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Why People Go to Hell

I know that it seems as if I have travelled a long distance to make a fairly short trip.  My wife calls this going around your knee to get to your elbow, or is it going around your elbow to get to your knee?  I can never remember.  But I think that the peripheral issues raised over the last several posts are pertinent to answering the question of, why do people go to Hell?
If you put together the data, a clear answer begins to emerge:
1.      Hell was created in response to the rebellion of Satan and the demons (see:  Why was Hell created?)
2.      The fact that people go to Hell affirms the integrity of God’s Word and His character in that He is loving, merciful, and just (see: What if no one goes to Hell?)
3.      God extends grace toward mankind, not desiring for anyone to go to Hell, yet many people will indeed go to Hell (see: The heart of God for Hell.)
In short people go to Hell because they rebel against God, reject His mercy, and ignore His grace.  Simply stated, people go to Hell because they fail to receive the salvation God has accomplished in His Son Jesus Christ.  The most well known chapter of the New Testament supports this answer.  Most people know John 3:16 but fail to realize the message of its context:
John 3:16–21 (ESV)
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

The context of another passage I shared in the previous post also supports the idea that because of what God has done in providing salvation, condemnation to Hell becomes an issue that is singularly focused on Jesus Christ:

1 Timothy 2:3–6 (ESV)
3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

For many who reject Hell, the issue is not so much Hell, but Jesus.  This is where the issues I alluded to in my posts (Is Ghandi in Hell?) and (Why People Go to Hell, A Difficult Topic) become apparent; because we are indeed affirming what the Bible says, if a person does not receive eternal life by repenting of sin and believing on Jesus Christ he or she will go to Hell.  Here the proverbial can of worms is opened.  At this point the discussion begins to degrade into specific cases that are personal in nature and emotionally charged (again see Is Ghandi in Hell? and Why People Go to Hell, A Difficult Topic).  What about people who have never heard of Jesus?  What about children or mentally disabled people who do not have the capability to “believe?”  What about good, honest, salt of the earth people – just because they do not believe in Christ, do they really deserve Hell?  What about my mom, or dad?  What about a husband or a wife (or a close friend) that wasn’t a believer during their life, if I become a Christian does that mean I will go to Heaven but they are left in Hell?  I will seek to address these issues going forward, but for now allow me to draw attention to one area of the topic in light of all the recent discussion of Hell stemming from the Rob Bell controversy.  The Bible indicates that indeed Jesus is the “ransom for all”, but it demands that there be a proper response.  The Bible does not teach that just because Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient for everyone to escape Hell, that everyone will.  When compared with the teaching of Jesus on the necessity of salvation, we could categorize any teaching that insinuates that eventually no one, or at the very least very few will be in Hell to be another gospel.  Paul warns of perversions of the gospel in Galatians 1:6 -9:

Galatians 1:6–9 (ESV)
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

More to come. . .
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The Heart of God for Hell

In the previous post I touched on the idea that the universalist position (that no one or almost no one goes to Hell and if they do, they will not stay long) argues that if Hell exists or that if anyone experiences it eternally, then the love and character of God are diminished.  I argued that if Hell does not exist and if no one goes there, then it does far more damage to the character and love of God because the Bible is essentially a fraud and God is a liar.  Biblically, the existence of Hell does not tarnish the character of God, but rather affirms His love, mercy, and justice.
If one argues that the existence of Hell makes God seem too vindictive and harsh he must ignore the spirit of Scripture.  The Scripture argues that even though Hell exists, it is not the heart of God for anyone to go there.  Here are several texts that affirm that though Hell exists, the heart of God remains loving:
Psalm 86:15 (ESV)
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Ezekiel 33:11 (ESV)
Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?

John 3:16–17 (ESV)
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Romans 2:4 (ESV)
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

1 Timothy 2:3–4 (ESV)
 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
2 Peter 3:9 (ESV)
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

All of these verses, and their surrounding contexts demonstrate:
1.      Even though Hell exists, God remains loving.
2.      Even though Hell exists, God remains just.
3.      Even though Hell exists, God is extending grace toward mankind not desiring anyone to go there.

So then the pertinent question remains, why do people go to Hell?  With the ground work laid over the last several posts, I think now we can sufficiently answer the question at hand.
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What if No One Goes to Hell?

