The Place of God’s Disfavor
Old-fashioned revival preaching was characterized by the idea of “hellfire and brimstone.” This idea is especially connected with the Great Awakening in the 18th century and the ministry of Jonathan Edwards. No theologian or preacher is more associated with the concept of hell than Edwards. I once read a college textbook in which Edwards was used as an illustration of someone who was sadistic because he seemed to preach so often on the subject of hell. That bothered me, because while Edwards certainly believed in the reality of hell, he had a passionate concern for the spiritual well-being of the people in his congregation. The sadistic person takes some kind of delight or glee in contemplating another person’s torment or torture, and that was certainly not true of Edwards. He preached on hell so his people would not have to experience it.
What a contrast from that time to our own. We seem to be allergic to any serious discussion of the doctrine of hell. In fact, there has probably never been a time in the history of the church when more people have challenged this doctrine than in our own day. Liberal theologians, of course, completely dismiss it as part of the mythological worldview of primitive people, a concept unworthy of the love of God and of Jesus.
Others, even within the professing evangelical camp, have created quite a stir by suggesting the doctrine of annihilationism, which says that the ultimate judgment of the sinner is not ongoing, eternal punishment in a place called hell, but simply the annihilation of the person’s existence, and that the great punishment, the great loss, that accompanies annihilation is the loss of the happiness promised to those who will live eternally in heaven. So we have moved away from looking very seriously at the concept of hell. People look back at Edwards and the frontier preachers as theologians who tried to scare people into the kingdom of God by holding out the threat of hell.
However, the concept of hell was not invented by Edwards, by John Wesley, or by any of the frontier revival preachers. Neither was it invented by the Reformers of the 16th century or by Thomas Aquinas or by Augustine. It is a biblical concept, and almost everything that we learn about hell in the Bible comes to us, oddly enough, from the lips of Jesus Himself. It is because Jesus spoke so frequently about hell that the church takes the concept so seriously, or at least should do so.
I remember my mentor, Dr. John Gerstner, giving a series of lectures on hell. In that series, Gerstner made this comment: “The idea of a hell that involves some kind of eternal punishment at the hands of a just and holy God is so profoundly difficult for us to handle emotionally, that the only person who would have enough authority to convince us of the reality of such a place would be Jesus Himself.”
Whenever I enter into discussions about the doctrine of hell, people ask, “R. C., do you believe that the New Testament portrait of hell is to be interpreted literally?” When we look at some of the statements that are made about hell in the New Testament, we see that it is described in various ways—as a place of torment, as a pit or an abyss, as a place of eternal fire, and as a place of outer darkness. When people ask me whether these images of hell are to be interpreted literally, I usually respond by saying, “No, I don’t interpret those images literally,” and people typically respond with a sigh of relief.
One of the reasons that classical orthodox theology has tended not to interpret these images literally is because, if you do, you have a very difficult time making them agree with one another. If hell is a place of burning fire on the one hand and a place of outer darkness on the other hand, that’s difficult to reconcile, because usually where there’s fire, there’s light. You can’t have fire in a total darkness. So there is a collision of images there.
If we take the New Testament’s descriptions of hell as symbolic language, we have to remember the function of symbols. The function of figurative language or metaphorical language in Scripture is to demonstrate a likeness to a reality. A symbol is not the reality itself. The symbol points beyond itself to something else. The question is whether the reality to which the symbol points is less intense or more intense than the symbol.
The assumption is that there’s always more to the reality than what is indicated by the symbol, which makes me think that, instead of taking comfort that these images of the New Testament may indeed be symbolic, we should be worrying that the reality toward which these symbols point is more ghastly than the symbols. I once heard a theologian say that a sinner in hell would do anything he could and give everything he had to be in a lake of fire rather than to be where he actually is. So even though we don’t know exactly where hell is, how hell operates, and what it is really like, all of the imagery our Lord uses suggests that it is a place we don’t want to go. It is a place of unspeakable pain and torment.
Again, the question is raised whether the punishment that people endure in hell is physical punishment, since the Scriptures speak about the resurrection of the body not only for the believer but also for the unbeliever, which means that a person in hell after the last judgment will be in a resurrected body suited for his punishment. Because so much of the language of hell in the New Testament refers to corporal punishment, many have drawn the conclusion that hell does indeed involve a relentless, endless, physical kind of suffering.
That may be the case, but other theologians have suggested that the essence of the punishment is in the torment of the soul, in being cut off from the blessedness of the presence of God and from His grace. Even to carry around that spiritual distress within a resurrected body would be torment enough. But, in the final analysis, these are issues about which we can only speculate.
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