God has put eternity into man’s heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11). The knowledge that there is more to this world than what we see seems to be innate in human nature. it seems God has so wired us that we know there is life beyond the here and now. Every religion acknowledges something beyond, something outside of ourselves. There is something to come. But far more people acknowledge heaven than hell. Though the majority of people believe there is a heaven, very few believe in hell. Even fewer believe they will ever be in hell.
Yet our hearts continue to tell us that there is life and death beyond the grave. Life offers us many hints of what is to come. John Blanchard says, “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. And really, we want it to come—we just don’t want it to come against us. None of us want Hitler to escape some sort of greater judgment, some kind of greater consequence for what he did before taking his own life. Surely a man cannot do all that Hitler did and then escape judgment. What kind of world would that be?
In the aftermath of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins there has been a lot of discussion about hell. I believe in hell—a hell of judgment and torment. But through all of this discussion I have been convicted that I do not believe in this hell strongly enough. It seems unavoidable to me that if I truly believe in this hell, it will have a greater impact on my life and faith. A hell of conscious eternal torment is not the kind of doctrine I can believe in and then just go on my way unaffected. Either I genuinely believe it and it will deeply affect my life, or I pay lip service to it and allow it to make very little difference to me. I don’t see how I can believe it deeply and not have it radically impact my life.
I have been helped in understanding life after death by reading Edward Donnelly’s aptly-titled book Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell. The first half of the book discusses hell in all its horror; the second part turns to heaven with all its 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.