The other day I was watching a YouTube video where conservative, reformed preacher John McCarthur was talking about the Lake of Fire. He was speaking in a broken fashion of the horrible fate of those who reject the grace of God and warning against trying to “water down” the words of the Bible. Honestly, I went home and cried before the Lord and was going to remove my site and my book. I believe that John McCarthur would consider my writings to be an attempt to “water down” the words of the Bible and the prospect of misleading people terrifies me. I gave the matter thought and prayer and finally decided that my beliefs on hell do not constitute a “watering down” of the words of the Bible.
To understand why this is, let us consider a thought experiment. Let us imagine that you are a parent living in a suburban community with several young children. One day you get a strange letter in the mail:
You don’t know me, but I am an inmate at the local prison. I am about to die. I have it on good authority that a dragon is going to swoop down out of the sky and burn the town you are living in to the ground. I recommend that you leave the town as soon as possible. I give you and your neighbours this warning to avert a tragedy.
How would you respond to this letter? While you might check to see if the person had been an inmate in the local prison just to make sure that he is not a threat, once you ascertained that he was dead you would not concern yourself with his letter any further. You don’t believe in dragons and you have no reason to be worried about his warning. Let us now imagine a different letter:
You don’t know me, but I am a prisoner about to die of cancer. I am writing to warn you that I am certain that a psychopath responsible for the abduction and murder of a number of young children has relocated to your town in the last year or so. I cannot tell you his name for reasons that I cannot disclose, but I enclose the information on the crimes that I know this person has already committed. I am warning you and your neighbours because it is the only thing I can do to avert a tragedy and make up for some of what I have done in my life.
Enclosed with the letter you find a number of newspaper clippings detailing the abduction and murder of young children in a far away city near the prison where this man recently died. You call and confirm that the man was a model prisoner and that all the previous cases remain unsolved. Would you ignore this warning? Would your neighbours? I believe that upon receiving such a warning, most communities would become extremely alarmed and demand an investigation and suitable precautions.
The difference between the ignored warning and the warning that is not ignored is one of credibility. The dragon might cause more damage by destroying the whole town, but nobody believes in dragons. People who abduct children do exist, however, and the higher credibility of the threat increases the likelihood that the warning will be taken seriously. In a similar way, warning people of a literal Lake of Fire is not effective because it is nearly impossible to believe that a good God would punish people so severely. On the other hand, we have all experienced the hell of imperfect love.
Before I became a Christian, I had a loveless existence. I was bullied as a child and experienced my share of mockery and violence. When I got older, I went to bars and did the “dog and pony” show to try and get drunk young coeds to go home with me and do something that we would both regret the next day. I remember the loneliness, the feelings of rejection, the despair, the wounded pride, the anger, the bitterness and the resentment I felt while degrading myself in that way. I remember painful breakups, comforting myself with pornography and stewing in self-pity. I remember the feelings of self-loathing that I felt as I regretted my actions and thoughts. It was horrible and you could not pay me to go back to that life.
On the other hand, I have also experienced the taste of heaven that is being in a loving church body. At the church that I attend now, for example, there are a number of young people who seem to enjoy spending time with a shy and overweight bachelor in his forties. I have had more fun spending an hour with these beautiful young brothers and sisters than I ever had in a year of trying to be conformed to the secular world. In fact, I honestly believe that if more churches had the love that I have found in my current congregation, the church in North America would be a church of incredible power. The key to the success of the church seems to be the pastors who put God first and the congregation members who genuinely attempt to be the Christian brothers and sisters that they want to have.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:35)
As I have shared in previous essays, I believe that God created human beings in a world where we could see the consequences of doing things without His love, His guidance and His forgiveness. If we see our need for divine love and accept the offer of salvation made to us through the cross of Jesus Christ, then we can live in an eternal paradise where every person is divinely empowered to love their neighbour as much as they love themselves. If you reject God’s help in loving others, then you will live in an eternity of imperfect love that God calls the Lake of Fire. What would such an existence look like? Look around and see for yourself. Murder, rape, pride, unforgiveness, lies, theft, bitterness, loneliness, despair, hatred, anger, revenge and resentment . . . forever.
God has commanded us to share our salvation with others and, ultimately, you cannot share what you do not believe. To me, the idea that Jesus would throw people into eternal flames is absurd and I can only understand what Jesus teaches us as a warning against the inevitable consequences of rejecting His love and forgiveness. Why would God use such extreme language? First of all, because an eternity of such a life is as horrible as a Lake of Fire. Secondly, as has been demonstrated by the atrocities committed by ISIS, because there are people out there who would consider a loveless existence to be no big deal. Warned of the consequences of rejecting God’s love, such violent people might say, “I am going to torture your children to death in front of you and then I am going to kill you. Who cares if I live an eternal life without love?” Little do these people realize that their punishment is to live eternally with other people who have the same attitudes that they do. This is as close to a literal Lake of Fire as I want to imagine.