Probably no doctrine in the Christian faith is more problematic than the existence of hell. A good God tormenting human beings forever in unquenchable fire seems as straightforward a logical contradiction as you could hope to have in any belief system. How can one believe the Bible when it propounds such a glaring and obvious inconsistency? How can one reconcile hell with the Old Testament “eye for an eye” principle of proportion that God commands? How much more difficult is it to reconcile hell with the “turn the other cheek” principle that God commands in the New Testament? What could a finite being possibly do to deserve an infinite punishment?
When I was a younger Christian, I regret to say, I didn’t think hell was such a huge problem because I had a tremendous bitterness towards other people and wanted them to suffer. As God has changed my heart, my view of hell has changed dramatically. I now view that hell comes in two levels. Both of these levels are horrible, both are permanent, but both of these hells are the unavoidable consequences of the beliefs, decisions and behaviours of those sent there. Let us consider this idea.
The Lesser Level of Hell
Let us imagine that a man has committed a heinous crime and been caught. He has raped a young woman and is brought to trial. After establishing his guilt beyond any question, the judge sentences the man to a barbaric punishment. The man is to be castrated, his ears and eyes are to be removed and his hands are to be removed at the wrist. His sentence is to live out his life without sight, without sex, without the ability to hear and without the ability to use his hands in any way. All of these procedures are to be done using anaesthetic and the most painless modern techniques. Is this enough of a punishment?
Now most people would agree that the rapist has been severely punished. Many, in fact, would argue that it would be kinder to kill the young man. Is this not a form of punishment so harsh as to be barbaric? And yet if we consider the punishment, we see that it is a relative punishment. All we have done in removing his hands, his genitals, his eyes and his ears is remove the blessings that God has given that man. God gave that man the gift of sight, the gift of hearing, the gift of hands and the gift of sex and we have removed them permanently. Removing God’s blessings doesn’t seem like that big a deal if you are taking God’s blessings for granted. If you realize that every little thing you do all day long is only possible because of the many gifts that God has given you, on the other hand, then you can appreciate how horrible it would be to lose those gifts.
Now some people will still not be satisfied. “It isn’t enough that the young man cannot eat or see or hear or have sex ever again! The suffering that he experiences as a blind, deaf cripple is not harsh enough! He needs to have fire and electricity applied to various parts of his body as torture forever!” A person who would say such things does not appreciate the mercy that God has shown to all of us and needs to learn the value of mercy and forgiveness. I would challenge such a person to put their money where their mouth is. If you have these surgeries and come to me in twenty years and tell me that it is not an adequate punishment, then I promise to reconsider my position.
The fact is that removing the blessings that God has given most human beings in this life for a few years is so horrible that most human beings would agree that it is barbaric. Imagine God completely withholding much greater blessings for all eternity. Is this not an infinite punishment? Is it not truly horrible? Hands, eyes, ears and sex are peanuts as compared to the blessings of heaven that God has in store for us. Can you imagine the daily torment of seeing blessings that you will never be able to experience? This is exactly what was spoken of by Jesus in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. (Luke 16:19-31) Is it any wonder that God, who loves every human being more than any earthly father could imagine loving his children, uses the language of eternal unquenchable fire to describe this awful condition to those who need to repent?
And at the same time, lesser hell is the unavoidable consequence of rejecting your need of God’s forgiveness, guidance and grace. Consider parents who give the keys to a new Porsche sports car to a spoiled young drunkard who then goes and kills a family while driving intoxicated. Is giving the keys to this young man a responsible thing to do? Are the parents not responsible for the evil that results? If God gives the “car keys” of unlimited blessing to those who will not accept Jesus Christ, then God is responsible for all the evil that will inevitably result and God will not do evil in this way.
