It's one of those subjects you just don't talk about. You don't talk about it at home, among friends, or even in the church.
What is it that has caused such avoidance of the topic? Lately it's become a 4-letter word even inside the church walls. Hell seems somewhat disproportionate, a divine overreaction that we no longer wrestle with. We'll explain it away, not talk about it altogether, or just focus on topics such as grace and heaven.
Certain scholars such as N.T. Wright believe it was a result of seeing so much devastation during World War I, a sort of "hell on earth," that began a tendency away from discussions about hell.
Others believe it may have also been a result of fundamental Protestants and Catholics who viewed hell as a major catalyst for their faith. The reason you did or didn't do something was to avoid hell. Obviously, this approach can be void of any proper understanding of grace or a personal relationship with God.
If you're a part of the older generation you may have heard the sermons or even based your faith on the idea of "not wanting to go to hell." The truth is that today's generation would much rather talk about grace. In fact, talk to numerous people under 30 who've been to church much of their life and many have never heard a sermon on hell.
Within the church it seems as though we are continually trying to swing the pendulum back to the center. We're always trying to rediscover the balance in our perspectives and get out of the ditches we find ourselves in. We see the abuse, neglect, or overuse of a particular theological or doctrinal concept and we are quick to swing the other way; well the other way.
As mature followers of Christ I believe it is our duty to see abuse, understand a balanced approach and make the necessary changes. Unfortunately, what happens is that many times we see the abuse of certain doctrines and theological beliefs and we jump into the ditch on the other side of the road.
As a Protestant, for years I've watched my colleagues ignore and discredit the importance of the early church fathers and the rich traditions of the church because we're afraid it will make us Catholic. In essence, we don't respond with wisdom and maturity, instead we see what we don't like and we avoid it altogether. The result is that we miss out on something incredible.
To be completely honest, who really wants to talk about hell? As a pastor, I'll be the first to admit it's a lot easier to talk about grace and heaven than the reality of hell. Most people already feel condemned or like God's disappointed with them and hell just reinforces those thoughts much of the time.
If hell is a reality, and I personally believe it is, then there are some really intense questions with which you have to wrestle.
Can a loving God really send people to an eternity in hell? Will my good friend who has passed away really go to hell even though he/she was a good person? How can it be a place of torment forever?
These are viable questions that really do challenge the core of our faith. Unfortunately, many times our understanding of hell has been disconnected from the greater story of God's redemptive love.
We also tend to ignore the numerous scriptures where Jesus specifically addresses hell. He describes it as a place where the unsaved "will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 8:12) and a place where "they will go away to eternal punishment" (Matthew 25:46). Almost 17% of what Jesus talks about is where we will spend eternity.
Many will deny the reality of hell. Many will embrace universalism, the belief that all people will ultimately be saved. These individuals argue very persuasively that the grace and love of God is too great to allow an eternity in hell.
The argument is persuasive and yet I believe that it actually cuts the legs out from under the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. By denying the reality of hell, we minimize Christ's work on the cross and atonement that saved us from eternity in hell and a life with Him. It's an understanding that God can be both loving and just at the same time without contradicting himself.
Here's a few thoughts that I believe may change our perception of hell and why it's important that we talk about it.
What will hell be like? While the Bible continually uses flames, fire, and darkness to describe hell, it's more likely just imagery used to paint a picture of how bad it will be. I believe the most devastating aspect of hell is separation from God. We cannot begin to imagine a place void of God's presence.
Today, all over the world both believers and unbelievers experience something called "common grace" where they experience God's goodness in various ways. Hell, on the other hand, will be a place of utter darkness, regret, and despair. It will be a place where God is absent and a conscious experience of emotional regret for what was missed will be present.
Does God send us there? The story of redemption is a story of God passionately pursuing each and every person. We are sinful beings and God desires that we spend eternity with him. We must understand that hell is a place that people choose to go when they reject God. When they decide to become the center of their own universe.
It was C.S. Lewis who said, "Hell is a place that is actually locked from the inside." God is not some big bully looking to send people to hell. It is the conscious decision of people rejecting God that determines their destination. God desires life for them. Humans choose life without God.
While there are innumerable aspects of hell to be discussed, here is my challenge and plea:
As followers of Christ, let us not be ashamed or too uncomfortable to talk about the reality of hell. Let us not fall into thinking that a loving God and an eternity in darkness are incompatible and look to make excuses. Let's allow the reality of hell, and the hope of eternity in heaven with Him drive us to bring the light of Jesus Christ to the dark places of the world.
-(Matt Nelson is the lead pastor at City Church.)
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