At a women’s conference I went to years ago, the subject of God’s judgement came up. One woman, very bravely, rose to her feet and said, “I simply can’t believe in a God who’d send people to hell.” None of us feels comfortable with that, or if we do, perhaps shouldn’t. But what are the alternatives to what we find in the Bible about God’s final judgement? We could put on blinkers and conclude there’s not too much wrong with the world. We could assume – blasphemously – that God doesn’t mind very much if there is.
But through the cross of Christ, the Creator who made the world good has shown himself to be utterly committed to setting the world right in the end. That must involve the ousting of everything that’s wrong. God’s judgement – his sovereign declaration that this is good and should be upheld and that is bad and should be condemned – is the only alternative to chaos. Can we believe in a God who will not deal decisively with evil?
Any thoughts about hell take us beyond what our five senses can perceive. So they can’t be based on what we prefer. They can be based on what God’s revealed through Jesus. Because of him we do know that God is love. That means we find it difficult to believe in a literal underground torture-chamber of worms, and fires that never go out. But our discomfort with such images can no more allow us to say hell doesn’t exist, than the picture of God as an old man in the sky allows us to conclude he doesn’t.
So what does the Bible say about hell? Two words regularly translated ‘hell’ are the Hebrew word ‘sheol’ in the Old Testament and the Greek word ‘hades’ in the New. Both refer to the general abode of the dead. When Jesus said the gates of hades shall not prevail against God’s people, those gates are a picture of death. What the songwriter says to God – If I make my bed in sheol, you are there – suggests a place that’s still within reach of God’s power. But Job describes death as going to a land of gloom and deep shadow – which indicates it’s not illuminated by God’s presence.
The New Testament says more about hell as the final destination of evildoers. The word used for that is ‘gehenna.’ That was the name of an actual place, the valley outside Jerusalem where the city’s rubbish was burnt, whose fires, presumably, smoldered on and on. Under two of Israel’s most evil kings, it had been the site where children were sacrificed to the god Molech.
Jesus used ‘gehenna’ for hell when speaking about God’s judgement – which he didn’t hold back from doing. He warned of the judgement to come on the city of Jerusalem (which did come in A.D. 70), and he warned of the final judgement on all who don’t do his Father’s will, which he said, was to believe in him. Believing in him is not mere mental assent to the facts about him. It means receiving the forgiveness he alone can offer, and following him in glorifying God by serving others.
Current western thinking that dismisses the idea of hell can neither prevent nor alleviate the horrors that litter the world. The last sixty years have been mercifully free of world wars, but the unspeakable horrors of smaller wars live on in our memory – of Korea and Vietnam, of Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, of the Balkans and Ruanda, of the former Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone and Syria – to name only some. The media bring those horrors into our living rooms, along with news of murders and rapes and other instances of destroying the human lives God made to be loved and honoured.
In the Old Testament, victims of injustice and cruelty continually cried out to God to pass judgement on its perpetrators, and prophets like Isaiah graphically assured people that he will.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu realized, when he pushed for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, that evil must be faced and named, before there can be any possibility of moving on to a better future. Some people who appeared before that Commission refused to face and name what they’d done, despite all the evidence against them. For the sake of moving forward they were let off. The only comfort for their victims’ families is the biblical truth that a higher court awaits them.
If it’s difficult to believe in a God who punishes the unrepentant, it’s even more difficult to believe in a God who won’t. Such a God is unjust, and therefore not worth believing in. But God is just, in all his judgements. Our innate desire for justice is part of the image of him we carry around in ourselves.
To emphasize God’s justice, Jesus told a story about a corrupt judge, who neither feared God nor cared about people. A widow kept coming to him to plead for justice. He kept ignoring her because she was poor. But in the end he gave in and agreed to hear her case, just to stop her bothering him. Jesus’ point was that if even a callous and corrupt judge eventually responds, how much more can we rely on our merciful and righteous God to bring about justice for the people who cry out to him.
Yet that same God, through his prophet Hosea, said this to people who were trying to impress him with their good deeds and animal sacrifices: “I require mercy, not sacrifice.”
