By Wade Burleson
There is an epidemic of evangelical confusion when it comes to the biblical teaching of hell. Some contemporary Christians seem to believe (and act as if) hell is outside of God and He has nothing to do with it. In reality, hell is created by God and serves a holy purpose.
Some contemporary Christians wrongly believe that hell is a place of torture. God never tortures sinners; there is no need. The "gnawing worm" of conscience in the sinner justly sentenced to hell is enough torture, and it is all self-inflicted (see Isaiah 66:24; Mark 9:44).
Hell is the place of confinement prepared by God for those He sentences on the day of judgment, a day described by Jesus as "God's coming wrath" (see Matthew 3:7). God's wrath, however, is not like the wrath of your drunk relative. God's anger towards sinners is impartial, unselfish, tempered, just and holy. He takes no pleasure in the sentencing of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:32), but sentences them He will (II Thessalonians 1:8-9). Hell is the Divine prison--the place of confinement--where those sinners outside of Christ are justly sentenced for their crimes against humanity.
Christians need to start viewing hell as the end product of the most efficient, honorable, just and righteous judicial process in the history of mankind.
For example, we have several local and state judges at Emmanuel Enid. The District Attorney for the largest judicial district in Oklahoma is a member of our church. We have many policemen and police women at Emmanuel. We have sheriff deputies and jailors, probation officers, and others who are daily involved in the judicial system of Oklahoma. We consider the judicial system in our city, county and state a very good thing. It is necessary because lawbreakers exist.
The punishment of criminals in our community is a just and holy process because the people involved in the judicial process and the judges who are sentencing the criminals are honorable. The judicial system works, and its effective operation makes life better for people in Enid, Oklahoma.
So it is with God, and so it is with hell. The real hell is really holy. God's hand created it. Every person created in the image of God--but dies without Christ and His redemption--will stand before their Creator and give an account for every idle and thoughtless word, every careless and selfish action, and every hidden intention of the heart. The solemn judicial process on that day will be the most holy, righteous, and honorable event mankind will ever witness.
There will be no cries of "Unjust!" Every mouth will be silenced. Everything wrong will be made right. Justice will finally reign. Again, God will take no pleasure in the sentencing of the wicked to hell, but He will do so for the sake of His honor and His people. Hell is of God, and the real hell is really holy. Hell is the Divine prison created by God to house the wicked.
There are three words that accurately characterize hell from a biblical perspective. Hell is a place of separation, where the sinner is separated from God's mercies by a personal and real imprisonment (II Thessalonians 1:8-9). Hell is a place of isolation, where the sinner is isolated from all human relationships in a place of complete darkness. But what is difficult for many people to understand is that hell is a place of continuation, where the sinner lives, breathes, and exists as a human being. God raises all the dead on the day of judgment (not just the righteous), and those whose names are not in the book of life will have the record books opened and every recorded thought, action, and intention in their lives will be brought to light, and they will give an account to God (Romans 2).
Hell is the prison reserved for those who are found guilty, and according to Romans 3:23, the guilty verdict will be heard by every human being apart from Christ.
Now here's the deal. God is as glorified in the sentencing of the wicked (His justice) as He is in the deliverance of His people from the day of wrath (His grace). Augustine even goes further in his commentary on Isaiah 66:24 when he says, "For those who shall be in hell shall not know what is going on in the joy of the Lord; but they who shall enter into that joy shall know what is going on outside in the outer darkness." In other words, Augustine taught that Scripture declares the holy and judicial punishment of the wicked in hell makes heaven a better place.
Christians throughout the centuries have disagreed on how God's justice is impartially displayed in the sentencing of individual sinners in hell. How is it just for Adolph Hitler to receive the same prison sentence of separation and isolation from God and people that a twelve-year-old boy who dies without Christ receives? Answers to this question vary:
(1). Some say that there will be eventual annihilation. John Stott is in this camp. He says that the prison sentence for the wicked varies. The less wicked are rewarded with a lesser sentence in hell. The most wicked will spend the most time in hell. In the end, all the wicked will receive personal destruction and cease to exist. Eternal life is only the gift for those in Christ.
(2). Some say that there will be expectant restoration. George McDonald and C.S. Lewis were in this camp. McDonald was Lewis' mentor and both wrote of what they called "hopeful restoration" where God would eventually win over and restore even the most wicked with His amazing love. Lewis did not go as far as McDonald, but both men believed in degrees of rewards and punishment in hell, with the hope that God would eventually win the wicked over by His love.
(3). The majority of evangelicals (including me) believe in eternal condemnation. I am sympathetic with both of the arguments above, and understand how people have arrived at them. However, I believe that sin against God deserves eternal condemnation because the sin is against an eternal God. What makes rebellion against God so egregious is the nature of God against whom the sin is committed, not necessarily the nature of the sin.. Fire an arrow through the heart of a deer, you will be praised. Fire an arrow through the heart of a man, you will be condemned. What makes one's action evil is the nature of the One against whom the action is taken. God is eternal, transcendent, and Creator of all. A sin against Him is deserving of eternal condemnation.
However, I do believe that somehow, someway, eternal punishment in hell (which is never torture) will vary from sinner to sinner. Jesus said that the people of Tyre and Sidon would find their sentencing on the day of judgment "more tolerable" than the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Matthew 10:15). For the third time: The real hell is really holy. No mistakes of justice are ever made by God in His righteous and impartial sentencing of the wicked.
Application: Evangelical churches and mission boards make a huge mistake when they don't rightly understand that hell is of God and hell is holy. When we go into the world and act as if God is desperately trying to keep people from hell, we are lying to sinners. Hell is created by God because there are sinners. Instead of going to the world with good news, we should tell them the bad news. Every person outside of Christ will give an account to their Creator for everything they've ever thought, said or done. After being weighed in the scales of His justice, they will be found wanting, and He will sentence them to an appropriate, just and personal term of isolated imprisonment.
However, if sinners begin to feel desperate about their predicament when they hear the bad news, and they begin to feel a desire for deliverance from the wrath to come, then we tell them the good news that Jesus Christ died for sinners.
We churches screw this up big time. We go to sinners who have never felt their accountability to God and say, "Smile, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." Truth is, we should reserve that message to those who are in Christ. Sinners who have never felt their need of a Savior need to be given the grim, solemn news that there is a day of wrath coming. Their only hope is to flee to Him who provides an escape.
When a sinner comes to faith in Christ a Great Exchange takes place. All of the sinner's sins are taken by Christ; all of them--past, present and future--because God is not bound by time and when Christ died He died for all the sins of His people. The believer in Christ exchanges his sins for the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. He takes our sins; we receive His righteousness. This Great Exchange is the reason our names are written in the Book of Life and we escape the Day of Wrath.
The evidence that our name is written in the Book of Life by God Himself is that we are continually growing to love others the way He has loved us (John 13:35) and we live lives that could not be accurately described as "sinless" but lives that are always "turning from" our sins (Matthew 1:21) and "turning toward" God in faith. God's people are trophies of grace and are redeemed for the praise and honor of His grace.
Likewise, men who rebel against their Creator--by their own free agency I might add, never forced to rebel by a holy God--and refuse to bow before the only true Deliverer available to sinners, will experience a just and holy sentence of punishment in hell. For the sake of the praise of God's justice and the recognition of the biblical truth that hell is the Divine means for making all things right in the universe, please never forget that the real hell is really holy.