Most likely your religious upbringing greatly impacted your definition of hell as a child, teenager, and young adult. For some, education on hell was reading Dante in Honors English or jumping in a club to AC/DC ("Highway to Hell"). For some who grew up in church, hell was described as simply "separation from God." Others heard messages filled with intense biblical images of hell.
Images and Views
When you seek to define hell, you must look to the biblical images for insight. There are five recurring biblical images of hell:
- Darkness and separation (Matt. 8:11-12; 22:13; Jude 13)
- Fire (Matt. 13:42; 25:41; Mark 9:43; Rev. 20:15)
- Weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28)
- Punishment (Matt. 25:46; John 3:36; Jude 7)
- Death and destruction (Matt. 7:13; 10:28; Rev. 20:14)
Historically people have interpreted these images differently; thus, there are typically four different positions on hell:
1. Literal view: This view says there is a literal and everlasting fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth, darkness, etc.
2. Metaphorical view: This view agrees with the literal position that hell is everlasting but sees the images as metaphorical. In other words, this view holds to a literal hell but sees the images as metaphorical in Scripture. Don’t be confused and think that someone with this position views hell as less horrific. To the contrary, the metaphorical view believes that the writers were grabbing the worst images known in their cultures but that the reality of hell is actually much worse–that the symbols and metaphors in Scripture always are shadows of the ultimate reality.
I have friends who hold to view one and friends who hold to view two. But we all agree we should invest our time sharing the good news of Jesus instead of debating whether the image of fire is literal or metaphorical.
3. Annihilationist view: This view says that people go to hell, suffer, and then cease to exist. This view camps out completely on the image of eternal death but forsakes the other images in Scripture.
4. Purgatory view: This position believes that people are given a second chance after death, that in purgatory the fires cleanse them and qualify them for eternal life. This view contradicts Scripture, which is clear that "it is appointed for people to die once–and after this, judgment" (Heb. 9:27). While this view seems very appealing, you have to close your Bible to hold to this argument.
The apostle Paul wrote that those who do not submit their lives to the gospel will "pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from His glorious strength (2 Thess. 1:9). In other words, hell is both eternal separation from His presence and suffering from His wrath.
John Calvin wrote, "How wretched it is to be cut off from all fellowship with God. And not that only but also to feel his sovereign power against you." Calvin was not the first theologian to articulate this. The early church father Thomas Aquinas wrote of hell as having both pain of loss (separation from God) and pain of sense (suffering).
Separation from God’s grace: All people, even those who are not believers, enjoy the common grace of God (Matt. 5:45). The sun, rain, food, laughter, friendship, joy from work, and Miami Heat basketball are His gifts to all humanity. Theologians refer to these and other gracious gifts as "common grace." But in hell, all those common graces will be gone. There is complete separation from the love and mercy of God.
Suffering from God’s wrath: The Scripture paints the picture that those in hell are removed from His grace and goodness but not from His wrath. In fact, they continually face the wrath of God (Rev. 14:9-11).
A look at the doctrine of hell compels us to be so grateful for Jesus. Jesus experienced hell on the cross in that He was both separated from the Father and suffered the wrath of God. As He was on the cross becoming our sin, the Father turned away from the Son. Jesus yelled out, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?" And as He was on the cross, He was absorbing the full wrath of God, drinking the full cup of God’s wrath. Jesus bore hell on the cross for us. The doctrine of hell, as intense as it is, should shepherd our hearts to a greater sense of awe for His grace and love.
Next March, David Platt will be leading an intense evening of teaching on "heaven, hell, and the end of the world." On Good Friday, March 29, 2013, churches and small groups around the world will have the opportunity to participate in Secret Church. LifeWay will again simulcast this event. It will be a poignant, wonderful way for your church or small group to celebrate the resurrection. If you or your church is interested in becoming a host site for the simulcast, registration is now open.