Making Sense of Hell (PT 1. What is the problem?)

A good friend of mine, Tom, recently posted a Facebook note in which he shared some thoughts of his on the doctrine of Hell, our perception of it, and what it means to be in Hell. (The note to which I refer can be found here.)

So as I read what my friend wrote a few times over I noticed several things that were wrong about his view and what seemed to be the underlying assumptions from which he was starting. I had intended to post a blog article on what I thought the problems are with the short article and thereby set the world aright once again. After all, those of us who have spent any amount of time in the blogosphere are well aware that no misconception, misnomer, or outright error published on the internet can go uncorrected. It’s simply not permissible. That’s why we’re here. However after having thought about the thing for about a week I decided that the best course of action, rather than a direct correction of my friend’s musings on the issue, would be to make an independent case for the biblical doctrine of Hell.

The reasons for this are, at least in part, as follows:

1. Hell is a biblical doctrine.

Maybe this should go without saying, but it doesn’t necessarily. There have always been those who deny the existence of Hell outright. Whether we like it or not, the doctrine of Hell is a part of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and should therefore be believed and taught. Which brings me to reason number two.

2. The doctrine of Hell is offensive.

My personal hunch is that this truth lies behind most of the mistakes that believing Christians make when it comes to this doctrine. Nobody struggles to believe John 3:16. It is in fact quite pleasant to believe that God’s love for the world is such that he would do what he did in order to grant everlasting life to “whosoever believes in Him”. But believing “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41) just isn’t all that appealing to the flesh. So we do what people do when they get uncomfortable. We flinch at the hard parts of God’s revelation and try to soften it just enough.

3. It is much easier to tear down the position of another person than it is to make your own case.

This is just simple fairness, I suppose. It isn’t enough as a Christian to just go around showing everybody where they are wrong. That’s easy. We need to know what we believe more than we need to know why the beliefs of others are false. There is a place for that and polemics are good; but polemics must be balanced and even handed.

4. The true, biblical doctrine of Hell, and the correlating doctrines of our sinfulness and God’s righteousness and holiness, make the gospel shine with all the brightness and sweetness that it was meant to (Romans 9:22-23).

So with that introductory material out of the way I want to start with a more foundational issue. What’s so bad about us in the first place? Why would there be a Hell, whatever it is, for people to go to?

So, what is the problem?

When pondering the doctrine of Hell it is good to first have a look at what scripture says about we who are threatened with it’s torments should we be found wanting of the requisite righteousness on judgement day. That’s the problem. We lack the requisite righteousness. The problem is that we are sinners. We are, to put it simply, bad. But we don’t get labeled as sinners because we sin. No we sin for the same reason dogs lick up their own vomit. Dogs behave like dogs. Sinners behave like sinners. We sin because we are sinners. I am speaking, of course, of the doctrine of original sin.

According to The Apology of The Augsburg Confession original sin is simply a lack of original righteousness. To be more specific, it is lack of the original righteousness that Adam had and forfeited. This lack of righteousness means that we lack proper fear of and trust in God, we are ignorant of God as He really is (while still knowing about Him, Romans 1), we have contempt for God, and we are unable to love God. But the real question for the Christian is “What does the word say?”.

So are we really sinners by nature? Do we, in our unconverted state, really lack any ability to love God, truly obey him, and love and trust in him? I think the bible is very clear on this question. The answer is a resounding “Yes!”.

So where does the bible actually say that we are sinners by nature? Consider Genesis 6:5 and 8:21

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”

“And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.”

Here we get a glimpse of what God sees in human nature after the fall. Our hearts intend “evil from our youth” and the thoughts of our hearts are “only evil continually”. But perhaps you will object that God was simply describing humanity as he found it at the time of Noah. He wasn’t necessarily describing humanity at large and in every age. Some people are really good people, you might say. Okay, fair enough. Consider then Paul’s use of Psalm 14 in the third chapter of Romans. Keep in mind that Paul applies these words to all of mankind as universal breakers of God’s divine law

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

But the bible doesn’t say we are born that way, does it? Psalm 51:5 says

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

and Colossians 1:21 says that before conversion people are enemies of God in their minds through their wicked works. Or consider Romans 8:7

“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God‘s law; indeed, it cannot.”

These passages are but a few of the many that could be multiplied in support of the doctrine of original sin. The result of this state in which we find ourselves is that we keep sinning. You and I are rebels against the God of the universe. When it comes to God, scripture is clear. In our natural state we know he is there but hate and remain as ignorant of him as possible. We lie, steal, lust, and worship that which is not God. We are guilty, all of us, of a cosmic mutiny; justice hangs over us like Damocles’ sword and we know it.

The Apostle Paul says in Romans 1:32 that we know God’s justice is waiting, and fair. So the next question is “What does this justice look like?” I’ll tackle that question, which is really the meat of the discussion, in my next entry. Then after I’ve established what is needful about the fearful doctrine of Hell, I promise, there will be some good news.

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