Gary W. Summers
If there is a God who will damn his children forever, I would rather go to hell than to go to heaven and keep the society of such an infamous tyrant. I make my choice now. I despise that doctrine. It has covered the cheeks of this world with tears. It has polluted the hearts of children, and poisoned the imaginations of men. It has been a constant pain, a perpetual terror to every good man and woman and child. It has filled the good with horror and with fear; but it has had no effect upon the infamous and base. It has wrung the hearts of the tender, it has furrowed the cheeks of the good. This doctrine never should be preached again. What right have you, sir, Mr. clergyman, you, minister of the gospel to stand at the portals of the tomb, at the vestibule of eternity, and fill the future with horror and with fear? I do not believe this doctrine, neither do you. If you did, you could not sleep one moment. Any man who believes it, and has within his breast a decent, throbbing heart, will go insane. A man who believes that doctrine and does not go insane has the heart of a snake and the conscience of a hyena.
These words were composed by Robert G. Ingersoll, the notorious orator, political leader, and atheist of the 19th century (1833-1899). They contain some truth. The Biblical doctrine of hell has caused many people to fear and many to sorrow over loved ones they know are lost. Many have undoubtedly also been driven to prayer on behalf of loved ones or themselves and lost sleep as well. However, neither of these reactions proves that the teaching is false. Some have also feared financial loss, sorrowed over it, and lost hours of sleep. A loss of one’s wealth, however, remains a fiscal possibility. The problem with Ingersoll’s approach is that it does not take into consideration all of the facts that will result in someone being consigned to hell. He is looking at the doctrine from a human rather than a Divine perspective. However, someone who truly wants to explore the issue should look at it from all angles.
Does a Place of Torment Exist?
Does God want anyone to be lost and forever be in torment? No (2 Pet. 3:9). Do the vast majority of human beings want anyone to experience hell? No. It has become so unpopular that many who have professed Christianity have given up on the doctrine and decided that it is not true. Many denominational clergymen gave up on it a long time ago, and some in the Lord’s church have followed suit, agreeing with Edward Fudge’s book, The Fire That Consumes.1 Because some brethren have switched from eternal torment to the theory of annihilation, denominational pastors virtually preach everyone into heaven, and since atheists abhor the idea, then who is keeping the doctrine alive—and for what purpose?
The main proponents of this largely-discarded tenet of Christianity are truth and reality. If the Bible is the inspired Word of God (and it is), then hell exists whether or not anyone believes that it is so. If Jesus is to be trusted (and He is), then there is a fire that shall never be quenched (Mark 9:43). (Why does the fire eternally burn if the souls of men are annihilated in a few seconds?) Our Lord also specified that the punishment lasts as long as the reward—they are both eternal (Mat. 25:46).
So, without question, hell does exist. The question mankind ought to concern itself with is: “Who will be there?” Revelation 20:10 declares that the devil, the sea beast, and the earth beast (the false prophet) shall all be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone. “And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Probably, few people have any difficulty comprehending that the devil deserves to be there in payment for his centuries of deceiving mankind and bringing nothing but sorrow and misery to the earth. But the Bible also teaches that hell will be the final abode of many human beings—in fact, the majority (Mat. 7:13-14). Jesus taught that many would hear these words on the Day of Judgment: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41). Did Ingersoll ever lose sleep over the fact that the devil would be in hell? Did it drive him insane that angels will be there? Or did only human beings concern him—because he is one?
The Reality of Sin
What people made in the image of God need to understand is the concept of sin. Everyone sees manifestations of it. Murder, for example, is understood to be sin by everyone. Unfortunately, it started early in man’s existence with Cain killing Abel. From 1974 to 1996, just the United States alone averaged 20,000 murders per year. Since that time, the number has averaged 16,000. This information comes from statistics on a chart titled: “United States Crime Rates 1960-2010.” It also includes statistics on robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, and rape. The existence and results of evil cannot be denied.
