Isaac walked warily, picking his steps to avoid the jagged rocks that cut his bare feet. Alert to the spurts of fire that erupt randomly from beneath the ground, he is naked, his feet marred by nasty burns from contact with the glowing embers that seem to lie everywhere. He has searing pain that never ends from wounds that never heal. There is no healing in this place, he mutters to himself. Angry, in an eternal foul mood, he ignores the others that wander nearby. They are fools, worthless, selfish creatures who will do nothing to ease his misery. He looks up at the black sky and spits, hoping that his disgust will reach the very throne of God.
A demon looms off in the distance and Isaac turns to avoid it. Demons are especially cruel, filled with malignant anger towards all the denizens of hell. They attack people like him without provocation, outwardly filled with constant throbbing misery, and taking an evil delight in inflicting physical pain and emotional terror. He could hear the awful wail of a demon in the distance and shuddered. This is the land of misery, of selfish loneliness, of black unfulfilled lusts, of all things broken beyond repair.
Isaac hates. He hates everyone he sees and everyone he has ever known, although he cannot remember anyone he has known anymore. “I AM ISAAC!” he yells but no one looks up as they trudge nearby, carefully picking their way. He hates this hell and the longings that are never met here. He is hungry. He is thirsty. Neither food nor water exist. He wants others to meet his needs but they care as little for him as he does for them. When he asks they usually ignore him. One man tried to murder him, and Isaac beat him with stones until both tired of the pointless effort. One cannot die in this land of the second death, which doesn’t stop the killers from trying to kill. The very land smells foul, and the people in it reek of pus, vomit and decay. “I don’t need help. I am stronger and smarter than all of them.” Isaac picked a leech off his chest and doubled over with an explosion of wrenching coughs.
Isaac cursed. Using every foul word in his vocabulary, he looked up at the exceedingly distant light where sits, he knows, the throne of God and shouts his hatred for the Eternal One. The same hatred he felt on earth, now magnified. This was the place Isaac chose for himself. He prefers it to bowing in submission to the abominably righteous Jesus. Here Isaac holds his head high, his free will is intact, his independent spirit unbroken.
He had once stood before the throne of judgment. There his life had been carefully reviewed in perfect detail. He’d been proud of his grand intellect and smirked at some of his clever lies as they were revealed on the huge screen for the universe to see. Isaac knew that he was a superior human being. It was obvious by comparison to those who had been judged previous to him. Yet, that that “Jesus” had judged HIM lacking. Isaac looked up once more at the black sky and sneered. HE found Jesus deficient. Isaac, still angry, stumbled off once more going nowhere for no reason.
Hell is not “Miller Time.” There will be no parties, no pleasures, no good of any kind. Such a place is defined by one thing: it is as far away from the person and attributes of God as possible. And yet, amazingly, those humans who find themselves there will prefer it to heaven. One reason is that sin actually cannot stand to be in the presence of perfect holiness. We see this in the rejection the “party animals” have for their friend who will no longer join them because of a reformed conscience. Another reason is that sin is by nature, progressive. Habits get worse over time, attitudes are hardened, rebellion ultimately becomes permanent. Such attitudes result in people who hate heaven and hell. Heaven because God is there and hell because it does not serve their needs.
Isaac Asimov, the noted writer of science fiction and non-fiction, said, ” I don’t believe in an afterlife, so I don’t have to spend my whole life fearing hell, or fearing heaven even more. For whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse.”
Ironically, his view of heaven was even more in error than his understanding of hell. But to be wrong about hell is to be horribly, terribly wrong.
Isaac Asimov built universes out of words using an imagination that seemed without limit. As a young boy I devoured Asimov’s wonderful books with joy. He wrote more than 300 of them. Even such a prodigious output of useful writing did not save him from the consequences of his decision. He rejected Jesus out of supreme arrogance and now arrogance is his eternal and only companion. Paradoxically, his talent prevented him from seeing the truth. He preferred to believe in a fantasy of his own creation.
This short study cannot be exhaustive. Much more could be said than I intend to say. Even so, perhaps if, only a little, we remove the ignorance so commonplace in today’s world about Hell, less will be said praising the place. Do the tortures of hell really exist? This is not one of those places that only exist if you believe in it. Jesus taught much more about hell than He did heaven. He warned us, often. He wanted us to fear and dread hell because He knew for certain that it was real.
That leaves us with questions, though. Why does hell exist? Why would a good God send anyone there? It seems that His love would save people from such a fate. Assuming someone does end up in hell, what will it be like? Is the fictional account of Isaac accurate? Finally, why not just wipe out all the bad people, annihilate them from existence instead of sending them to such a nasty place?