We know of two occasions when Jesus quoted those words, to remind people what’s really important to God. Jesus told us to be merciful, as our Father in heaven is merciful. He also said this: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
Has our society, where kindness is generally valued, reached a point where we need to think seriously about Jesus’ words that it’s the merciful who’ll obtain mercy? Take road rage. Any driver can make a mistake. We can guarantee all do, at some point. But some drivers are so possessed by rage at a perceived breach of road etiquette, they relentlessly pursue and even viciously attack, the supposed offender. Where is the mercy they may one day need themselves?
Recently I had a dream – actually more nightmare than dream – which really disturbed me. A young boy, who distinctly resembled someone I know and love very much, was having the life squeezed out of him. Evidently he’d done something to offend his persecutor. He could no longer speak, but his face showed his sheer terror and his eyes were begging for mercy. None was offered. I woke up feeling devastated at the terrifying prospect of a world in which there’s no possibility of mercy.
Whenever a note of judgement is sounded in the Bible, mercy is there as well, peeping through. In the story of the world’s beginnings, Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden God had given them to enjoy. That was the judgement he’d warned them about. But here’s the mercy: to help them deal with their sense of shame, God provided clothes for them to wear. Cain was driven away when he killed his brother Abel – that was God’s judgement. But there was mercy: God put a mark on him, to remind people he was not to be killed. When the extent of evil reduced God’s good world to chaos, he sent a huge flood. That was his judgement. But here’s the mercy: God saved Noah and his family, to make possible a fresh start.
God consigned a whole generation of rebellious Israelites to wandering in the Sinai desert. That was his judgement. But because of his mercy he miraculously fed them – and led them. Again and again their descendants turned to false gods, until God drove them from the land he’d promised Abraham. That was his judgement. But in his mercy he brought them back to it for yet another fresh start.
That pattern of judgement with mercy came to its culmination at a place called The Skull just outside Jerusalem, when God in the person of Jesus, the Christ, was executed by being nailed to a cross. God had mercy on us all, by bearing, in the body he’d taken on, his own judgement on the sins of the world. Perfect justice and perfect mercy – bound together in that one incredible act. Now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. He’s the way off the path that leads to eternal separation from God.
Things happen in this world that are truly terrible, yet we still enjoy God’s good gifts in his good creation. We can enjoy his presence, through the Holy Spirit Jesus sent to be with us. So we can’t really imagine what eternal separation from God would be like, although some writers have tried. Margaret Evening in her book Who Walk Alone, wrote:
I vividly remember a dream I had about visiting hell. A sub-warden led me along a labyrinth of dank, dark passages with little cells on either side. The whole place had a religious feel. Each cell was identical and at its centre was an altar where pale, thin figures knelt in prayer and adoration. “Who are they worshipping?” I asked. My guide replied, “Themselves. This is pure self-worship. They feed on themselves, which is why they’re looking so sickly.”
Margaret Evening concludes: “To spend eternity in solitary confinement, worshipping ourselves – that is hell. Hell is isolation.”
Over against eternal isolation stands the God who is the Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit eternally loving and honouring each other. Our Three-in-One God models for us what we’re made for – community.
Humankind sinks into various kinds of sub-human behaviour, when we fail to reflect God’s image, because we’ve failed to acknowledge his rightful place in his universe. And by persistently ignoring the mercy he holds out to us through Christ, we continue to cut ourselves off from him. To put it another way, we end up in hell. C.S. Lewis said, “It’s as if God says to us, ‘Your will be done.’”
The thought of God’s final judgement on all wrong-doing might horrify us now, especially if we ourselves haven’t suffered too greatly from being wronged. But when the final judgement comes to those who’ve forfeited their human-ness and powered on past every signpost to God’s love, the result of their choices will be seen as inevitable, and somehow even right.
Merciful God, our Maker and our Judge, thank you for the glorious freedom we can have from all fear of hell, and for your Son who bought that freedom for us on the cross. Amen.