Last August, as our family visited Manhattan, we had the joy of seeing The Lion King on Broadway. And in that urban, sophisticated, and apparently progressive setting, the play’s climactic moment struck me as especially memorable, and poignant. The crowd went wild at the destruction of Scar.
Among all the educated and psychologically informed members of the audience, I didn’t observe any who expressed concern about the villain’s feelings. No one objected or stood in protest as a self-proclaimed advocate for Scar. None demanded our empathy for the misunderstood scapegoat.
Deep down, we all want the wicked to receive their due. We all have our cries for justice. Even Broadway audiences cheer the destruction of the manifest monster. Without controversy, we consign Hitler to damnation. We know great evil demands cosmic justice.
Yet we have a harder time imagining ourselves, or our beloved friends and family, as the wicked, as those justly deserving what Jesus called hell.
These Overwhelming Doctrines
There, I said it — “the crude monosyllable,” as C.S. Lewis calls it in his essay on “Learning in War-Time.”
To a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell. You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable. I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention Heaven and hell even in a pulpit. (48)
Now, Lewis’s “these days” were nearly ninety years ago, at the start of World War II. Perhaps hell was permitted to make a brief comeback in polite conversation after such a war, but surely it’s no more socially accepted today than it was in 1939. Lewis continues,
I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St. Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church. If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tom-foolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them. (48)
Note two unnerving claims here, well-spoken in 1939, and still strikingly relevant. First, Jesus indeed did teach on hell more than anyone else: “These overwhelming doctrines are dominical.” For instance, the Greek gehenna, which we translate hell, occurs twelve times in the New Testament, with eleven on the lips of Jesus. Hell comes from the mouth of our Lord himself — the one man who is also divine, preeminently holy enough to speak to such a subject, and for none who genuinely claim his name to second-guess him. It really would be profound folly to think you could have Jesus and not have, with him, his clear and pronounced teaching on hell.
Second, the paths diverge in Lewis’s double “if” statements: “If we do not believe them [the dominical doctrines], our presence in this church is great tom-foolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them.” In other words, Lewis puts the question to us, as Elijah put the question to those limping between Baal and the true God: Will you be faithful to the clear teaching of the one you call Lord, or will you be the liar or lunatic?
Hell Is Supposed to Horrify
However much we might wrestle theologically with “the problem of evil” — and with it, “the problem of hell” — it really is the existential problems of evil and hell that unsettle us the most. College students might express (and even enjoy) theoretical questions in safe, scholastic settings, but these challenges pale in comparison to losing a loved one to cancer, or murder or a freak accident, and pondering whether your beloved might spend eternity apart from Jesus and under the penalties of divine justice.
This existential weight creates crises of faith for some. And the crisis can be exacerbated by assuming that you’re suffering under this weight alone, or that few others are, and that maybe you really shouldn’t feel this angst.
For those in the throes of such existential discomfort, it may genuinely help to learn that you’re not alone, and, to some extent, you actually should feel this way. Hell is supposed to make us uncomfortable. This side of heaven, it is not a sign of spiritual health to be untroubled by the horrors of hell — that humans like us, made in God’s image for fullness of joy, will spend eternity under the righteous frown of his omnipotent justice.
As theologian Wayne Grudem writes, not only is “the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment . . . so foreign to the thought patterns of our culture,” but it also offends “on a deeper level . . . our instinctive and God-given sense of love and desire for redemption for every human being created in God’s image.” So, he acknowledges, “This doctrine is emotionally one of the most difficult doctrines for Christians to affirm today.” And this is fitting in significant measure: “If our hearts are never moved with deep sorrow when we contemplate this doctrine, then there is a serious deficiency in our spiritual and emotional sensibilities” (Systematic Theology, 1152, note 16).
Go Where the Bible Goes
For all of us, and especially those who feel the most discomfort, we do well to turn forward to the book of Revelation — to go where the Bible goes. Two texts in the later part of the book can be especially helpful in addressing our (proper) existential trouble with hell.
First is Revelation 15:1–4, where John sees “another sign in heaven,” which he calls “great and amazing”: seven angels with seven plagues, and “with them the wrath of God is finished” (verse 1). There John also sees “those who had conquered the beast . . . with harps of God in their hands” (verse 2). And how do these saints in heaven respond to God’s poured-out wrath? They sing. Without any stated reservations, they praise their Lord not despite his “righteous acts” and “just ways,” but precisely because of them. With his perfect, divine justice squarely in view, they sing, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty!” (verse 3).
Then in Revelation 19:1–4, following the fall of Babylon, with the wicked justly laid waste in a single hour (18:10, 17, 19), John hears the response of “a great multitude in heaven” (19:1). Again, they are not wailing; nor are they silent. Rather, with loud praise, they cry, four times, “Hallelujah!” (verses 1, 3, 4, and 6). God’s people declare, in worship, that his “judgments are true and just” (verse 2). He “has avenged on [the great prostitute] the blood of his servants” (verse 2). And this, not just as a momentary act of judgment but eternally:
Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever. (verse 3)
Songs of Final Justice
On this stunning future vision, which we find so hard to fathom in the present, theologian John Frame comments, “When we are gathered around the throne, singing God’s praises in the eternal state, we will not be raising objections to God’s justice, but we will be praising it without reservation” (Salvation Belongs to the Lord, 299).
God’s justice, in principle and power, exercised against his enemies — who also are the enemies of his people — elicits the praises of heaven. This is what the saints had cried out for as early as Revelation 6:10: that God would “judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth.” And this is the summons to the saints from those who observed Babylon’s destruction from afar:
Rejoice over her, O heaven,
and you saints and apostles and prophets,
for God has given judgment for you against her! (Revelation 18:20)
God vindicates his people, not only himself, in the fires of hell. When final justice has come for the martyrs, and all the worshipers of heaven, the redeemed people of the Lamb will sing that his acts of justice are “great and amazing” (Revelation 15:1, 3). And for us today, with our discomforts, we observe that these prophetic glimpses are (at least in significant measure) future and have not yet come to their fullness in our lives in the present.
Resolution Will Come
The songs of Revelation offer a balm for our existential trouble now, even if almost paradoxically. We do not yet have full relief from this emotional dilemma, but we do have, at the end of Scripture, a prophetic promise: God will one day bring history to its culmination in such a way as to give us such relief. For now, we do not have full resolution, but we have the promise that, as surely as God is God, we will have such peace when his justice comes in full, and forever.
For now, the thought of hell is supposed to make us uncomfortable. But one day soon, all the masks will be off. We will see all evil for what it is, and the wicked for who they are as enemies of God, and foes of his people. And with the saints in the heaven, we will exult and thrill in praise and unspeakable joy, and even our most earthly beloved in hell will not ruin the glory of heaven.
Now we see through a glass dimly, but then we will see the Lamb face to face and glory in the exercise of his perfect justice and power, even as we marvel at his mercy to us. Then both God’s kindness and his severity will be seen to extend far beyond our previous comprehension. And the justice of hell, in the end, will be a component of our everlasting joy, not a detriment to it. We will see, without question, that the Judge of all the earth has done right (Genesis 18:25). He will wipe away every tear — and there will be no “mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:4).