(WARNING: What you read may be inflammatory! Read it all before you judge me and remember that I am rubber and you are glue; what you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.)
The following is an article I wrote a few years ago about my problem with the grim doctrine of hellfire and brimstone. Because I was just interviewed by The Washington Times recently about the subject of hell and teenagers, and because Nightline just showed a cut from a recording of our Letter from Hell last week (sound, script and audio by us and video visuals by a youth group friend of ours), I thought a shout out to this old controversial article would be appropriately inappropriate at this time. By the way "redux" comes from a Latin word that means "brought back, resurgent." So with that Latin in mind here you go…
I have a confession to make that may surprise you. I have a serious problem with the doctrine of hell. It's hard to imagine a loving God that would create an eternal place of suffering for sinners. Don't get me wrong, I think that sinners should suffer some. But an eternity of agony in "fire and brimstone" for all those who happen not to be Christians? Come on!
It's a lot easier to imagine hell as a place where people are not physically tortured but psychologically tormented until they regret and repent. Maybe at this point they are even given a second chance to respond to Christ. This kind of hell seems to have the best of both worlds, sinners are punished and then mercy is demonstrated. Perhaps the exception to this rule is the worst of the worst sinners. Those who commit mass murder in the name of some warped ideology like Hitler and Stalin could burn forever as far as I'm concerned.
Or maybe hell could be mere annihilation—eternal extinction of the soul, if you will. When people are plunged into that infernal inferno, it is a final purging of existence. Their slates are wiped clean and they cease to be. As horrible as that may sound, it is infinitely more fathomable than an eternal hell.
I have a problem with accepting a doctrine that condemns the sinner to a forever future without hope, without escape, without a second chance. To be honest my heart begins to hurt and my brain starts to ache when I think about it. Questions flood my mind and question my convictions. Questions like how could a loving God send people to an eternity in fire and brimstone? And if God is so merciful why would He cause people to suffer for so long in such pain?
But no matter how many times I try to explain hell away or redefine and make it palatable to my puny brain, there it is in black and white again and again throughout the pages of the Bible. No matter how I try to imagine it away or tone it down, one thing is clear: The Bible describes hell as for real and forever.
Jesus throws kerosene on the flames when He speaks so matter-of-factly about a literal hell. Did you know that the Son of God spoke more about hell than heaven? Of the 19 times that hell is mentioned in the New Testament, 12 are mentioned by Jesus. And He never described hell as figurative, temporary, or anything less than horrific. Five different times He calls it a place of "weeping and gnashing of teeth." I'm not even sure what gnashing of teeth is, but it doesn't sound pleasant.
Speaking of unpleasant thoughts check out these verses about hell:
"And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind." (Isaiah 66:24)
"But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 8:12)
"He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power." (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9)
"[Anyone who worships evil] will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night…." (Revelation 14:10-11)
The list of verses goes on and on and on. From the Old Testament to the New Testament, from the prophets to the apostles to Jesus Himself, hell is described with real and raw adjectives as your worst fears come true and then multiplied by infinity for eternity.
Here is where the troubling question rears its ugly head once again. How could a loving God send people who He created to suffer in an eternal hell?
And maybe that question is the problem. Oftentimes the twenty-first century version of the Christian God is just loving instead of just and loving. The just part of God (that demands absolute justice, holiness, perfection) has been minimized and the loving part of God (that shows mercy, grace and forgiveness) has been maximized.
Part of the challenge is that there are a growing number of Christians who are attempting to paint their own picture of God with less fiery reds and more pastels. This is a cultural accommodation. To pacify a society that is in love with happy endings, some believers have altered the Biblical theology of hell to something more palatable and less painful.
While most of us Christians believe in some kind of hell, we usually just don't bring it up much. It is unpleasant and leads to too many questions about the character of God. Hell is that crazy doctrine that we keep locked in the basement of our belief systems. We all know that it is there, chained to the underbelly of the theology of the holiness of God. We hope that it stays in the shadows and never comes up in conversation. Why? Because if people found out what we really believed they would think we were radicals, extremists, and kooks.
Or maybe they wouldn't.
Perhaps it would confirm their deepest fears. Maybe it would bring to light thoughts that they try to keep locked in the inner recesses of their souls. Thoughts like, "What if there is an afterlife? What if there is a heaven and hell? Which one will I be going to when I die?"
A Rooftop Story
Before I was a preacher I was a roofer. And I remember one time I was roofing this Jiffy Lube with a crew of guys I had never worked with before. It was Friday afternoon and we were wrapping up the job. These guys couldn't wait to start their weekend partying so that they could "get wasted and laid." As we were gathering our equipment up, they asked me if I was looking forward to "getting some this weekend." I told them that my girlfriend (who is now my wife) and I were holding back with each other until we were married. They looked at me like I was crazy. They began to crack sarcastic comments and make fun of me.
I explained to these guys that I was a Christian and was trying to honor God with our relationship. That made it even worse. They poured the jokes on even more. Now usually I don't take this tack but it was hot and I was tired, so I decided to be a little blunter with them than I usually am about the consequences of sin. The conversation went something like,
"You guys may laugh right now but you won't be laughing later."
"What are you talking about preacher boy?"
"Because even now in the inner recesses of your hearts you know it's true."
"There is a God and there is a final reckoning for everyone before this God."
"Bologna! You're full of _____!"
"Am I? Even now you can hear the distant footsteps of judgment coming ever closer. With every breath we take we are that much closer to giving account of our lives to a God who demands perfection."
"Shut up man! I mean it. SHUT UP!!!"
"I can tell you guys don't want to hear this because you are afraid that I'm right on this. Down deep inside you know that there is a God, there is a judgment and there is an eternal hell."
"Shut up! I mean it, shut up!"
By this time these two roofers were scared out of their wits and trying to pretend that they weren't. It was then that I shared the gospel with them. Although they didn't trust in Christ on the spot I'm sure that for the first time in their lives they thought deeply about their morality and their mortality.
At the end of our conversation they weren't laughing any more. Impending doom is just not that funny.
Our God is a holy God who lit the fires of hell with His hatred for sin. Our God is a loving God who sent His own Son to die on a cross so that we wouldn't have to go there. And therein lies the paradox of the gospel message and of the Christian God: He is not "just loving" but "just and loving."
So it turns out that my problem with hell is my own problem. The Bible has no problem with it, nor does Jesus. So I must accept the doctrine even though it grates against my own logic. And what are the implications?
No holds barred evangelism. Like it or not.
Parts of this article were excerpted from Greg Stier's books Dare 2 Share: A Field Guide to Sharing Your Faith and You're Next: Outrageous stories from my life that could change yours.
Greg Stier is the President and Founder of Dare 2 Share Ministries in Arvada, Colo., where he works with youth leaders and students, equipping them to be effective in sharing the gospel. With experience as a senior teaching pastor and in youth ministry for almost 20 years, Greg has a reputation of knowing and relating to today's teens. He is widely viewed as an authority and expert teen spirituality. He is known for motivating, mobilizing and equipping teens for positive change. For more information on Dare 2 Share Ministries, and the SURVIVE 07/08 conference tour, please visit www.dare2share.org.