How does the love of Jesus line up with the idea of a God who condemns people to an eternity of suffering? I'd become a believer in a heartbeat if it weren't for the "mean streak" I find running through so many aspects of the Christian faith. Do you really expect me to give my heart to such a cruel and sadistic deity? Isn't all that stuff about hellfire and brimstone just a medieval myth?
Unfortunately, it isn't. Most of the dramatic and frightening imagery we associate with the reality of hell in western culture comes directly from the words of Jesus Himself. Christ talked a great deal about this subject. Consider, for example, how many times He speaks of the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" of those who are "cast into outer darkness" (see Matthew 8:12, 13:42, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30). He describes "Gehenna" as a place where "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44, 46, 48). He also has the rich man in the parable describe himself as inhabiting a "place of torment" (Luke 16:28). As we see it, there's no way to stay true to the "whole counsel" of Scripture if we're unwilling to look these passages in the face.
Naturally, the important thing about this disturbing imagery is the deeper reality it's meant to convey. It's not the fire and brimstone that makes hell such a miserable place. It's the fact of being separated from God. At its core, hell is about being in wrong relationship to the Source of all Love, Goodness, and Life. If you think of it in this way, it's easy to see how God's wrath and judgment can be understood as the flip-side of His love. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, "Our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29). We can be warmed and comforted, or we can be scorched and burned. It all depends on where we stand in relation to the flame.
But this begs another question. If God is truly omnipresent, as Scripture tells us ("'Can anyone hide himself in secret places, so I shall not see him?' says the Lord; 'Do I not fill heaven and earth?'" – Jeremiah 23:24), then how is it possible to speak of being separated from Him? The answer is that separation from God is primarily a matter of human choice. You may be in the same room with me, sitting in the next chair, and yet I can refuse to talk to you or acknowledge your presence. In the same way, though God is "never far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27), we can decide to turn away from Him and divorce ourselves from His love. It's an attitude that, once willfully assumed, can over time become confirmed and hardened through habit and practice. As Paul says in Romans 1:21, "Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened."
This willful choice is what hell is all about. It's the reality behind the images of burning and searing pain we find so often in the words of Jesus. It's the substance behind theological talk about being cut off from the "ground and source of being." It's why people in hell can be utterly miserable, afflicted, and devoid of hope in spite of the fact that God is there with them (Psalm 139:8). Most of all, it explains why the Christian God never sends anyone to hell. You can't go to hell except by your own choice.
If you need additional help understanding these concepts, or if you'd simply like to talk them over at greater length, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.
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