Hath Hell No Fury?

By John Bradshaw

An Amazing Fact: The Sun is a fantastically hot cosmic-radiation powerhouse, with a surface temperature of about 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Its interior temperature is estimated as high as 18 million degrees Fahrenheit. The pressure at the center of the sun is about 700 million tons per square inch. That's enough to smash atoms, expose the inner nuclei, and allow them to smash into each other, interact, and produce the nuclear fusion that gives us our light and heat. In fact, the material at the core of the sun is so intensely hot that if you could capture just enough to cover a pinhead, it would radiate sufficient heat to kill a man one mile away!

A Hot Topic
Pope John Paul II stirred up a theological hornets' nest recently when he described hell as "more than a physical place," while at the same time calling it "the state of those who freely and definitely separate themselves from God, the source of all life and death."

Hell, he stated, is "not a punishment imposed externally by God." The pontiff's remarks, in which he said the Bible "uses a symbolical language" when it refers to the heat and flames of hell, came after an editorial last summer in an influential Jesuit magazine declared that hell "is not a 'place' but a 'state,' a person's 'state of being,' in which a person suffers from the deprivation of God."

Howls of protest quickly rose from prominent American evangelicals. The Washington Post quoted R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., as saying the pope was "soft-selling hell."

"Jesus Himself spoke of hell as a lake of fire," Mohler said, "where the worms would not die and the fire would not be quenched. It's all very graphic."

Who Is Right?
So who is right? The pope, with his "anguished state of existence?" Or Christians who continue in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan preacher who traveled throughout 18th-century New England proclaiming that "there will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery" of the ever-burning fires of hell?

U.S. News and World Report magazine's Jan. 31, 2000, cover article highlighted this growing debate. It reported that society's views regarding hell have undergone a decided metamorphosis in recent years. While 64 percent of Americans think there is a hell, only 34 percent believe it is "a real place where people suffer eternal fiery torments" (compared to 48 percent only three years ago). A surprising 53 percent view hell as "an anguished state of existence eternally separated from God" (up from 46 percent in 1997). This is the view being promulgated by Pope John Paul II.

Room for a Third View?
Hath hell no fury? Or are sinners suffering right now in eternal torment? A third view on hellfire is currently gaining greater acceptance in modern theological thought. Asserting that the belief of eternal torment is based on pagan philosophy, scholars such as Eng-land's Dr. John Stott argue that such a view of God is inconsistent with the biblical portrait of His character and with Scripture itself. Stott and other prominent Bible teachers propose that the fires will ultimately put the unsaved out of existence.

The Bible is not ambiguous on the subject. While Jesus did make it very clear that there is a real hell (see Matthew 10:28), He explained something vitally significant in the parable of the wheat and the tares.

"As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire," Jesus said, "so shall it be in the end of this world" (Matthew 13:40). The point is repeated just nine verses later in the parable of the net. The implications of such a position are obvious. First, in sharp contrast to the claims of Vatican City, hell is a real place where the "children of the wicked one" (Matthew 13:38) will be "burned" (verse 40). We also learn that, contrary to the other commonly held view on the subject, nobody has gone there yet.

It is worth noting that for the majority of times the word translated "hell" is used in Scripture, it literally means "the grave." In only 12 of the 54 times we read the word "hell" does the original word mean "a place of burning."

Hell "on Earth"
I was taught as a child that hell was indeed a real place where the wicked would burn forever and that it was located in the center of the earth. I always wondered what would happen if an oil company drilled all the way down to where hell was. And I remember watching the black-and-white movie Journey to the Center of the Earth with great interest!

But this is another area where the Bible leaves nothing to doubt. Revelation chapter 20 says that 1,000 years after the saints are resurrected, the wicked will be released from their graves. "And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them" (Revelation 20:9).

According to the Bible, the lost are burned "on the breadth of the earth." One of the great promises of the Bible to the pilgrims here below is that we can, "according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness" (2 Peter 3:13).

Just as God cleansed the earth in the days of Noah, He will cleanse the earth again at the end of the world, this time with fire. As in Noah's day, sinners will again receive their recompense, and once more it will happen "on the breadth of the earth." God's plan is to recreate this sin-marred earth and return it to its original Edenic splendor. The earth will be transformed into what the Bible calls a "lake of fire" (Revelation 20:10). Every last vestige of sin will be burned up, and the curse will be obliterated.

