Are Heaven and Hell Real? (A Response to Rob Bell's "Love Wins"
July 24, 2011 (Kobe Union Church)
What happens to us after we die? Are heaven and hell real? We all have questions about what heaven and hell are really like, and some people, of course, wonder whether they really exist at all — or at least whether hell exists. The Bible certainly teaches the reality of both, stressing that all humans are created in the image of God and that our spirits will continue to exist for eternity in one of two possible modes of being — namely either in heaven with God or in the utter darkness of hell forever separated from God and all that is good. Preaching on heaven is nice, and we don’t mind hearing a message about that, as it’s comforting. But I’m taking the “hard road” this morning and am going to focus on the concept of hell.
Now, this idea of being forever tormented in hell with no end is something that most people naturally react against. In fact, this whole subject is one that has recently come to the fore in at least English-speaking contexts. Perhaps the main catalyst for this recent upsurge in interest on how to best understand the concept of hell was a best-selling book entitled “Love Wins” put out earlier this year by an American pastor by the name of Rob Bell. To help get us thinking about the issues he raised, I want to play a short clip that Rob Bell put on You-tube that really got this debate going. If you google it, you’ll find all sorts of responses and counterclaims. You could say it has really started a “firestorm” of debate — perhaps a fitting phrase for the subject of hell!
“Several years ago, we had an art show at our church, and people brought in all kinds of sculptures and paintings, and we put them on display. And there was this one piece that had a quote from Gandhi in it, and lots of people found this piece compelling. They’d stop and sort of stare at it and take it in and reflect on it. But not everybody found it that compelling. Somewhere in the course of the art show, somebody attached a handwritten note to the piece, and on the note, they had written: ‘Reality check: He’s in hell.’ Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure, and felt the need to let the rest of us know? Will only a few select people make it to heaven, and will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you know? How do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe, or what you say, or what you do, or who you know, or something that happens in your heart, or do you need to be initiated, or baptized, or take a class, or converted, or be born again? How does someone become one of these few? And then there’s a question behind the question—the real question: What is God like? Because millions and millions of people who were taught that the primary message, this center of the Gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what got subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news? This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies, and they say, ‘Why would I ever want to be part of that?’ See, what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like. And what you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, and beautiful, that whatever we’ve been told or taught, the good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine. The good news is that love wins.”
Now that is certainly a very appealing and compelling statement that Rob Bell has made, and there are all sorts of issues it brings up that need to be looked at — far more than I can adequately do in a single message. It’s really quite cleverly done, as he doesn’t make direct statements about what he actually thinks, but just asks numerous leading questions. These questions, of course, are not really questions in the sense that he’s hoping someone can help him find answers to. They are rhetorical questions designed to make the points he wants to make to back up his understanding of what happens after we die.
While I do agree with some of his statements, I must say that I disagree with several of the conclusions Rob Bell seems to come to. Nevertheless, I am glad to see the great interest this debate has generated, and I think that is a healthy thing. I could very well be wrong in my own beliefs at certain points, and so it a good thing to be challenged to dig deeper into the Scriptures and figure out as best we can where the truth lies.
Bell’s position is basically that of “universalism,” the view that in the end, everyone finally gets into heaven. In other words, in the end, “Love wins.” Actually, this is not really a new idea at all. One of the most influential “Church Fathers” was a man named Origen, who lived in the 3rd Century A.D., and he held this same view. Basically, what Origen said was that everyone who wasn’t made righteous through belief in Jesus during this life would be given a second chance and that God’s love is so strong that they all eventually accept his pardon. In fact, Origen even went so far as to say that Satan and his demons would also eventually be won over. His teaching on this subject was condemned by church councils as heresy, although his other beliefs were generally considered orthodox. Likewise, I remember hearing a message by a leader in my own denomination in which he said, “How can it be heaven unless everybody is there?” In other words, if we knew one of our loved-ones was not in heaven with us, how could we really consider it heaven? So, Rob Bell is certainly not the only Christian leader to hold this view.
