We meet Sundays @ 10:30 at the Confederation Park Activities Centre.
2212 13th Street NW, Calgary, AB
We have a “chat” feature on our church website that allows people to interact with us and namely with me anytime they want. Recently, I had someone ask, “Do you believe in hell”. There was no name or email attached, no details and no response to my, equally pithy reply – “Certainly.” I love that there is an opportunity for people to ask questions about faith and the Bible anytime they want and with as much anonymity as they want. I don’t begrudge the person at all for throwing out a complicated question and not seeming to want to go any deeper. I get it. But the question is worth spending time pondering.
First of all, what is hell anyway? I have always clung to a short and powerful description of hell offered by J.I. Packer in an interview. He believes, “Hell is the negation of fellowship with the Lord; negation of pleasure; negation of any form of contentment.” Packer goes on to caution that trying to describe hell is a tricky and possibly foolhardy thing since it is clearly more awful than we have words to describe. We have never been to hell, and thanks to Christ, those who trust in him never will have to go there. As a result, we need to humbly and with a good deal of trepidation, approach the topic. I think we should stress what we know about hell and be careful when we attempt to go any further. What we know about hell, as far as I can glean from the Scriptures is that hell is real, and that it is terrible beyond our comprehension. These two things I feel very confident saying.
In modern Canada, any claim for the reality of a world or plane of existence beyond the material meets first with sneers and then with derision. Surely no educated Canadian can believe in hell. Not only is there no evidence for such a place, we are told, but, how arrogant and naïve a claim it is to believe that a good God would condemn someone to eternal damnation for even one hundred years spent living in sin. The punishment seems to exceed the depths of the crime. Much could be said to challenge such objections, but, let me turn to just one passage that has helped me understand hell and God better.
In Revelation 6:10 we read, “They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”” The “they” in this verse are the martyrs, those who have died because of their faith in Christ. Revelation tells us that they are under the throne of God and are crying out for justice. You see, the radical faith that they had, which allowed them to endure death, was built upon justice in a big way. They could be beaten, mocked and killed (often unjustly) because they believed the Bible’s claim that they (the faithful) would be vindicated and evil would be punished. So, the reality of hell played/plays an important part in how people lived, and live today – they could be humble, brave and bold because they knew (as we know) that this life is not all there is.
Along these lines, the injustice in the world must be dealt with, it must be judged, and justice restored, or else we have many questions to ask about God and life in general. If there is a God and he does not address evil, then he is not a just God. But, couldn’t God just forgive all the debts of humanity? Like Chase Bank just forgave the debts of its Canadian credit card holders? Well, if we approach the debts of humanity in this way then to forgive debts like this is not justice – the wrong has not been paid for. Let’s face it, we would run out of town any judge who started letting murderers and thieves off without any repayment. We would rightly ask what sort of justice it is to allow the victims to suffer and the offenders to never have to pay for their crimes. In order to be just, God must punish sin. It is a naïve or shallow thinking person who settles for the idea that a good God would never create hell.
So, the cry of the martyrs in Revelation 6 offers us an incomplete, but an intriguing entry point to understanding hell and justice. The incredible thing about Christianity is not that it asserts that there is a hell, but that it asserts with equal vehemence that there is a heaven, a redemption for some. In the Christian understanding of the universe, every human being is guilty before God because of their sin and deserves to be sent to hell. This is justice – the guilty being punished. This idea that evil should be punished is so foundational that every human, even infants seem to judge between good and bad on some level. If this is the case, that humans are all guilty before God and that evil must be repaid, then the wonder is not that there is a real hell, but that there is a real heaven, a real way to be put right with God. This is the gospel. This is the truth that God has come and paid the debt that we all owe. God became sin in Jesus, he took the punishment that we deserve so that we might take the reward that he deserved. I know that hell is an important topic to think about, pray about, and even debate, but, the real marvel, the real point to ponder and to meditate upon is the incredible grace of God! How can we not stand with John Newton in awe and declare, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me?”