Mary Ellen's Misconception
A few years ago, a young lady named Mary Ellen told me that although she was raised in a Christian home, she had given up on God and was instead practicing witchcraft.

"I was raised in a hellfire-and-brimstone spitting church," she told me. "They would talk about this God who would take sinners and burn them for all eternity, and that God would be happy to inflict torture upon them for as long as time would last.

"I thought to myself, 'If that's what God is really like, I'd be better off without Him.' " Because of the portrait of God painted by the church, this intelligent young woman had turned her back on the Bible and embraced paganism and devil worship.

Mary Ellen was appalled by the idea of a God of love behaving as one would expect the devil to behave. Not even history's most reviled despots-Hitler, Stalin, or Idi Amim-were as cruel to their victims as Christians accuse God of being. Mary Ellen reacted to the idea as thousands have done: by giving up on God, because to misunderstand hell is to misunderstand the character of God, the awfulness of sin, and the love of God for all of His children.

We cannot deny that some passages in the Bible plainly state that hellfire will burn "for ever" (Revelation 14:11; 20:10). But logic alone tells us that if hell burns forever "on the breadth of the earth," it would be impossible for God to create a new earth. And if God kept sinners alive to endure an eternal burning, He would fail in His mission to rid the world of sin. Instead, He would perpetuate it.

Can you imagine a new earth where throughout eternity you could hear the howls and screams of the wicked suffering in hell? Or what if you knew that in some corner of the universe those you had loved on the earth were writhing forever in agony because of misdeeds during their relatively short lives on earth?

I have never met anyone who could enjoy heaven knowing that loved ones or family were being tortured throughout all eternity. Thankfully, the Bible states that the new earth will be a place without sorrow or pain (Revelation 21:4).

What About "For Ever"?
In Scripture, "for ever" is often used in conjunction with an event that has already taken place.

For instance, Hannah pledged to God that she would take her infant son Samuel to serve in the temple at Shiloh, where he would abide "for ever" (1 Samuel 1:22). No student of the Bible would take this to mean that he would remain in that temple for as long as time should last. Hannah herself interpreted the statement as meaning that Samuel would serve in the temple for "as long as he liveth" (verse 28).

Jonah stated that he was in the belly of the fish "for ever" (Jonah 2:6), but we know that he endured his eerie journey beneath the sea for "three days and three nights" (Jonah 1:17).

More than 50 times the Bible uses "for ever" to mean "for as long as time lasts in that specific case." The term is used colloquially today to describe a downpour or a hot summer's afternoon (or a sermon!) that "went on forever."

Death, Not Eternal Torment
The Bible tells us that "the wages of sin is" not eternal life in hellfire, but "death" (Romans 6:23), the same penalty God assured Adam and Eve would be theirs if they ate the forbidden fruit.

Ezekiel states clearly that "the soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4), and a plethora of other Bible verses and passages endorse this position. The prophet Malachi wrote that sinners would burn up as "stubble" and would become "ashes under the soles" of the feet of the redeemed (Malachi 4:1, 3). Even the final fate of Satan is explicitly pronounced in Ezekiel 28:18, where the Bible says that the enemy of souls will be reduced to ashes upon the "earth." Compare that with Psalm 37:10 ("For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be"), Psalm 68:2 ("as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God"), and other similar verses. Soon you get a clear picture that the purpose of the fires of hell is to eradicate sin and to expunge the universe of its awful presence.

Interestingly, it was the devil who was first to suggest that sinners would not die (Genesis 3:4). A hell where sinners never perish would prove the devil right and would make God, who told Eve she would "surely die" as a result of transgression (Genesis 2:17), a liar.

The Lumber Camp
Some years ago in a lumber camp there worked a giant of a man who was feared by all who knew him. Rumor had it that he had killed several people.

One day he summoned a fellow worker and demanded to know if the man was telling people that nobody was burning in the fires of hell.

"That's right," the co-worker answered. "That's what the Bible says."

"Can you show me where it says that?" the burly woodsman inquired, betraying a tinge of hope in his gravelly voice. He sat in rapt attention as his Christian colleague showed him text after text from the Bible proving that God is not now torturing anybody in hell and that God will not permit anyone to burn in the lake of fire any longer than necessary.

As they continued to study God's Word, the man whom others regarded as having a heart of stone dropped his face into his hands and began to weep.

