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.
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. 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.” This is complete, absolute poverty.
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 the comparable relief of 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 is as 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.” This ought to invoke a kind of terror, a primal fear.
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. I do not want to conceive because I think it would destroy me.
It is little wonder 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, we must pay attention. We cannot ignore it just because we do not like it.
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 condemning the unsaved to it. 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; not yet. It is just too awful, too weighty. And I know that I deserve to be there.