The Need For Hell

Matt Smethurst, editor of the Gospel Coalition, read Dane Ortlund’s booklet, Is Hell Real? Impressed, Smethurst shared a long list of quotes with his readers. Apparently Ortlund thinks hell is a place of everlasting torment. Ortlund doesn’t consider the possibility that the hell the Bible describes might be death and destruction. Below are Smethurst’s selected quotes, followed in each case by my comments. 

  1. The doctrine of hell is a vital part of living well amid the miseries of this world. It may be painful for a patient to be told he has a rapidly spreading cancer, but this news is crucial for him to hear if he is to receive treatment, get his affairs in order, and live his remaining days meaningfully. (9)

The threat of everlasting torment might cause a person to consider making changes in order to avoid such a fate. Of course, the thought of dying, the thought of losing something tangible and already possessed, rather than the thought of something imagined, might provide better inspiration. It should be noted, however, that most humans have developed serious callouses against either consideration. 

  1. Hell is needed, awful, close, and deserved by every one of us. But there is a way to avoid going there. (9–10)

This statement is true if “hell” means death; it is false if hell means everlasting torment.

  1. The real scandal of this universe is not that there is a hell, deserved by all, but that there is a heaven, offered to all. (11)

This is wrong. The real scandal of the universe is that hell is deserved by all. We creatures have turned away from our holy Creator in order to embrace selfishness and foolishness. The stupidity can’t be beat. 

The cross should remind us of human depravity but it is much more important that it reminds us of the passion, power, and wisdom of God’s love. God’s love is no scandal; it is our only hope, and it is incomparably wonderful.   

  1. Hell is not a problem. The absence of hell would be a problem. Hell is the affirmation that God is a God of justice, of fairness, of dealing with humans in a way that is right. (12)

        See number 2. 

  1. If we do not believe in hell—if we think the only justice and retribution to be had is in this life—then we must take revenge into our own hands. Without hell, justice must be forcibly executed by us, or it will not be executed at all. (12)

I’m not sure why it is a problem that we should exercise justice on the earth. We are called by God to do exactly that. However, retribution and revenge are not elements of justice. We are not called to these, nor will God act with retribution and revenge towards evildoers. God is just. God will bring justice to the earth. But God’s justice must not be equated with punishment alone. God’s justice (all real justice) is an expression of mercy. 

Our belief about hell has no bearing on whether justice will be applied to those in the world. In fact, our belief about God has no bearing. God will administer justice irrespective of our opinions. Of course, failure to believe in God will cause people to improperly implement justice. But, then, the problem lies with a failure to believe in God, not a failure to believe in hell. 

A person who does not believe in God will also not believe in hell (though it is impossible for him to escape a belief in death). A person who believes in God will have to believe in a hell of some sort and, yet, it will be of no concern to that person. 

A person might reasonably ask, why did the subject of hell come up in the New Testament in the first place? It is wrong to imagine it was Jesus’ strategy to scare some people into heaven. The subject of hell came up because of some who thought themselves safe and in God’s favor when, in fact, they were religious poseurs who despised God when they saw him face-to-face. Religious hypocrisy was particularly offensive to Jesus. He made it clear that his Kingdom would be made up of those who were drawn to his voice. Those who were repulsed by it, who would turn away, would then be sent away. 

  1. Forgiveness itself, that beautiful Christian action that the world reveres, becomes elusive without hell. . . . How can I forgive the one who has hurt me without the knowledge that God will right all wrongs in the next life? The very act of forgiveness is founded on the notion that I am overlooking now what God will not overlook. (13)

This is theology gone astray.  

God has forgiven us our great sins. This obligates us to forgive the small sins of others. To fail to forgive is to demonstrate that we are unworthy of being forgiven. It proves that we have given little thought to how much we have been forgiven. 

Forgiveness is not about overlooking sin. To the contrary, it looks long and hard at sin. It confronts sin. It calls on sinners to understand the wrongs of their sins. It calls on sinners to stop sinning. It calls on sinners to become like Christ. Forgiveness means to absorb the debt of the sin. Forgiveness is to forget the sin. It is the cancellation of a debt.

Righting wrongs does not mean making sure that everyone is equally harmed.  