We are continuing to answer the question, why do people go to Hell?  Yet what if we took a moment and asked another question on the way toward an answer?  What if no one goes to Hell?  
In a previous post (Four Views of Hell) I touched on the idea of universalism, that Hell may or may not exist, and if it does, no one, or almost no one, goes to Hell.  A modification of universalism is that people may go to Hell, but no one stays there.  The selling point on this idea is that it makes God more loving and forgiving by eliminating any sense of penalty or harsh judgment.  A truly loving God would never condemn His creatures to eternal torment.  To do so would be unjust.  In the end all will be redeemed and be blessed. 
So what if universalism is correct and we held that if Hell exists at all, then no one goes there, or even that if people go there no one stays?
1.      The narrative of Scripture crumbles into meaninglessness.  Universalists claim that Hell is incompatible with the love of God, but universalism is incompatible with the narrative of Scripture.  As I have noted in previous posts, indeed the Bible describes Hell and says that people are there and that in the future more people will join them.  Universalism ultimately calls into question the integrity of Scripture by insinuating that it does not say what it means.  Universalism demands a selective reading of the Bible and a twisted hermeneutic.  Passages that are compatible with the love of God and the universal blessing of humanity are selected out of context and used as the interpretive key for all others.  Passages that speak of condemnation are categorically ignored, misconstrued, or dismissed.  Yet if we do not trust what the Bible says about Hell, what grounds do we have to trust what it says about Heaven?
2.      The promises of God are nullified.  One of the closing promises of Scripture is God’s promise to make all things new (Rev. 21:5ff).  Part of that promise is not only to secure the redeemed as sons (21:7) but also to damn the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, the murderers, the sexual immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars to the lake of fire.  God has promised to not only seal those who are redeemed, but to condemn those who are not.  We cannot ignore the fact that the promises of God contain both blessing and curse.  We should consider both the goodness and severity of God (Rom. 11:22).  God will not fail to perform His promises (Heb. 10:23), even those that pertain to Hell.
3.      The character of God is called into question.  If no one, or very few go to Hell, then why would God tell us about it and insinuate that lots of people will go there?  If in the end love wins then God is nothing more than a psychologically abusive father at worst or a liar at best.  If we cannot trust that God is telling us the truth about the awfulness of Hell how then can we be sure that He is faithfully revealing to us the blessedness of Heaven?  If God is so dishonest, how can we be assured that all of this is not just some horrible trick?
4.      The cross was senseless.  If no one goes to Hell then we have to seriously question the cross.  What was the death of Jesus all about?  The Bible explains Jesus’ death to be an atoning one.  He did not just die, He died for us.  Jesus becomes the atoning lamb of the Old Testament and post-resurrection every New Testament writer confirms this to be the case.  The New Testament epistles affirm that it is Christ alone that secures our salvation and a constant theme of Scripture from Moses, to Abraham, to Jesus, to Paul is that there must be response by faith.  If no one goes to Hell then Paul grossly misunderstood the cross and Jesus was misled about exactly what God was calling Him to do in sacrifice.  Furthermore, the cross demonstrates the love of God more fully than simply dismissing Hell ever would (Rom. 5:8).  Because God loves us He is moved to act in such a way that the problem of sin is resolved, not simply ignored.  If no one went to Hell it would be as Tim Keller has described it, the work of a sentimental God, not a loving one.
5.      The universal cry for justice is left unanswered.  If no one goes to Hell then one of the most basic cries of our heart falls on deaf ears.  We desire justice.  Throughout the book of Revelation there is rejoicing as God levies His judgments against the unjust.  A foremost example is that as Babylon falls the response is an eruption of praise to God for His salvation (Rev. 18-19).  As God judges sin no one seems perplexed in the end wondering, “But I thought you were a God of love.”  The judgments of God, as horrible as they may be, in the end become a testimony to His love and affirm His righteousness.
The argument is that if no one goes to Hell or stays in Hell, that in the end love wins.  Atheists would take the argument to its logical conclusion and say that if there is a Hell there cannot be a God and if there is a God there cannot be a Hell, so there must be neither (reason that one out in your head; in circles you shall go).  But from a strictly Biblical standpoint if no one goes to Hell, or stays in Hell, then God lied, He is unjust, and cannot be trusted.  It may sound strange to the secular ear, but if no one goes to Hell then God is not great, He is not just, and love loses.  There is a sense in which we can say that people go to Hell because God is who He says He is and He does what He says He will do.  The Bible does not apologize for Hell or try to absolve God of His responsibility as judge.  Universalism argues that based on the character of God there can be no one in Hell, yet Scripture reveals that based on the character of God Hell will not be vacant. 
Is it unjust and unloving for God to condemn someone to Hell?  In Ezekiel 33:17 God uses the prophet to level a glaring accusation, “Your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when it is their own way that is not just.”  To insinuate that there is some version of judgment in which no one goes to Hell or stays there is not a win but rather a catastrophic loss for justice, love, and atonement.  Why do people go to Hell?  People go to Hell because God is love, His Word is true, and He is just.  The Lord is not willing that any should perish, but many will, even still God is faithful and loving (2 Peter 3:9).   The way of the Lord, with judgment, Hell and everyone in it, is love, justice, and mercy.  Ezekiel further develops the argument:
And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’ Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?
 “And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness, and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins. Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die.  Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die.  None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live.
“Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when it is their own way that is not just.  When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it.  And when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he shall live by this.  Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.”

