Unquestionably, irresponsible speculation about hell on both sides of the debate have made the discussion considerably more difficult. Whether it is vivid descriptions of Dante’s Inferno or revivalist “hellfire and brimstone” sermons, the impression is too often given that we must go beyond biblical description to alert people to avoid such a dreadful place.
The problem here is that hell, rather than God, becomes the object of fear. Think of Jesus’ sober warning: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Hell is not horrible because of alleged implements of torture or its temperature. (After all, it is described variously in Scripture as “outer darkness” and a “lake of fire.”)
Whatever the exact nature of this everlasting judgment, it is horrible ultimately for one reason only: God is present. This sounds strange to those of us familiar with the definition of hell as “separation from God” and heaven as a place for those who have a “personal relationship with God.” But Scripture nowhere speaks in these terms. Quite the contrary, if we read the Bible carefully we conclude that everyone, as a creature made in God’s image, has a personal relationship with God. Therefore, God is, after the fall, either in the relationship of a judge or a father to his creatures.
And God, who is present everywhere at all times, will be present forever in hell as the judge. “Hell reigns wherever there is no peace with God,” John Calvin wrote, refusing to speculate on its salacious horrors. When our conscience condemns us, “We carry always a hell within us” (Gen. Epp. 167).
Just as heaven is not purely future, but is breaking in on the present through the kingdom of God, hell, too, is breaking in on the present: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” But they are left without excuse (Rom. 1:18-19). Their tortured consciences drive them to expel the thought of God entirely from their horizon, but they cannot evade the revelation of God’s wrath.
Hell is not ultimately about fire, but about God. Whatever the exact nature of the physical punishments, the real terror awaiting the unrepentant is God himself and his inescapable presence forever with his face turned against them.
A measure of our own ongoing sinfulness is that we just don’t understand the beauty of God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice and the equal ultimacy of these attributes with his love. But one day we will not have a problem with eternal punishment. It will make perfect sense. We are not entitled, much less required, in our present condition to defend the doctrine of eternal punishment in any way that either exceeds Scripture or reflects a perverse delight in damnation.
Since God does not delight in the death of the wicked, neither can we. Hell is both the vindication of God’s justice and the prerequisite for his creation’s restoration. But it is also a tragedy and will forever memorialize the tragedy of human rebellion.
God justifies the wicked: this is the astonishing and counter-intuitive claim that distinguishes Christianity from every other religion. In any defense of the traditional doctrine, we must let our interlocutor know that, unlike the terrorist’s “Allah,” God “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” for the salvation of every believer. Islam has no concept of the fall, original sin, or the impossibility of attaining righteousness by good works, and consequently, knows nothing of justification, sanctification, and redemptive mediation.
For Islam, it’s simple: good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell; it is self-salvation from beginning to end. In sub-Christian versions, the “good news” is that sinners can be partly saved and partly condemned; they can atone for at least some of their sins by their own suffering. But the genuine “good news” of revelation is that God justifies the wicked who place their trust in Christ and find God a reconciled friend now and forever, world without end. Amen.