Although we readily see sin at work in people’s lives, we must go to the Bible to find out what God’s definitions are. Sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4—KJV); it defies God’s laws of morality and ethics. Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4—NKJV). Murder is against the laws of our nation, as well as against God’s law. The one who murders disregards the law of both God and man. If man punishes a murderer by putting him in prison for life, can we therefore fault God for putting him in prison for eternity? The question, then, is not, “Should sinners be punished?” but “What is the appropriate punishment?” Many think that eternity in the lake of fire is too severe, but, to understand the situation properly, we must obtain the spiritual perspective that God has concerning sin.
God’s Holiness and its Implications
God is holy. Actually, God possesses many characteristics. For most people, love is often the first one that comes to mind. It is the one thing that Christians and atheists know about God—that He is love. Unfortunately, many people begin and end with that one quality even though a number of others are mentioned in the Bible—including His holiness, justice, and wrath. These lesser-emphasized characteristics must be understood, however, before we can understand God’s grace, love, and mercy. There are five words in the Old Testament translated holy, most of which are related to each other. Following is a composite definition from all five words: “hallowed, dedicated, consecrated, clean ceremonially and morally, pure, pious, religiously kind, good, sacred.” The New Testament words for holy are also related to each other, and they have the same approximate meanings.
It may be difficult for human beings to imagine that the ideal of holiness, which we fall short of, is absolute in God. He is totally untainted by any kind of corruption or immorality. Although aware of evil, He never desires to sin or to practice wickedness. How fortunate for us—since we probably could not even imagine a universe under the control of a malevolent, all-powerful Being, let alone live in one so constructed. God’s character is such that He can neither practice corruption nor fellowship it.
His spiritual creation was perfect. He created the heavenly host, however, with free will; Satan took advantage of this freedom and led a rebellion against God (some of the other angels foolishly hearkening unto him and joining him). They recklessly discarded the pleasures of heaven and the safety that exists in submitting to the will of God. This transgression was repeated on earth. Mankind chose to disobey God’s commandment, also, and, in so doing, lost the earthly paradise that God had granted to Adam and Eve.
A pure and holy God cannot allow evil to remain in heaven. Therefore, He could not “spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell” (2 Pet. 2:4). (The Greek word translated hell in this passage is Tartarus, and it refers to the place of torment for the wicked in the Hadean realm.) This is a temporary separation from God, but it will be made permanent later on when this portion of Hades is cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:13-14). Just as God had to remove the angels who sinned from the heavenly realm, so He will likewise remove to Gehenna, after the Judgment, all who have sinned on earth—and not repented. Goodness and evil cannot commune (2 Cor. 6:14-18). God has no choice but to bring about this separation. His very essence demands it. He cannot possibly be anything other than what He is. Whether the angels or men like or approve of this fact is irrelevant. This is the way God is; He cannot change. Nor, if we comprehended the blessings of His righteousness fully, would we want Him to even try.
Descriptions of Hell
All that a person can do is just try to imagine what existence would be like without any of God’s blessings. What would it be like if He withdrew His goodness, holiness, righteousness, and all other good things from the world? Such is the essence of hell. However vivid our imaginations are, they probably cannot match this reality; we should live in such a way (faithful obedience) that we never find out. The punishment of the unjust is away from the presence of God (2 The. 1:9). God and the righteous will live in one spiritual region; the ungodly and the unsaved will be in their own region far, far away with no possibility of the inhabitants of either kingdom ever interacting. Following are some of the descriptions of the awful final abode of many.
1. The first image that usually comes to mind is that of everlasting fire, which Jesus used quite frequently (Mat. 5:22; 18:6-9; 25:46). All human beings are aware of the properties of fire and what happens to those who are engulfed in flames. Hell consists of eternal flames; the burning sensation never ceases (Jude 7); never does abatement or relief arrive.
2. A second notable feature of hell is its darkness (Mat. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). To have both fire and darkness may seem like a contradiction, but perhaps the smoke of torment (Rev. 14:11) is so thick that no one can see anything. What a horrible yet appropriate punishment for those who choose to walk in darkness instead of the light! What makes this aspect of hell terrifying is the loss of sight and our fear of the unknown. All should want to avoid the “blackness of darkness” (Jude 6, 13).
