Hell as an eternal place of punishment does not come from the Bible, but was later devised by the church. In the end, God allows everyone to enter heaven or else the wicked just stop to exist. If there is a hell, it is only temporary. After all, Jesus has the best intentions for everyone. Hell and eternal punishment seem to have disappeared from evangelism. Is that a good thing?
Prof. dr. Benno Zuiddam
An English translation of my column in the Reformed Daily on this subject.
We have become cautious in speaking about hell. Perhaps you have already heard the following platitude: “In Scripture, hell is the place where God is not. Hell is often here, on earth.”
Until the last century this was a sentiment that was by and large only found amongst liberals and sectarian groups. Adventists (for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses) deny the eternal character of God’s punishment. They believe in destruction, where the soul of people ceases to exist. The Anglican archbishop William Temple held that persuasion as well. Perhaps not surprisingly this modernist view is followed by a long series of (neo-) evangelical theologians. Among them are influential authors: Richard Bauckham, John Stott, John Wenham, Michael Green, and Ian Howard Marshall.
In active punishment and torment of the ungodly after the last judgment many Christians no longer believe. Of course, they are all very vocal about the love of Jesus and the existence of heaven. Near-death experiences provide convincing reasons to believe in the afterlife and man’s existence independent of his body, but they also seem to indicate that almost everyone goes to the “Good Place”. Influential neo-orthodox theologians such as Karl Barth preached that it will eventually be all right with most of us, if not all of mankind.
Many a funeral has become a canonization these days.
Speaking of which, in the Roman Catholic Church matters are probably worse than in Protestantism, although the catechism also learns differently there. If hell exists at all, many prelates insist that it is unlikely that many would end up there. Or if they do, hell will be like a purgatory for unbelievers: eventually everyone gets to heaven. Either God ultimately saves all human life (Pope John Paul II), or the souls of sinners simply disappear (Pope Francis in March of lasts year).
If we may believe the current Pope and his trusted cardinals, “fire and sulfur” are metaphors, theological language for “not real”. A cardinal from England (Nichols) really took the cake. The church would never have said that someone actually landed in hell. How ignorant do you have to be to become a Cardinal these days?
Jesus’s teachings on hell
We hear differently from our Lord.
Wish that today’s Church tried to be relevant to Jesus’s teachings instead of the world’s agenda. Most Bible books do not speak of hell at all, but our Saviour does so regularly. Remember the chorus: “Where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9: 42-48).
In the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus there is an unbridgeable chasm that separates those who end up in hell from heaven and earth (Luke 16:26). Jesus makes clear that this is about much more than separation and absence of God. It is also a place of punishment. The pain and retribution are real (Luke 16:24). There is justice in hell. People are rewarded according to their actions and their level of knowledge (Luke 12: 47-48).
Jesus leaves no misunderstanding about the eternal character of the infernal punishment: “And these shall go into everlasting pain; but the righteous in eternal life “(Matthew 25:46). The Greek word for “pain” there is the result of punishment. That is why many Bibles translate with “eternal punishment”. Death is not the end. For this reason Jesus cautions that you should take care how you live (Matthew 10:28), no many how many rigged synods tell you differently.
Precisely this eternal judgment on soul and body, which our Lord emphasized, moved the Early Church to evangelize. When Paul explains the Gospel to the Greeks in Athens, he speaks of Jesus as the eternal judge (Acts 17:31); not about the church as a useful non-government organisation and God willing all religions. Real faith leads to obedience. Disobedience has consequences, lay at the heart of the Christian Gospel.
The Church fathers continued this line without reservation. They underscored the teaching of the Gospels that God’s punishment after this life is a reality, also for church leaders. It is refreshing to hear from the mouth of a bishop, St. Chrysostom, that he was convinced that more bishops will go to hell and be lost forever, than will be saved (“Homily 3 on Acts” 1:12). After days of cover-up there will be a final day of account for a heavenly court. The medieval Church was also very much aware of this, a large part of Dante’s inferno was reserved for bishops and popes.
In 2014, a study by the Social and Cultural Planning Office showed that younger believers in particular (between 17 and 30 years of age) are looking foremost for authenticity. They don’t want fake, but the real thing. If they go for Christianity at all they want the doctrine of the Apostolic Church of all ages and places. Not some modernist make-over.
In sum, hell is a reality. Like with all teachings of Christianity, we are able to deliberately ignore these, and get others to say the same and proclaim our own ‘magisterium’. But that will be all it is: our own teaching. It is only authoritative if what we teach conforms to reality and the mind of God. We cannot undo hell, only in our mind.
More often than not, injustice rules on this earth, and in today’s church. So the doctrine of hell is of major consolation to everyone with a sense of decency: sinners will eventually get the bill presented. Just deserts will be served, despite the failures of earthly judges. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, because they shall be satisfied.
At least there is righteousness with God, even when it is not found with the people who claim to represent him. This is also a warning to all of us to take sin seriously in this life before it is too late. “We pray from Christ, be ye reconciled to God” (1 Cor 5:20).