  1. What if all wrongs were never righted but simply hung in the air of injustice eternally, never vindicated, never addressed, never brought out into the light? What if all wrongs against you were yours to sort out, before you die—not God’s to sort out, after you die? That would be hellish indeed. And that is precisely how the world tends to operate and how many Christians wrongly operate—thinking justice must be exacted by them, in the present; not by God, in the future. But calm and peace begin to break out in this world when we believe in hell—when we settle into our hearts the comforting reality that God himself will right all wrongs one day far more precisely and justly than we could ever hope. (14)

More confusion about retribution. Justice is not about keeping a ledger of wrongs and then making sure each person suffers to a degree commensurate with his negative sum. This is Dante, and Dante’s Inferno owes more to Greek mythology than biblical revelation.

Justice is not “exacted”. Justice is a gift. I want to live in a land where justice is perfect, especially when all in the land are fully committed to justice in their own dealings. 

We are right to be frustrated when we look about and see injustice. We should all labor to bring justice to the land. Complications arise, of course, when justice is perceived differently by different people. This is where reason, communication, and patience must play their parts. Most importantly, we must avoid embracing injustice in order to bring about what we believe to be justice. That is the path of the fool. That is the way of the world. 

Calm and peace have nothing to do with hell, but have everything to do with the knowledge that “God himself will right all wrongs one day far more precisely and justly than we could ever hope.” But, even as calm and peace should characterize the spirit of all Christians, at the same time, we are at enmity with the world. We cannot expect to be at peace in this world. 

I must also comment on this phrase about wrongs hanging eternally in the air of injustice. Do you not know that Christians are the ones who get away with injustice? We do not pay for our sins. Christ pays for our sins. Those who despise Christ will pay for their sins. But we are the ones who will have our sins eternally hanging in the air of injustice. At least, that would be the case if Jesus had not thoroughly yanked them out of the sky and buried them in his own grave. Christians are the only ones to escape due punishment. In this sense, we should be thankful that justice is not imposed and will not be imposed on us. But it is also true that justice was and will be imposed on us in a way that is not true for the punished. Justice will make us pure. Justice will have its way in us. We are becoming and we will be forever the Just. 

  1. In heaven, all the sins and scars of this life become beauty marks that ennoble us all the more (Rom. 8:17–18); in hell, our sins and scars torment us. In heaven, joy squeezes out any opportunity for sadness. In hell, sadness squeezes out any opportunity for joy. (18)

While the remarks about heaven are true, the remarks about hell are fiction, not to be found in Scripture.

Most arguments for everlasting torment are based on two sources. The first source is the phrase, “everlasting fire”. Readers, by tradition and habit, read into the phrase that the wicked are to experience an everlasting punishment. But the words must be twisted to come to that conclusion. It is the fire that is everlasting. That which is thrown into an everlasting fire is not tormented forever. Rather, it is consumed. 

The other favorite source is the story of the rich man and how he calls out to Abraham from the fires of hell, hoping Abraham will dispatch Lazarus to bring him a few droplets of water. This story is clearly not a literal description and should be recognized as allegory. The story is rich in meaning but primarily it is a warning against the love of money and power. It certainly is not an exposition on the nature of hell. Once these two sources are eliminated, the argument that the Bible teaches everlasting torment falls apart.  

  1. There’s a word for heaven without Jesus: hell. (18)

If by this you mean that without God (Jesus), we would simply dissolve into nothingness, then this is so. Of course, there is no place in all of creation where it is possible to be without Jesus. This, I think, is another problem for those who believe in everlasting torment. Such a place would have to be maintained by God’s active power in order to exist. 

  1. Hell is not for the worst people. It is for the impenitent people. (24)

More fundamentally, hell (death) is for people who do not trust Jesus. 

  1. The point is this: a penitent murderer goes to heaven; an impenitent orphanage founder goes to hell. That may offend you. But anything else is works righteousness. . . . All our bad does not make us harder to save, and all our good does not make us easier to save. What saves us is Christ, and therefore all we contribute is honesty—admitting we are sinners and casting ourselves on him. (24)

Okay, though “casting ourselves on him” is oblique jargon. The Bible is simple and more plain: believe in him and obey him.

