Why Is There A Hell?
By Steve D. Eutsler
Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:41, NIV
Sermon Pattern: Topical (Problematical, Informative, Theological, and Inductive)
Subject: The Existence of Hell
Theme: The Reasons for the Existence of Hell
Specific Purpose: To explain the reasons for the existence of hell
It has been observed that “the [person] who tries to prove there is no hell usually has a personal reason for doing so” (McKenzie, Quips, 234). Matthew Thomas gives an example of one such individual in the Christian Reader. He writes, “As my grandmother and I were walking toward the United Nations Building in New York City, we came upon a street evangelist who was trying to get the attention of passersby. He urged those near him to flee from the wrath to come.
“ ‘I warn you,’ he roared, ‘that there will be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth!’
“An old woman in the crowd shouted snidely: ‘Sir, I have no teeth!’
“ ‘Lady,’ the evangelist retorted, ‘teeth will be provided’ ” (“Teeth Will Be Provided,” www.PreachingToday.com, s.v. “Hell”)!
Whether that’s so or not, I do not know. But I do know that the thought of hell is so repugnant to the human mind that many false teachers have tried to find loopholes to keep people out of it.
For example, some of them teach what’s called annihilationism. This false teaching says that souls and their punishment eventually come to an end. The problem is not only that it is unbiblical. It is also unjust because, in this case, every sinner is treated the same.
Others endorse probationism. These false teachers allege that every lost person will be given a second chance after death to repent (1 Peter 3:19,20). This interpretation is not only based on one of the most obscure passages in the New Testament, it also flies in the face of the clear teaching of many verses (Luke 16:26; Hebrews 9:27; Revelation 20:12; 22:11).
As one writer on the subject asks, “Like the photographer’s bath, may [hell’s] effect not be to develop and fix existing character, rather than to change it?” (Orr, ISBE, vol. 4, 2503).
Still more promote universalism. This false teaching advocates that all persons will eventually be saved (Matthew 19:28; John 12:32; Acts 3:21). Its promoters base this false hope on verses taken out of context and on statements that should be understood as hyperbole (cf. Matthew 2:3; 3:5,6). Everyone could be saved, but contrary to popular opinion, not everyone wants to be saved.
In 1978, while working at the Silver Dollar City Campground, I met a fellow employee who informed me he did not want to go to heaven. When I asked why, he replied that since his wife had died and gone to hell, he wanted to go there as well to be with her. I told him that the Bible says hell is a dark place and he probably would not be able to enjoy her company much, if any. Sadly enough, he did not seem to be moved. Beware, lest the devil tricks you into going to hell for a similar reason.
Adrian Rogers reminds us, based on the story of the rich man and Lazarus, that your family and friends who go to hell would tell you not to join them. The misery there is so great; it does not afford any comfort from company.
Now that we have exposed some teachings about hell that are false, let’s examine Matthew 25:41 to find some teachings that are true.
The Greek word gehenna, commonly referred to as hell today, originally served as the name of a garbage dump located south of Jerusalem. It had also earned an infamous distinction as a place of child sacrifice to Molech, one of the pagan gods during Old Testament times.
- Now the name designates a place of confinement after death to everlasting punishment away from the presence of God (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
- And unexpectedly to most inquirers, Jesus speaks more directly about hell than any other person in the entire New Testament.
- In response to the question, “What happens when we die?” A poll conducted by Newsweek and Beliefnet in 2005, found that only 67 percent said, “The soul goes to heaven or hell” (“Poll: What Happens after Death,” www.PreachingToday.com, s.v. “Hell”).
So in light of the errors that circulate and the lack of sound teaching on the same we are going to review the answers biblical, historical, and systematic theology gives to the question, ‘Why is there a hell?’
Biblical Theology Answers the Question, Why Is There a Hell? This Way:
God originally designed hell for the devil and his demons.During His Olivet discourse about the last days, Jesus foresees himself saying at the judgment of the nations “to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels [i.e., demons]” (Matthew 25:41). He does not preordain people to go to hell. They send themselves there. Jesus makes this point clear in John 12:47,48, “As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word [i.e., the Bible] which I spoke will condemn him at the last day.”
Ian Fisher recounts in his article, entitled “New Iraqi Leaders Confront Their Former Dictator,” the following incident: “Soon after Saddam Hussein’s capture — out of an 8-foot hole that one observer said was filled with rats and mice — he was flown to a secret location for a meeting with four members of Iraq’s Governing Council. They wanted to confirm that it was indeed Saddam Hussein. When the men were offered the chance to see Saddam through a window or by camera, they said, ‘No, we want to talk to him.’
“Despite his condition, Saddam was defiant and unrepentant. Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, said: ‘He was quite lucid. He had command of his faculties. He would not apologize to the Iraqi people. He did not deny any of the crimes he was confronted with having done. He tried to justify them” (“Saddam Refuses to Repent,” www.PreachingToday.com, s.v. “Hell”). People who refuse to repent send themselves to hell.
God also designed hell as a place of conscious punishment for those who live like the devil. Jesus teaches the disciples on one occasion that “if your eye causes you to sin, 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 ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’ ” (Mark 9:47,48). In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, we are told, “In hell, where [the rich man] was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire’ ” (Luke 16:23,24). Elsewhere Jesus warns that hell will be a place where people will weep and gnash their teeth due to the pain (Matthew 22:13; 25:30; cf. Romans 2:9). Hell means devastation, not annihilation (Revelation 14:11).
The story is told of “a faithful Scottish preacher [who] once had occasion to pass a factory where glass was manufactured. Finding the door open, he stepped in. Soon he stood before the cavernous opening of the furnace. He stared at the seething flames as if hypnotized, and finally exclaimed to himself, ‘Oh, what must hell be like?”
“He did not know that a stoker, standing quietly a few feet behind him, heard his words.
“After several weeks, the workman appeared in church. Making himself known after the service, he reminded the preacher of the incident at the factory and said, ‘Every time I have opened the furnace since then, I have thought of your words. I came tonight to take Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I do not want to find out what hell is like.” (“What Hell Must Be Like?” www.PulpitHelps.com, s.v. “Hell”). Neither do we.
God not only designed hell as a place of conscious punishment for the devil and his followers, God designed hell to last forever because sin deserves such recompense.After the judgment, Jesus informed His followers that “then they [i.e., the unrighteous] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). If heaven never ends, then neither does hell. The one lasts as long as the other. In that place, “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). Worms continually fed on the garbage and the fire never burned out in the Valley of Gehenna, which became the namesake of hell.
The Book of Revelation states, “The two of them [i.e., the beast and the false prophet] were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur” (Revelation 19:20). Then “[the angel] seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” (Revelation 20:2). Afterward, “The devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). The point being the beast and the false prophet remain in conscious pain a thousand years later. So hell is not temporary. The Bible calls it ‘the second death’ because it consists of eternal separation in a terrible place of suffering away from the presence of God (2 Thessalonians 1:6–9; Revelation 21:8).
Someone has explained that the reason the punishment is eternal is because of whom sin offends — the infinite God of the universe. If someone even points a gun at the president of the United States, our legal system will put him or her in jail faster and longer than they would for taking aim at a civilian. Sin is like taking a shot at God. It is an act of rebellion and defiance.
A person once asked a new Christian, “Can you tell me where hell is?”
After a moment’s hesitation the young Christian said, “Yes, it’s at the end of a Christless life. ” (“Where Is Hell?” www.PulpitHelps.com, s.v. “Hell”). I urge you to accept Christ’s death on the cross in your place, so you can spend eternity in heaven.
We have seen how biblical theology answers. Now …
Historical Theology Answers the Question, Why Is There a Hell? This Way:
God never intended for us to use hell to terrorize people.In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, “[The rich man] answered, ‘Then I beg you, father [Abraham], send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ … [Abraham] said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’ ” (Luke 16:27,28, 31 [19–31]). If Spirit-anointed preaching on the love of God will not convert individuals, then neither will first-hand descriptions of the judgment. Of course, hell is a scary place, but frightening people results in all kinds of abuse as it did during the dark ages. Some preachers during the dark ages seemed to rejoice over the sufferings of sinners in eternity. Others were crudely literal in their descriptions of the same. More than a few passed off their speculations about hell as facts. For instance, several suggested that Satan reigns in hell with an iron glove. But if hell is Satan’s punishment, then he does not rule there, as someone has observed. Instead, he recoils there.
Instead of terrorizing people with hell, we should pray that the Lord will deal with lost people like He did Charles Finney. The story goes, “Charles G. Finney, a young lawyer, was sitting in a village law office in the state of New York. Finney had just come into the old [attorney’s] office. It was very early in the day, and he was all alone when the Lord began to deal with him.
“ ‘Finney, what are you going to do when you finish your course?’
“ ‘Put out a shingle and practice law.’
“ ‘Then what?’
“ ‘Get rich.’
“ ‘Then what?’
“ ‘Then what?’
“ ‘Then what?’
“And the words came tremblingly, ‘The judgment.’
“He ran for the woods a half mile away. All day he prayed, and vowed that he would never leave until he had made his peace with God.
“Finney came out of the woods that evening, after a long struggle, with the high purpose of living [for] the glory of God” (Knight, Master Book, 351). May I ask you the same question, after your life is over, “Then what?”
Bear in mind, as someone has said, “There is a way to stay out of hell, but no way to get out” (McKenzie, Quips, 234).
God never intended for us to use hell as a long-term motivator for people to serve Him.Paul makes this observation when he asserts that “although [sinners] know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:32). Guilt and fear simply are not effective long-term motivators. Moreover, God wants people to serve Him because they love Him, not because they loathe hell.
After all, as Spurgeon asks, “If the wooings of Christ’s wounds cannot make you love Christ, do you think the flames of hell will?” (Spurgeon, Exploring the Heart & Mind, 226).
Even though God never intended for hell to be used to terrorize people, nor as a long-term motivator, He did intend for hell to serve as a short term motivator for people to repent.Christ warns those who will listen, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). It is legitimate, at the first, to accept Christ for the sake of fire insurance, but in time we must learn to love Him for who He is or else we’ll soon grow weary of paying premiums for something that might come to seem so otherworldly.
In an article in Christianity Today, someone asked, “Can the threat of spending eternity in hell motivate individuals toward faith and virtue?”
Jerry Walls, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, responds, “If there is no God, no heaven, no hell, there simply is no persuasive reason to be moral” (“Is Hell Real?,” www.PreachingToday.com, s.v. “Hell”).
After having looked at the answers provided by biblical and historical theology, let’s examine how:
Systematic Theology Answers the Question, Why Is There a Hell? This way:
In addition to what has already been said, hell serves as God’s means of administrating moral justice. John, in his Book of Revelation, records, “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books” (Revelation 20:12). “If anyone’s name [is] not found written in the book of life, he [or she will be] thrown into the lake of fire” (verse 15). God will judge us first on the basis of whether or not we have accepted Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross as atonement for our sins. If not, He will proceed to judge us according to our works. As a result, this judgment strongly implies that there will be degrees of punishment in hell. Those who commit worse evils will suffer worse effects (Matthew 10:15; 11:20,24; Mark 12:40; Luke 12:47,48). Should a so-called good person who dies without Christ suffer the same consequences as a serial rapist or mass murderer like the Son of Sam? Of course not. Nevertheless, hell will be hell just like prison is prison. Whether its flames are literal or not, they represent intense spiritual suffering.
As Spurgeon would remind you, “The torments of the lost will be self-inflicted, they are suicides to their souls, the venom in their veins is self-created and self-injected” (Spurgeon, Exploring the Mind & Heart, 222).
Furthermore, hell serves as God’s means of respecting insolent human free will. Jesus defends himself against the Pharisees, who opposed Him, by stating, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39,40). In spite of the fact the Bible clearly predicts the first coming of Christ, God allows you to make up your own mind about His lordship. He will never force himself upon you. God is a perfect ‘gentleman.’ He created you with a free will because He desires your voluntary affection more than some robotic devotion.
In one place C. S. Lewis writes, “Hell is God’s way of saying, ‘Have it your way.’ ” A large number of people do not want to live in heaven. They dislike God, despise His people, and detest His ways.
Hell serves as God’s incentive for providing a substitutionary sacrifice for sins. For this reason, Jesus taught Nicodemus that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. … Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. … Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:16,18,36). God has done everything He can possibly do to keep you from going to hell. He even gave His Son to die for you while you were still a sinner.
Another pastor reasons, “Unless we come to grips with the terrible doctrine of hell, we will never even begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross. His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, … When [H]e cried out that [H]is God had forsaken him, [H]e was experiencing hell itself.…
“When Jesus was cut off from God, [H]e went into the deepest pit and most powerful furnace, beyond all imagining. And [H]e did it voluntarily, for us” (Larson, Contemporary Stories, 56).
Biblical, historical, and systematic theology explain the bad news and the good news about why there’s a hell. The bad news is there is a hell for the punishment of sinners. The good news is there is a way of escape.
How should you then respond?
Accept Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Jesus promises, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).
Then warn others of the judgment to come. The apostle Paul makes this application when he explains that “since … we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11).
I have read that “Charlie Peace, a criminal in England, on the day he was being taken to his execution, listened to a minister reading from the Word. And when he found out he was reading about heaven and hell, he looked at the preacher and said, ‘Sir, if I believed what you the church of God say, and even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it on hands and knees and think it worthwhile living just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that” (“Hell Is Serious,” www.PreachingToday.com, s.v. “Hell”).
Finally, rest in the knowledge that justice will ultimately be done. Abraham poses to the Lord the question many believers ask, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right” (Genesis 18:25)? The answer is, obviously, yes. Asaph, an Old Testament choir director, admitted, “When [He] tried to understand all [why the wicked prosper], it was oppressive to [him] till [he] entered the sanctuary of God; then [he] understood their final destiny” (Psalm 73:16,17). John the revelator heard, “[The souls under the altar call] out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood” (Revelation 6:11)? Since these souls are already in heaven, it is difficult to believe their prayers are inappropriate. And, in the end, God answers their prayers.
Steve D. Eutsler, D.Min., Springfield, Missouri