So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? (Luke 16:11)
for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. (Romans 11:29)
The Greater Level of Hell
As bad as it is, a lack of God’s blessing is not the worst part of hell. The worst part of hell is the company that you have there. Imagine living on a resort island with Stalin, Hitler and all the worst murderers, rapists and thieves in the history of mankind. Would such an experience be pleasant? Or would the presence of these unrepentant sinners make even a pleasant place hellish? Humanist liberals who believe in the goodness of human nature would argue that the pleasantness of the place would eventually change the people. My own belief is that even the most pleasant place you could imagine would become hellish in the presence of unrepentant evil.
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ (Matthew 25:41)
This greater level of hell might be called “Lake of Fire” hell. In this hell, not only do you experience the lack of blessings of lesser hell, but you experience them with beings of unrepentant evil. Consider the most horrible periods of human history in the gas chambers of Auschwitz or the killing fields of Cambodia or the mass murders of ISIS, and see the perpetrators of these atrocities as those who populate the “Lake of Fire”. A person in greater hell will not be able to rest or get any kind of a respite because their neighbours would use any opportunity to enslave or injure them. In this way, “Lake of Fire” hell is unimaginably worse than lesser hell.
And at the same time, “Lake of Fire” hell is the unavoidable consequence of the choices, beliefs and behaviours of those sent there. If an evil being is going to reject any set of rules to restrain their behaviour, what else can be done? If an evil being looks at any amount of love, mercy or kindness as a sign of weakness, what else can be done? The only alternative to placing these beings of unbounded evil in the “Lake of Fire” is to allow them to prey on those who are unwilling and this a good God could never allow.
They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:42)
The problem with interpreting hell as I have done, however, is that the Bible does not clearly teach this interpretation. For a person who is seeking an alternative view of hell, this leaves two questions. Does the Bible allow for this interpretation? Why wouldn’t the Bible clearly teach this interpretation if it were the correct one?
In the Bible, God often allows there to be ambiguity. For example, the Bible nowhere explicitly uses the word Trinity, neither does the Old Testament mention the church. Why does God do this? One reason might be that God’s ambiguity requires and develops true faith. Regardless of the purpose behind the ambiguity, however, there are grounds for believing that hell is the consequences of our refusal to love God rather than a punishment for rejecting that love.
First, there is the description of those thrown into the Lake of Fire. They are “weeping and gnashing their teeth”. While some people think that this describes all the people being punished, it seems clear that this is describing two different sets of people. To wail is to express sorrow and to gnash your teeth is to express unrelenting hostility. How can you be simultaneously sorry that you rejected God and at the same time express unrelenting hostility? Not only that, but there are Psalms that speak of the judgment of those who gnash their teeth. (Psalm 35, Psalm 37, Psalm 112) It seems obvious that when the Bible speaks of “those who weep and gnash their teeth”, the Bible is speaking of two different kinds of people. It seems equally obvious that if some of the people being punished desire forgiveness, then God’s goodness and mercy would require Him to reduce their sentence and the lesser level of hell that we have discussed above would be a possibility.
Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie. (Revelation 22:14-15)
And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:13-15)
The second basis for believing in two levels of hell is the description given in Revelation. In Revelation, it clearly speaks of two places of punishment. The first is the Lake of Fire and the second is “outside the city”. These verses seem to indicate two different destinations for two different types of being.
And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:47-48)
A third reason for interpreting hell in this way is what Jesus speaks of in the above verses. (I wrote a separate post on this idea. See “The Worm and the Fire“) He speaks of hell as a place where existing pains continue. An existing “worm” does not die and a smouldering “fire” is not quenched. This suggests that hell could be the worm of eternal decay and death combined with the fire of destruction applied by those around you who do not love as God loves. From this perspective, those who are not saved never get the blessings that attend the river of life welling up within them that Jesus promised in John 4 and never know the perfect love that is only possible with God’s help.
Viewing hell as described above resolves the difficulties in believing what the Bible tells us about hell. On the one hand, it allows us to believe that hell exists, is permanent and is horrible. On the other hand, it allows us to believe that hell is consistent with the goodness and the love of God. God blesses human beings in every way that He can, but our choices, behaviours and beliefs limit the blessing that God can give us. What could be more reasonable?