The doctrine of hell is perhaps one of the most distinguishing theological beliefs of Christianity and the Bible. Though this is true, there is certainly no unanimity as to what Christians believe the Scripture teaches about hell.
When is comes to drawing out what the Bible teaches about hell Christopher Peterson and Robert Morgan are no strangers. They are referenced in almost every book on the subject and have been involved in a number of other related edited works dealing with the Biblical doctrine of hell. Just last year they condensed some of their work into a short book called What is Hell? for the Basics of the Reformed Faith Series published by P&R.
What is Hell? is a short succinct discussion of the Biblical doctrine of hell. Peterson & Morgan believe that despite the confusion with some on what hell is, Scripture is pretty clear that it exists and is a place where unrepentant sinners will spend eternity. In my estimation the authors approach the doctrine of hell from a conservative evangelical vantage point. They take Scripture seriously when it comes to its teaching of hell and present a clear convincing case that we should take hell seriously.
Peterson & Morgan begin their short book by addressing the of quoted statement, “Would a loving God really send good people to hell (p. 8)?” In short order they walk through Romans 1-5 and show that this is the wrong question to ask. In fact, Paul himself seemed to ask a very different question – “How could a just and holy God ever declare guilty sinners to be righteous in his sight (p. 8)?” In these few pages the authors turn the tables on the first question by showing that we are all sinners who do not deserve God’s mercy. Salvation is merciful because we don’t deserve it. We don’t deserve it because we have rebelled against God our creator.
Hell in the Bible
Peterson & Morgan convincingly show that all of Scripture speaks of hell especially the New Testament where it is mentioned by every author and in every book. Some of the clearest and extensive passages are Matthew 25:31-46, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 and Revelation 20:10-15.
There are at least five distinct ways in which Scripture speaks of hell:
- Punishment – This is the primary description of hell in Scripture and shows that “hell is the place where people suffer the just penalty for their moral crimes (p. 10)” and “reassured God’s people that ultimately evil and evildoers would be defeated (p. 14).” Some relevant passages for hell as punishment are Matt. 25:31-46, 2 Thess. 1:5-10 and Rev. 20:10-15.
- Destruction – In Revelation 20:14 and 21:8 John speaks of hell as destruction when he describes it as “the second death.” That hell is referred to as destruction does not mean people or their souls are annihilated (as annihilationists would claim). Rather, as Moo abely describes, “Destruction and its related words in the New Testament ‘refer to the situation of a person or object that has lot the essence of its nature or function (p. 15).” Relevant passages include: Matt. 7:13-14; Jn. 3:16 and Rom. 6:23.
- Banishment – As banishment, hell is a place of “separation, exclusion, or being left outside (p. 16)” as seen in Revelation 22:14-15. It is pointed out that Jesus himself will be the one to banish unrepentant sinners as see in passages like: Matt. 7:21-23 and Matt. 25:41.
- Suffering – With descriptions of hell as “unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12) while “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (Rev. 14:11 and as a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12), there is little doubt that people will consciously (p. 18) experience real emotional/spiritual and physical suffering in hell (Jn. 5:28-29).
- Eternal – Perhaps the most sobering aspect of hell is that it is as eternal a fate for unrepentant sinners as is the experience of heaven for repentant sinners. Frequently the eternality of hell is juxtaposed the eternality of heaven in passages such as: Dan. 12:2; Matt. 25:46 and Jn. 3:16.
Hell and Theology
While some may find it hard to theologically reconcile the reality of hell with some of the aspects of God’s nature, Peterson & Morgan show that it is in fact quite coherent and even necessary. God is loving yes, but his attribute of love does not extinguish any of his other attributes such as his wrath and justice. Peterson & Morgan write,
Our loving God is also just, holy, good, and, because we rebel against him, wrathful. God’s love does not drive his justice. The implementation of God’s justice does not undermine his love. God’s love and justice cohere, as do all his other attributes (p. 24-25).
God cannot be solely defined by one attribute nor can one attribute be used to minimize or trivialize any of his other attributes. God is all of his attributes all of the time.
The authors further show how the doctrine of hell is coherent with the Christian worldview, as just punishment for sin and is complementary to the teaching of Jesus.
Hell Shapes our Lives
Admittedly, the doctrine of hell is not the most exciting doctrine to discuss among believers let alone with unbelievers. This should not deter us from teaching and preaching it from Scripture. When we do it should cause us to turn to praise for our salvation, drive us to our knees in prayer for the lost and push us into the streets with desire to share the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ – who is both a judge of sin and sinners and a friend and savior of them as well.
When it comes to the place of hell in our teaching, preaching and evangelism Peterson & Morgan aptly point out that as horrible as hell is sin is worse:
That people go to hell is a tragedy. It is tragic that sin entered the world through Adam. It is tragic that humans continue to rebel against God…..the horror of hell should bother us….but the problem is not hell, and the problem is not God. Sin is the problem, and it is what should repulse us (p. 31-32).
What is Hell? is a great introduction to the Biblical doctrine of hell for those who are confused about its teaching or who are looking to study it for the first time. For further reading on the doctrine of hell pick up Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment edited by Peterson & Morgan.