Initially it seems better than the current state of affairs to theorize that no one goes to Hell.  But if no one goes to Hell we end with serious doubts about the Bible and ultimately serious doubts about God.  If no one goes to Hell love, justice, and mercy are not exalted, instead they each collapse into an empty mirage.  If no one goes to Hell the problem of sin is not solved.  All things are not new.  Sin cannot be dismissed, it must be atoned.  If no one goes to Hell, love does not win.  Love loses.
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Why Was Hell Created?

We are in the midst of answering the question, Why do people go to Hell (which began with the post Is Ghandi in Hell)?  Like most questions, this is one that engenders many others such as, Why was Hell created?  If we can shed some light on why God created Hell we can perhaps begin to understand its purpose. 
It may be surprising then, to know that the Bible reveals to us that Hell was not created as a place for the eternal punishment of people.  In a series parables explaining the nature of the Kingdom and the judgment, Jesus describes Hell as, “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).” 
What can we glean from this?
1.   We know that God is the creator of all things (Gen. 1:1) and certainly we can ascribe the creation of Hell to Him. 
2.  Yet Gen. 1:1 gives us no reason to assume that Hell was included in the original creation.  Thus we can say that, in its original state of “very good (Gen. 1:31)” there was no provision made for the punishment of sin and rebellion against God. 
3.   Hell, or an eternal place of torment, was not created until Satan rebelled against God (Isa. 14; Eze. 28).  This rebellion took place sometime between creation and the temptation of man, or Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 3:1.
4.   Creatively then, we can say that God did not create man for damnation in Hell.  Something happened between man and God that made Hell a possibility for man.
It is here that we begin to unravel why people go to Hell.  From a survey of relevant passages, many of which are not listed here, we find connection between the reason Hell was prepared for Satan and the demons and why man can also be condemned to Hell.  The connection is in rebellion against God.  1 Timothy 3:6 makes this connection plain for us.  In describing the qualities of someone who serves the church as overseer, Paul writes,
“He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.”
More to come
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Why People Go to Hell, A Difficult Topic

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Another reason (previous post) the topic of why people go to Hell is difficult is because the possibility that a loved one may be suffering torment in the afterlife is extremely emotionally troubling.  When arguments become emotional they often cease to be rational.  It is difficult to cover this topic objectively without coming across as being judgmental and insensitive.  After all, if we live long enough, and discuss this topic enough, we will come to know and love people to whom the issue applies.  When we are talking about people in the afterlife we are not talking about imaginary, fictitious characters but actual people.  At some point we will come to this realization and naturally begin to draw connections.  This emotional attachment may cause us to distance ourselves from the argument, to draw conclusions that may be emotionally comforting but may not be Biblically supported, or we may deflect the issue by focusing our attention on the moral failings of those offering their arguments.  In the case of the later, the argument often ends with someone quoting John 8:7, "He who is without sin, cast the first stone."  Ironically this is one of the most quoted verses of the Bible but it is in a short section of John that has weak manuscript support (an argument for another day).
There are also some theological questions that add to the difficulty of the issue of people being in Hell.  The questions are often along the lines of:  1)  Do children who do not have a sense of moral culpability go to Hell if they die?  2)  Do people who have never had an opportunity to hear the gospel go to Hell when they die?  I'm sure my 5 pt. friends will have plenty to say on this issue, and probably will.  But since its my blog (which gives me exclusive rights to moderate the page) and I am only a 3.73748422038 pt. Calvinist you will have to defer the right to me to speak first :) and I will.

This said, I think it is imperative to draw the following conclusions as we move forward in talking about why people go to Hell:

1.      Just because we cannot say specifically who is in Hell does not mean we cannot know why people go to Hell. 
a.       The Bible does not major on telling us specifically "who" is in Hell.
b.      The Bible does major on telling us "why" specifically people go to Hell.
c.       We should keep our majors Biblical.
2.      Speaking about why people go to Hell is not the same as condemning specific people to Hell.  It is important to make the distinction.  Ultimately judgment is with the Lord.  Let's leave it there.  Yet we must affirm, again, that the Bible tells us why people go to Hell.  All we can do is affirm what He has revealed to us in His Word.  To the best of my ability, this is what I will seek to do going forward.
3.      The reason it is important for us to discuss why people go to Hell is not simply so we can know why people go to Hell.  We discuss this matter for the very reason that God reveals this information to us, so that people can avoid going to Hell.  The Bible says that God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to eternal life (2 Peter 3:9).  In this discussion we should conform to the attitude of God. 