1. WHY DOES HELL EXIST?
Simply, the answer is God created it. He did so because His Holiness is sacred, and holiness is utterly repelled by sin and evil. The two cannot coexist in relationship with each other. Therefore a place was created specifically for those who have even a sliver of sin in their souls. There they would no longer have any relationship with the Living God and no benefit from His goodness, love and pleasure.
Hell was created for Satan and his followers (aka demons.) Jesus made this clear in Matthew 25:41 in a passage where He describes the Great Judgment which will come at the end of time and where sentence is passed
41) “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; (All quotations from the NASB, all rights reserved)
In other words, the eternal fire was prepared originally before man was created and reserved for Satan and his followers. The only reason that any humans ever find themselves in the same place is because they participate in the same rebellion. Rebellion against the holiness of God makes a man evil, just as it did Satan.
2. WHY WOULD A GOOD GOD SEND ANYONE THERE?
This question presumes that goodness is at odds with justice. Holiness is perfect goodness; not a motive, thought or deed is even partially evil. No human on earth can do more than imagine it since we are sinners from birth. It is because God is good that people end up in hell. Holiness demands justice for all evil that is done, and it demands separation from it’s evil opposite which it cannot abide.
The reason this is so baffling to humanity is that we fail to see our sin for the depraved evil that it actually represents. Further, we have no idea what perfect holiness looks like. Our standards of goodness are so low we hardly realize that in fact our goodness is, as heaven sees it, repulsively evil.
The only hope for mankind is that we receive true holiness as a gift from a merciful God. Then, we can stand safely and happily in His presence. This perfect righteousness is a gift given to those who, when confronted with the claims and sacrifice of Jesus, give Him Lordship over their will.
No other way exists. This despite the numerous claims of thousands of religions. We are angry with God about this. We argue that He should have provided more options, yet no number of options would ever stop us from clamoring for one more. We don’t like the exclusivity of Jesus as the only way, even though every religion, at some point, makes exclusive claims of their own. Nirvana (more commonly called moksha) for example has an exclusive path that must be followed in order to reach union with the Brahman. This teaching contradicts the teaching of Jesus, and only one of them can be correct. If Jesus is correct, then His warnings about hell are serious, and Nirvana is a path to horrible error. Yet proud humans do and will continue to insist that God is wrong, to the very end of time.
Therefore, the reason there are humans in hell someday, is entirely because it is the place they prefer. Perfect holiness repels them. They will hate hell, but they hate God even more. How dare He judge them!
3. WHAT WILL IT BE LIKE?
Continual reference is made in the Bible to fire and heat. It is endlessly unbearable, and yet the inhabitants do bear it. Jesus used a graphic image in Mark 9:47-48
47) “If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell,
48) where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.”
Jesus was using as a visual reference the city dump of Jerusalem, known as Gehenna. Fires burned constantly to consume the trash, the bodies of criminals and other disposables. The fire served to mask the smell. Worms and insects also aided in the consumption of the bodies.
Several deductions can be drawn from this horrible picture. Decay occurs but it never finishes. I imagine that angry people grow eternally angrier, selfish people find new horizons for their selfishness since we see the same thing on earth. Without repentance sinful habits take deeper root, and angry young men someday become angry old men. Hell will be a place where such a steady progress of sin will never cease. Somehow bodies will decay without being consumed. The fire will cause pain, the wounds will not heal but the body will not die.
Healing is from God, restoration is from God, pleasure is from God, and none of those things will be present in a place without God
This will be a land without repentance, a place filled with rebellion, a country where the worst of human depravity has no boundaries and an eternity to develop.
4. WHY NOT WIPE OUT THE BAD PEOPLE INSTEAD?
Not understanding that our sin is the source of our torments, people are baffled that God would create a place of torment. Why not just eliminate the unsavory, wipe them out, destroy them permanently? He does not. He creates a place where relationship with Him does not exist. Such a place will naturally be a place of torment.
Man is created to be an eternal being. God never destroys any of the eternal beings He has created. Not even demons are destroyed. Instead we are given a chance to choose our preference. This is the mystery of God’s respect for our free will. He will not force us to choose Him. He will not force us to listen to Him. In effect, we will have a hand in creating our own hell. Certainly earth has plenty of evidence of man’s capacity to create a hell-like environment right here and now. History is replete with stories of cruelty and horror which mirror the eternal hell that also exists.
