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The God of fire

An atheist told me last month that though he did not believe in God, but if he were to believe ‘it would have to be the God of hell and brimstone.’

Defending our faith Chris Sinkinson
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He was sharing a general distaste for modern, liberal presentations of God and a preference for more traditional views. Of course, all such conversations are a little pointless. It matters very little what kind of God we would like to believe in. What matters is who God is – not who we would like God to be. However, the comment was perceptive. A God of holiness and judgment commands interest and respect.

Presenting the doctrine of hell

One aspect of this problem is the way we present the doctrine of hell. For many, hell has become such an embarrassing theme that it is dropped out of Christian vocabulary. Attempts to restore the word are not helped when the concept has been changed out of recognition.

In Rob Bell’s Love Wins there is a clear drift towards a view of universal salvation. Though there may be a punishment after death Bell does not believe that such a punishment will be everlasting (‘Jesus isn’t talking about forever as we think of forever.’ p.92). So what is hell? For Bell it is a useful metaphor for human wickedness: ‘We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way. And for that, the word ‘hell’ works quite well. Let’s keep it.’ (p.93). The problem with this statement is that Bell has allowed the metaphor to eclipse the reality. The only reason why we might sometimes refer to something as ‘hell on earth’ is because there is a reality in eternity against which we can compare a present event. If there is no such eternal reality then it is less clear how the word works as a metaphor. Hell becomes just another word for ‘really awful’.

We prefer our own righteousness

However, as an apologetic strategy, Bell has made an attractive choice. There is clearly an important truth in the idea that hell is, in some respects, chosen by the sinner.

C.S. Lewis produced the most thoughtful, imaginative piece of work on this aspect of the doctrine of hell in The Great Divorce. He speculates on a day trip taken by the inhabitants of hell to visit heaven. The journey reveals the various reasons why they are in hell and, time and again, exposes their hostility to heaven. From a bereaved mother locked in grief for her lost son to a liberal bishop preparing a paper for ‘a little Theological Society down there’, there is one common theme: each prefers their own righteousness over the gift of forgiveness.

This leads to the often quoted line: ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end – those who say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it.’ (p.66-7).

Coupled to his perceptive observations of human life, Lewis’s short book provides a profound meditation on the nature of hell. The title of the work is a direct response to a much earlier poem by William Blake called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake, under the influence of eastern religious philosophies, had envisaged a final uniting of all things into one. Lewis reflected on the direction of our choices and affirmed the ultimate separation of good and evil, the great divorce of heaven and hell. Hell is created at the end of the age as a place of final judgment (Revelation 20.10). First, it will be the place of judgment upon the devil and other supernatural beings, then for ‘anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life’ (Revelation 20.15).

No miscarriage of justice

Attempts to justify hell only as a consequence of our own decisions miss this important dimension. Hell is finally the vindication of God’s justice. God is holy. He is the righteous judge. And he will finally declare what is right and wrong. We may not like the idea of hell. We may hope that many are saved at the last moment. But we can trust that the judge of all the earth will do what is right (Genesis 18:25). There will be no miscarriage of justice or inappropriate sentence in this final verdict.

Chris is the D.L. Moody Lecturer in Apologetics and Evangelism, Moorlands College.