Now, I can certain identify with these sentiments. In fact, if it were up to me, I’d say, “Sure, let everybody in!” Being forever separated from God and his love is a terrible fate to contemplate, and I certainly wouldn’t want that to be the case for anybody. In fact, on one level, I think we can say that God feels the same way. As far as his preference goes, it is his desire (in the ideal sense) that all should be saved. Jesus told us that he would “draw all people to himself” (John 12:32) and that it wasn’t his Father’s will “that any of these little ones should be lost.” (Mat. 18:14) But the Scriptures make it plain that not all will be saved. So, what is the problem?
The problem is that love is not God’s only attribute. God is also holy and just. His desire is for us to freely choose to accept him, but not even God can force anyone to “freely” choose to do something. That would be a contradiction of terms, on the order of a “round square” or a “married bachelor.” No such entity could possibly exist, and so it is illogical to claim that even an omnipotent God should be able to make that happen.
The Bible is clear that God created us as free-will beings and not some sort of robots whose every action is predetermined. While we were created for eternal fellowship with God, history has made it very clear that many and perhaps most human beings have freely chosen to reject their Creator and go their own way. In fact, all of us have, but some have also chosen to accept God’s forgiveness and be restored. So, if God were to in effect make heaven “compulsory,” by making sure that everyone eventually gets there, then that would deny any actual human freedom, the very thing that those who would deny God cherish the most. By offering heaven to those who would freely choose to “bend the knee” in worship and honor of God, without forcing himself on anyone, God is actually honoring and respecting the free-will choice of us all.
I remember hearing it put this way: “Either we respond to God in this life with ‘Thy will be done,’ or God says to us when we die, ‘Thy will be done.’” If we reject God in this life, then he just gives us what we want, what our “will” was in this life — namely to have nothing to do with him. I find it hard to imagine someone would knowingly do that, but I’ve heard atheists declare that very thing. One said, “It would be better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven!” They simply want nothing to do with God, and so God simply let’s them have their way. “Thy will be done!”
Now, most people outside the Christian faith aren’t like that. So what about them? As the Rob Bell queried, “Is Gandhi in hell?” Well, of course, I can’t answer specifically where Gandhi’s spirit is now. He may very well be in heaven for all I know. But if he is, it will be because of what Christ did for him on the Cross and because Gandhi believed that in his heart before his fate was sealed. But why does Rob Bell think that Gandhi surely must be in heaven? Because he was such a good man? But how does he know what Gandhi was really like in his heart? I grant you that Gandhi accomplished many great things, but one of the central teachings of the Bible is that we are not made righteous before God based on our own deeds. We are only made righteous through faith in Christ and what he did for us. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith… not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)
Bell also says, “Will only a few select people make it into heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?” He poses these rhetorical questions in their worst possible light, but let’s consider the words of Jesus: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Mat: 7:13-14) Those are admittedly hard words, and I don’t really “like” them either. From my limited human perspective, I wish it weren’t so. But who am I to tell God he is being unfair?
Bell continues, “And then there’s a question behind the question — the real question: What is God like? Because millions and millions of people who were taught that the primary message, this center of the Gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus.” Well, it may be true that many people think that it was the message is. In fact, many Christians mistakenly think that way. But that is not the message of the Bible. The message is not that people get sent to hell because they didn’t believe in Jesus. People end up in hell because they have broken God’s laws and have refused the pardon he offers through faith in Christ and what Christ did on the cross in taking our punishment upon himself. Contrary to another popular misconception, God does not take a scale and weigh our good deeds on one side and our bad deeds on the other, and then allow us into his heaven if our good deeds outweigh our bad deeds. No, his standard is absolute perfection, and no human, with the exception of Jesus, has been without sin before a holy God. Thus, on our own merits, we all deserve to go to hell. The only ones who don’ t end up there are those who have been rescued from that fate by God’s grace.
