By Sam Welbaum: who is currently working on a PhD in Philosophy of Religion and Theology. In addition, he is the Youth Pastor at Shoreline Baptist Church in Fountain Valley California and is a Staff Apologist with Apologetics.com.
Why are so many people so concerned about defending a doctrine that states that countless people will suffer for all eternity? Wouldn’t it just be nicer to say that everyone gets to be happy for eternity? Perhaps everyone gets to lay back in a hammock eating lemonheads on a beach in New Caledonia while listening to Izzy’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Wouldn’t that be a better story?
No. No, that would not be nicer to say. Why? Because it isn’t true, and hearing truth is far more important than merely hearing what you want to hear. If it were nicer to tell people only what they wanted to hear, then there would be no talk of armed robberies, we would be silent about cancer and we would be mum about war. Yet, if there were a man pointing a gun at my head asking for my money, it would not be nice of you to tell me that it was a blow dryer. Saying falsehood because it sounds nice is not a way to deal with reality.
You may have noted that my analogies in the paragraph above were all negative ones. Does this mean that hell is bad? No. Hell is bad insofar as prison is bad, because that’s what hell is, a prison. Do we think that a life sentence in prison is morally wrong? No, we don’t. So then, why do so many thinkers in today’s world have such a problem with hell? The answer’s easy—people who don’t understand sin, cannot understand hell.
Sticking with the prison analogy, let’s say that a mass murder gets put in jail for life. Most people wouldn’t have a problem with the sentence, and the only ones that did would probably be disappointed that the man wasn’t given the death penalty. Now let’s say that an Eagle Scout steals a candy bar, and when prosecuted, he gets sent to prison for life as well. Almost everyone, except for perhaps those who hate Eagle Scouts or love candy bars, would be outraged. How dare the justice system put this Eagle Scout in jail for life! Prison, where he will suffer and be separated from he outside world! People would find the verdict reprehensible and vile. No one would think that a just punishment was given.
And that right there is the crux of the issue. Why do pastors today seem to have a problem with hell? Why do Christians want to pretend the doctrine doesn’t exist? Why do we desire to have our ears tickled telling us that God would never punish people for eternity? Because we are a world of mass murders who think we are Eagle Scouts.
Now, I’m rather sure that no one reading this is an actually murderer, and I myself often stay my hand from bringing retribution on those who correct my many misspellings. However, the fact is, no matter how good we think we might be, we are only measuring ourselves against each other. I am not as bad as Hitler because I have not killed 6 million Jews. Totally. I’m not saying anyone reading this, nor anyone weakening the doctrine of hell is worse than Hitler, but I am saying that Hitler isn’t our mark of demarcation.
Another example. Those of you who know me are aware that I am not what one would call “in shape” or “physically fit” or any such nonsense. However, when I go to the gym at about 1am, there are usually two or three people there who are more out of shape than I am. So, I do what any sane person would do and I take the treadmill next to them and crank it all the way up to 2.5mph with a 6 incline and I go to town. Suddenly, I look like an athlete. These guys next to me are only doing 1mph on a 0 incline? I’m basically an Olympian. But, if I had to run a 6 minute mile, it doesn’t matter how many out of shape guys I out treadmill, or how athletic I feel, the fact is that in my present state, I’m going to fail.
We can compare ourselves with each other all that we like, but our eternal destination is not a committee decision. When we look to each other to define our goodness, all we end up doing is convincing ourselves that we’re better than we actually are. People think teaching the doctrine of hell is mean, because they don’t think that anyone deserves it. They don’t think anyone deserves it, because they don’t understand the doctrine of sin. Sure they might understand that sin is bad, but when they say its bad, what do they actually mean? Do they think sin is bad in the same way that a mistake is bad? Or that an error is bad? If so, then yes, it would seem that sending someone to eternal punishment is unjust.
Yet we have a just God. And that God spoke about hell. As did Jesus and every New Testament author. None of them gave the idea that hell will be temporary, and none of them gave the idea that someone could leave once there. Those ideas simply aren’t in the Bible. So where do they come from? They come from people not understanding that we actually deserve life terms. They come from people thinking they’re in shape on the treadmill due to the fact that the person next to them is worse off. They come from people not understanding sin as spiting in the face of God. And it is not nicer to tell someone that sin is merely a mistake when it is actually spiting in the face of the Almighty. It is not a better story to say that God thinks, “Oh, they are only human and not all that bad.”
No, that isn’t nicer at all. That is a dangerous, dangerous lie. And it’s a lie that I pray more people will start combating. A Christian who does not take hell seriously is a Christian who does not take sin seriously. A Christian who does not take sin seriously is a Christian who does not take holiness seriously. A Christian who does not take holiness seriously is a Christian who does not take God seriously, and I wonder how Christian such a person is.