THE NEED FOR HELL
by Jeff Hagan
(Tacoma, WA, USA)
Revelation 21:8, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice the magical arts, the idolater and all liars – they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (NIV).
Early on in most of our lives we realize that there are a wide array of miscarriages of justice that take place in our world. Innocent people are unfairly accused of, and often convicted for, acts they had no part of. Others are victims of terrible crimes. Many are born into privilege while others dredge their way through poverty. Some never know the meaning of hunger, while others never know what it feels like not to be hungry. It is true that life is not fair and it just doesn't make sense to us in our humanity.
It often takes a great deal of faith to believe, and maintain the belief, that God is good and just, because the world that He created is actually quite the opposite. One of the obstacles to faith for many is the injustice that we see all around us. Agnostics and atheists will often point out the travesties and suffering of life as evidence showing that God does not exist, that He is not good, or at a minimum He is in some distant and aloof to what is going on.
If we were to ascribe characteristics to God based on the evidence we see in this world, it would be easy to define Him as an uncaring, cruel, biased, unjust, and perhaps even a powerless being. We want to believe in a perfect, moral God as Scripture teaches, yet, there is so much injustice in His creation it can make it difficult at times.
Most people believe that our lives here on earth are just part of the story. Throughout history humanity has believed in some type of heaven and hell (using a variety of names for these places of afterlife). As Christians we believe that in the afterlife we will finally get to see the true character of God. That is where the good, the just, the decent, and the oppressed will finally receive their reward. Most people believe in some type of heavenly reward., but far less believe in a hell.
There are some decent arguments against hell from a merely human perspective. Such as, How could anyone enjoy heaven knowing that someone they love is suffering punishment in outter darkness? How could a just God torture someone for all eternity, I mean forever, because of a short lifetime of sinfulness or faithlessness?
I, for one, believe that too many of us are rigid and literal in our idea of hell. In Dante's classic "The Inferno,” hell is grouped into categories of suffering and the greater the sin, the more severe the punishment. Maybe a fallen loved one will not be tormented for all eternity. Perhaps it will be a brief, tolerable punishment, I'm just spit balling it here. Maybe after that punishment, the soul goes someplace more tolerable in hell but is still not rewarded in heaven. Or, maybe, after a certain amount of time, the sinful soul will reach some level of hell where actual punishment ceases but contentment is still never achieved. I mean we don't really, specifically know. The Bible describes it as a place of eternal fire, yet also of eternal darkness. Fire produces light so how can both be true? The point is simply only God knows precisely how it will operate. No one knows just exactly how punishment will be administered in hell, but if we believe in a just God, then we must accept that it will be distributed justly.
Nevertheless, some type of punishment has to be delivered in order for God to be good. Think about some of the most evil, destructive people in history: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Bundy, Dahmer. They were responsible for brutal mass murders, taking the lives of hundreds of millions of people. They performed torture and acts that are so wicked they don't need to be mentioned in this forum. Would a good and just God simply ignore their atrocious and vile sins? Would He ignore the cries of their victims?
It seems to me that both heaven and hell are an integral part of the eternal plan of a just God. We already discussed that for the most part justice does not really exist on earth. What if that were also the case in the afterlife? If injustice were to continue there, I believe faith would still be able to be shaken there as well.
Think of it in terms of an earthly judge. What would we think of an earthly judge who allowed murderers, rapists, child molesters, kidnappers, or terrorists to walk away freely without punishment? Ironically, many believers who oppose the death penalty do so, using the argument that it is up to God to judge and punish the individual, and not man. What if God didn't punish? What would that reveal about His character?
Heaven without a hell, or an afterlife with rewards but no punishment, would not be the product of a wise and just God. That would be an afterlife that implies God is a God of poor judgment.
In Revelation, we read of the martyrs crying out to God to avenge their spilled blood. I thank heaven there is a hell to punish those who murder(ed) them. For the sake of the oppressed, the murdered, the molested, the kidnapped, and for victims everywhere, I thank heaven for hell so their transgressors will be appropriately disciplined. I thank heaven there is a hell for all those who deserve such punishment. Because without hell, God's just and loving character becomes quite the opposite, unjust and unloving.