I leave you with an old "preacher story" to illustrate my point. 

A church hosted two pastoral candidates on consecutive Sundays.  Both preached on Hell.  The first candidate was rejected.  The second was hired.  When a man on the search committee was asked why the first candidate was rejected, though both candidates preached on Hell, he replied, "The first man preached as if he was glad people were going to Hell.  The second preached as if he did not want anyone to go.  That's the difference." 

Let's also be careful to know the difference.
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Is Gandhi In Hell?

The next topic in this series on Hell is to discuss why people go to Hell.  With this issue it is natural to draw inferences concerning “who” actually has gone, or will go to Hell.  Thus, we enter into volatile territory.  There are several factors here that make this a difficult discussion.  I will flesh out these reasons over the next few posts.
In broaching this topic there will be accusation that the discussion is judgmental and condemns specific people to Hell.  For instance, when we outline "why" people go to Hell there will naturally be people "who" we may not think comply (if they are living) or complied (if they are not living) to the criteria.  Yet, without Biblical revelation, it is impossible for us to know specifically who is in Hell, therefore we should refrain from casting judgment or drawing conclusions that any specific person is in Hell.  No matter what we say, we can be sure that we do not know who is specifically “where” until we see them physically “there.”  The Bible gives us reasons to be hopeful and confident concerning the witness of those who lived an unapologetic witness for Christ that they are with Him in Heaven, as it also gives us confidence and warns us that those who live in open rebellion against God and fail to believe upon His Son, will end in eternal doom (1 Cor. 6:9-10).  These are offered to us as assurances, yet the Bible never leaves it to us to offer the final word on any specific person concerning placement.  If we do so we could make a grave mistake.  I do not want to venerate the wicked, nor do I want to condemn the righteous (Prov. 17:15).  We are flawed.  We can be easily deceived and the Bible leaves the eternal fate of the soul to the authority of God alone.  I have every right to warn.  I have no right to condemn.  All I can do is affirm what the Bible says, which gives me confidence, but the Bible does not allow me to cast condemning judgment on a specific person or a group of people as if I am certain.  At this time, the only people I know who are in Hell are the people that the Bible says are there.  This principle should help guide our discussion and keep us from error.
For example, in Luke 16 Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  The rich man is suffering in the afterlife.  Thus, we can say that there is a rich man who once had a beggar named Lazarus at his gate, who also had five brothers, who is in Hell.  About him, I can say not only with confidence, but with certainty, he is there right now.  Yet, some would object that Luke 16 is a parable, an illustrative example of spiritual truth and as such does not speak of specific people but rather fictitious characters.  I would argue that if this is a parable, I find it odd that it is the only one in which Jesus gives us a specific name.  Furthermore, why is it important to the story, if it is fictitious and illustrative, to specify that the rich man had five brothers?  Why number them at all?  Why not simply say "brothers”, which infers plurality but falls short of specifics?  What does it matter if he has five, or three, or eight if the story is only a parable?  In the story of the prodigal son it is vital to the story that we know there are two sons of the father, each of them play a vital role in the story, yet neither are named (Luke 15:11).  This is not the case in the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  The tension of the rich man’s plea is that his brothers are ignorant of their impending doom, why then does it matter that there are five or forty or ten?  I would argue that the story specifies five because it is speaking of a specific rich man that actually had five brothers.  The way Jesus develops the characters would certainly imply that this is so.  If this is the case, why does the Bible name Lazarus but not the rich man with five brothers?  I don't know.  Yet, although I do not have space to argue my case here (as it is not the purpose of this post), I would even argue that the story is not a parable.  If it is, it does not fit the genre well when compared with the other parables Jesus told.  Yet if it is a parable, we must say that it is unlike any other parable in that it draws from a specific named example.  This parable not only gives us confidence, but concerning Lazarus and the rich man with five brothers, it allows us to speak with certainty. 
So what are we saying in light of our topic, “Why do people go to Hell?”  In discussing "why" people go to Hell, we naturally seek to draw connections with "who" goes to Hell.  Although this seems to be the logical inference, it is not one that is safe, nor is it one that is possible to support outside of Biblical revelation.   Thus it is very important that we discuss this matter at the point of "why" and try our best not to overemphasize the specifics of "who."  This will keep us from not only making the mistake of stereotypically condemning people to Hell, but it will also help us not to be deceived in thinking that all dogs, Hollywood stars, athletes, and church members go to Heaven.   
From the short video trailer I have seen, it seems that this is a point Rob Bell desires to make.  Though I cannot take the train of thought to the conclusions he has drawn, I can agree with him that I do not have the freedom to say with certainty that Gandhi is in Hell and thus I should not put a sign on an art exhibit that condemns him.  Doing so is not only poor taste, but poor theology and in the end it is not helpful to the furtherance of the gospel.  Yet, I can say with certainty that if Gandhi, or any Baptist, or Catholic, or Mother Teresa, or Muslim did not know Jesus as his or her Savior that indeed he or she, like every other person in the same condition will suffer Hell.  If you parse that statement out you will see that it is a statement of “why” and not a statement of “who.”  Misunderstanding this distinction is what I am trying to help you the reader and me the writer to avoid.    I did not know Gandhi.  I do not know his relationship to Christ.  I do not know how God worked in his soul, and I sure have not seen the man in Hell.  If he is in Hell, I can tell you “why” he is there, but until I see him there, I cannot tell you that he is indeed there.  The Bible gives me grounds to express “confidences” about “why” but it does not give me the liberty to say with “certainty” about specifically “who” is in Hell.  If I do so, I may be in error and engaged in a totally fruitless discussion.

