Weeks ago, I discovered how little I really believed in hell. I am not sure how else to explain it. I realized it while at a children’s play area, watching my three little ones run, jump, and waddle about.
Seated on the other side of the play place sat a young Latino man lost on his phone. He had several kids, several tattoos, and no wedding ring. How he dressed and how he carried himself reminded me of the men I grew up with, the young man I was at his age. Having read my Bible and having grown up in the area, I assumed he did not know the Lord. More likely than not, he had never heard the true gospel. More likely than not, he didn’t want to.
In that moment, I imagined myself walking over to share Christ with him, only to have him dismiss me as some corny, churchy, preachy-type (as I might have done at his age). And there we would sit — me wishing I never walked over; he wishing the same.
Instead of getting up, though, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. And that is when it hit me: I do not really believe in hell right now. How could I? My compassion blew away at a mere inconvenience. Jesus’s doctrine of eternal, conscious torment was no real thing to me. Nor was the eternal blessedness of heaven. Missionaries have crossed oceans, left families, brought their coffins with them to foreign lands; yet there I sat, retreating at the mere thought of rejection. What kind of faith was this?
The scary part, I realize, was that in that same moment, I could have started writing an article about hell, preached an impromptu sermon, debated an atheist on its necessity. Yet, reciting Bible verses wasn’t what was required — believing them was. Across from me sat an immortal soul, and yet there I just sat, unwilling to travel even a few short steps to enter an awkward conversation that could have led him to eternal life.
I wish I could report that I stood up and began preaching. I wish I could tell you that I walked over to that young man and prayerfully spoke words of life to his soul. But I didn’t. To my shame, I suppressed the stirring, indulged unbelief, and heartlessly packed up my kids and left that man just where he sat. Lord, have mercy upon us both.
Bright Red Letters
How would our lives look differently, yours and mine, if we believed that hell is for real? How many trivialities, how many unworthy anxieties, how many small concerns and tiny pursuits would be lit aflame? How many selfish insecurities, how many dull and shallow days, how many unworthy entertainments and lukewarm seasons and cowardly inactivity would simply shatter by believing what Jesus himself told us about the judgment to come?
Our Christlikeness can be rather selective at times, can’t it? Who believed in or spoke of hell more than Jesus? Who else knew with utter certainty what fierce artillery aimed every day at the wicked? All the apostle’s teaching is Christ’s teaching, but what did Jesus himself say about hell? What were his reddest letters? See if your soul can sip even a small sample from just the first Gospel:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29–30; Matthew 18:8–9)
“The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. . . . So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:41–42, 49–50)
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ . . . And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41, 46)
Outer darkness. A fiery furnace. Destruction of both body and soul (Matthew 10:28). Eternal punishment. Inarticulate wailing. Teeth grinding. “Many” travel there (Matthew 7:13). Jesus’s sermons often fell like napalm, because he loved the souls of men.
“How would our lives look differently, yours and mine, if we believed that hell is for real?”
Jesus gives us shocking glimpses of judgment in scalding and scarlet letters. Scripture contains many more. We need them to rouse us to love, forgiveness, purity, patience, and to God himself. Will we nod at them, close the book, and leave it upon the dresser? Will these words not send us to the nations, to ambush sin, to walk across a playground? Did Christ leave us here to wave at unbelievers as they sprint past us off the cliff? Is this love for God and love for neighbor?
We can daringly tell Christ’s message about hell because that message is about much more than hell. It is about a God who took on flesh to drink down the wrath his people deserved.
Knowing the full horrors of hell, oh, manly and heroic he, came to us, became us, stepped in front of us, to save us. He did not experience hell proper — hell begins after the resurrection and the final judgment. But he did face that wrath which makes the lake of fire, we might say with due reverence, into a fiery puddle. The wicked in hell never approach the full weight, never near the full price, never exhaust the divine quiver of the arrows their sins deserve. But to ransom even one soul, the God-man paid the full debt, suffered the full torment, empties a cup of eternal woe. In other words, where the wicked shall suffer incompletely (though still horribly) forever, he plunged to the very bottom of that great lake of wrath to rescue us.
See him, O saint, diving, down, down, down, through to soul-blistering depths, further and further, deeper and deeper, agonizing, alone.
With hand outstretched for the bottom, “he poured out his soul to death” (Isaiah 53:12). Through friendless deeps and misery unmeasured, see this Son of Sorrows swim boldly along the bottom — omnipotent wrath crushing him. See him feel upon the seabed, ah, one lost pearl. A little further, the second. Further still, a third. As the pressure increases beyond bearing, he cries, “I thirst!” yet presses on, though heaven’s troops would stand at his beck and call. He will have his prize, his people. One by one, under heat and wrath-shattering contemplation, he reaches out, Christian, for you, holds you, claims you as his own. Angels are stunned into silence. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries (Matthew 27:46). After six excruciating hours, he collects his last pearl and shouts victoriously, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
For all eternity, Jesus alone reached the bottom of God’s righteous hatred toward sin. He alone absorbed the full wrath of his Father crushing him as “he became sin for us, who knew no sin” (see 2 Corinthians 5:21). No sinner in all of eternity shall submerge the depths he did. None besides the Lion of the tribe of Judah could so conquer. Sinners eternally sip at a challis they cannot hope — or bear — to finish. He did.
Christian reader, do you really believe this?
If we all did, would our cities not be filled with a knowledge of Christ? When we refused to avoid eye contact with those in our everyday lives, as I did that day, how might our local parks, laundromats, coffee shops, restaurants, and sporting events fill with the name above all names?
You and I need to learn a little more gospel impoliteness: to learn to speak when unasked, to go when uninvited, and to tell that name — that only name given under heaven — by which men must be saved. Let Spurgeon’s arrows sink to the heart.
We are so gentle and quiet, we do not use strong language about other people’s opinions; but let men go to hell out of charity to them. We are not at all fanatical, and for all we do to disturb him, the old manslayer has a very comfortable time of it. We would not wish to save any sinner who does not particularly wish to be saved. We shall be pleased to say a word to them in a mild way, but we do not speak with tears streaming down our cheeks, groaning and agonizing with God for them; neither would we thrust our opinions upon them, though we know they are being lost for want of knowledge of Christ crucified. (Words of Counsel for Christian Workers, 32–33)
Humanly speaking, I was willing to let that man go to hell out of a dark sort of charity to him (and a dark sort of charity to me). He probably didn’t want to hear of Christ (as many don’t). He might have rejected it (which many do). But such cowardly calculations are not mine or yours to make. And the historic and biblical doctrine of eternal, conscious, just torment of the wicked should have consumed that cold, fleshly indifference known in plainer tongues as cowardice or hatred.
What would happen in our cities if every Christian (and every church) really believed in the horrors of hell and, with it, the desperate need of every soul for Jesus Christ?