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What Does Hell Say About God?
A few years ago, a young lady named Mary Ellen visited a church and told a traveling evangelist that although she was raised in a Christian home, she had given up on God and was, instead, practicing witchcraft.
“I was raised in a hellfire-and-brimstone spitting church,” she told me. “They would talk about this God who would take sinners and burn them for all eternity, and that God would be happy to inflict torture upon them for as long as time would last. I thought to myself, ‘If that’s what God is really like, I’d be better off without Him.’ ”
Because of the portrait of God painted by the church, this intelligent young woman had turned her back on the Bible and embraced paganism and devil worship!
Mary Ellen was appalled by the idea of a “God of love” behaving as one would expect the devil to behave. Not even history’s most reviled atheistic tyrants—Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot—were as cruel to their victims as Christians accuse God of being. Mary Ellen reacted to the idea as tens of thousands of others have done—by giving up on God.
To misunderstand hell is to misunderstand the character of God, the awfulness of sin, and the love of God for all of His children.
It is clear that some passages in the Bible state that hellfire will burn “forever” (Revelation 14:11; 20:10). But logic alone tells us that if hell burns forever “on the breadth of the earth,” it would be impossible for God to create a new earth!
And if God kept sinners alive to endure eternal burning, He would fail in His mission to rid the world of sin. Instead, He would perpetuate it.
Can you imagine a new earth where, throughout eternity, you could hear the howls and screams of the wicked suffering in hell? Or what if you knew that in some corner of the universe, those whom you had loved on the earth were writhing forever in agony because of misdeeds during their relatively short lives on earth? Who could enjoy heaven knowing that loved ones or family were being tortured throughout all eternity.
Thankfully, the Bible states that the new earth will be a place without sorrow or pain (Revelation 21:4).
The Good News About Hell
Some years ago in a lumber camp, a giant of a man was feared by all who knew him. Rumor had it that he had killed several people. One day he summoned a fellow worker and demanded to know if one man was telling people that nobody was burning in the fires of hell.
“That's right,” the co-worker answered. “That's what the Bible says.”
“Can you show me where it says that?” the burly woodsman inquired, betraying a tinge of hope in his gravelly voice. He sat in rapt attention as his Christian colleague showed him text after text from the Bible proving that God is not now torturing anybody in hell and that God will not permit anyone to burn in the lake of fire any longer than necessary.
As they continued to study God's Word, the man whom others regarded as having a heart of stone dropped his face into his hands and began to weep. “My son died 20 years ago in a bar fight,” he finally explained. “I was told that he had gone straight to hell, where God was torturing him and would torture him forever. Ever since that time I’ve been mad with God.”
That day, his heart was softened and his entire life transformed as he came to understand what the Bible really says about the end of the wicked.
Understand God's Character
Please understand that regardless of the duration of hellfire, it will be no picnic for the sinner. Although the Bible doesn’t specify exactly how long hellfire will burn, in Luke chapter 12 Jesus makes it clear that the amount of suffering endured would be in proportion to the hardness of the individual sinner’s heart. It would be pure speculation to suppose how long the fires of hell may actually burn, but we can be sure the suffering and anguish endured by the lost would be beyond our ability to describe.
For too long the doctrine of hellfire has been little more than a tool used to cajole sinners into being saved. We are told in Scripture that we love God “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Certainly people should have a healthy respect and concern about the punishment due the wicked, but only love for God can motivate them to truly surrender their hearts to a God of love.
We can know for sure that God is not a despicable, heartless tyrant who will take His very own created beings and torture them without mercy or relief throughout all eternity. It seems incredible that while society locks child abusers in prison, so many are willing to hold God guilty of the most horrible case of child abuse ever perpetrated!
According to Jesus, hellfire isn't even meant for human beings. It is “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Yet because many refuse to accept Jesus’ great sacrifice for them and choose instead to follow the great enemy of souls, they must share his fate. Satan and all sinners will be destroyed, the earth will be cleansed, and “affliction shall not rise up the second time” (Nahum 1:9). Sin and sinners will be utterly destroyed, forever separated from God, the source of all life.
Several years ago in Auckland, New Zealand, an 18-year-old woman crashed her car while driving home very early in the morning. She survived the crash unscathed but was trapped in her wrecked car by her feet, unable to escape the fire that was engulfing her car.
A delivery man, two postal workers, and an off-duty policeman came to help; but despite their best attempts, they could not free her. Eventually the heat of the flames drove them back and they had to abandon the young lady, even as she cried out to them, begging the men not to leave her to her fiery fate.
“As we left she grabbed my arm and said, ‘Don't go; I’m going to die here.’ But we had to get out,” one of the men said later.
The police officer was badly injured, having burned away much of the flesh on one of his hands in his desire to free the young lady. But she was hopelessly trapped in the fiery car wreck.
Likewise, even today Jesus is doing all He can to save people from the wreckage of their sins and from the fire that will one day burn and destroy all sin. The Bible says, “He that hath the Son hath life, but he that hath not the Son of God hath not life” (1 John 5:12).
Just as those who are lost do not possess the Son, and therefore cannot have life, those who possess Jesus Christ are assured of life everlasting. Jesus will forever bear the scars He received at Calvary in the greatest and costliest rescue attempt ever conceived.
Unlike the hell conjured up by many teachers today, the end of sin and sinners is assured. It is not arbitrarily imposed by a God of cruelty, but is a necessary act that assures the future safety of the universe. This event will bring intense pain to the heart of Divinity but will also open the door to an assured future for all who love God.
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Hell in the Bible
The word “hell” is used 54 times in the Bible. It is translated from several different words with various meanings, as indicated below:
In the Old Testament:
31 times from the Hebrew “Sheol,” which means “the grave”
In the New Testament:
10 times from the Greek “Hades,” which means “the grave”
12 times from the Greek “Gehenna,” which means “a place of burning”
1 time from the Greek “Tartarus,” which means “a place of darkness”
What is Purgatory?
A tradition held by the Catholic Church that teaches people who are not good enough to be worthy of heaven, but not bad enough to deserve hell, suffer in an intermediary state until their sins are purged.
But is it in the Bible?
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