The Problem of Hell
One of the most emotional arguments against Christianity is the problem of hell. Many are ready to accept a God of love but will not believe in the God of the Bible because of the doctrine of endless conscious torment. The Bible’s teaching on hell is one of the most nightmarish images we can imagine, and our minds and emotions have drawn back in horror from them. The enemies to this teaching are everywhere, outside Christianity, inside the church and even our hearts cringe in the face of such harsh realities. We must recognise as we begin this discussion that the doctrine of hell is a deeply disturbing teaching, but we will see that the problem is not logical rather it is psychological.
One of the things we have to realise as we begin looking at this teaching is that Jesus speaks more about hell than any other person in the Bible. God made man, who proved His identity by His miracles, who was witnessed to live a perfect life, and who resurrected from the dead, He is the one who gives us this teaching to embrace. E.G., Matt 25:41, ‘Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ Many think of Jesus as a good teacher, or ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’, but it just goes to show that they have not familiarised themselves with the Christ of Scripture. Christ’s own descriptions of hell are severe and terrifying. He spoke of hell being a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, a description of intense pain and sorrow, Matt. 25:30, ‘And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is also called the outer darkness, an idea of banishment from the light of God’s blessing presence. Christ also described it in the terms of worms that do not die and a fire that is not quenched.
Jesus used the description of Gehenna. This is the Greek equivalent of the Valley of Ben Hinnom. This was the place where human sacrifice took place in the OT 2 kings 23:10, and the place that King Josiah appointed as the official rubbish dump of Jerusalem. It was a place of foul smells, rotting things, smouldering fires and maggots, Jesus used this as a picture of what the second death will be like, an eternal rubbish dump. If Jesus had believed in annihilation He hid it very well, for hell was not a place of nonexistence but a place to be avoided even at the cost of limbs in this life. He claimed that it would have been better for Judas to have never been born than to face the judgement coming to him, Mark 14:21, ‘For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”
Bertrand Russell in his essay, ‘Why I am not a Christian’ did understand Christ’s teaching on the matter and rejected it, he wrote, ‘There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in Hell. I do not feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.’1 Russell accused Christ of having a ‘vindictive fury’ against those who would not heed His preaching; that Jesus took a certain pleasure in speaking about the wailing and gnashing of teeth; and that the doctrine of hell has given people the idea that torture is okay. This sort of thinking is spurious though, and the inability to believe in hell has led to some obvious errors in his arguments. Sadly, the incredulity that people have towards this teaching has led many to accuse God and Christianity of many things that are untrue. It is clear from the gospels that Jesus does not delight in the punishments of hell. He would not have warned of them if He had wanted people to go there. We also see how He weeps over Jerusalem who will inevitably have to be punished for her unwillingness to receive Him, Matt. 23:37. And His prayer for His enemies on the cross, Lk. 23:34, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ This does not square with the accusations and in fact sets the tone for how we as Christians are to hold the teaching. We are to preach it with tears.