“And anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
This morning we started wrestling through what we are supposed to do with a passage like this one and its disturbing images of the final fate of those who reject God as Lord. We started with the basics: The doctrine of Hell is hard, but it’s also necessary. With those two truths in place, let’s deal with the emotional hard of the idea of Hell being a place of eternal death and fiery torment. Are those both true pictures of Hell? Because, if we’re honest, those are the ideas that drive so many away from the doctrine.
First on the eternal death: As I have said before so many times, if we are going to get hard passages of Scripture right, we have to get God right. In this case, God is the only source of life. To be separated from Him is to be separated from life. It’s like going on a spacewalk without any oxygen hooked up to your suit. If you are separated from life, what do you have? Death, right? That’s just simple logic.
Well, from what we understand of the rest of the story of the Scriptures, our spirits are made for eternity. There is something after this life and it stretches on forever. Ideally, we give our lives over to following Jesus and spend that eternity with God in Heaven. But, if we refuse, God isn’t going to revoke our eternal spirit. We won’t get a resurrection body, but we’ll still have an eternal spirit.
What happens to those folks? God is a God of life. He isn’t going to just wink them out of existence. That would be unjust besides. He will create a place for them to have what they most want: To be apart from Him with themselves as their only lord. For eternity. And, adopting our logic from before, it will be a place where death is all they have because it is totally separated from the God of life. Thus, Hell will be a place of eternal death.
What about the fiery torment? Really? Well, the consistent picture of Hell used by John and Jesus is indeed of a place of burning, fiery, eternal torment. How can God’s justice and God’s mercy allow for such a thing, though? Even assuming these folks are never going to accept Him as Lord, have died living lives of open rebellion against His kingdom, and they are never ever going to change their minds even given the whole of eternity, burning for eternity seems a lot excessive. So, are these descriptions literal?
Well, maybe not. This picture of Hell isn’t the only one we have and the places it appears are consistently where either John or Jesus is speaking figuratively. The imagery has become adopted and common because it’s about all we have in the Scriptures. And, it paints a picture that gets people’s attention for good or for ill. The other picture of Hell comes from Jesus and it is of a place of frustration and darkness away from the Lord. That one hasn’t caught on, though, because it isn’t quite as compelling.
Here’s the thing: Both of these are only images. We don’t know what the final Hell will be like with anything like certainty. Why the fiery imagery then? Think about it. For someone who has decided he is not going to follow God in this life and thus has an eternity apart from God ahead of him, simply being told that he’ll spend forever separated from God in a place of darkness and frustration may not be compelling enough to convince him that he’s making the wrong choice. Because, here’s the other thing: An eternity separated from God would be unimaginably awful. We literally cannot get our minds around it now because we live in a world where the church is alive and active, where God still makes it rain on the just and the unjust alike. No one has ever known a world separated entirely from God. Not a single thing about such an existence will be good.
So what to do? How can we help people get their minds around this reality that being separated from God for eternity, whatever it will be like, will be bad beyond all reckoning? By describing it in as awful terms as people can imagine. And I don’t know about you, but the idea of burning for eternity is about as bad as I can imagine. Thus the imagery.
Now, does this mean that Hell isn’t going to be a place of fiery, eternal torment? Not necessarily. My point is that we don’t know. What we know is that it will be awful beyond imagining. The fiery imagery helps to convey that.
Well, that explains the hard stuff a bit, but does it make it any easier? Probably not. Hell isn’t an easy doctrine. It shouldn’t be. The idea of anyone suffering eternally apart from God should make us uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough to want to make sure we don’t face such a fate and that the people around us don’t either. If you are on such a path, and the imagery makes you angry at the thought of it, it should. It should make you angry enough to want to do something about it. Fortunately, the end this imagery describes is not a foregone conclusion for anyone. Anyone can accept Jesus as their Lord and then we don’t have to worry about it at all.
This is all that remains, then: If you haven’t accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you can do so right now. You can do so right now and this imagery will pose no threat to you at all. You can do so right now and enjoy the life that is truly life now and for all eternity. That seems like a pretty good deal to me. I hope you’ll take it.