Kevin DeYoung wrote a really helpful essay earlier this week on the doctrine of hell. In particular, he deals with the all too familiar meme heard from many Christians who say, “I don’t like the doctrine of hell, and I wish I didn’t have to believe in it. But it’s in the Bible, so I grudgingly accept it as truth.” I think Kevin’s response to this refrain is right on point, and I encourage you to read it if you haven’t already.
I would also like to add my own little postscript to Kevin’s remarks. When I was in seminary, I wrestled with my own emotional response to the doctrine of hell and how my affections might be rightly ordered towards God’s eternal wrath against sinners. There were two sermons in particular that God used in that period to settle some things in my own heart.
The first sermon was Jonathan Edwards’ “The End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous.”This sermon is a meditation on God’s judgment on sinful humanity in Revelation 18:20, “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her.”
In the last day, God will turn to His rescued people and command them to “rejoice” over the destruction of the wicked in hell. Why? For several reasons. Because God has finally given justice to His people by punishing her persecutors (Rev. 18:20b); because God’s judgment reveals His righteousness and justice (Rev. 19:2a); because God’s judgment ends Babylon’s wickedness (Rev. 19:2b); because God’s judgment vindicates the martyrs (Rev. 19:2c; cf. 6:10); because God’s judgment is eternal (Rev. 19:3); because God’s judgment reveals that He reigns as the true King (Rev. 19:6).
What Revelation 18 and 19 showed me was that—regardless of my feelings now—there is coming a day when I will rejoice in the justice of God revealed in His punishment of sinners. That observation led me to ponder the crucial question. Why would I hold in contempt now the very thing that I will praise God for in the age to come? In the age to come, my heart will be made new, and my affections will be rightly ordered. In that day, I will no longer be haunted by indwelling sin and its distorting influence on my view of things. Therefore, I ought to aspire to be now what God will enable me to be perfectly in the age to come. I won’t be despising hell in that future day, so I shouldn’t be despising it now.
That doesn’t mean that the thought of hell ceases to horrify me. It does horrify me. I am overwhelmed by the thought that the most powerful Being in the universe will inflict all His holy wrath upon the damned for eternity. I tremble to think that when the damned have suffered a million ages of despair, pain, anguish, and aloneness, their horror will only have just begun. I shudder to imagine the shock and astonishment of the damned, that their grief and pain will only increase forever. So I understand the emotional recoil that causes some people to soften the doctrine of Hell or to jettison it altogether. I have felt it.
When I feel it, however, I try to remind myself that the problem is not with the doctrine. The problem is with me. I just don’t see things as I ought to see them. I don’t see things the way I will see them when I am made new.
What is it about me now that tempts me to resist what I will one day embrace? It’s my inability to perceive and feel the greatness of an infinitely holy God. My vision of Him tends to be so dim that an infinite hell seems to be an overreaction to finite sin committed in time. And this is where the second sermon has helped me greatly over the years.
The second sermon was delivered by a friend of mine named Joe Blankenship, pastor of Springs of Grace Bible Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In that sermon, he explained that the heinousness of sin is not measured by the sin itself but by the value of the one being sinned against. Thus my emotional reaction to the doctrine of hell is a direct reflection of my view of God’s holiness and glory. Sin will always appear as a trifle to those whose view of God is small. Here’s the image that sealed it for me.
If you were to discover a little boy pulling the legs off of a grasshopper, you would think it strange and perhaps a little bizarre. If the same little boy were pulling the legs off of a frog, that would be a bit more disturbing. If it were a bird, you would probably scold him and inform his parents. If it were a puppy, that would be too shocking to tolerate. You would intervene. If it were a little baby, it would be so reprehensible and tragic that you would risk you own life to protect the baby. What’s the difference in each of these scenarios? The sin is the same (pulling the limbs off). The only difference is the one sinned against (from a grasshopper to a baby). The more noble and valuable the creature, the more heinous and reprehensible the sin. And so it is with God.
If God were a grasshopper, then to sin against Him wouldn’t be such a big deal and eternal punishment wouldn’t be necessary. But God isn’t a grasshopper, He’s the most precious, valuable, beautiful being in the universe. His glory and worth are infinite and eternal. Thus to sin against an infinitely glorious being is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment.
We don’t take sin or wrath seriously because we don’t take God seriously. We have so imbibed of the banality of our God-belittling spirit of the age that our sins hardly trouble us at all. Our sin seems small because we regard God as small. And thus the penalty of hell—eternal conscious suffering under the wrath of God—always seems like an overreaction on God’s part. If we knew God better, we wouldn’t think like that.
But there is coming a day that we will see Him. And when we see Him, we will be made like Him because we will see Him as He is (1 John 3:2). In that day, God will summon forth praise from His people for His holiness and justice demonstrated in the damnation of the wicked. There really is coming a day when the unrepentant will no longer have anyone to feel compassion for them. The lost man’s saintly mother, father, sister, brother, grandmother, and grandfather will not feel pity anymore for the lostness of the damned. All the anguish that such Christians feel now over the plight of the lost will pass away as God wipes away every tear from their eyes (Rev. 21:4).
These horrific truths are not an occasion for despising God’s wrath but for marveling at a holiness beyond our comprehension. It should motivate us today to call sinners to repentance and faith and to urge them to flee from the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7; 1 Thess. 1:10). My prayer is that the biblical doctrine of hell would sustain in all of us an earnest concern for the lost. Hell really is worse than we dare to imagine. But the grace of God in Christ is bigger and better than our worst fears. This is good news worth sharing. Let’s do so while there’s still time.