Avoiding the Tendency to Say “To Hell with Hell” – Revisited

"The doctrine of no punishment for any man is popular at this day, and threatens to have
even greater sway in the future." ~ Charles Spurgeon

For me, Hell has always been a tough (if not the toughest!) Christian concept; more so than predestination and free will, more so than the doctrine of the trinity, more so than God’s eternal existence, hell has been a Christian doctrine that I have been forced to grapple with again and again.
 
And it’s not just me. I’ve never met a rational or even-keeled individual who actually likes talking about it. (Now, there’s plenty of people who seem to enjoy talking about it; but notice the clarification, “even-keeled!”)  Let’s face it, eternal damnation and punishment is not a pleasant thought; nor is it easy to thoroughly understand biblically.  The idea seems so far-fetched to many people.  And, for these matters, many Christians either steer clear of the doctrine, because of embarrassment or discomfort, or distort it by lessoning the validity of the doctrine. 
 
One of the reasons why the doctrine is so difficult to understand is because we want to understand everything exhaustively.  One resource puts it this way, ”References to hell in the Gospels draw on a rich and varied background, the historical development of which is complicated and elusive…[and] the Gospel presentation is neither uniform nor tidy. Rather, the reader is left with more general notions of the concept.”1 Though Jesus speaks of Hell often, even he was not exhaustively clear when referring to it.  Jesus speaks of "eternal fire and punishment" as the final destination of the fallen angels and rebellious people (Matt. 25:41,46).  He also says that those who yield their lives to unrighteousness are in danger of the "fire of hell" (Matt. 5:22; 18:8-9). Gehenna (γέεννα), is the word Jesus uses for Hell.  It refers “to a valley located on the south slope of Jerusalem (Josh 15:8; 18:16), literally, the “Valley of (the son of) Hinnom.” It gained its infamous notoriety during the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh, both of whom burned sacrifices there to Molech, even to the point of sacrificing their own sons in the fire (cf. 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; 2 Kings 16:3). This elicited prophetic condemnations on the valley, identifying it as the scene of future carnage and desolation resulting from God’s judgment (Jer. 7:30–33; 19:1–13; 32:34–35; cf. also Is. 31:9; 66:24; 2 Kings 23:10; Lev. 18:21).”2  Tim Keller describes Gehenna as “the valley in which piles of garbage were daily burned as well as the corpses of those without families who could bury them.”3 Gehenna was a horrible place where the stench of death remained.  Gehenna was the opposite of shalom and true life.  In Mark 9:43, Jesus speaks of the longevity of hell in saying, "Gehenna, where the ‘worm does not die and the fire is not quenched'” referring to the eternal (or final) aspect of this state. And in Matthew 10:28 Jesus says, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." Jesus also depicted hell as painful fire and "outer darkness" (Matt. 25:30) and Jude described it similarly (“utter darkness”) in Jude 13 (also see Jude 6-7).
 
Those are just some of the New Testament references on the doctrine of Hell.  Due to the imagery and various ways of communicating the concept, though they saw it as mysterious and allusive, Jesus and the N.T. writers clearly saw it as a reality and a final destination for those who rejected God.  As Christians desiring to remain faithful the Scriptures, we must learn to represent the doctrine in the same manner – an allusive reality. 
 
May we learn to be graciously and boldly clear on what God makes clear; and may we learn to be content with matters that remain allusive, not feeling that we have fill in all the gaps and conclusively speak where God does not. 

A while ago,  Tim Keller (pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC) wrote a great article in which he gives 4 reasons/points for the importance of hell. (And he’s discussing the biblical idea of hell, not some namby-pamby, toothless version of hell.) You can read the article here – Keller on The Importance of Hell

In it, he makes some insightful arguments for the necessity, rationality, and validity of a very difficult doctrine, while also leaving plenty of room for the many mysterious aspects of eternal punishment.  It’s short and to the point (very NYCish!).

With the hype and questions circling the Christian blogosphere due to Rob Bell’s new book, it’s worth the read and consideration…as is actually giving Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, a read instead of just talking about the 128 word paragraph from the publisher and a three minute video introducing the book(Thank you Ben!)

(And yes, I do plan on sharing some thoughts about Love Wins once I finish working my through it.)

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1. Green, J. B., McKnight, S., & Marshall, I. H. (1992). Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels
2. Ibid.
3. Keller, Timothy. The Importance of Hell