A month ago, on Good Friday, the front page of The Times newspaper had the following headline under a large picture of the Pope, Thank heavens: Pope puts Hell in doubt. A reporter then wrote:
"Hell, it turns out, is not a fiery pit of eternal damnation. Neither does it involve varieties of extreme torment. Rather, the punishment for sinners upon death is simply that they disappear."
The Vatican press office then denied that these words were a faithful transcription of what the Pope actually had said in answer to a question. So assuming the Pope is orthodox, The Times certainly is not. For inside the newspaper the main editorial was given over to this subject of ultimate judgment under the sub-heading: "The Pope's suggestion that Hell is imaginary shows his instinct to reconcile the eternal truths with the mores and understanding of the modern age." It then began:
"In church services today across the world, Christians will recall the fate of a figure nailed to a cross, flanked by two criminals, in ancient Palestine. More than that, they will affirm their faith that Jesus of Nazareth was both human and divine, and that in his crucifixion, he voluntarily suffered and atoned for the sins of humanity. In two millennia since, Christ's followers have wondered and reasoned about the fate of those who are saved and those who are lost. This week the Pope has injected a distinctive view into this theological debate. In an interview with La Repubblica, he appears to suggest that Hell is an imaginary construct and that the fate of unrepentant sinners, rather than eternal torment, is to disappear."
It then went on to say that if the Pope was accurately reported, he was saying only what other people have said who wanted a position that was "a humane one that accords with modern mores".
The Reality of Hell
So what do we say to all this? First, let me say how one theologian begins to answer that question:
"To any normal person the thought that people one knows and cares for, not to mention oneself, might face a destiny that could be described as eternal punishment, will be profoundly disturbing. It rudely disrupts the sort of peace of mind that we in the Western world cultivate today – the peace of mind, that is gained by constantly telling oneself that there is nothing to worry about and everything will work out all right in the end. But since this complacency is part of our culture, and is sniffed like glue in the air we breathe and does in fact operate as a deadening drug on the mind, it is a kind of knee-jerk reaction with us to resent having it disturbed. From thence comes our tendency to dismiss the doctrine of eternal punishment in all it forms as debased Christianity. We scoff at Hell Fire as a bad dream, the murky stamping ground of redneck fundamentalists, backwoods preachers, and old-fashioned Roman Catholics; and we write off the idea as a hangover from primitive ages now long past"
- J.I. Packer
But with that caution, we then need to say that the real trouble for the editorial writer in The Times is not with "the mores and understanding of the modern age" but with "the eternal truths" of the risen and reigning Jesus, the divine Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, the agent in the creation of this amazing universe and his teaching. For a fundamental part of his teaching, that was not just an echo of Jewish apocalyptic, was his doctrine of eternal punishment. As W.T. Shedd famously put it sometime ago but, nevertheless, still is true:
"The strongest support of the doctrine of Endless Punishment is the teaching of Christ, the Redeemer of men … Christ could not have warned so frequently and earnestly as he did against 'the fire that shall never be quenched' and 'the worm that dieth not', had he known that there is no future peril to fully correspond to them. Jesus Christ is the person who is responsible for the doctrine of Eternal Perdition. He is the being with whom all opponents of this theological tenet are in conflict."
Why is it Difficult to Believe?
First, some people may still fail to realize that it is metaphorical language or the language of imagery that is being used to describe the reality of Hell. That is needed because it is beyond the power of human description to describe. So human imagination has to be put to work. Fire and darkness, two images used, are incompatible in a literal sense, of course. Where there is fire there cannot be darkness and vice-versa. However, both words are used to refer to the same condition, namely one of hopelessness that is unimaginably dreadful. Then logic takes over and says, 'I must avoid this at all costs – it is so terrible.'
Secondly, some cannot understand how a God of love can be connected with the idea even of such an unspeakable destiny as Hell. Must not the suggestion as extinction after death be, therefore, right? The problem comes because many fail to realize that the statement "God is love" is only one truth about God. John's first letter is the source of the proposition that "God is love" (1 John 4.8). But John then says also that God is light (1 John 1.5) and Jesus is righteous (1 John 3.7). It insists on divine moral holiness and absolute justice. That great Old Testament scholar, J.A. Motyer writes:
"It is not easy to come to a single definition of the divine nature. Alongside the incredibly benevolent God of Genesis 2, ever thoughtful of Adam's welfare, there is the God of Genesis 3, with his stern questions, his imposition of a curse on that which he had earlier given in blessing, and his personal action in driving out the first pair and placing a flaming sword to prevent their return … The same apparent opposites occur, however, and the same variety of attributes in the Lord Jesus, yet all of them are unified into one Person! … We must never imagine that the existence of love and wrath in the same nature is evidence of a split personality, but only evidence that God is greater than can be grasped in our finite logic. The one divine attribute which more than any other is suggested by the Bible as the sufficient description of God is 'holiness'."
God's holiness cannot tolerate sin. But such intolerance was especially seen at the moment of God's ultimate expression and proof of his love for sinners – at Calvary, on that first Good Friday to which The Times editorial referred. This was when Jesus "became sin" for us. But at that point our Holy God was unable to tolerate such a one in his presence. So Jesus cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Biblical 'holiness' means two things (at least) with regard to God. First that he is utterly transcendent – "high and lifted up" and so distant from us; and secondly, his moral character (that gives rise to his Ten Commandments). And, as Isaiah tells us (Isaiah 6) such experienced holiness brings immediate conviction of our own sinfulness. "If we were frank," writes Motyer, "we would admit that we rarely see sin as a serious thing; our imagination will not even stretch to seeing why God was so 'intolerant' towards Adam and Eve, or Ananias and Sapphira, or any others who came under his wrath. In other words, a sinner's imagination is no gauge to the reactions of a Holy God, and we need to beware of imprisoning the Almighty within the meagre grasp of our fallen nature."
The Good News
But the good news is that Hell is not the last word. John in his Gospel could not be clearer – John 3.16-21:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God."
It could not be clearer. Hell is not God's choice. For the love of God is reflected in the fact that Jesus, God incarnate, suffered Hell, that ultimate separation from the Father, for you and me. That means if by faith "you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10.9) for now and for eternity.