“And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Hell is hard. Perhaps no orthodox Christian doctrine is as difficult for folks to get their hearts and minds around as is the notion that those who finally reject God will, upon final judgment, spend an eternity separated from Him in Hell. And, I’ll say this as gently as I can: If the doctrine doesn’t give you at least a bit of unease, you may not be paying very much attention to it.
Indeed, I had a conversation not long ago with a young man who indicated that a significant part of his struggle with embracing Christianity was the idea that other people he knew, friends of his, who were committed to other religious faiths, but were in his view good people, should be condemned to Hell for their choice of worldview. You may have a similar story or be the object of such a story yourself.
While I agree that the doctrine should give us at least a bit of unease because of the appalling nature of the idea of anyone being separated from God for eternity, I don’t agree that it should keep anyone from embracing God. In fact, when we understand the doctrine of Hell based on what the Scriptures have to say about it rather than what our culture mostly falsely teaches us about it, it is actually a doctrine that should reaffirm the justice of God in our minds and draw us into His loving arms.
What we see here in Revelation 20 is one of the most important passages in terms of shaping our view of it. Look with me at why. First, we have to get God’s character right. If we don’t start with a proper understanding of God’s character, we’ll never be able to understand tough doctrines like this one properly. And, one of the most essential things to understand about God’s character is that He is just. He always does what’s right without fail. If He is going to allow someone to exist in punishment apart from Him for eternity, He is going to make it abundantly clear that it is the right thing to do. What’s more, because He is fundamentally loving, He is also going to make sure it is an act driven by love alone.
As we read through the wild events described in Revelation 6-19, it becomes clear that there are two purposes for them. First, in the beginning, it is to call people one last time and with greater volume than at any other time in history to repentance. The reasoning is perhaps this: If they weren’t willing to listen and repent when things were going relatively well, perhaps they will listen and repent when things have descended into chaos. Yet, as John’s vision makes clear, when the chaos rises to a fever pitch, there are still those who will still not repent. Once the time for the chaos has ended, God takes one more approach to demonstrate that some people don’t want to be with Him no matter what.
After the season of tribulation, Jesus Himself returns, the saints who have died in Christ rise from the dead, and they reign over the world for 1,000 years. Imagine that. Jesus is here and in charge personally for 1,000 years. What could be a better situation than that save Heaven itself? How many times have you heard someone exclaim that they would believe in and follow Jesus if only He were here personally? This will be that time.
And, while we aren’t given any details about what this time will be like, given the silence on life being fundamentally different from now minus Jesus being here, I tend to think that normal life will carry on like it was before the chaos of the tribulation. Except Jesus will be here. People will marry and have families and go to work and worship and enjoy times of recreation and eat and obtain the things they need to get by and so on and so forth. And Jesus will be here. This should be the best time to date in human history. For 1,000 years. With Jesus here (are you getting the picture?). What’s more, Satan won’t be here. He’ll be locked in the abyss, unable to cause any of the trouble he otherwise does.
So, we have a 1,000 year period in which Satan is banished and Jesus is here personally ruling over the world. This should demonstrate conclusively that life with God is better than not. There should be no doubt left in anyone’s mind after this, right? Everyone should be fully convinced that they want to be in this kind of a situation for all of eternity, shouldn’t they?
Here’s where things get interesting. After 1,000 years, Satan is let out of the abyss. Surely everyone collectively says, “Take a hike!” and he crawls dejectedly back into his hole with the painful realization that he’s lost. If only. What we see instead is that almost immediately he is able to raise a huge army and lead them to surround Jesus and all those who are still faithful to Him with the intent of destroying them utterly.
How is this? How can all these people reject Jesus so thoroughly after having been with Him for so long? More to the point: If they could reject Him after having spent 1,000 years with Him, all eternity is not going to be enough time to change their mind. Thus, in the millennial kingdom of Christ, God is accomplishing two things. The first is to reward the faithful. They’ve earned this season by their faithfulness. The second, though, is to demonstrate conclusively that some people are not going to follow Him no matter what.
Think about this with me now. For these folks who are absolutely dead set on rejecting God and His ways, would forcing them to endure even more time in His presence be loving or just of God to do? They’ve already made clear they are going to reject Him no matter what He does. Why force them to be in His presence even longer? Instead, God lovingly–if heartbrokenly–gives them what they want. His justice and His love are satisfied and they are given their heart’s desire: To be separated from Him. Oh, they will be miserable and separated from life for eternity (and thus dying), but it would nonetheless be unloving to give them any other end (and not for a lack of trying on His part).
Now, does all of this make the idea of anyone being separated from God and thus in misery for eternity any easier? No, it does not. But does it reveal that the doctrine of Hell should not keep anyone from embracing God because it is somehow unjust (and thus rendering them somehow more just and moral than God)? Yes, I think it does. At the very least, it shows that the doctrine should not be quite the stumbling block it was before. This is tough stuff, to be sure; but tough stuff shouldn’t keep us from God. Instead, it should drive us toward Him to understand Him better. The big picture is that God is committed to us. Shouldn’t we also be committed to Him?