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The Unbearable Weight of Hell
August 16, 2007
Just thinking seriously about hell presses on my soul and presses upon my heart.
I find it difficult to think about hell. Though I know that hell is real and that God means for us to know at least something about it, I find it hard to read about it and to ponder it. I’m sure I’m not alone here. Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven has over 300,000 copies in print and there are another 200,000 Heaven-related products in print with it. I’m quite sure that he would have sold fewer than 3,000 had the book been titled Hell. Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven has sold millions of copies and has been on the New York Times list of bestsellers for months now where Bill Wiese’s 23 Minutes in Hell has not. We would far rather ponder heaven than hell. And for good reason, obviously.
It seems to me that a knowledge of heaven and of hell is innate in human nature. God has so wired us that we know there is life beyond the here and now. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says “[God] has put eternity into man’s heart” Every religion acknowledges something beyond, something outside of ourselves. There is something to come. But far more people acknowledge heaven than hell. While the majority of people believe there is a heaven and believe they will be there, very few believe in hell. Even fewer believe they will ever be in hell.
Even if people deny the innate knowledge of heaven and hell, our experience in this world it is harder to deny the experience of this world. John Blanchard says, quite brilliantly, “The judgments of God fall often enough in this world to let us know that God judges, but seldom enough to let us know that there must be a judgment to come.” We see God’s judgments in this world often enough to know that God does judge sin and that He is provoked against evil. Yet the scarcity of judgment shows us that there must be more. If God is a judge He must judge all sin, not just some sin. And so we know that more judgment is coming. It must come.
I recent received Edward Donnelly’s aptly-titled Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell. The first half of the book discusses hell in all its fiery horror; the second part turns to heaven with all its beautiful glory. The first half is difficult to read and weighs heavily on the soul; the second is like a sip of cool water on a hot day. The first terrifies; the second elevates. Donnelly is not given to hyperbole or imagination. He does not present a fictionalized vision of hell that owes more to horror movies or medieval art and imaginings than to the Bible. Rather, he simply relates what the Bible tells us, both explicitly and implicitly, about this awful place. He does so under four alliterated headings: Absolute Poverty, Agonizing Pain, Angry Presence and Appalling Prospect.
The absolute poverty of hell is in its separation from God. All that people love and appreciate and enjoy in this life will be stripped away, not for a time but forever. Even all that makes you who you are will be destroyed. “You, as a being, will become ever more degraded, more contemptible, more lonely… Everything good in you will be taken away, and everything bad in you let loose. All your evil passions will burn, increasing and consuming you until you become utterly foul… Nothing good, nothing worthwhile, a horrible monotonous dreariness, unenlivened by a single ray of light as you fester and stew in your loathsomeness. This is what will happen to you.”
The agonizing pain of hell is the utter agony that will be in that place. “The undying worm is something foul, endlessly gnawing at hell’s inhabitants, eating at them continually, giving them no rest. This probably refers to conscience.” Imagine an eternity of a violated but re-sensitized conscience continually attacking, accusing and destroying. There will be weeping—an eternity of pouring out intense grief and anguish and intolerable misery. And there will be gnashing of teeth, perhaps a rage or insanity that will beset those in hell, and for good reason. And, of course, there will be unimaginable physical pain such that people will no doubt cry out for even the worst pain they knew in this life.
The angry presence is the presence not of Satan or of his minions, but of God. Many have been deluded into thinking that Satan will own and control hell, but the reality is that God’s is present in hell as much as He is in heaven. People in hell will spend an eternity in the presence of God, but in the presence of His just wrath against sin. “Here is the ultimate horror of hell; not the absolute poverty, not even the agonizing pain but the angry presence of God.”
And the appalling prospect is that all of this will never end. We all know the words of Amazing Grace where we sing “When we’ve been there ten thousand years / bright shining as the sun / we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise / than when we’ve first begun.” Just as those in heaven will be no further from the end when ten thousand years have elapsed, the same is true of people in hell. We cannot fully imagine eternity and thus cannot fully imagine what it would be like to suffer forever and ever and ever, age after endless age. Our minds cannot conceive; and I’m grateful for that limitation. At the end of this article I’ve excerpted some words of Jonathan Edwards that are worth reading.
Little wonder, based on these four points, that I find the subject almost unbearably weighty. Just thinking seriously about it presses on my soul and presses upon my heart. I would far rather think about heaven and about the reward that awaits there for those who know and love the Lord. But it is good and healthy to think about hell. It would not be healthy to think about it too much or to have a long and deep-seating fascination with it, but because God has revealed to us that there is such a place and because He has seen fit to give us a glimpse of it, it does us good to pay attention. Resources are few. We must, of course, turn to the Bible, the source of all we know about hell. But if we look further we will be surprised at how little there is. Books about heaven outnumber those about hell by a wide margin. Donnelly’s is a good one—short, accessible and biblical. Though it shares utter horror, it also shares hope. Though it describes the ultimate fate of those who refuse Christ, it shares the hope that they might turn to Him before it is too late.
I hate hell. I hate that it exists and hate that it needs to exist. I’m amazed to realize that, when we are heaven, we will praise God for it and that we will glorify Him for creating such a place and for sending the unjust there. But for now I am too filled with pride, too filled with sin to even begin to justly and rightly rejoice in the existence of such a place of torment. I cannot rejoice in such a place and do not gloat that even the wickedest of men with perish there. It is just too awful, too weighty. And I know that I deserve to be there.
This comes from the pen of Jonathan Edwards. To me this is probably the weightiest of all the horrors of hell—considering that it will never end, never ease, never cease. It will continue for all eternity with no hope for reprieve.
Consider what it is to suffer extreme torment forever and ever: to suffer it day and night from one year to another, from one age to another, and from one thousand ages to another (and so adding age to age, and thousands to thousands), in pain, in wailing and lamenting, groaning and shrieking, and gnashing your teeth - with your souls full of dreadful grief and amazement, [and] with your bodies and every member full of racking torture; without any possibility of getting ease; without any possibility of moving God to pity by your cries; without any possibility of hiding yourselves from him; without any possibility of diverting your thoughts from your pain; without any possibility of obtaining any manner of mitigation, or help, or change for the better.
Consider how dreadful despair will be in such torment. How dismal will it be, when you are under these racking torments, to know assuredly that you never, never shall be delivered from them. To have no hope: when you shall wish that you might be turned into nothing, but shall have no hope of it; when you shall wish that you might be turned into a toad or a serpent, but shall have no hope of it; when you would rejoice if you might but have any relief; after you shall have endured these torments millions of ages, but shall have no hope of it. After you shall have worn out the age of the sun, moon, and stars, in your dolorous groans and lamentations, without rest day and night, or one minute’s ease, yet you shall have no hope of ever being delivered. After you shall have worn a thousand more such ages, you shall have no hope, but shall know that you are not one whit nearer to the end of your torments. But that still there are the same groans, the same shrieks, the same doleful cries, incessantly to be made by you, and that the smoke of your torment shall still ascend up forever and ever.
The more the damned in hell think of the eternity of their torments, the more amazing will it appear to them. And alas, they will not be able to keep it out of their minds! Their tortures will not divert them from it, but will fix their attention to it. O how dreadful will eternity appear to them after they shall have been thinking on it for ages together, and shall have so long an experience of their torments! The damned in hell will have two infinites perpetually to amaze them, and swallow them up: one is an infinite God, whose wrath they will bear, and in whom they will behold their perfect and irreconcilable enemy. The other is the infinite duration of their torment.