For the last half century or so, contemporary Christian faith and practice has been focused on positive and uplifting stories of personal transformation along with a kind of unbridled optimism about what each of us can do with God’s help. But in doing so, has the church ended up downplaying the negative aspects of biblical truth? In order to present Christianity as attractive to others, have we gotten rid of Hell?
Has ridding the Christian grammar of this word emptied the wondrous nature of God and his love for us as seen in the gospel? Whatever happened to Hell? That’s the focus of this edition of White Horse Inn.
“If we have trouble with the God of judgment in the Old Testament, we’ll have even greater reservations about Jesus. They’re one and the same God. When Jesus returns to raise the dead and the whole earth appears before his throne, he will separate the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be welcomed into eternal life, Jesus says, while the goats will be sent to everlasting punishment. It’s from Jesus that we hear the most vivid descriptions of Hell.
“In the Book of Revelation, Jesus announces, ‘Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last. I am the living One. I was dead and now look, I am alive forever and ever. And I hold the keys of death and hell.’ In fact, throughout the book, Jesus is depicted as the lamb upon his throne. He is the rider on the white horse, who comes in vengeance to destroy his enemies. He is the judge, who will cast Satan and all the ungodly into the lake of fire forever and ever. If we have trouble with these previews of coming attractions, then surely we’re going to have even greater trouble with Jesus.”
Term to Learn
Too often discussions of hell go beyond biblical description to alert people to avoid such a dreadful place. The problem here is that hell, rather than God, becomes the object of fear. Think of Jesus’ sober warning: “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” (Matt. 10:28). Hell is not horrible because of alleged implements of torture or its temperature.
Whatever the exact nature of this everlasting judgment, it is horrible ultimately for one reason only: God is present. This sounds strange to those of us familiar with the definition of hell as “separation from God” and heaven as a place for those who have a “personal relationship with God.” But Scripture nowhere speaks in these terms. Quite the contrary, if we read the Bible carefully we conclude that everyone, as a creature made in God’s image, has a personal relationship with God. Therefore, God is, after the fall, either in the relationship of a judge or a father to his creatures. And God, who is present everywhere at all times, will be present forever in hell as the judge.
(Adapted from Michael Horton, “Is Hell Separation from God?” Modern Reformation, May/June 2002, p. 18)