Continuing with Bell’s questions, “And so what got subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?” Again, the problem here is that Rob Bell is only taking into account one of God’s basic attributes, namely God’s love. If God were only love and nothing else, then Bell would be right. Jesus “rescuing” us from a God who is only love certainly doesn’t make sense. But in a different sense, Jesus does rescue us from something else that is a part of God’s character, and that is his holy wrath. Here are the words of Jesus himself, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him.” (John 3:36) In other words, the natural state of every human is to have “God’s wrath” remaining on him or her, because we are all sinful in God’s eyes. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul tells us “to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” (1:10)
There are numerous other verses that describe God’s wrath against all forms of sin, and so we all need to be rescued from that wrath and its consequences. And the “good news,” the gospel, is that that is exactly what Jesus does for those who put their trust in him. That is what God desires for all humans everywhere. That’s why just before that warning at the end of John 3, John records what is the best-known Bible verse of all, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” And then he continued, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.”
Bell closes his video clip about his book by saying, “See, what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like. And what you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, and beautiful, that whatever you’ve been told or taught, the Good News is actually better than that, better than we can ever imagine. The good news is that love wins.” I think what Bell says here is spot on, but for somewhat different reasons than he does. “Love wins” because God wins. But love is only part of the story. Justice wins, and holiness wins as well, because God is all of that and more.
So, the message is not that love, in isolation, wins; it is that God, with all his attributes, wins. Now, that is the side I want to be on! And we can have confidence that we are on God’s side when we accept the provision he has given us — namely that all of our sins, any one of which would cause us to deserve hell, have been forgiven through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross — if we only accept his pardon. And that is really “Good News!”
In the few minutes I have left this morning, I want to take a look at some of the mistaken images people have about hell and what it is like. Just as there are common misconceptions about what heaven is like, there are also many fanciful misconceptions about hell. One often sees medieval paintings portraying hell, but those are more a reflection of medieval dungeons than of accurate biblical teaching. One thing I think these fanciful portrayals of hell have going for them, however, is that they can be a motivation for people to think seriously about the afterlife and motivate them to want to avoid such a fate by putting their trust in God.
Nevertheless, I do find the idea of “scaring people into heaven” to be less than ideal. It is far better to be drawn into heaven by the love of God than to be scared into it by the fear of hell. However, there is still a proper place for fear. Jesus told us, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Mat. 10:28) So, if you haven’t accepted God’s pardon through Christ, then fear should be your response before a holy God. As Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (1:18-20) So, there is a “wrath of God” we do need to fear. But we only need to fear that wrath if we reject God and his offer of salvation.
This brings us to the final point I have time to deal with this morning, and that is how we should understand hell as a place and what it is really like. The Bible does describe it with vivid images, such as “a lake of fire” and “outer darkness,” but when you think about it, these cannot be literal descriptions of a physical realm within this universe, as a literal “lake of fire” would not be in pitch-black darkness. These are figures of speech that describe hell in terms we can understand. Of the various misconceptions I think there are of hell, perhaps the most damaging is the idea that God “tortures” people he has sent to hell. For one thing, it’s not accurate to say that God “sends” people to hell, and he most certainly doesn’t directly torture the souls that end up there. They certainly experience torment, but that is basically of their own doing or of evil spirits, and not of God.
Now, to a certain extent, all of the ideas we have concerning both heaven and hell involve at least some speculation, since these are realms beyond our direct experience and for which we have only symbolic descriptions given us in the Bible. So, I’d like to offer you a bit of my own speculations, hopefully ones that are based on and consistent with the word pictures we’re presented with in the Bible. Here in Japan, in a country where Christians are rather few and where non-Christian religious traditions are strong, the issue of what happens to “good” people who don’t know Christ is one that is particularly important to deal with.
