Section 9: The End Times
Week 3: The Final Judgment
Day 5: Hell
Hell is a difficult subject. The Bible’s descriptions of it aren’t pleasant:
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out…And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43, 47-48).
If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, 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 for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name” (Rev. 14:9-11).
Not exactly warm and fuzzy images. In an effort to avoid acknowledging that anyone would have to endure that kind of eternal punishment, some theologians argue, hell will turn out to be unnecessary because, in the end, everyone will be saved. They point to passages, such as Phil. 2:10-11, that say every knee will one day bow. They argue this means everyone will at some point acknowledge Christ as Lord and Savior. If that doesn’t happen in this life, in the next they will realize how foolish they’ve been and repent.
It might be nice if that were true, but, when we take a closer look, we can see that is not what Phil 2:10-12 teaches. As Millard Erickson explains, “while it is indeed true that every knee will bow and every tongue confess Christ as Lord, we must picture the wicked not as eagerly joining forces with the Lord, but as surrendering to a conquering army, so to speak. There will be an acquiescence in defeat, not a joyful commitment.”[i]
Additionally, there is no evidence that we get a second chance after we die. In fact, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus suggests the exact opposite. When the rich man who is in torment in hell asks if Lazarus can bring him some water, Abraham replies, “Remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us” (Luke 16:25-26).
Others attempt to avoid the uneasiness we feel about hell by denying that God subjects anyone to eternal punishment. These theologians acknowledge not everyone is saved, but they argue God, as punishment, annihilates unbelievers by wiping them out of existence. This view is generally referred to as annihilationism.
The problem is that it is difficult to square this view with the passages cited above. Something more than passing out of existence seems to be going on. Additionally, Jesus specifically contrasted the punishment of unbelievers and the eternal life given to believers:
They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matt. 25:44-46).
As Erickson explains, “If the one (life) is of unending duration, then the other (punishment) must be also.”[ii]
Read the Bible passages from today’s reading again.
Do you consider hell to be a difficult topic to think or talk about? Why/Why not? Do you find the idea that hell will turn out to be unnecessary attractive? If so, why? How about annihilationism? How do those two views fit with the biblical depictions of hell? Do the necessity of a final judgment and the reality of degrees of punishment alter your view of hell at all?
[i] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Books (1998), 1243.
[ii] Ibid., 1246.