This is Part 4 of my response to David Bentley Hart’s article entitled “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” (found here). For the next two posts I want to present my case for why Christians SHOULD believe in hell. Really. Please notice that I have added the words “Why SHOULD People Believe in Hell” to my post’s title.
Just a few more comments about Hart’s rejection of the biblical witness to eternal lostness:
1. The essential question in an issue like this — hell — is what is one’s final authority for what one believes? Is it church history? Is it what makes logical and ethical sense to me? Is there an underlying philosophical commitment that clouds my understanding of what the Bible is actually saying? If Jesus Christ is God the Son, then whatever He believed, I had better believe. And if He predicted the completion of the Bible through His followers, then I can have confidence in both the Old and New Testaments’ description of this life — and the life to come.
2. Psychological ad hominems (arguments against the person) don’t advance the discussion very much. Hart can charge the majority of Christian leaders (ancient and modern) with pathological reasons to hold to eternal conscious punishment. And we can charge him with being motivated by some psychological need to dispense with hell. But both accusations miss the point. What does the Bible actually teach?
3. I have sought to defend the eternal conscious punishment view of hell in my book The Other Side of the Good News. You might find the chapter titles interesting:
4. As you can see, I believe the clear testimony of Scripture is that there is another “side,” that all who die without Christ are lost eternally, that there are no second chances after death, that the concept of annihilationism isn’t biblical, that Jesus is our greatest source for information about hell, and that we can’t sit on the fence about this issue. There is, indeed, a hell to shun and a heaven to gain! I have written other articles on the subject (see my “Warning a Wrath-Deserving World: Evangelicals and the Overhaul of Hell” in the Emmaus Journal, Summer 1993) and have reviewed a book or two presenting alternative views (see my review entitled “Screwtape Reviews Rethinking Hell” — my post of July 18, 2014 found here).Let me present one segment of the biblical evidence for hell as eternal conscious punishment — the testimony of God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. I suggest that anyone who wants to know what the Son of God taught about eternal lostness should take a Bible they’re not afraid to mark up and read straight through the gospel of Matthew. Here’s what they will find –Mt. 5:22 – One who calls his brother “fool” will be in danger of hell (gehenna) fire.
Mt. 5:27-30 – It is better to pluck out one’s eye or cut off one’s hand (and to be saved) than for one’s whole body to go into hell (gehenna). See also 18:9 for a similar statement.
Mt. 10:28 – We are not to fear those who can kill the body, but rather the One who can destroy soul and body in hell (note: this is obviously God, not Satan. And the term “destroy” means ruin, not annihilation here).
Mt. 11:21-14 – Where there is greater light, there is greater judgment (Capernaum will go down to the depths [hades] because of their unbelief).
Mt. 16-18 – The gates of hell (hades) will not overcome the church.Mt. 23:15 – The proselytizing of the Jewish leaders makes one twice as much a son of hell (gehenna) as they were.
Mt. 23:33 – Jesus calls these leaders snakes and a brood of vipers and asks, “How will you escape being condemned to hell (gehenna)?”
Mt. 24:36-51 – Hell as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. See also Mt. 25:1-13.
Mt. 25:31-46 – All humanity will be divided into the sheep and goats. The two fates of “the kingdom” and “the eternal fire” are presented. We read, “These [the goats] will go away to everlasting punishment, but the righteous [the sheep] into eternal life.” (v. 46).
Here is my summary of this brief study of Jesus’ teaching on hell in Matthew’s gospel (from my The Other Side of the Good News):
Summary of Hell in Matthew’s Gospel
Although Jesus uses the term hades on only two occasions in Matthew, He emphasizes that the judgment of the wicked will be based on their opportunity to respond (Matt. 11:21-24) and that the defensive gates of hades will not be able to withstand the Gospel’s assault (Matt. 16:18).
Jesus’ uses of the term gehenna warn of the danger of hell fire (Matt. 5:22) and the relative insignificance of losing a bodily part (and going to heaven) in comparison to remaining whole but being wholly lost (Matt. 5:29-30). Similar hyperbolic language of self-mutilation is used by Jesus on a second occasion in Matthew 18:9.
Perhaps anticipating the persecution of His disciples, Jesus reminds them whom to fear. God is the One to be feared, for He alone has the power to “destroy both soul and body in hell,” (or gehenna, Matt. 10:28).
Jesus’ teaching in Matthew indicates that He knew of hell’s reality. One might ask, “If we are on our way to hell, wouldn’t it make sense for Jesus to first tell us how to avoid that destination? If we were in a spiritually neutral condition, then perhaps instruction about heaven might be more appropriate.” However, no one is spiritually neutral. Every human being is either in the category of the “sheep” who are doing God’s will or the “goats” who are outside His will. Eternal destinies await both –“eternal life” or “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46).
The other uses of the term hades in the New Testament (Luke 10:15; 16:22-23; Acts 2:26-32; 1 Cor. 15:55; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14) appear to relate to the intermediate state (the time between one’s death and physical resurrection) into which wicked persons have passed at their death.
Gehenna is used only once outside the Gospels (James 3:6). However, a study of its twelve occurrences in the New Testament leads to the conclusion that gehenna is a place of condemnation and terrible punishment. The wicked, after their resurrection, will be cast into gehenna to remain forever. Revelation 20:13-14 indicates that gehenna and “the lake of fire” are synonymous terms, referring to the everlasting destiny of the wicked after the reunion of their bodies and their disembodied personalities.
(our study will be concluded in our next post)
January 24, 2020 at 5:30 am
It is because of my belief in hell that I am here to tell the story. About twenty-five years ago, I was at the end of my rope emotionally. The thought of suicide was very appealing to me. At that point, I would have gladly traded my small place in Heaven for eternal nothingness. It was the knowledge that this nothingness wasn’t in store for me, no matter what I might want at the time, that kept me going until I again got my spiritual feet under me and came to thank God for not giving me what I had thought was an easy way out. What a savior!
Dr. Larry Dixon
January 24, 2020 at 6:07 am
Bruce: How good to hear from you! And you’re still reading my blog! Blessings on you. And I am SO GLAD you chose to continue serving the Lord with your life. May He encourage you today. Thanks again for your friendship. Blessings. Larry