There are lots of people in this world who have never heard about Jesus and what he did for us in a credible and understandable way. Do they all just go to hell? Again, I can’t stress this point enough that no one goes to hell because they haven’t accepted Jesus as their savior. They go there because they have broken God’s laws and don’t honor him. Hell is the “default” position for everybody, since we are all sinners. God is in the business of rescuing people from that fate, but he requires a desire on our part to be a part of his eternal kingdom. And even if someone is born into a situation where they have no opportunity to hear about Jesus, they still have the revelation that God gives to everyone through nature. God knows our hearts, and so if a person is willing, God gives that person enough light so that they can make a decision for him. That was obviously true prior to Jesus living on this earth, but even for those people, it was still Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross — which was still in the future for them — that was the basis for their salvation, as they placed their trust in their Creator. I believe that is still true today, as people who have no real opportunity to hear and understand the message of Jesus are in effect still “B.C.” Christ hasn’t been “born” into their world yet, and so they are judged not on what they haven’t heard, but on the revelation they have received.
God often finds a way to bring the gospel to people who are genuinely open, and perhaps he always does that in today’s world. I don’t know exactly where those lines are drawn, but one thing I’m convinced of is that there will be no one in hell who is crying out for mercy to God saying, “Oh, if I had only known, I would have chosen you Lord!” Those in hell are there because they rejected God and went their own way. They no doubt wish they weren’t experiencing the torment they exist in, but they’re not about to repent, and in fact, they can’t. Nowhere in the Scriptures is it taught that people get another opportunity in the afterlife to repent and decide they want to be a part of God’s eternal Kingdom after all. God gives them want they want, which is to have nothing to do with God, and that is final. They are forever banished from his presence to receive the just rewards of their rebellion.
I think that one way of thinking about the existence of hell is to compare it to darkness and cold. Now, neither of these are actual entities that physically exist. Darkness is merely the absence of light and cold is the absence of heat. They don’t exist in and of themselves. In this comparison, I don’t mean to imply that hell isn’t an entity that actually exists, but only to say that in a similar sense, hell is the absence of the presence of God and all that is good. It’s kind of a negative existence as opposed to the positive existence of heaven. The Bible describes it as the “outer darkness,” (Mat 8:12) and since “God is light and there is no darkness at all in him” (1 John 1:5), it naturally follows hell is the total absence of God. The two cannot coexist together and so must be separate.
So, just what kind of torment do people receive in hell? Again, we can only speculate, but it would seem not to be a literal physical punishment such as burning in a literal, physical “lake of fire.” After all, the spirits in hell don’t have physical bodies like we do. But whatever it is, it certainly won’t be pleasant! My own little bit of speculation is as follows: Every thought and deed we’ve ever had is recorded in our minds and subconscious. While we are still alive, much of that is suppressed and we’re not even conscious of it. But when we die, the natural defenses we have that usually keep us from being overwhelmed with the horror of who we are and what we’ve done are taken away. If there is no forgiveness, then we will forever be tormented by the memory of them. God, of course, is the only one who can truly forgive our thoughts and deeds that have gone against his holiness and purity. And it is this forgiveness that takes away the torment of those unerasable memories.
At any rate, the point I am trying to make is that it is not God who is tormenting — much less torturing — beings in hell. It is they themselves who are doing this to themselves and to others. God’s Holy Spirit restrains much evil in this world, but that restraint no longer exists in hell, and so “all hell breaks loose,” as it were.
There is so much more that could be said about this subject, but we’re overtime already, and so I will close with this thought. Heaven and hell are both real existences beyond the grave, and the contrast between the two could not be starker. That is why our lives today have such great significance. It is what we do in this short life, and more specifically whom we decide to follow, that determines our eternal destiny. As the people of Israel were preparing to enter the “promised land,” Moses gave them the words of the Lord, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life.” (Deut. 30:19) And he says this same thing to us. As we prepare for our own eternal destinies, it’s as though God is saying to us, “I have set before you heaven and hell. Now choose life. Choose heaven.” But the choice will always be ours. Moses’ successor, Joshua added these words in his charge to the Israelites, as he tells them to choose between the true God and the gods of this world, to which he adds, “But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15)