The Question of Hell

1 Chronicles 16:34 O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever. This appears in the book 50 times and I question the validity of this being true, as I was thinking, how can this be true if there is a place called hell? Please expound on this!

Unfortunately (for the flesh), the question of hell is inseparably bound to the question of Jesus’ identity and authority. I have a view that helps me considerably with this question, but you have not asked concerning matters of interpretation. Instead, you seem to question whether such a place can co-exist with the justice and goodness of God. That is a far more serious issue, since this becomes the question of Jesus’ authority and identity, not only as a prophet, but as the divine Son of God.

Though many will agree that we evangelicals are of all people most to be pitied, it is true that we are ‘victims’ of the conviction that Jesus is who He claimed to be, and this leaves us with no recourse than to believe what He affirmed about hell, else the whole foundation is at once removed. Simply put, if we would not sacrifice the integrity of Christ’s authority, we are compelled to believe in the existence of hell, regardless of how we understand it.

This means that the reality of the hope of eternal life is inseparably bound to the reality of eternal damnation, if Jesus is indeed who He claimed to be. We who are naturally humanistic in our thinking need to understand that only one provision for salvation was ever possible to God. From a human point of view, God is bound to be God. He is defined by His nature. According to Ro 8:20, His very decision to create a universe that He knew would pass into futility was based on the timeless pre-determination to send Jesus to the cross (Isa 49:7; 53:3-5; Dn 9:26; Mic 5:1; Zech 12:10; Acts 2:23; Rev 13:8).

It is significant that the reason for hell’s existence is explained in the very place where we see the greatest conceivable sacrifice of divine love. “For God sent NOT His Son into the world to CONDEMN the world; but that the world through him might be saved … THIS is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil … ” (Jn 3:17, 19).

So we must understand that the question of hell is subservient to the much more ultimate question of the existence and nature of divine revelation. Ultimately its a choice between revelation and philosophy. I begin with the evidence. If the evidence is sufficient to remove all reasonable doubt of the reality of divine revelation, then I am relieved of having to understand hell in order to acknowledge its existence. If He is indeed there; if He has indeed spoken, then who am I? I am creature; He is God. I am at the mercy of whatever He has chosen to reveal (Deut 29:29). This is the humility of faith, but faith is not without reasons.

Revelation transcends the limits of rationality, but it is never irrational. It is not without compelling evidence. The evidence is such as to leave all without excuse, but not such as to remove all mystery. There is the choice. Will we bow to the evidence, suffering the tension that must always exists between evidence and mystery, or will we exalt reason over revelation, with an all or nothing demand?

Hell is one of those things that is so naturally unthinkable that it actually commends itself as belonging, not to the realm of human conceptions of justice, but of divine revelation. The greatest reason for our quarrel with hell is because we are ‘cut off’ and ‘out of touch’ with the holiness of God. We are insensible of divine reality. If God is possessed of a holiness that is infinite, sin becomes something much more than a finite, time bound event, as we tend to imagine. That is why we are incapable of knowing the degree of our sin apart from revelation.

We are in no position to demand of God. Revelation does not come as divine obligation to the creature, else it would not be grace but debt. Revelation is the issue of humility and divine sovereignty (Mt 11:25-27). It doesn’t work with the pride of demand. It works where prayer works, namely, at the end of the power of self-sufficiency (Deut 32:36; Dan 12:7). Revelation comes to those who have been brought to feel their own destitution (Ps 102:17). I call it the Jacob’s trouble principle, but it is the principle of the cross.

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God” (1 Cor 8:1-3). In contrast to philosophy, religious dogma, or even a creed that is merely ‘correct,’ only revelation can bend the knee and break the heart. It brings down man and lifts up Christ.

This is why I don’t have to understand or explain hell to enjoy the salvation of Christ. It is the issue of trust. I simply am too weak and unreliable in myself to trust the limits of my poor reason over that which He has spoken (“Has God really said?”). When it comes to the question of hell, my answer is the same as Abraham’s unquestioned assumption: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25).

Notice that Abraham appeals to this great ‘given’ of the nature and character of God in the face of what seemed to him evidence to the contrary. The operating word here is “seemed.” I like to say that we see through a “seem.” There is often a great chasm between what ‘seems’ and what is. It is testament to Abraham’s faith that he holds fast to the conviction of God’s goodness and justice, even in the face of ‘apparent’ contradiction. He never lifts himself up beyond the place of finite and dependent creature-hood. He puzzles, he appeals, but he never puts his own limited first impressions in the place of God. This is precisely what philosophy does when it rejects the primacy of revelation.

Whether any of His attributes are ever palatable to the flesh, we are not in a position to prescribe the kind of deity that suits us. Either God has revealed Himself as He indeed is, despite the limits of our understanding, or He has not. In which case, we can play till judgment day with our unbounded imaginations, “ever learning (conveniently) and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

By a sublime irony, God deliberately puts Himself on trial. When Jesus stood before Pilate, things were not as they appeared. By placing Himself before the tribunal of human judgment, God was permitting our judgment of Him to be the judgment that we are really passing on ourselves. When we exalt an autonomous reason over the gift of inspired revelation, we judge ourselves (“He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him – the Word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day;” Jn 12:48).

The entire passion scene is divinely constructed to raise the great questions. Pilate’s dilemma is ours. What should be done with this man? “What is truth?” These are questions that the crisis of Jesus (and soon of Israel) puts on the lips of our collective humanity. Settle this one question and all others fade in comparison. The only really ultimate question is put by Jesus Himself when He asks, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:29).

Either Jesus was a man of His times spreading well meaning religious, but nonetheless human opinion, or He is the final authority of truth on all questions pertaining to human destiny. He is the only One who is in a position to speak with such absolute authority from the other side of the veil. If He is wrong about hell, what is He right about? What good is a mistaken Messiah? “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die!” (Isa 22:13; 1Cor 15:32). That is sound advise from one whose pious self assurance was crucified on the road to Damascus.

No hell, no Savior! I don’t see any possible middle ground. Both the identity of Jesus and the existence of hell belong to the realm of revelation. A Jesus that is less than divine is no threat to the flesh, but He is also no hope for the soul. If Jesus was sincerely deceived about hell, then tell us, “to whom shall we go?” Judaism? Islam? Or the nihilism of hedonism?

Well, you asked that I expound on the question. Now for a personal appeal. You and I have been back and forth on questions of this kind for a good while now. I don’t mind, but I get the feeling that your frustration may become such that you will despair to inquire further. Therefore, in honor of our friendship, would you consider to read a little booklet that made all the difference in my life? It is, “Saved by Grace,” by John Bunyan. He was the author of the famous, “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

How I would love to see you come to the real resolution and peace that is faithfully quickened to our hearts when we have despaired of any hope in ourselves (Isa 57:10). May it be soon for you, is my prayer.

Your friend in His unspeakable goodness, Reggie

Filed under
Church Doctrine, The Wrath to Come
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