It has become common for Christians to describe hell as our freely chosen identity apart from God. Hell, it is said, is not so much where God sends the wicked, as much as it is what the wicked choose or create for themselves. This is the view famously espoused by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. Lewis argues that hell is our own self-absorption and idolatry let loose for all eternity. Hell is Gods way of saying Thy will be done to us when we refuse to say Thy will be done to God. Hell is what we get when we choose human freedom instead of divine salvation. The gates of hell may be locked for eternity, but they are locked from the inside. We refuse to give up the hell within us, so hell is what we get around us.
There is an element of truth in all this. As one way to look at hell, the Lewis version can be helpful. It emphasizes that no one in hell is truly penitent. God doesnt punish people for a few sins in this life and then keep them locked up forever as they pour out their hearts in genuine faith and repentance. No, the damned never turn from their rebellion. They may regret their choices like the rich man in Luke 16, but they never genuinely repent.
Lewis description of hell is also a good reminder that God does at times give us over to our sinful desire. Romans 1 makes this clear. Part of our punishment is that God says, Alright, have at it. Pursue your sinful ways. Hell is, in that limited sense, God giving us what we want.
Dont Mistake A Half-Truth for the Whole Truth
But if thats all we say about hell we are giving people a massively distorted view of divine punishment. Lewis depiction of Gods justice has an element of truth to it, but by itself it is monumentally misleading. Divine punishmenthell, in its eternal formis not simply what we get because we make poor decisions or decide to live a selfish life. Hell is what we get because God is offended by our sin and punishes it. We see everywhere in Scripture that divine wrath is a curse on the ungodly, not a mere consequence for self-centered decisions. Hell is much more than God simply allowing us to have our own way and to experience all the bad effects of our choices. Hell is Gods active, just, holy wrath poured out on the disobedient.
The whole warp and woof of the Bible demonstrates that God does more than simply allow bad choices to run their course and spill over into bad consequences. He actively and decisively punishes those who violate his law.
In the garden, God cursed the serpent, the woman, the man, and the ground. He said to the snake I will put enmity between you and the woman (Gen 3:15), and to the woman, I will multiply your pain in childbearing (Gen. 3:16). He sent the couple away and drove them out of the garden (Gen. 3:23-24). In this first episode of sin we see the way in which covenants work. Disobedience does not just result in bad consequences; it results in divine cursing.
At the time of the flood, God responded to the rampant wickedness on the earth by declaring I will blot out man whom I have created (Gen. 6:7).
In Genesis 12, the chapter where God promises to bless the whole world through Abram, he also promises to curse those who dishonor Abram (Gen. 12:3).
In Deuteronomy 28 we see the promise of covenantal blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience. Both are actively sent by God. The curse is not a passive consequence of bad choices. On the contrary, we read in verse after verse: The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you. . . .The Lord will strike you with wasting disease. . . .The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. . . .The Lord will strike you with the boils of Egypt (Deut. 28:21-27).
If Christians want to do away with a God who curses the ungodly, theyll have to do away with the whole covenant framework of the Bible. The Assyrian conquest, the Babylonian Captivity, the frequent prophetic harangues all presuppose, quite explicitly at times, that God is angry with his people and will punish their rebellion. When Joshua leads the Israelites in covenant renewal at Shechem he asks them to choose this day who you will serve (Josh. 24:15). What will happen if they choose poorly? Will God hand them over to their misdirected free will and allow the bad consequences to flow as the Israelites make a hell for themselves? Not exactly. The Lord says, If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good (Josh 24:20).
Same Old Language in the New Testament
This sort of language is not confined to the Old Testament. Jesus himself tells us to fear God who can destroy body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28). Even if some want to argue that hell here is not eternal punishment (which I think it is), surely we must admit that Jesus believed in a God who would punish sin. Romans 1 may speak of God giving the ungodly over to their sinful desires. But Romans 2 speaks clearly of wrath stored up for the day of wrath when Gods righteous judgment will be revealed (Rom. 2:5). Likewise 2 Peter 3:7 warns that the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. This kind of admonition is so frequent in the epistles that to miss it is to skip over the Bibles own preferred categories for thinking of Gods judgment.
It is not wrong to describe hell as eternal separation from God or a Christless eternity. Hell is both these things. But these euphemisms must not swallow up the unpleasant notion that Gods judgment is more than a lack of something or someone, it is a divine curse upon the ungodly. The one passage that describes judgment as being away from the presence of the Lord says in the preceding half of the sentence: They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction (2 Thess. 1:9). If we always speak of eternal punishment as a Christless eternity or being separated from God or a hell that we choose for ourselves we are not being true to the language of Scripture. We are probably softening a blow that Godin his gracious, warning mercydoes not mean to soften. Wrath is not only a result. It is a recompense.
Heres how John Piper puts it:
Hell is not simply the natural consequence of rejecting God. Some people say this in order to reject the thought that God sends people there. They say that people send themselves there. That is true. People make choices that lead to hell. But it is not the whole truth. Jesus says these choices are really deserving of hell. Whoever says, You fool! will be liable [that is, guilty of, or deserving of] the hell of fire (Matt. 5:22). That is why he calls hell punishment (Matt. 25:46). It is not mere self-imposed natural consequence (like cigarette smoking leading to lung cancer); it is the penalty of Gods wrath (like a judge sentencing a criminal to hard labor). (What Jesus Demands from the World, 93).
Covenantal Curses and a Covenantal Christ
The Bible, from start to finish, is a covenantal book, and covenants always contain blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. Thats why Revelation ends with the blessing He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God (Rev. 21:3) and the curse But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death (Rev. 21:8). The storyline of the Bible only works with a God who rewards obedience and punishes disobedience.
And its only with this storyline that the gospel shines in all its glory. If we dont own up to the graphic cursing language of both Testaments, we wont marvel at the gruesome curse Christ bore for us (Gal. 3:10-14). It really is true: if you dont have a God who hates sin, punishes sin, and curses sinners, then you will not end up with the biblical gospel. Because the good news is that the one who deserved only blessing, was stricken, smitten, and afflicted for us (Isaiah 53:4).
The whole world is under a curse and everyone must face the unflinching wrath of God. Some will face it on their own in this life and in the life to come. Otherspraise God!have died with Christ, been raised with Christ, and now enjoy all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 1:3). Thats not just a consequence of our good choices; thats a Christ-bought, Spirit-wrought, God-given blessing.
Blessed are the children of Abraham whose covenant curses were satisfied though our covenant keeping Christ.
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon