HELL is a topic that seldom intrudes into any civil discourse, popular discussion, or casual dialogue. Want to start an argument or stop a good conversation or just make people uncomfortable? Bring up the subject of eternal damnation. Even Christians avoid the topic, like shying away from a strange uncle who is part of the family, but no one wants to admit it. Popular avoidance mechanisms include “annihilationism”, in which Hell isn’t exactly frozen over, but eventually it, and everyone in it, melts away to nothing; and “universalism”, in which Hell is merely temporary low-rent lodgings for the down-and-not-yet-redeemed.
I do not want to be flippant about this—I am persuaded Hell is a reality we must come to terms with. But a glaring problem is that much of what we think we know about the nature of Hell doesn’t come from the Bible, it comes from Medieval, Renaissance, and later literature—like Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost—and paintings, such as Hieronymus Bosch’s depiction of Hell in the right panel of his triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. We can learn a great deal from great art and great literature about the human condition—even the condition of darkened souls and damned hearts. Has there been a more pointed and succinct summary of rebellious pride and hubris than the declaration Milton puts into Satan’s mouth: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”?
But what was typically intended by authors and artists as poetic, figurative, and often fantastic, expressions of unseen spiritual realities have always tended to become literalized in popular imagination. The trend continues to this day, so we have one picturesque—admittedly often lightly held—view that Hell is a vast, dark, smoldering subterranean dungeon, perhaps with some Gothic architectural flourishes, where either a goat-like or dragon-morphed Satan rules imperiously over hordes of demons who administer appropriate tortures upon the wicked dead. Not much of this picture is in the Bible, and what is, is not meant to be taken literally.
The picture does not seem much better in Christian preaching. In contemporary preaching the topic of Hell is typically avoided altogether, perhaps because it is thought to have no “practical” application to our “everyday lives”.
Historically (and I mean from about 100 years ago, back to the Reformation and beyond) quite the opposite was often true. Hell was brought front and center, exposited with great fervency, usually with the aim of warning sinners— sometimes quite graphically—of the consequences that awaited them if they did not repent then and there. The classic example of this is Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God, preached in a revival in 1741.
I don’t want to criticize Edwards too much here. He had a heart for drawing people to Christ and he was instrumental in leading the first Great Awakening revivals of the 18th century. He was a brilliant and sensitive man, who not only wrote and preached hundreds of well-crafted sermons, but also wrote insightful treatises in theology and philosophy. And the idea of warning about Hell is certainly justified scripturally. Jesus himself warned about Hell—“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Hell?” (Gospel of Matthew 23:33)—and he warned the same kind of people Edwards was aiming at: “religious” leaders who trusted in their own righteousness. But Jesus always tempered warnings of judgment with the offer of mercy—even when he knew that mercy would be spurned. Right after excoriating the Pharisees and teachers of the law as Hell-bound snakes, he exclaimed, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Gospel of Matthew 23:38).
But there is no tempering of judgment with mercy in Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God. There is not so much as a mention or whisper of the love and grace of God in the entire sermon. No promise of mercy, only the vengeful threat of the fires of Hell. Jesus likens himself, and therefore God, to a mother hen protecting her brood. Edwards’ portrait of God startles us with its harshness:
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”
It does not require a denial of God’s dismay and anger at the harm and evil we do to one another, and the rebellious fists we often shake at God, to reject this depiction of God—God as vengeful exterminator who tosses sinners into Hell as we might brush a clinging tick onto the coals of our barbecue. Even if a sinner “came to his senses”, as did the prodigal son (Gospel of Luke 15:17), who would want to return and embrace a God such as this?
Neither Edwards’ portrait of Hell as God’s incinerator, not the popular imaginative view of Hell as Satan’s subterranean torture chamber is supported by Scripture. What then does the Bible actually say of Hell?
Next Week: Hellfire and Damnation, Part 2: Hell is Real, This I know, For The Bible Tells Me So.