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Is Hell Real According to the Bible?
Is hell a real place?
Have you ever wondered why some Christians seem so desperate to bring people over to their side of the fence? “Why can’t these Christians just leave me alone?” People seem to naturally want to be left alone to find their own way. I don’t know anyone who gets excited about seeing the door to door salespeople come over. “I don’t need a handy dandy vacuum cleaner.” No matter how great the deal is, we don’t want someone in our house pressuring us. “When I decide I need (and am ready to spend money on) a handy dandy vacuum cleaner I’ll go buy one.” And that’s just about carpet cleaning. Certainly this dynamic becomes exacerbated when you’re talking about something as personal as our faith. I think the most instinctive response to door to door witnessing is “I don’t know you. What gives you the right to come at me and pressure me with these questions?” And it’s true. In that situation no relationship has been built and no trust can be leveraged.
Why do some Christians do that? What could possibly be so urgent that they feel they have to harrass everyone around them with their beliefs? The answer is very simple--and uncomfortable. It’s not something we like to talk about at parties. It’s a reality that some might want to avoid thinking about altogether. Our culture wants inclusion, warmness, and just generally happy thoughts. If we are honest with ourselves, we want that too. And yet there’s something taught in scripture that forces us to leave our comfortable places and do things we would rather not do. In Matthew chapter 13, Jesus explains the big picture of what happened to this world. And he also explains what will happen when it’s all over--what happens when we die. For God followers it’s a reality so chilling that, when we wrap our minds around it, we become motivated to leave our comfort zones and ask uncomfortable questions.
The Parable of the Weeds
“Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as everyone slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew. The farmer’s servants came and told him, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds!’
‘An enemy has done it!’, the farmer exclaimed.
‘Shall we pull out the weeds?’ they asked.
He replied, ‘No, you’ll hurt the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds and burn them and to put the wheat in the barn.’” (Matthew 13:24-29) NLT
The farmer planted good seed in his field. In Genesis, God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat. The serpent tempted Adam and Eve and sin entered the world. As Adam’s offspring developed into an entire civilization, sin was everywhere--just like weeds. In this parable, the weeds are those who rejected God’s love and offer of salvation. The wheat is those who accepted the gift. At the end of the harvest, the harvesters were to sort out the weeds and burn them and put the wheat in the barn. This is the part that creates the motivation for us to have uncomfortable conversations. When we read scripture, we discover that “burning the weeds” is not a metaphor. We discover that Jesus gave clear warnings about hell being a real place that should be avoided at all costs. Jesus Himself said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me." According to scripture, there is only one way any of us can escape this place called hell, and it isn’t by being good. Faith in Jesus is the only possible answer.
When we read the gospels, its clear that Jesus believed in hell. In fact, Jesus had a lot to say about it. If Jesus is in fact the Son of God, then clearly His words on this matter should be taken seriously. For those who are not Christians and choose not to trust Jesus for your salvation, I think it's still important to understand what the Bible teaches so you understand the risk of rejecting Him. The passage below shows Jesus being much more direct about what happens to us after this life.
"“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy] angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left... Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels... And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matthew 25:31-33, 41 ,46) NKJV
I've heard some Biblical scholars say that, at the end of this life, those who aren't saved simply cease to exist. In other words, there really isn't anything to fear for those who reject Jesus Christ. Jesus certainly did not teach that. In fact, a significant amount of Jesus' teaching was wrapped around a warning. From the beginning of His ministry, He repeatedly preached the need for repentance "for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." This implied that there were consequences for choosing not to repent. Eventually, Jesus began to be more clear about the nature of the consequences.
"But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire." (Matthew 5:22) NKJV
The passage below is even more clear that hell is a real destination to be feared.
"If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’" (Mark 9:43-44) NKJV
Consider for a moment how bad hell would have to be that it would be better to cut off your own hand than to end up there. This is incredibly strong speech. I can't really claim to know for sure what "their worm does not die" means, but it sure sounds bad. I believe what he's saying is that this fire does not consume. And, it never stops or dies down. It simply torments endlessly. And finally, Jesus gave another parable related to hell about a rich man who refused to help a beggar in need.
"There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’" (Luke 16:19-26) NKJV
This passage might be described as simply an allegory rather than a description of hell, except that it's clear from the previous passages discussed that Jesus clearly believed that hell was in fact a real place. This was not something he made up to prove a point. This is something he is warning us against in as many ways as He can.
On the surface we might cry foul at the narrowness of the path, but then God would remind us of the enormous sacrifice of love Jesus made at the cross. The only person who could have saved us did that, dying for our sin nailed to two pieces of wood. Narrowness was a result not of God’s obsessive nature but of the fact that there was actually only one way to save us. And Jesus headed straight down that path—out of love. But for those of us who have discarded the gift and ignored the sacrifice, hell is still a very real destination. Maybe this seems unfair or heartless. I certainly understand this perspective, with so many who choose not to follow Christianity around the world.
Still, I think there is confusion here. If the God of the Bible exists and the Biblical message is true then He is the only God. The Bible tells us this repeatedly. All others that are worshiped around the world are then only impotent imaginings created by humanity. In other words, the creation created gods to replace the one true God who loved us so much that He sent part of the Godhead (Jesus) to earth to die a painful death for us. Maybe you would say to a Creator God that it's unfair for Him to expect us to worship Him rather than the gods we made up. He shouldn't mind if we worship a God with characteristics unlike His and teachings that are completely unlike those He provided for us. You might want to tell God that you worship something else that is "God" to you, and that should be good enough for Him. And the one true God would say, "That's not me. You don't know me." Or you might want to tell God to kiss off and that you should be allowed to not worship Him with no fear of punishment. And yet this only seems reasonable from a selfish, prideful perspective. If you take a step back and assume for a minute that the Biblical account is true then you will see that, in that case, you are the loved creation and He is the Creator. As the Creator, authority belongs to Him. You are the servant and He is the Master, because He made you and He gets to decide your role. Only human pride would suggest otherwise. So even if you choose to reject Him and reject the Son He sacrificed for you, you are still accountable to Him and you have certainly earned whatever consequences your decision brings with it.
For those of you who are Christians, I think personal witnessing outside of a developed relationship is something we should move away from. It gives the world an opportunity to label us, become irritated at our gall, and learn to despise the message we bring even more. Our goal is to bring people toward the saving love of Jesus, not push them away from it. But at the end of the day, we have a responsibility to try to reach those who are in danger. We are the firemen who rush into burning buildings to save one or two at a time. We go to foreign countries where the Bible is despised and where violence could await us. We have uncomfortable conversations with people who may ridicule or despise us. Why do we do that? Out of love. Can they feel the love in that moment? No, probably not. But it’s there all the same.