In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul tells a rather dispirited and disordered group of Christians that the beauty and goodness God has waiting for them is beyond their imagination:
John describes the New Jerusalem—the shining symbol of God’s kingdom finally come—as resplendent, magnificent, gorgeous: “It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel”; with architecture wrought in precious gems and gold: “The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold . . . The great street of the city was of pure gold”; and effused with transcendent, uncreated light: “The glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (Revelation 21:11-23). Life itself flows as a crystal clear river through the center of this city (Revelation 22:1-2).
John’s vision builds on the foundation of Isaiah’s prophecy of God’s promise of a “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17), in which “the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox . . . They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 65:25). The completed picture, at the very end of the Bible, is of a place that settles the heart and expands the imagination; a place of abiding joy and beauty, immense peace, and endless life that literally flows through the landscape. The description is meant to evoke in us longing and desire, as well as trust and hope in the promises of God.
What does all that have to do with Hell? Just this: We can say No to all that, and God will take our No for an answer. We can choose to exclude ourselves by refusing God’s grace and God’s gift. We can enclose ourselves in our pride and say with Milton’s Satan, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in heaven” and say to ourselves, “Better to drift endlessly in a darkness of our own making, than abide in everlasting radiance that is an unearned gift.” We do this by refusing to accept that we are creatures, and that we have a Creator. ‘But nobody would do that’, we say. But they would. I have seen people insist on doing things or continuing a state of affairs or attitude that they must know will only bring them harm. I have done it myself.
But if we refuse God and God’s new creation, what remains? What else is there? Hades, Gehenna, Tartarus, the Lake of Fire. Darkness, gloom, dungeons, worms, fire, smoke, sulfur. Separation, exclusion, enclosure, loss, and anguish. Damnation. We may turn away and separate ourselves from God—from the True, Good, and Beautiful—but we cannot create an alternate heaven from the lies, evil, chaos, and death we cling to. At the end of the book of Revelation, Christ calls those “blessed” who “may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.” But some are excluded: “Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Revelation 22:14-15). It is not these sins themselves that exclude us from the heavenly city. If it were, we would all be on the outside looking in. We exclude ourselves from the Kingdom of Heaven by insisting on worshipping ourselves and embracing our sin as who we really are, and we end up by enclosing our lives and destinies within the smoking darkness and the fiery lake that are the remnants of ruined personal identities and the tragic continuing course of a human history without God. A continually down-spiraling loss of truth, goodness, beauty, and light leaves nothing but the sense of loss and anguish. Bad news, indeed.
But the Good News is that, while the wages of sin are death, and Hell, the gift of God is eternal life, and the Kingdom of Heaven, in Jesus Christ.