biblical teaching of Hell by adopting annihilationism. This is a way of interpreting the Bible to say that those who do not go to Heaven will be extinguished in Hell. An interpretation of Scripture that absolves eternal suffering is attractive to me on almost every level — except for the very point of restraint offered by Stott — it doesn’t seem to fit with the Bible.
Apart from Scripture I have both a cognitive and an emotive aversion to Hell. The idea of eternal judgment chafes my political sensitivities. Everlasting pain imposed on millions of people feels very wrong. As a friend recently told me, “Hell is infinitely wrong.” But like Stott I have to bring my logic and emotions into submission to Scripture. Consequently, I find it impossible to reach the same conclusion as him.
I am forced to balance any misgivings I might have about the idea of Hell with the redemptive narrative of Scripture. Herein, Hell takes on a very different tone. In Christ, God has entered time and space and endured his own judgment. As our substitute he became sin, who knew no sin, so that we “the true sinners” might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21 ). This is why the Apostle Paul says that God is both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).
The gospel contextualizes Hell. As J.I. Packer aptly pointed out, “Views about Hell should not be discussed outside the frame of the gospel.” Theologian Peter Toon adds, “God’s judgment and eternal punishment were never proposed as independent topics for reflection and study.”
To isolate the doctrine of Hell from the redemptive framework of Scripture does a disservice both to our emotions and our message. What matters in the end is truth, not my opinion or feelings. Unfortunately, my emotions can rebel against my understanding of the Bible. I have to ask myself if my feelings really matter.
But if Hell is real, as I believe it is, then it certainly matters.
So, yes I don’t like Hell. And no, it doesn’t matter.
To read the second part of this article click here.