More to come. . . 

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What is Hell?

As you can see from the listing of passages shared in my post Hell Revealed (What does the Bible Say?), that the Bible has a lot to say about the afterlife and simply using the word “Hell” may not be accurate.  When most people talk about Hell they are speaking of the place where the wicked will suffer in the afterlife; basically Hell is a place of suffering while Heaven is a place of blessedness.  Furthermore, when most people speak about Heaven and Hell they speak of them as if one is up and one is down and that they will both be so forever and ever.  From the survey of passages you can see that this is not completely the case.  The danger of leaving our understanding here in these generalities is that these are the sorts of generalities that often lead people not to take the afterlife seriously and result in petty caricatures of both Heaven and Hell.  Let’s be careful then, to make some distinctions.
The final state of the wicked is not technically Hell.  The Bible says that the final state of the unredeemed is the lake of fire.  In contrast, the final state of the redeemed is the New Heavens and New Earth, crowned by its capital city the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21ff).  One may object that this is simply a question of semantics, and while it may be so in matters of discussion we should be aware that the Bible is careful to make the distinction.  The Bible says in Revelation 20 that the devil, the beast, the false prophet (20:10), the dead small and great not found written in the book of life, the dead in Hades, as well as Death and Hades itself were thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15).  Revelation 20:10 indicates that the lake of fire will exist forever and ever as the devil, the beast, and the false prophet will be tormented there day and night.  So two things emerge here in our understanding of Hell.  1)  The final state is certainly Hell-ish but it is not Hell, it is the lake of fire.  2)  Hell seems to be something else which Revelation 20:14 speaks of as Hades.  Hades is probably what most people understand to be Hell.
So what we have done so far is begin with the end.  So now lets begin with the beginning and ask the question, “What’s a Hades?” and “Is Hades Hell?”  Hades is the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word Sheol.  In the Old Testament Sheol can be the equivalent of simply saying, “I am going to die” or “He is in the grave.”  In both cases one may choose the word Sheol.  In this sense Sheol simply speaks of the act of dying.  However, this is not to say that Sheol is not also understood as a place.  Many Old Testament passages (provided in the survey) speak of Sheol as a place in which the conscious dead reside.  What is most interesting here is that in the Old Testament, both the righteous and the unrighteous spend the afterlife in Sheol (Gen. 37:35, Psalm 16:10).  Yet there is a prevailing hope in the Old Testament that the righteous will be rescued from Sheol (Psalm 16:10, 49:15, Job 33:18, 28-30). 
It is not until Jesus that we get a clearer picture of the afterlife for both the righteous and the wicked.  This is a very important distinction to make.  While the Old Testament presents us with some teaching concerning the afterlife we should affirm that it is: 1) unclear, 2) limited, and 3) not final.  As with most important doctrines, the Bible reveals them progressively.  For example, Eve understood the redeemer to be her son.  I would contend that she misunderstood him to be Cain.  Notice that she praises the birth of Cain (Gen. 4:1) but says nothing about the birth of Abel (4:2).  After Cain’s failure we see that little by little the Old Testament writers develop the idea of the redeeming son.  For the most part the idea of atonement is taught through the image of a lamb (Exo. 12), but it is not until Isaiah 53 that we understand that the son will do the work of the lamb.  It is safe to say that John the Baptist, in declaring Jesus to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29)” had a much clearer picture of the redeeming son than did Eve.  In the same sense we can say that the Old Testament writers had some ideas about the afterlife, but they are not nearly as clear as the teaching of Jesus, or any of the New Testament writers for that matter.  Therefore, we should be careful not to use Old Testament passages on Hell as a clear, final authority.  If we do, we will probably end up in error.  Rather, we should interpret them and clarify them in light of New Testament teaching.
So it is Jesus, in speaking of Hades, that helps us to clarify our understanding of Sheol.  Interestingly, Jesus adds another image to the idea of Sheol or Hades, Gehenna.  Gehenna was known as a section of the Valley of Hinnom and was immediately associated with evil.  Through the centuries it was place of idolatry and infant sacrifice.  In the times of Jesus it had become a refuse dump in which burned not only garbage but also the dead bodies of criminals.  The darkness and evil of Gehenna was well understood, and the people of the region were well acquainted with the putrid odors of its seemingly never ending fires.  Thus, Gehenna provided a great object lesson from which Jesus could further teach on the experience of the wicked in the afterlife.  Thankfully, Jesus makes a distinction that not all people experience an afterlife like Gehenna.  All go to the grave (as was the OT understanding) but not all will suffer and burn as Gehenna.  Rather, the redeemed who follow the teachings of Jesus will experience blessedness, or what Jesus calls on the cross, paradise.  Even in the story of the rich man and Lazarus Jesus is careful to distinguish between the experience of both characters in the afterlife (Luke 16:19-31).  Paul affirms this to be true by saying that he has confidence that to be absent from the body means that he will be at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8); a much clearer and more hopeful understanding of the afterlife than Jacob’s; wouldn’t you agree?
What we can safely conclude then is: 1)  That the experience of those who follow Jesus is not the same as the experience of those who do not in the afterlife.  2)  Everyone goes somewhere.  The Bible does not teach that anyone simply ceases to exist in the afterlife.  3)  Although we generally understand Hell to be a place of suffering for the wicked, we should be careful to make distinctions.  Why?  Because the general understanding of Hell as an eternal place of fire in that will eternally exist in the center of the earth leads to fairytale understandings and caricatures of Hell rather than an orthodox Biblical understanding of the final state of the wicked.  To demonstrate my point, simply consult Jon Meacham’s article on Rob Bell in this week’s TIME magazine.  The top of the central page of the article contains many of these caricatures.  4)  We should not deduce any doctrine, Hell or otherwise, from one or two passages, but glean from the entire counsel of Scripture.  If we do not, we fail to acknowledge the simple hermeneutic of progressive revelation.    When Jacob says something about the afterlife in Genesis, allow John in Revelation to speak to it before you draw your conclusions.  5)  The wicked will be in a place, in the afterlife, that burns, is evil and awful.  6)  God has provided a way of redemption in Christ Jesus that will absolve a person of guilt and result in their escape from torment in the afterlife.  There is a place of blessedness and paradise in which those who follow Jesus enjoy His presence.  To that I wish to add, you can be saved today by repenting of your sin and believing upon Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Pray to Him and receive His gift of eternal life.
I hope that helps.  More to come!
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More Bell?

