Editor’s note: Five years ago we published a series of articles by Jeff Vines that dealt with three difficult questions that are often stumbling blocks for Christians as well as nonbelievers. The articles described a long conversation Jeff had with a circle of skeptics he met in an Australian restaurant. With the current discussion about the reality of Hell, we felt it helpful to reprint the third article in this series.
To get all three articles (the first are “How Can We Believe in God with So Much Evil in the World?” and “How Can You Say God Is Kind with So Much Pain in the World?”), order our convenient download by CLICKING HERE or by searching for item number 02970 at StandardPub.com.
“Come on, Jeff,” Jucinda said to me. “Stop avoiding the issue! What is God going to do with people who use their freewill for their own selfish agendas and choose not to follow God? He is going to send them to Hell, isn’t he? I know that’s what you Christians believe. But how on earth could a good God send people to a place of eternal punishment? I just can’t accept this!”
Surmising this was a sensitive issue with most of those present, I proceeded with caution. I asked, “Jucinda, can you tell me what you think Hell really is? What is it like?”
“I can tell you exactly what it is like,” she said. “It is a place where you burn and burn and burn and where worms eat your skin. There is darkness and suffering more horrific than any Nazi concentration camp. I know! This is 12 years of Catholic school talking!”
Catching her breath she continued, “I know what you Christians claim about Hell, and there is no way I could ever believe in a God who would send anybody to a place like that! No matter how bad they are!”
Settling down with a sip of soda, I began my response by asking Jucinda to consider what the Bible actually teaches about Hell. The word translated Hell comes from the Greek word gehenna, the name for a place just outside Jerusalem where the bodies of desolate or despised persons were gathered and burned. The smoke from Gehenna ascended endlessly from this horrible pit. This must have been one of the most detestable sights in Jerusalem.
It should not surprise us that Jesus, when looking around for an earthly symbol to describe what eternity without God would be like, chose the death and devastation of Gehenna. My purpose here is not to talk about all the symbols that have been used to describe this place, but instead to highlight Jesus’ primary point when discussing the issue. Amid all the hyperboles, symbols, and metaphors, Jesus stressed one central truth. Whatever Hell is, the worst part about it is separation from God. I calmly asked Jucinda to consider this primary aspect of Hell that is seldom mentioned.
“Jucinda,” I asked, “if a person spends his entire life wrapped up in his own selfish ambitions and selfish pursuits, refusing to pursue a relationship with the Creator in thanksgiving for all he has provided, would God be unfair or unjust to send him to a place where throughout all eternity, he would not have to endure the thought of God?
“What if such a person, while living on the earth, no matter how many times God pursued, convicted, or attempted to draw him toward himself, always responded the same? Internally, he said, ‘I don’t want God. I don’t need God. I want nothing to do with him!’ Jucinda, do you really believe God is bound by goodness to override a person’s freedom and force his way into their lives?”
This is simply not the way God works! As the ultimate respecter of free will, God grants a person his ultimate wish for all of eternity. He simply places any man or woman who has separated himself from God in a realm (Hell) whereby he can be apart from him forever.
C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest thinkers of our time, described this scenario when he painted a picture of the day of accountability. He describes how the selfish, godless person approaches the throne of God, and God throws his hands up in the air in frustration and exclaims, “All right then, not my will but yours be done!”
“Jucinda,” I begged, “think about this! God has pursued you all of your life! He has convicted you of right and wrong in hopes of deterring you from doing evil. He has painted his presence across the sky in every sunset! He has spoken quietly to your spirit in the deep of the night. He has inspired you, at opportune moments in your life, to ask life’s deepest questions. In short, he has compelled you day after day, urging you into a deep relationship with him.
“Yet, all of your life you have ignored him. Fearing that you may have to give up your own agenda and become part of his, you ran from God in a constant act of rejection, claiming, ‘I don’t want God!’
“Then eternity comes. In a cruel but just twist, the very thing you deeply desire, in the twinkling of an eye, becomes a full-blown reality. You become unhinged forever from the Creator’s moorings.”
Jucinda sat stunned as I reminded her of what a place without God would be like. If we think the world is bad now, let God totally remove his influence, systems of deterrence, and the impact of his people.
Two world wars may have given a glimpse of what that world would be like, but it remains a far cry from the reality of what any place without God’s oversight would entail. What untold evil runs rampant when the hand of God is completely removed? More than anything else, this is the point Jesus was trying to make. Completely remove God and you completely remove the possibility of anything good.
Jeff Vines, who served in New Zealand for many years, is senior pastor with Christ’s Church of the Valley, San Dimas, California.