3. The third horrifying feature of hell is excruciating pain, the response to which is described as “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mat. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 24:51; and 25:30). No doubt Jesus intends to underscore the severity of the pain, the very things that Ingersoll and the atheists protest is incompatible with a loving God. These descriptions are intended to show, however, what life without God (totally without Him) is like. Are these intended to be literal descriptions of hell? The soul is a spiritual entity, but we can only understand and respond to the things that afflict the body. Physical pain is used to describe the suffering that the soul will experience in hell, and it will be every bit as painful as what is described in these passages.
4. Hell is a place of no rest (Rev. 14:11; 20:10). Heaven is the realm where the soul enjoys that blessing. In hell there will never be a time of relief or respite—no matter how brief. Many are the days on earth that people work hard and look forward to that rest in the evening. However, in this kingdom of darkness, rest never comes.
5. No requests will be granted (Luke 16:19-31). The rich man was tormented in the flames of Tartarus, prison where the ungodly await the final judgment. He asked for a little relief but was refused. No requests will be honored in the permanent fiery residence, either.
6. Perhaps the worst feature of hell is that it is a place of no hope. As it has often been stated, “While there’s life, there’s hope.” Prior to death (or the Lord’s return), all have hope, no matter how dark or grim a situation appears, but in hell nothing will ever improve. Therefore, there can be no comfort of better days ahead. No prayers for abatement will be heard; petitions will be futile. The suffering never ceases. For that reason, when Paul was encouraging the brethren about the dead in Christ having hope and ascending to Jesus first, he mentioned that the church should not sorrow over their lost ones as others who have no hope (1 The. 4:13).
7. God promises everlasting life to the faithful, but hell is mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 as a place of everlasting destruction (Mat. 10:28; 2 Pet. 2:3), which is also called the second death (Rev. 20:14; 21:8).
Hell is a place that no one would want to even visit for as little as one minute, let alone dwell there. Someone might ask. “Haven’t these descriptions bolstered Ingersoll’s claim that God is an ‘infamous tyrant’?” God is not cruel for revealing reality to us. In fact, the opposite is true. What human beings need to understand is that: (1) God is holy; (2) God must eradicate sin from His presence; He cannot associate with or fellowship it; and (3) hell is as horrible as it is precisely because nothing of God or His goodness resides there. Given God and His nature, along with the fact that part of man is eternal, the future cannot be any other way.
Nevertheless, God is love. Most people know that fact, but they seem to have forgotten how and why this is a true statement. God’s wondrous love is seen first of all in that He has warned us to avoid hell by describing it to us. We cannot see it with our physical eyes; none of our other senses can reveal hell’s awfulness to us. The only way we could be warned about it is through God revealing it to us. Imagine driving on a winding road through hills. As soon as one rounds a corner, he sees that a bridge is out. Unable to stop in time, he begins a constant crashing descent to the rocks and trees below, thinking all the way, “Why didn’t somebody warn me?” If those who knew of the situation failed to put up a sign, “BRIDGE OUT—ONE MILE AHEAD,” they would be the most callous individuals ever! By erecting the warning sign, they show care and concern for all travelers.
God cannot change the fact that evil must forever be separated from righteousness, but He can and did give mankind abundant warnings concerning the two alternatives. Additionally, He offers great exhortations to make the right choice. Furthermore, He undertook to do something about our sins, which would keep us out of heaven. He initiated, at great cost to Himself, a means of redeeming man. He did not create mankind with the intention of finding additional fuel for the fires of hell. He did not create the angels for such an end, either. The existence of free will is what makes sin possible; Satan chose that course, and he has since persuaded many angels and men to follow him. The angels were already in heaven when they chose to sin; thus, there could be no redemption for them. People, on the other hand, as a combination of spirit and flesh, live in a fleshly realm, during which they choose their eternal abode by either accepting God’s plan of salvation from their sins—or rejecting it.