I want to reiterate a point I made in a previous post.  I have not read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and at this point I have no plans to do so.  Yet ironically, here we are again talking about Rob Bell’s book which is the cover story for this week’s Time Magazine.

This is one of the most intriguing moments of heresy I have encountered as a pastor and probably the very reason Paul told Titus that when it comes to the heretic or the divisive person, renounce him once or twice and then move on (Titus 3:10)!  We are saying way too much about Bell’s book, which if I can be critical here, is probably not really worth all the fuss.  Without reading it I can speculate that Bell’s hermeneutic in Love Wins is probably distinctly post-modern; which allows for conflicting statements to be equally true (which in most worlds is illogical).  This means his book is probably full of contradictions.  If you saw the MSNBC interview, the anchor exposed this well.   I would allege that Bell allows for questions to masquerade as conclusions (which in most worlds is called agnosticism).  Thus, his book in the end says nothing.  As a post-modern, for Bell, truth is not only conflicting, but it is relative and solely empirical.  In his article, Jon Meacham shares that the seed of Bell’s view of Hell may have been based in a difficult family experience.  Not surprising since it seems that his Christology in Velvet Elvis is based on a tacky piece of art in his basement.  Because he is revisionist, Bell’s book probably takes church history and tradition, and every semblance of theology that is born from it, haphazardly questions it, and then allows for it to be easily scrapped, or at least rewritten beyond recognition.  Meacham alludes to this later point by noting that Rob Bell is an N.T. Wright devotee which makes him prone to read the texts and “where appropriate, to ask whether an idea is truly rooted in the New Testament or is attributable to subsequent church tradition or theological dogma.”  This is an article for another day, but to give some leverage to my point here I ask simply, “who determines when it is appropriate” and “who in and of themselves has the right to say to 1500 years of church history - to hell with you!”  Obviously Wright and Bell feel at liberty to do so, and if you have ever read much of their work, sadly you will concur with my assessment.  I am a Wright fan, but his sense of liberty with the historical theology quill frightens me at times.

