One of our Lord’s great promises is the blessed fellowship we will know in the life to come:
“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”
The Apostle Paul, in Philippians 4:1 and I Thessalonians 2:19 respectively, can hardly contain himself when he thinks about this fellowship:
“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!”
“For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?”
On the other hand, the famous 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is famous for his quip that “hell is other people”. Many want to say “Amen” to this, but then again, a moment’s reflection will tell us that being alone and isolated is no fun either. Broken people that we are, most of us can nevertheless think of at least some people in our lives who we continue to want to be with.
Actually, hell is not other people, but the exact opposite. It is the lack of other people – particularly the people who love you and care about you the most – that would be Christians.
Heaven is other Christians.
If you don’t know any Christians who you think fit that description, I am sorry, but overall, this is true. Christians are called to love all persons, including their enemies, and so you are certainly included in the number of those they are to care for. Christians know that life on earth can be very hard, but ultimately, if they are taking the teachings of their Lord seriously, they want nothing else than to see you in heaven on the other side.[i]
That is why hell, in part, means not being with them. Eternal separation from them.
“Wait, wait, wait,” you might be saying. The Christians I know told me that hell was eternal separation from God – not Christians.
I understand, but I think they are clearly wrong.[ii] So let’s deal with this point first. As a matter of fact, the Scriptures say the following:
“If anyone worships the beast . . . he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (Revelation 14:9–11).
John Piper says that the angels and the Lamb attend this punishment “not for enjoyment but for vindication”. Given that we are told that God does not desire the death of the wicked, I think it is very safe to say that this has little to do with enjoyment. But even accepting for the moment that this does have to do with “vindication,” as Piper suggests, does the torment seen in this passage mean that God is torturing these persons? And if it does not (I don’t think it does) would it nevertheless not just be more humane to destroy, or annihilate, these persons?
No. After all, if a person is convinced that a doctor is trying to kill them (“annihilate” them) rather than heal them, a good and knowledgeable doctor who will not fight against that lie but gives up is not helping that person. The key point here is that it is we, not He, who are the liars (see Rom. 3). It is we who do not love, and do not love the truth.
In the new Four Views on Hell book from Zondervan (2016), you will, at various points in the book, “learn” that:
- God is not loving if He doesn’t give us second chances.
- God is not loving if the punishment of hell is eternal.
- Anyone in hell means God’s plans end in failure.
- God doesn’t love those who are in hell (stated explicitly).
In each of these cases, fallen man projects his sin-infested understanding onto God, in essence accusing Him of what is actually true about us. Insofar as we are sinners, we are unable to help ourselves, and hence always lie and project. Importantly, it is we — not He — who do not understand love. It is we who would be, and in fact are, the destroyers of relationships. As I wrote in a past post:
“Rather than seeing others as those whom we can welcome and share life with – and who have significance outside our own desires and pursuit of happiness – we, often, would rather they simply not exist (for ours is not so much the age of anger and hatred, but apathy and indifference). Men might enjoy using this or that “God” for their own self-centered pursuits, but the flip side of this is that oftentimes, man, the fool, wishes the jealous and zealous God of Israel out of existence (Psalm 14:1). I suggest that this is one reason why there is eternal punishment with God, and not annihilation (the cessation of all personal existence, popular in Eastern conceptions such as Nirvana).”
If we resist this, we simply need Him to hold firm and not give into our lies. Driving home the point vs. “annihilationism”…:
“Though God certainly expressed regret in the O.T. at creating man, He emphatically cannot be said to “take life”, or “snuff out life” in order to be rid of relationships forever, de-Personalizing reality. Said differently, it is man who desires that God not exist, not God who desires that man not exist. Is man really so foolish that he would tell God what love is – namely treating others as if they do not exist, disregarding their presence, and ultimately destroying life, destroying relationships? Evidently. “Would you condemn me [to non-existence or otherwise] that you may be justified?” (Job 40:8). Indeed this is our problem.”
So, I understand things this way: God stands by these forever even if they would always reject Him. For this is the God who, in Christ, wept over Jerusalem before its destruction.[iii]
And with all this said, we can now address the earlier claim: that the punishment of hell is, in part, eternal separation from the children of God.
First of all, going back to Piper, does all of this have to do with vindication? Perhaps to some degree, but not in an “I told you so” kind of way – and not in a way that Jesus hangs around for this reason. Rather, it has to do with justice. And here, our view of justice cannot be so narrow. An important aspect of justice[iv], as N.T. Wright tirelessly points out, is that it has to do with a “setting of the world to rights,” and here, vindication, security, protection, and relief for God’s children would be highlighted.
