Hell is an uncomfortable subject. As it should be. No one ought to be light and trite at the thought of it. But it is a reality of Biblical teaching, and one that needs to be thought through carefully and prayerfully.
My purpose here is not to unpack the totality of Biblical teaching on the nature of eternal judgment. Rather, owing to a question I recently received regarding someone struggling with the “justness” of Hell, I just want to advance a few Biblical concepts to help us frame our thinking on the topic a bit more evenly.
There is no need to try and tame, tone down or de-fang Hell as it is portrayed in the Bible. It’s horrors are beyond us. It is meant to be a terrifying prospect. We are warned against it in the most graphic and severe of terms. At the same time Hell is to be understood within the full scope of the Biblical teaching on it, not just a few of the more shocking (and they SHOULD be shocking) passages addressing it.
1. Let me begin by making sure we understand that Hell is not an egalitarian or “one-size-fits-all” proposition.
God is just. As just, He can neither over-punish, nor under-punish anyone. Whatever judgments are meted out in the final analysis must be perfectly fitting both to the crime, and to the criminal. We know this by several different means. First, the way the Old Testament sets out very specific penalties for various sins under various conditions. Even the killing of another human being is treated in several different ways: Was it premeditated? Was it in the heat of passion? Was it the result of an injury but the killer was not intending to take the life? Was it an accident? Was it in self-defense? Was it in the act of protecting another? Was it in war? And several more. Now if God’s Law accounted for such differences, and held different treatments, we may safely assume He does the same in this regard.
Secondly, many fail to take into account Jesus’ own teaching on the subject of judgment when He returns, such as in Luke 12:42–48 “And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? 43 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 44 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 45 But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. 47 And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”
Now I think this speaks directly to the idea of those who never even heard the Gospel in verse 48. The one who did not “know” the Master’s will, is not punished like the one who did, and rejected it. We must be clear here, it does not mean they are saved, but it DOES indicate the experience of their eternal separation from Him will have gradations due at least in part to what they knew. So we can trust Him to be just.
2. Additionally, all of us need to consider whether or not we can humbly admit that it is improper for us in our fallen condition, to judge God in His justness, when ours is skewed due to the Fall. He is never to be judged by us. And if we ARE judging Him, we are in fact making ourselves God, and saying He has to be answerable to our fallen notions of justice. Will we allow that perhaps His justice is higher and less fallible than ours, and again trust that He will be TRULY just in when He judges each and every one? We must do this. As creatures of the Creator, we need to assume our rightful place, and run from trying to usurp His place like we have been doing since the Fall. Remember the lie “you will be like God knowing good and evil.”
3. We also have to note that people are not in Hell because they didn’t hear the Gospel, but because we are all fallen in Adam – and, as Romans 1 points out in no uncertain terms – for rejecting what CAN be known about God as revealed in the creation. Everyone is without excuse because by virtue of creation we have incontrovertible evidence that God exists, and that as Creator has absolute rights over His creatures, and that we do not serve Him. In fact we naturally repress the knowledge of Him. And we KNOW we do not serve Him properly because we sin even against our consciences, which conscience is a remnant of having been made in His image. So there is no one who is “innocent” in that way. Yet again, there is gradation here. Jesus says it will more tolerable in the Day of Judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah, than for those who heard the Gospel and rejected it. (Matt. 10:14-15) What that will look like in the varying experiences of those involved, no one can say with specificity. The details are not revealed to us beyond the reality that some difference does exist. Either way, we can trust Him to do what is right by each of them, individually and corporately.
4. Lastly, it might be good to explore our sense of how severe sinfulness is, compared to how God views its severity. One of the effects of the Fall (the noetic effects) is that we have a dimmer view both of holiness and of sin. Holiness doesn’t seem so high, and sinfulness doesn’t seem so bad. Because we are skewed in this way, it sometimes seems as though God is going overboard. A useful analogy might be that it is like dealing with someone who for medical reasons has their perceptions skewed.
I remember reading about Ciguatera a few years ago. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) web site has this entry: “Ciguatera fish poisoning (or ciguatera) is an illness caused by eating fish that contain toxins produced by a marine microalgae called Gambierdiscus toxicus. Barracuda, black grouper, blackfin snapper, cubera snapper, dog snapper, greater amberjack, hogfish, horse-eye jack, king mackerel, and yellowfin grouper have been known to carry ciguatoxins. People who have ciguatera may experience nausea, vomiting, and neurologic symptoms such as tingling fingers or toes. They also may find that cold things feel hot and hot things feel cold. Ciguatera has no cure. Symptoms usually go away in days or weeks but can last for years. People who have ciguatera can be treated for their symptoms.”
So if a neurotoxin like this can make cold things feel hot, and hot things feel cold – when you are dealing with someone who is suffering under the influence of it, their responses (like thinking the ice water you just gave them is boiling hot) make sense to THEM in their state, but are the opposite of what the normal person experiences. Since the Fall, we live in an abnormal world. Fallenness is normative to us because we’ve never lived in any other environment. But it was not the norm in creation, and will not remain the norm when Christ returns and restores the Kingdom fully. It will never be the norm again for all eternity – perfect holiness will be.
We need to take our view of what SHOULD be our response to sin and holiness from God who is NOT afflicted with sinful distortions, rather than believing our own sinful distortions, even though they are what in fact we do perceive. We judge ourselves as the abnormal, and God as the normal in order to see what is true actuality. A bit like a pilot trusting his instruments in the fog, rather than his subjective feeling of being upright or upside down. The Word gives us the real picture, and when it feels off, it is because our perceptions are off, not the Word.
That being the case, we need once again to trust that He cannot err. He cannot be unjust. He must do what is right and holy – and if it doesn’t fit with our paradigm right now, someday, it will.
Hell is Hell. The Bible presents it as eternal, irreversible torment away from the presence of God and His mercy and grace in Christ. The imagery is designed to be horrific, offensive and off-putting so that no one takes it lightly. It is right for one to recoil at its representations and to desire to find out why it is so horrific and just in God’s eyes, and to flee to Christ for deliverance from it, once its justice is understood. At the same time, Hell must be just – for it is the place of God’s judgment and He must be just. He cannot be any other way. So it is we can trust Him fully in how He uses this instrument of His final judgment. No one, NO ONE can suffer more than what is just, and no one, NO ONE can suffer less. It will be perfectly adapted to the desert of each individual. Sorrowfully, most (if not all of us) judge ourselves less guilty and sinful than we really are, and God far less holy that He really is. So we think – for us – it won’t be so bad. And we are wrong.
The final question is – what is your eternal destination? Will Heaven for you be the presence of Christ? If not, you demonstrate the skewed nature of your perceptions, and you need to let God’s Word tell you the truth, so that you might flee to Christ to understand both your sin and its just punishment, and the remedy for your guilt and rebellion against the Living God in the Cross, and the One who died for human sin there. The Gospel is that all who believe in Him might be forgiven and reconciled to God in Him.