If I am wrong in what I allege to be true of Love Wins, please correct me, but most leopards cannot easily change their spots.   

My point here is this, and the TIME Magazine article demonstrates it splendidly, the problem here is not with Hell, nor is the problem with Bell.  Nothing about Bell on Hell should surprise us.  The problem with Bell was there long before he brought us a revision of Hell.  Did Rob Bell suddenly become unorthodox?  Was he ever evangelical?  In the TIME article, Meacham speculates that Bell’s Hell is so controversial to evangelicals because “it comes from one of their own.”  Surely Meacham is the only one who believes this to be true, that Bell was ever evangelical in the same breathe as Mohler or Piper, whom he quotes in the article.  If Bell was evangelical, then I must be mistaken at the meaning of the term.  Yet, at what point on the Nooma ride did we not feel that something may be wrong?  How in the world did we invest a small fortune in artsy videos that were cool but said nothing and books that had clever titles but led to no conclusions, and not have a clue that Rob Bell wasn’t theologically like the rest of us?  If Love Wins is anything like Velvet Elvis then the book is lacking decent Biblical scholarship and any sort of respectable hermeneutic.  When we watched his videos and read his books, did we really think that such loose hermeneutics would lead us to orthodox ends?  Why didn’t we watch the first Nooma and read Velvet Elvis and discern that this is going nowhere, and if it is going nowhere the end will not be good?  I did.  Lifeway didn’t.  Did it really take John Piper and Justin Taylor to suddenly point this out to us in a blog?  If it did, the problem is not so much that Bell is unorthodox, the problem is that the church has so forsaken its doctrinal moorings that it fails to be discerning.  At some point Bell traded orthodoxy for art and many of us fell for it.  These are the reasons why the circus is still so stinking popular - it is the year of the sucker.

So what about Bell?  As far as I’m concerned, I think orthodox fellows have said their piece, now move on.  Quit criticizing Bell and return to sharing the gospel.  Stop sharing what we don’t believe about Bell and his Hell, and share with the world what we do believe about the rest of it.  Let’s make sure that we do not mistake critiquing Rob Bell with sharing the gospel.  Although related, they are not the same.  Sometimes the message is lost in the debate.  Hell is not important because Rob Bell got it wrong.  Hell is important for much bigger reasons than Rob Bell.  So what if we get everybody straightened out about the orthodox evangelical position about Hell?  How many people will go to Hell knowing that we are dead set on there being one, but having no idea how to avoid it?  Is this all about Hell, Bell, or Jesus?  Hell is important, as Meacham rightly points out in his article, because if we suddenly scrap Hell, there is a whole lot of other bits of Biblical literalism, Christology, and doctrine that we can trash along with it.  Hell is worth talking and writing about, don’t get me wrong.  We need to defend the idea that there is a Hell that people suffer within it.  Why?  It is worth the press simply because God said in His Word that the place is real.  But at some point we need to move away from giving so much attention to heresy and return to stating orthodoxy. 

Historically the church has dealt with the heretic in one of two ways.  The church either burns him at the stake, or it sits down to craft a beautifully compelling statement that returns us to the gospel.  Burning the heretic never gets us to the gospel.  Let our Reformed bloggers learn from history here!  What gets us to the gospel is not heretics ablaze, but rather wonderful, affirming, clear statements of the gospel built on the systematic gathering of critical passages.  Some of the greatest moments of church history are when heresy has provoked us to simply return to the gospel and communicate it clearly to the masses.  When the heretics questioned Jesus, the church gathered at Nicaea and made sure that the world knew, when we talk about Jesus as the Only Begotten Son of God, “this” is what we mean.  Perhaps it is time to do it again with Hell.  Let’s make it clear to the world that we are not here to burn Bell, but rather to clearly state the gospel.
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Hell Revealed (How do we know?)

