The doctrine of hell is quite a ‘durian’ in Christianity. Like the infamous fruit, it is a thorny issue that carries an unmistakable smell. Yet for all its pungency and hard-shelled spikiness, there is incomparable treasure hidden away inside. Altogether, some people just can’t stand the whole package, while others are attracted to it!
On the one hand, I’m sure that many souls have been turned away from death or discouraged from sinning by the prospect of fiery torment as punishment for unrepentant sin.
On the other hand, modern sensitivities are put off by the concept of an everlasting punishment for those who do not subscribe to belief in Christ. How can a loving, caring and just God condemn souls to eternal torture just for not living up to His mysterious standards?
Here I present my own current beliefs about hell, which I hope you will find both Scripturally sound and logically, morally and emotionally appealing. I am much influenced by Ravi Zacharias through Lee Strobel’s interview with him in The Case For Faith.
First off, to those hyper-critics in the crowd: God is NOT some sadistic judge and jailer, who arbitrarily sends people to hell when He is displeased. On the contrary, He wants all men to be saved and come to know Him (1 Timothy 2:4).
God is heartbroken and grieved for the lost. Remember that He is the Heavenly Father of ALL people, the Creator of every single one of us. If he cries at our sadness, imagine His agony when His own creations, His very children leave Him no choice but to turn His back on them.
So what is hell? Fire and brimstone and endless torture at the hands of the Devil? Perhaps, perhaps not. But here is my own most basic interpretation: Hell is simply where God is not. Where there is no presence of God, that is hell.
If God is good, God is love, and God is the source and inspiration of every good thing, then without God there can be no good. And God cannot mix around with sin and evil, for then He would no longer be pure good. His holiness demands that any evil be removed from His presence.
Now then, if hell is where God is not, then heaven is where God is. So why doesn’t God just ‘pao’ everybody up and bring them into heaven, where they will happily be His friends for eternity? Well for one thing, forcing everyone to join Him in heaven would be annulling their free will. God will not brainwash people into accepting and livng Him.
Here’s the clincher: Imagine that for his whole life, Fred (name has been changed to protect his identity) wants nothing to do with this “Christian God, Jehovah or Jesus or whatever”. Fred adamantly rejects God and His offer of fellowship. Fred despises the Christian God more than any other philosophy in the world.
Now when Fred dies and his soul departs to the next world… Do you think Fred would want to spend AN ETERNITY with the very thing he HATES, HAS HATED FOR A LIFETIME, AND WILL ALWAYS HATE? That would really be living hell! God simply gives Fred his personal preference: and eternity away from God’s presence.
But surely, nobody would willingly choose eternal pain and discomfort over the ‘minor annoyance’ of everyone else loving and praising and worshiping and talking about a God you can’t tolerate. What about the fire and sulfur and torment and stuff?
I believe that there is indeed torment. But I reckon that is emotional, spiritual and mental torment. It is the anguish that the soul feels for not being with its Holy Creator, and the torment of never being able to LET ITSELF be with God! Yeah, that’s right – human stubbornness and self-pride in life will likely carry on into the afterlife, for all eternity… Forever unable to accept God’s offer of reconciliation to Him.
If you’ve ever had your heart broken, or lost someone you love, or even felt deep regret… You might agree that non-physical pain is often more terrible and unbearable. It is this agony and torture that is meant, the pain of not accepting God. Some may also argue that souls do not feel physical pain, not having physical bodies to sense it with.
But what about all the talk of fire in hell? It came straight from the mouth of Jesus Himself (Matthew 5:22 for example)! But what other characteristics of hell does the Bible tell us about? It is a place of ‘blackest darkness’ (Jude 6, 13). It is where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’ (Mark 9:48). And you can also interpret a ‘fiery lake of burning sulfur’ (Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 14-15).
But wait a second! How can hell be full of fire and burning, yet at the same time be the ‘blackest darkness’? Hell-fire does not emit visible radiation, or what? And what’s this talk of immortal worms? (Bet you hadn’t heard that part before!) Well, it makes more sense if you don’t take it all so literally. There are fire and darkness and worms, yes, but in a metaphoric sense.
Fire is not only tormenting, it is used in the Bible to represent judgement (Deuteronomy 4:24 for example, Isaiah 6:5-7 with a burning hot coal). Jesus is portrayed in His return to this world as pure white, blazing fire for eyes, and a sword coming out of his mouth (Revelation 1:14-16, 19:11-16).
Do you take this to mean, literally, that Jesus has laser eyeballs and wields a sword with His mouth? (I guess Roronoa Zoro isn’t the first then!) Or can you take this as an allegory for His purity, holiness, and coming to judge the nations?
Similarly, the Bible speaks of hell as a place of the fire of judgement – those who rejected and keep on forever rejecting God are judged accordingly. There, they suffer in the blackest darkness – of hopelessness and despair and their own souls’ darkness. God’s light of love does not reach them in their isolation.
The worms could symbolize the horror of realizing your situation – to me, undying worms in my flesh are horribly terrifying! I hate parasites, hate hate hate! But the reference to worms that ‘do not die’ can also be understood to mean a most disgusting and preferably-avoided place.
Apparently, there was an area in that time where all the animal sacrifice leftovers were dumped. Flies and their maggots thrived on the never-ending rotting flesh there. Stinky, oozy and gross! People would have avoided it, like, for miles! Thus the listeners were likewise advised by Jesus to avoid hell.
And what of the Devil, oft portrayed as the ruler of hell? Well, if hell is where God is not, then of course that’s where the Devil would run to hide. But as is clearly stated in Jude 6 and Revelation 20:10, hell is where the Devil and the fallen angels (i.e. demons) will be chained and tormented.
And where does Jesus Christ come into the picture? Here’s my own allegory, which illustrates what Christ does for your soul that good works & positive karma cannot.
So in conclusion, my personal belief is that hell is place of emotional, spiritual and mental torment more than it is of physical torture – it is the agony of a soul forever seperated from its loving Creator. That’s not to say that I am right however, the fire could very well also hurt in the biological sense! And I believe that heaven or hell is what each of us chooses for ourselves, and God honours our choice.
Hell is very real. Let’s do our best to avoid it like… Well, like hell.