We cannot truly speak of God’s grace and mercy except as it pertains to our sins. God is always love (as seen in His creation of a perfect world for us to inhabit). However, His grace and mercy only come to the forefront of our attention because of our sins and the need for their forgiveness. God wants human beings to dwell with Him in eternity, but our sins must be removed so He can fellowship us. Of course, this requires repentance, which includes the desire and the determination to cease from sinful ways and practices, and baptism, during which the blood of Jesus washes away sins (Acts 22:16; Rev. 1:5). With our sins washed away, we are also sanctified and justified (1 Cor. 6:11). We must remain faithful until death (Rev. 2:10), walking in the light, and confessing our sins to God as we recognize them (1 John 1:7-9).
Most people have heard of God’s love in connection with sending Jesus to die for our sins (John 3:16), but they have, through the influence of Satan, minimized God’s holiness and justice. God has always made His disposition toward sin clear. He has provided us with numerous examples so we will have no doubts concerning those attributes. Adam and Eve became convinced of God’s justice as they departed from Eden. Nadab and Abihu served as an object lesson to their fellow Israelites that the profane cannot be mixed with the holy. They offered a strange fire to the Lord which had not been set apart (made holy) for that purpose, and fire came out from the Lord to destroy them (Lev. 10:1-2). These men were priests, sons of Aaron, but they were not exempt from obedience or the consequences of sin.
David was “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22); if God were going to overlook sin in human beings, surely David would have been the one for God to exempt. Nevertheless, God held him accountable just as He does everyone. David suffered grievously because of his sins (2 Sam. 12:10-24). By His very nature, God cannot merely ignore sin.
Uzzah had the best of motives when he reached forth his hand to steady the ark of the covenant so it would not fall to the ground. So far as we know, it was not his fault that the ark was being transported improperly, but nevertheless he was struck dead for violating God’s commandment (1 Chr. 13:9-10). Whether Uzzah knew of the penalty for touching the holy objects is irrelevant; God had declared the death penalty for doing so, and it was recorded in the law (Num. 4:15). Uzzah did not realize that he was as profane as the ground; though sincere, he lost his life because he transgressed God’s law. What a striking reminder of the fact that sincere motives are not enough; obedience is also necessary. God punishes sin because He must. No man’s death brings Him pleasure (Eze. 18:32), but to let the sinner escape justice would violate His very nature. For this reason Jesus had to pay the full, horrible price for our sins. Only through a legitimate, perfect sacrifice could the demands of justice be met and the price for our sins be paid. Through the blood of Christ, prompted by God’s grace and love, He offers forgiveness for our sins. His plan of redemption is the only means of removing our sins and restoring fellowship with Him. God’s justice also validates the righteousness of His children by rewarding their obedience. Just as He promised (Heb. 5:9).
The Habitants of Hell
That Satan and his angels will be cast into the lake of fire is acknowledged by nearly everyone, but who else shall suffer eternal destruction? Every human being of accountable age is at risk because sin is that which separates us from God, condemns us, and places us in need of salvation. People must understand that, if God assigns us a place in torment, the reason will be for sins that are not forgiven. God has revealed to us that He cannot fellowship sin and that we must have forgiveness of them to be fit for heaven. He has further made Jesus taste death for every man (Heb. 2:9) so we never have to experience it. However, we must respond to God in the way He has specified to have forgiveness. Many choose not to obey the Gospel; they will therefore be lost. Certain categories of those who will be condemned are listed below.
1. Unbelief will prevent the proper response to God and leave a person in his sins. “But without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Heb. 11:6). Everyone has the evidence for the existence of God (Rom. 1:18-20). Those who have made no attempt to know God are among the lost (2 The. 1:8).
2. One might believe in God but reject the evidence for Jesus being His Divine Son and our Savior. Unless we believe that Jesus is He, we shall die in our sins (John 8:24). The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit involved a rejection of the miracles as evidence of the Deity of Jesus (Mark 3:22-30).
3. Some may come to a knowledge of God but have chosen not to partake of God’s plan for removing sin. A knowledge of truth is not sufficient unless one acts upon it. Would someone say, “So, the bridge is out one mile ahead. I think I’ll press on anyway”? Those “who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” shall also be “punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 The. 1:8-9).