  1. No one spoke about hell more than Jesus . . . because he, more than anyone, saw the true frightfulness of it. (25–26)

Quite right. But he never spoke of the frightfulness as being everlasting torment. Rather, the frightfulness was the willful throwing away of life, the tossing away of shalom, the turning away from the opportunity to be made majestically, perfectly,  and eternally in the image of God, as has been God’s design for us from the beginning. 

  1. No one who ever lived across the centuries of human history will receive injustice from God. Some will receive mercy. The rest will receive justice. No one is ever treated by God unfairly. (27–28)

This proposed dichotomy between mercy and justice is incorrect. God’s mercy and justice are one and the same. If some are goats and some are sheep, the difference is that to some God gives grace, while to others he gives more grace. 

  1. We tend to think that the default destiny of all people is heaven, and hell is reserved for the particularly wicked. But in truth our default destiny is hell, and heaven is reserved for those who have the honesty to admit it and look to Christ. (31)

It is confusion to think of our destinies in terms of default. The human race was created to live. However, there was a Fall out of grace. We didn’t default into this position; we faulted into it. And we, like our ancestors, are fallen. In one sense we inherited that fallenness. However, every day we confirm our lineage with our own sins. Most of us are not guilty of “technicolor” sins but if we consider our everyday selfish behavior, our meanness, our grumbling, our self-defensiveness, our self-indulgences, etc., the gap between ourselves and holiness becomes apparent. Blame it on God if you like but he is not interested in a Kingdom filled with “mostly nice” people. When he creates, he will have his creation good. Whatever our destinies, they are not by default. We are active participants, while God remains sovereign. 

  1. Unlike every other religion, Christianity does not provide step-by-step instructions for what we must do to avoid hell; it provides a Savior who endured hell in our place, if we will simply have the humility to admit it should have been us. The Bible does not give us steps to take or a list of duties to fulfill as if avoiding hell were like building a bunk bed. The Bible gives us a Rescuer. (38)

The Bible never directs us to order our lives via hell avoidance. It is not our purpose to avoid hell. Our purpose is to love God, to represent him, and to love our neighbor. 

  1. Jesus endured hell in the place of all those who wind up in heaven. (39)

The Word does not say this. It says that Jesus endured the cross. He suffered verbal abuse, he was tortured, he was abandoned, he was murdered. But then he died and he did not see corruption. He was buried…and he rose again, enabling the rest of his brothers and sisters to rise with him.  

  1. You can avoid hell. Anyone can avoid hell. Heaven is not for the deserving; it is for the repentant. Hell is not for the undeserving; it is for the unrepentant. As I’ve heard my dad say, hell is filled with people who think they should be in heaven; heaven is filled with people who know they should be in hell. (41)

I don’t disagree with this, strictly speaking, but if this is a formula, it is less than half the formula. We must abandon our sins and we must abandon our love for the ways of the World, certainly, but this, alone, is insufficient. Repentance is not the mark of the Christian. Christians must turn to Christ and embrace Christ and obey Christ and love Christ and be like Christ and think like Christ and represent Christ.  

  1. If you were on death row for committing a series of horrific crimes, and full exoneration were offered to you if you would simply receive it by acknowledging that you were indeed guilty—would you object that some other way out of your guilt had not been provided? How arrogant of us to demand another way, when full acquittal has been offered to us! (42)

It is not fundamentally the admission that saves us. It is the confession that Jesus is Lord. Salvation is not about navel-gazing; it is about the joy of being embraced by the loving heavenly Father. 

  1. The astonishing surprise at the heart of the universe is not that there is only one way to get to heaven. The astonishing surprise is that there is any way to get to heaven for miserable sinners such as us. (42–43)

The Bible does not characterize it as an astonishing surprise. Perhaps it should not be a surprise. Perhaps we all have a sense of our Maker from the moment of conception. In any case, the Bible characterizes it as Good News. (That which we had always suspected and hoped for is actually true!)

  1. Hell is avoidable. Praise God. (43)

Hallelujah, Amen. And hell as you imagine it will be avoided by all humanity. For this, too, I praise God.  

Matt Smethurst is lead pastor of River City Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia and editor at The Gospel Coalition.

Dane C. Ortlund is senior pastor of Naperville Presbyterian Church in Naperville, Illinois.