Rather, we have every reason to believe that this is something that they, even after the final judgment, would ferociously reject and cannot abide. After all, when all the invisible things are made visible and the shadows become reality, Jesus Christ can never again be denied, never again be “out of sight and out of mind”.[v] Therefore, if all of Adam’s children were still together, these enemies would only seek, at every turn, to rage against the Lamb, undermine Him, and crucify Him – at least in the hearts of His children. Therefore, for the sake of His little ones, justice demands that these enemies of the faithful be kept far from them (see the Psalms!). As the Scriptures say, there is a large gulf, and they are unable to cross it. The faithful will never be harassed and persecuted again.
And, at the same time, this is indeed real punishment for those who did not and do not trust in the Lord. This is indeed prison. Why? The reason is not hard to grasp. For though they found themselves enjoying the presence of Christians while on earth – and indeed still long for the comfort and relief their presence would bring (see Luke 16) – this they will have no longer. Again, we need not insist that it is the torment or duration that is the chief punishment of hell. There is also this element of isolation from the goodness experienced from other persons — particularly those who lived according to Christ’s call for obedience and mercy.
For mercy defines the Christian as it defines their God. They do not need to think of hell as a place where the unbelievers are actively tortured, even if, as with Dante, it is only the most grievous sinners who receive such horrific punishment. As a matter of fact, given our charge to love our enemies and show mercy, we should strive to overcome any desire for our enemy’s pain. Rather, Christians can certainly believe that weeping, fire, sulfur, and worm that does not die are powerful symbols of the confused feelings of regret and hate the damned experience as a result of their isolation from the true love they rejected.
Christians further have no reason to believe that God’s love for the wicked ends, even as the hatred the wicked have for Christ will not end. Whether they would be able to choose differently, or are given once and for all what they wanted come the final judgment – persistent rejection of the Lamb of God – we are given no indication there will be another change in their hearts for the better. Even if ideas of “universalism” sync with God’s desires to save all persons, it is nevertheless a notion thoroughly unsupported by the whole of the Scriptures.
So, instead of giving people unwarranted hope that universalism is true, we must insist that God’s judgment has teeth.
He is not in dock, we are. He is not unloving. We are. He is not a liar. We are.
At the same time, Christians should not be ashamed of having sensitive dispositions that recoil from ideas like “double predestination,” and yes, some ideas of hell. God is, after all, hanging on the cross for us for a good reason. As the Lutheran Confessions of 1580 assert:
But it [the true judgment concerning predestination] must be learned alone from the holy Gospel concerning Christ, in which it is clearly testified that God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that He might have mercy upon all, and that He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance and believe in the Lord Christ. Rom. 11:32; Ezek. 18:23; 33:11; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 John 2:2.
Jean-Paul Sartre CC BY-SA 3.0 nl ; Religion overthrowing heresy and hatred in public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Religion_Overthrowing_Heresy_and_Hatred_Legros.jpg ; logo of Universalist Church of America prior to 1961 merger, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication ; N.T. Wright by Gareth Saunders, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
[i] Charles Spurgeon said: “Oh, my brothers and sisters in Christ, if sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay, and not madly destroy themselves. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.” Quoted by Denny Burk, Four Views on Hell, (2016) p. 43.
[ii] Regarding 2 Thes. 1:9, see the comments on pages 34 and 35 in Four Views on Hell, ed. Preston Sprinkle.
[iii] To get more theological, and to address the arguments being made against hell today (see Sprinkle’s favorable comments towards annihilationism), we can say the following: When God “destroys” He confirms persons in their spiritual perishing, disintegration, and dying – sealing the “second death”. Those who experience hell are like “charred chaff,” ruined spiritually forever – they are without spiritual life, true trust and love. Universalists are right that God gives eternity as a gift in Christ to all – for life and reconciliation found for all in Him, man’s Head. At the same time, some reject this eternal life, and this gift, this love, becomes eternal death to them.
[iv] Of course, Hebrews 10:30 and Romans 12:19 speak of the Lord’s vengeance as well. Vengeance is also a part of justice – “just retribution” – even as this should not be understood in a crude, “pound-of-flesh” fashion. For an interesting discussion see this post.
[v] In Four Views on Hell, Jerry L. Walls argues that C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce “illustrates many of the central points of [his essay on purgatory],” including that God shows “optimal grace” to the damned in the life to come (presumably giving them another chance) (see pp. 172-173). On the contrary, Lewis may simply be showing the persistence of damnation, including the persistent attitudes of the damned.