In the age of Love Wins, we’ve relocated hell solely to earth and convinced ourselves there’s nothing worse than losing one’s body (Matthew 10:28). Hell, we reason, just doesn’t sound like a good God. Especially when we’ve redefined goodness.
Some preachers won’t preach hell — not because they don’t believe in it, but because they find it impolite and untoward. It is the disagreeable part about God, the part to obscure. And in obscuring the bad news it is no wonder so many churches in the West have forgotten the good. It makes less sense. Man’s chief problem, they assume, is lack of success, scarcity of happiness; therefore, our message ought to be 7 Steps to a Victorious Whatever. And thus we offer shiny new laws that only increase the trespass (Romans 5:20).
But Jesus was not skittish about preaching hell. He knew the stakes couldn’t be higher. “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you,” he tells the healed paralytic (John 5:14). Because he knows there are worse things than being paralyzed. He knows there are worse things than dying.
The Sheep and The Goats
Let’s look at one of Jesus’ direct references to the afterlife. Following the barrage of high-stakes parables concluding the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24), this word about the eternal destinies of the righteous and the unrighteous contains elements of a parable (separating people like sheep and goats (Matthew 25:32-33)) but is largely a circling back around to answer the disciples’ question about the end of the age (Matthew 24:3). Why be alert and diligent, so as to be found faithful? Because the stakes couldn’t be more high.
Then he [the Son of Man] will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46)
This passage does not, as some suppose, teach a works righteousness. We need only hold it up with the similar teaching in which Jesus sent the doers of good works (in his name!) to the same eternal punishment as these non-doers of works (Matthew 7:21-23). J.C. Ryle explains:
The last judgment will be a judgment according to evidence. The works of men are the witnesses which will be brought forward, and above all their works of charity. The question to be ascertained will not merely be what we said, but what we did–not merely what we professed, but what we practiced. Our works unquestionably will not justify us. We are justified by faith without the deeds of the law. But the truth of our faith will be tested by our lives. Faith which has not works is dead, being alone. (James 2:20.)
What the “sheep” are receiving at the end of their faithful lives is the inheritance prepared for them at the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34), before they’d done anything good or bad. Their lives of goodness, of tending to Christ, as it were, are the evidences of their having tended to Christ’s church—“the least of these my brothers” (Matthew 25:40). This is not to say, of course, that the mission of the church does not include such care for those outside the church; as I argued in the previous chapter, it does. It is only to say that the sheep receiving the inheritance are those who have been “blessed by the Father” (v.34), have been promised the blessing before time (v.34), and have made the care of Christ through the care of his people a chief concern of their lives (v.40).
Like the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, this teaching then shows us the direness of the death after death.
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matthew 25:41).
Jesus is not talking about a fiery garbage dump outside Jerusalem. It has been common to think so, that Jesus could not mean to send people into a fiery hell for eternity, that instead the quote-unquote “historical context” shows us that he is just metaphorizing annihilationism with yet another allusion to Gehenna (explicit in Matthew 5:22, 29-30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15; Mark 9:43), the Valley of Hinnom outside the city where trash was continually burning. But this claim is, if you’ll forgive the term, rubbish. There is virtually no evidence from the time in question to support such a claim, and what has become a sort of biblical urban legend today—similar to the old chestnut, since debunked, about the “eye of the needle” being a gate into the city through which camels must walk through on their knees—actually originates well into the thirteenth century. George R. Beasley-Murray is one of many scholars addressing the claim:
The notion, still referred to by some commentators, that the city’s rubbish was burned in this valley, has no further basis than a statement by the Jewish scholar Kimchi made about A.D. 1200; it is not attested in any ancient source.
Further, we should find it suspect that the deniers of hell along these lines do not similarly metaphorize Jesus’ words about heaven. The place of punishment? An exaggeration; doesn’t exist. The idea of heaven? Realer than can be. Eternal punishment is a myth while eternal life is a reality. This is an obvious case of double-mindedness.
No, when Jesus speaks of eternal punishment he means just that. He means that hell is real. Of course, our perceptions of it may be inaccurate, but our belief in it is well-grounded in the Scriptures. It is a place prepared for the devil and his angels, so it cannot simply refer to the graves of the mortal. Likewise, as Jesus is highlighting two destinations in this passage, not one, we know he can neither be referring to the grave of death nor teaching universalism.
The language Jesus uses to describe hell may be symbolic, of course, but the thing about symbols is that they have referents. They correspond to things, and biblical symbols often pale in comparison to the realities for which they are the shadows. In other words, when Jesus says there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth in the place of eternal punishment it is not likely he means that it will be not so bad as all that, but actually that it will be much worse.
Similarly, to even use the phrase “eternal” in relation to this punishment, to this place of fiery condemnation is to tell us that it is exactly that—eternal. Hell is forever. The destruction is eternal (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The fire is eternal (Jude 7). The “gloom of darkness” is “reserved forever” (Jude 13). Jesus refers to the fires of hell as being “unquenchable” (Matthew 3:12, Mark 9:43). And in case we are led to believe that the eternal destruction refers to an irreversible annihilationism, Revelation 14:11 tells us that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.”
Simply (and bluntly) put, hell is real and eternal because God’s holiness is real and eternal. The unrepentant workers of iniquity will serve to showcase his justice for all eternity. This should make us uncomfortable. It should make us uncomfortable enough to make our calling and election sure.
Because the frightening thing is that to enter hell all one has to do is nothing.
“Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:45). All you have to do to go to hell is not rock the boat. Accept the status quo. Hell is quite easy to enter. Because outside of Christ we stand condemned already (John 3:18), we need simply do nothing. As Jonathan Edwards said, there is nothing between the reprobate and hell but air. The only thing preventing the breathing unbeliever’s entrance into hell at this very moment is the patience of God.
“The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matthew 7:13).
You few, you happy few, enter by the narrow gate.