4. Even those who have obeyed the Gospel can be at risk—if they become hypocritical or self-righteous (Mat. 23:13-33), if they adopt a sin they refuse to repent of (1 John 5:16; Luke 13:3), thus making something an idol (1 John 5:21), if they become lazy or neglectful (Mat. 25:1-13; Heb. 2:1-4; Rev. 3:14-22), if they are ensnared or overtaken by the world they had previously escaped (2 Pet. 2), if they fall prey to one or more false doctrines (1 Tim. 4:16), or if they grow discouraged and quit (Heb. 12:1-3).
In other words, God expects all human beings to know, love, and serve Him. We owe Him these things because He created us and offers eternal life to us as well. His constant care and love for us demand a loving response and a willingness to obey Him in all things (Heb. 5:9). It is during this brief, unpredictable life on earth that we make the choice as to whether we want to continue to live with God throughout eternity or whether we would like life better without Him; hell is the realm where God is absent. Now is the only hour that we are guaranteed. The decision to obey God must be made now (2 Cor. 6:2). With whatever time remains, we must grow, perfect ourselves, and engage in service that will honor Christ and build up His kingdom.
Faith and Rest
Do preachers believe in the doctrine of hell? Ingersoll charged that we do not. For what purpose would a man devote his life to warning people if he thought there was no danger? Of course, not all who call themselves preachers do so. Some think of themselves more as a class of professional ministers and pastors and devote themselves to managing the congregation’s affairs. Others preach well in public, which is not as effective as it once was (not that the Gospel lacks power, but people do not come to hear it), but spend little time evangelizing. Preachers can never be content to maintain the status quo without having a goal and a plan for saving souls.
Although Ingersoll’s conclusion is wrong, neither preachers nor members have been as evangelistic in our thinking as we ought to have been. Do we have the attitude of Paul that we are debtors to all men (Rom. 1:14)? Do we agree with him in practice when he wrote: “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22)? Perhaps Ingersoll did not perceive in the lives of the preachers of his day the urgency that existed in the New Testament, or he may have simply not noticed it. One thing is certain—if we do believe that men are lost in sin and will forever suffer because of it, then we cannot relax in our efforts to save them. Many churches are small and dying—sometimes they are satisfied with the status quo, and this attitude is itself sinful. Congregations need a strategy for vitality. Inward individual, spiritual growth is both necessary and wonderful, but numerical growth is crucial for the continuance of the body of Christ and to defeat Satan by snatching souls out of the fire (Jude 23). If we were growing and maturing as Christians, would we not be growing numerically, also, as a result of our evangelistic efforts?
This admonition to ourselves is necessary because we cannot ever allow conditions in the world or in the church to cause us to settle for complacency. There is too much to do—too many lost to be rescued—to allow ourselves a measure of self-pity due to poor conditions, discouragement, or persecution. Regardless of our individual situations, we must continue marching to Zion with determination and vigor.
Can we sleep at night? We do because the physical body needs rest—and because we know that everything does not depend on us. We are but servants; we pray, work, and leave it up to God to give the increase. We also know that people have freedom of choice, and that, sadly, most are choosing to be lost. We know that because many turn down requests to study or to act on the knowledge they have. If we have taught and encouraged sinners to obey the Gospel, and they do not, we cannot bear that responsibility. We are at fault if we fail to present the good news of salvation. May God bless our efforts and grant us wisdom to do the best we can in reaching those yet lost in sin so they do not have to experience hell. Then we and those who respond properly to the Gospel may rest together in the presence of our God, Creator, and Savior.
1 See this writer’s analysis of that book in Profiles in Apostasy #1, published by Contending for the Faith in 2010, pages 51-87.
All Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.
“United States Crime Rates 1960-2010.” United States: Uniform Crime Report—State Statistics from 1960-2010. Diastercenter.com. 26 Jan. 2010.
Reprinted from the 2012 Bellview Lectureship, Pensacola, Florida, What the Bible Says About, Ed. Michael Hatcher