Everyone is talking about the existence of hell. Is hell a real place? Is it a literal place of literal torment? It seems that this issue snuck up on us a little bit. Just a month ago a book came out titled Don’t Call It a Comeback. In that book several of the “young, restless, Reformed” authors (myself included) penned chapters discussing issues pertinent to the church today: the gospel, the new birth, Scripture, social justice, homosexuality. These are some of the big issues in the church today and tomorrow. But there is no chapter on hell (the index shows only 2 references to it).
And yet here we are with discussion raging on the existence and nature of hell. This weekend, as I thought about this controversy, I allowed myself a little thought experiment. What would I have to deny in order to deny hell? If I am ever to come to the point of denying the existence of hell, what will be the doctrinal cost of getting there? Though I am sure there is much more that could be said, I came up with four denials.
I Will Deny What Jesus Taught
Jesus believed in the literal existence of a literal hell. It is very difficult to read Luke 16 (the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus) and arrive at any other conclusion except that Jesus believed in hell and that he believed in a hell of conscious torment of body and mind.
The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’
Jesus also believed in the permanence of hell: “[B]esides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” In Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks of hell as the furnace of fire, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. He calls it a place of everlasting fire. This would be strange language for a man to use if he believed that hell did not exist and that it was not a place of horrible torment.
If I am going to deny the existence of hell, I will need to outright deny what Jesus teaches and declare that he is wrong, or I will need to obscure what is so plain. I will need to make all of Jesus’ language symbolic and all of the meaning something other than what is clear. I will need to deny what Jesus says.