But there is one more story which Jesus told which reveals human nature and supports many of the conclusions I have made in this brief article.
It is found in Luke 16:19-31
19) “Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. 20) And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores,21) and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.22) Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23) In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom 24) And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ 25) But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26) And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’27) And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house– 28) for I have five brothers–in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29) But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30) But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31) But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” (NASB)
I believe that Jesus told a true story here and not a parable. In no parable does Jesus ever name one of the characters. He always said “a certain man. a father, a son, a sower, etc.” Here He does not name the rich man which suggests that the family of the man might hear of the story, and Jesus kindly spared them some pain. Instead He does name the other character.
Lazarus, the poor man, lived a miserable life. He was crippled, covered with sores and too weak to keep dogs from licking them as he lay near the gate of the rich man’s house. Even so, the story suggests that Lazarus was a man who trusted in God and His promises which is a testimony to his faith considering the misery of his life.
The rich man, traditionally named Dives (probably not his real name) lived in cheerful, comfortable splendor every day. His table was set with the best foods, and his guest threw chunks of unused bread on the floor during the meals. These large leftovers would have fed most of the poor in the town, and Lazarus hoped for just one each day.
Lazarus died and probably was not buried but was tossed into the city dump. Angels, however, gave him an honor guard to heaven. Dives died and was buried with the pomp of a rich man but found himself in Hades ( a temporary holding place for those destined eventually for the eternal Hell.) Dives was somehow able to see Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, far off.
Immediately you see that Dives had not repented even though he found himself in Hades!! You would think that such a revelation would lead to a humble change of heart, but I argue that this will not happen even in hell itself.
The rich man still assumes himself to be an equal of Abraham (fellow rich men) and Lazarus to be his inferior. So he asks that the once poor Lazarus be sent to serve him. Abraham’s response is that both Dives and Lazarus are now fixed in eternity. Nothing can change and nothing will change.
“Then send Lazarus to my brothers,” begs Dives. He knows that his brothers are as evil as he. Did it not occur to Dives that Abraham might be a better witness? Again, his perceived superiority to Lazarus is apparent even in Hades.
Now Jesus gives us the punch line. The Bible is sufficient to lead anyone to faith and nothing is it’s equal. Not even the resurrection of someone from the dead will persuade the stubborn sinner.
This is a big surprise. We would expect that spirits visiting from heaven would certainly be persuasive. They convinced Ebenezer Scrooge eventually in that famous fictional story. Considering the sheer horror that hell actually represents, wouldn’t we do anything to avoid it? Do we really even need a supernatural visit from a spirit being?
Actually, neither the fear of hell nor a supernatural event is sufficient to turn a proud, stubborn human being into a follower of Jesus. There is only one hope, which God in his mercy provided. In addition He went to extreme efforts to make it available to us. First He tells us that He is revealed by his splendid creation (the more we study it the more we learn about Him), second by the persistent poking of our conscience and finally by His Word, the Bible. The Bible reveals Jesus, describes and explains Him to anyone who reads it with an open heart. This is why Abraham told Dives that the remaining brothers still had hope. The Bible was right there in their homes. All they needed to do was to read it.
Remember this, it is not the intent of God to send any human to such an awful place as Hell. It is not really a penal colony. It is more like a gated community where the inhabitants choose to isolate themselves from the rest of the holy universe. They are there because they prefer their sin, refuse to repent and are too proud to let God be God of their lives.
Also there are those who imagine that God will over look their sin filled lives. The man in Matthew 22:11 was asked by the king (who represents God), ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. The man attempted to enter heaven wearing his own righteousness. He was arrogant enough to imagine he was good enough on his own merit. He was wrong and he ended up in hell. It’s the ultimate in “What Not to Wear.” Further the wedding cloths represent the lack of relationship with God. He didn’t come for the wedding but to gain the benefits provided by the celebration. Heaven is not a resort hotel. It is a place of eternal relationship with God. His children live there.
It is incomprehensible love, however, that allows any of us to escape this fate. God offers us an eternal relationship with Him instead of the isolation of hell. He even pays the price demanded by justice for our sins so that we can enjoy being with Him forever. Jesus on the cross; Jesus resurrected from the grave is our hope – granted freely to anyone who accepts it. Why would God love those who hate Him? Why would He rescue us from a fate that we deserve even as we lived lives in total defiance of Him? It’s a mystery. The real mystery, though, is not that there is anyone in hell but that there is anyone enjoying God in heaven.
All praise, glory, gratitude and worship to the one who loved us enough to both warn us and then act to save us from the horrors of hell.