Every person makes a choice, where will he or she get information?  How will we know?  How much can we know?  Recently there has been a lot of buzz about a young boy who had an after death vision/experience of Heaven.  It is a compelling story and has resulted in a best selling book, but how do we measure its truthfulness?  Is human experience ultimate reality or are there verifiable truths that are currently beyond human experience?  What about science?  Do we have enough faith in science to believe that its capabilities are limitless?  Do we trust science enough to be the ultimate measure of truth?  Can all truth fit into a test tube?  Here is a brain teaser for you, is the scientific method scientifically verifiable?  How can it prove or disprove itself? 
We must make a choice on how we answer this most basic question of human existence, how do we know?
When it comes to knowing God, a being that is beyond time and space, man is behind the eight ball.  He needs information.  We call this revelation.  Unless God reveals Himself to us, we would find it virtually impossible to know Him.  True, we can know that something else exists simply because something is here.  The world is, so there must also be ____________.  But what is His name, what is He like, does He have a Son?  When it comes to Heaven and Hell, again, we are sort of behind the eight ball here as well.  I can drive to Albuquerque, but I will have a hard time finding a travel agent who will book me a visit to Hell – unless it is Hell, Michigan.  Even then, I might not want to go.  So when it comes to Hell, how do we know?
Biblical Christians put an incredible amount of faith in the Bible as revelation from God.  This does not mean that all science and empirical evidences are necessarily excluded.  Instead it means that Biblical Christians take what the Bible says to be true and then make a few basic presuppositions:
1.      A great deal of science and experience will correspond with Scripture.
2.      But not all science and experience will correspond with Scripture.
3.      Science and experience is not enough for me to know all there is to know.
So when it comes to matters of Heaven and Hell, people who claim to be Biblical Christians and/or theologians have to make a few judgment calls:
1.      When a little boy says he has been to Heaven, this is a compelling story that must a)  Be judged by Scriptural evidence, but b) it is not a story that replaces or supersedes Scriptural truth in any way and c)  ultimately we do not need his story, or anyone else’s for that matter, in order to believe in Heaven or Hell.  Why?  What if a man died, came back to life, and wrote a book about all the nothing he saw?  Would that disprove the Bible?  Christians who easily get excited about afterlife stories need to be incredibly careful here!!!!!!!
2.      We need to separate what philosophical and theological conjectures about Hell with what the Bible actually says about Hell.  For instance, what most people know about Hell comes from “Dante’s Inferno”, which most don’t realize is after all a part of the “Divine Comedy” (ironic).  Most people’s creation and sin theology comes from Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”  When it comes to theological conjecture, I mean that preachers, teachers, and theologians must interpret certain ideas about Heaven and Hell, and in doing so may assert opinion as Biblical truth.  Conjecture is natural and necessary, but of this we must be careful.  This happens a lot in discussions of angels and demons, of which the Bible says very little, but of which writers have said way too much.  If the Bible doesn’t spell it out clearly, it is more Biblical to say, “We just don’t know.”    
So what is the assignment here?  The assignment is to pull from the Biblical text its revelations about Hell.  Once we gather these texts we can say that this is what we know and this is how much of it we can know for sure.  This is the nature of believing in Biblical revelation. 
I promised to try and keep all of this short.  I am an elephant.  So tomorrow I will post what I originally intended to post today – what are the Bible passages that reveal Hell to us?
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Blogging Hell

photo by googly
Over the next couple of weeks I plan to post a series of articles about Hell? Why? If I can go ahead and get the pun out of the way, I will blog about Hell because it is a hot topic. Since the release of Rob Bell's book, Love Wins, Hell has gotten a lot of attention. Ironically there is a place called Hell, Michigan; Rob Bell pastors a church in Michigan.  He has probably been to Hell.  He may have even eaten $5.95 fish in Hell; at the diner in the picture.  At this point, I have not read Bell's book and have no plans to do so. I do not desire this series of posts to be a response to Rob Bell, but more of an opportune teaching moment on Hell, not the Michigan Hell but the Biblical Hell. There are lots of questions about Hell. There are several views of Hell. Jesus said quite a bit about Hell. These reasons, in and of themselves mean that Hell warrants some attention.

One thing I have learned along the blogging pathway is that people read, but they don't read much; so I'll do my best to keep it short. Asking a preacher to keep it short is like asking an elephant to keep it light, but I'll try. Brevity is not as much a challenge to my intent as much as it is a challenge to my nature. God called me to say a lot. Yet for the sake of readership and time constraints I will try to say a lot with a little.

That said, it will be necessary to break Hell down into easily chewable bites. At this point, here is the outline for how I will proceed.

  • What is Hell?
  • Which Bible passages reveal Hell to us?
  • What are the various views on Hell?
  • Why do people go to Hell?
  • What happens to people in Hell?
  • How long will people be in Hell?
  • What do I believe the Bible teaches about Hell (a short systematic theological statement)?
  • Why is it important to retain Hell as an orthodox doctrine? Is it culturally relevant? How does one's view of Hell effects one's views of the church, God, Jesus, and Scripture?
  • What is the relationship of the gospel to Hell?

Maybe there are some things you would like addressed along the way. Please let me know. I look forward to a good conversation.
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