"My son died 20 years ago in a bar fight," he finally explained. "I was told that he had gone straight to hell, where God was torturing him and would torture him forever. Ever since that time I've been mad with God."

That day, his heart was softened and his entire life transformed as he came to understand what the Bible really says about the end of the wicked.

The Rich Man and Lazarus
Another passage of Scripture that many find difficult to reconcile with the truth about hellfire is the story of the rich man and Lazarus, found in Luke chapter 16. But by realizing that this passage is a parable-at the end of a long list of parables-we can understand better the imagery Jesus employs.

Certainly Abraham's bosom is not the eternal abode of the redeemed, and it seems impossible that the lost in hell can converse with the saved in heaven. When we remember that hell takes place at the end of the world, and that there are no people suffering in hell at this present time, we can determine more exactly three major points contained in Jesus' remarks.

By representing the beggar as being in heaven and the rich man as lost, Jesus taught His hearers that, contrary to the prevailing view, wealth was not necessarily an indicator of divine favor, just as poverty was not a sign of God's judgment upon a person.

Jesus was also seeking to educate the Jews that salvation would not be theirs by birthright. The rich man in torments calls out to "father Abraham," just as the Jews of Jesus' day were mistakenly pointing to heritage as proof of their assurance of salvation.

Furthermore, Jesus was seeking to lead His hearers to understand that only faithfulness to God's Word would prepare them to enter into eternal life. He told them, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead" (Luke 16:31).

To use the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in order to promote the false doctrine of an eternally burning hell is to misuse God's Word and to misrepresent His character.

Please understand that regardless of the duration of hellfire, it will be no picnic for the sinner. Although the Bible doesn't specify exactly how long hellfire will burn, in Luke chapter 12 Jesus made it clear that the amount of suffering endured would be in proportion to the hardness of the individual sinner's heart. It would be pure speculation to suppose how long the fires of hell may actually burn, but we can be sure the suffering and anguish endured by the lost would be beyond our ability to describe.

For too long the doctrine of hellfire has been little more than a tool used to cajole sinners into being saved. We are told in Scripture that we love God "because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). Certainly people should have a healthy respect and concern about the punishment due the wicked, but only love for God can motivate them to truly surrender their hearts to a God of love.

Understand God's Character
We can know for sure that God is not a despicable, heartless tyrant who will take His very own children and torture them without mercy or relief throughout all eternity. It seems incredible that while society locks child abusers in prison, so many are willing to hold God guilty of the most horrible case of child abuse ever perpetrated!

According to Jesus, hellfire isn't even meant for human beings. It is "prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). Yet because many refuse to accept Jesus' great sacrifice for them and choose instead to follow the great enemy of souls, they must share his fate. Satan and all sinners will be destroyed, the earth will be cleansed, and "affliction shall not rise up the second time" (Nahum 1:9). Sin and sinners will be utterly destroyed, forever separated from God, the source of all life.

The Motorway
Several years ago in Auckland, New Zealand, an 18-year-old woman crashed her car while driving home very early in the morning. She survived the crash unscathed but was trapped in her wrecked car by her feet, unable to escape the fire that was engulfing her car.

A delivery man, two postal workers, and an off-duty policeman came to help; but despite their best attempts, they could not free her. Eventually the heat of the flames drove them back and they had to abandon the young lady, even as she cried out to them, begging the men not to leave her to her fiery fate.

"As we left she grabbed my arm and said, 'Don't go; I'm going to die here.' But we had to get out," one of the men said later.

The police officer was badly injured, having burned away much of the flesh on one of his hands in his desire to free the young lady. But she was hopelessly trapped in the fiery car wreck.

Even today Jesus is doing all He can to save people from the wreckage of their sins and from the fire that will one day burn and destroy all sin. The Bible says, "He that hath the Son hath life, but he that hath not the Son of God hath not life" (1 John 5:12).

Just as those who are lost do not possess the Son, and therefore cannot have life, those who possess Jesus Christ are assured of life everlasting. Jesus will forever bear the scars He received at Calvary in the greatest and costliest rescue attempt ever conceived.

Unlike the hell conjured up by many teachers today, the end of sin and sinners is assured. It is not arbitrarily imposed by a God of cruelty, but is a necessary act that assures the future safety of the universe. This event will bring intense pain to the heart of Divinity but will also open the door to an assured future for all who love God.

If only Mary Ellen had been told that.


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