The Greek word that we translate as "hell" is Gehenna. It comes from the Hebrew word for the Valley of Hinnom, or Ben-Hinnom, a valley that lies outside Jerusalem (see Joshua 15:8). It was infamous for being the place where children had been sacrificed by fire in pagan rituals (see 2 Chronicles 28:3). There is no clear proof that it was ever a garbage dump where refuse was burned. Still, over time Gehenna also became the name of the place where sinners were punished after death.
In the New Testament, the suffering of hell is mostly pictured as fire (see Mark 9:43) but also as darkness (see Matthew 25:30; 2 Peter 2:17) and as destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord (see 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Matthew 7:21-23). The point is less to describe hell in detail than to suggest it is a place of torment.
It can be safely assumed from Scripture that hell is just as everlasting as heaven (see Matthew 25:46). There is no talk anywhere in the New Testament of people ever leaving hell. The longest and most widely held view is that those in hell experience torment for eternity, and there remain strong arguments for this view. Some evangelicals, including John Stott, believe there is a biblical case to be made for annihilationism—the theory that at some point those in hell experience "the second death" (Revelation 20), or what is also called eternal destruction. That is, their existence simply ceases, and they suffer eternal consequences in the sense that not the punishment but the consequence lasts forever. Annihilationism remains a minority view, but in either case, the consequences of rejecting God last for eternity.
The doctrine of hell, like most others, comes packaged with other ideas that can't be separated from it. The most important is the Last Judgment.
The idea of God as "Judge of all the earth" appears early in the Bible (Genesis 18:25). God "will judge the world with justice and rule the nations with fairness" (Psalm 9:8). His judgment includes both punishment for the wicked and reward for the faithful:
I, the LORD, love justice.
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
I will faithfully reward my people for their suffering
and make an everlasting covenant with them (Isaiah 61:8).
The Lord will wash the filth from beautiful Zion
and cleanse Jerusalem of its bloodstains
with the hot breath of fiery judgment (Isaiah 4:4).
Many people think the Old Testament is the testament of judgment and the New Testament the testament of grace. That distinction is true in only a limited sense; in fact, the New Testament intensifies the Old Testament ideas of judgment. Similarly, many believe that in the Old Testament we witness a judging God but in the New Testament a merciful Jesus. In the New Testament, however, judgment now becomes associated closely with Jesus himself. The fact that in the New Testament the judge has become Jesus is a crucial factor to note, for it will affect how we understand many of the questions that swirl around hell and judgment.
The Last Judgment is a major theme in the parables of Jesus (see Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50; 21:33-41; 22:1-14; 25:1-13, 31-46, among others). In the Gospel of John, in which Jesus talks so much about God's love, Jesus also says that he acts in God's stead in this capacity: God "has given the Son absolute authority to judge" ( John 5:22) and, "I judge as God tells me. Therefore, my judgment is just, because I carry out the will of the one who sent me, not my own will" (John 5:30).
In the New Testament, God's judgment has already begun in some respects. His wrath is already evident in the way he allows sin to multiply and intensify (see Romans 1:18-32). But the overall focus is on the future judgment, and again, this judgment is associated with Christ (see Acts 10:42), for it will accompany the return of Christ (see Matthew 25:31-33; 2 Timothy 4:1).
All people, including Christians, will be subject to the Last Judgment, and every aspect of life will be judged—not just actions, but even motives (see 1 Corinthians 4:5). But for Christians, the Last Judgment is something they can nonetheless look forward to, for that will be the day when their faith in Christ is vindicated and their blamelessness in Christ is revealed (see 1 Corinthians 1:8; 2 Timothy 4:8).
As we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we
will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can
face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here
in this world (1 John 4:17).
That is the basic overview of the biblical teaching on hell and judgment. There are, of course, nuances and differing interpretations about secondary matters. Certain elements of hell and judgment have been exaggerated here and there, and some biblical images (like fire) have become inordinately dominant in Western culture. But the main truths are clear, and they have constituted the teaching of the church from the beginning. As the fourth-century Nicene Creed puts it, Christ "will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end."
A Judge We Can Trust
Such teaching makes us feel uncomfortable. Some Christians are so unsure of their standing with God that the mere thought of judgment frightens them. Others are not so much concerned about themselves as for their loved ones who have never put their trust in Christ—how will they avoid hell?
Still others, as we see Rob Bell assert in Love Wins think hell and judgment reflect badly on God and want to protect his reputation. So it's understandable that we are tempted to soften the Bible's teaching on hell and judgment. But if we are going to be faithful to what God has revealed to us about hell, we are wise to stick to his revelation—the truths he has communicated to us in Scripture. The key New Testament revelation about judgment is that it is now connected with the person of Jesus Christ. And that makes all the difference.
To be sure, the person doing the judging is not one to be trifled with. He is not "Jesus meek and mild," with no moral backbone. John the Baptist describes Jesus as one who would baptize not only with water but with fire—that's backbone. Jesus himself said that he came not to bring merely peace but also a sword. In his ministry, Jesus had no patience with self-righteousness and hypocrisy. He took a whip to those who desecrated holy places. He made extraordinary demands on those who would follow him, saying that faith in him required nothing less than their death.
But this same Jesus, the one who will be our judge, also welcomed into his company the corrupt tax collector Zacchaeus, the woman caught in adultery, prostitutes, and other assorted sinners. He invited one and all with comforting words like, "Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28) and "I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don't be troubled or afraid" (John 14:27).
And most crucially, the one who will be our judge went to the cross to condemn evil, sin, and death, and to make possible for us the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. The same Jesus who has shown himself to be perfectly just and perfectly merciful is the one who will carry out the judgment. We can have complete confidence in him to do what is right and good on that day.
Adapted from God Wins by Mark Galli. Copyright © 2011 by Mark Galli. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
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