For some, the horror of the Christian doctrine of hellthat it is a
place of eternal, conscious torment where God's enemies are
punishedhas led them not just to avert their eyes and minds,
but to deny it entirely. "Surely," they say, "hell is a fictional
construct used to oppress people with fear; a God of love would
never allow such a place to really exist." There's an emotional
power to this argument, to be sure. No one, certainly no Christian,
likes the idea of hell.
At the same time, this doctrine isn't just drapery on the side of the
Christian worldview, something with no relevance to the structure
of the faith itself. Nor is the doctrine of hell an embarrassing,
unnecessary, primitive wart that we believe just because we're
told we have to.
On the contrary, the doctrine and reality of hell actually throws the
glory of the gospel into sharp relief for us. It helps us to understand
just how great God really is, how sinfully wretched we really are,
and how unutterably amazing it is that he would show us grace at
all. Moreover, the reality of hellif we don't push it out of our
mindswill focus us, above all, on the task of proclaiming the
gospel to those who are in danger of spending eternity there.
With that in mind, here are five biblical statements about hell which,
taken as a whole, demonstrate why hell is integral to the gospel.
WHY HELL is INTEGRAL to THE GOSPEL
1. Scripture teaches that there is a real place called hell.
I won't belabor this point. Others have made this case with crystal
clarity. Suffice it to say that medieval bishops didn't invent the
doctrine of hell as a way to scare the serfs; they got it from the
apostles. And the apostles didn't invent it to scare the pagans;
they got it from Jesus... At the most basic level, therefore, if we
claim to be Christians and to believe that the Bible is the word of
God, we have to recognize that the Bible teaches the reality of
hell. But there's more.
2. Hell shows us how heinous our sin really is.
Have you ever heard someone make the argument that no human
sin could possibly deserve eternal torment in hell? It's an interesting
argument, one that reveals a lot about the human heart. Why is it
that when people think about hell, they always conclude that God
must be at fault and not themselves? You can see how the doctrine
reveals our hearts: when we consider our own sin, our first
inclination is always to minimize it, to protest that it's not that bad
and that God is wrong to say it deserves punishment.
The reality of hell stands as a massive refutation of that self-
justification. Non-Christians will always see the horrors of hell as
an indictment of God, but as Christians who know God to be
perfectly just and righteous, we must understand that the horrors
of hell are actually an indictment of us. We may want to minimize
our sin, or excuse it, or try to argue our consciences down. But
the fact that God has declared that we deserve eternal torment
for those sins should remind us that they are not small at all.
They are enormously evil.
3. Hell shows us how immovably and unimpeachably just God really
is. People have been tempted throughout history to think of God
as a corrupt judge, one who sets aside the demands of justice
simply because he likes the defendant. "We are all God's children,"
the argument goes. "How could God hand down such a horrible
sentence on some of his children?" The answer to that question
is simple: God is not a corrupt judge. He is an absolutely just and
Over and over the Bible makes this point. When God reveals
himself to Moses, he declares himself to be compassionate and
loving, but he also says, "Yet he does not leave the guilty
unpunished." The Psalms declare that "Righteousness and justice
are the foundation of his throne." What an amazing statement! If
God is to continue being God, he cannot simply set justice aside
and sweep sin under the rug. He must deal with itdecisively and
with exacting justice. When God finally judges, not one sin will
receive more punishment than it deserves...
The Bible tells us that on that day, when God sentences his
enemies to hell, the whole universe will recognize and acknowledge
that what he has decided is unimpeachably just and right. Isaiah 5
makes this point with bracing clarity:
"Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opens its mouth
without measure." It's a grotesque image, the grave widening its
mouth to swallow the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And yet by this
means, Isaiah declares, "The Lord of Hosts is exalted in justice,
and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness." Similarly,
Romans 9:22 tells us that by the torments of hell, God will "show
his wrath and make his power known," so that he might "make the
riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy."
We may not understand it fully now, but one day hell itself will
declare God's glory. It willeven in its horrortestify together with
the psalmist, "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne."
4. Hell shows us how horrific the cross really was, and how great
God's grace really is. Romans 3 tells us that God put forth Jesus
as a sacrifice of atonement "to demonstrate his justice." He did
this "because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed
Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? It was because that was
the only way God could righteously not send every one of us to
hell. Jesus had to take what was due to us, and that means he
had to endure the equivalent of hell as he hung on the cross. That
doesn't mean that Jesus actually went to hell. But it does mean
that the nails and the thorns were only the beginning of Jesus'
suffering. The true height of his suffering came when God poured
out his wrath on Jesus. When the darkness fell, that wasn't just
God covering the suffering of his Son, as some have said. That was
the darkness of the curse, of God's wrath. It was the darkness of
hell, and in that moment Jesus was enduring its full furythe fury
of the wrath of God the Almighty.
When you understand the cross in that light, you begin to understand
better just how magnificent God's grace to you is, if you are a
Christian. The mission of redemption that Jesus undertook involved
a commitment to endure God's wrath in your place, to take the hell
that you deserve. What an amazing display of love and mercy that
is! Yet you will only see and understand this display of love clearly
when you understand, accept, and shudder at the horror of hell.
5. Hell focuses our minds on the task of proclaiming the gospel.
If hell is real, and if people are truly in danger of spending eternity
there, then there is no more urgent and important task than doing
precisely what Jesus told his apostles to do before he ascended
to heavenproclaim to the world the good news that forgiveness
of sins is offered through Jesus Christ!
I think John Piper got it exactly right in a Gospel Coalition interview:
"It's very hard to give up on the gospel if you believe there is hell,
that after this life, there is an endless suffering for those who did
not believe in the gospel." There are all kinds of good things that
Christians can doand in fact should do! But if hell is real, it is
worth keeping in mindno, it is imperative that we keep in mind
that the one thing that Christians can do that no one else in the
world is ever going to do is to tell people how they can be forgiven
of their sin, how they can avoid spending an eternity in hell.
There is no doubt that the doctrine of hell is horrible. The doctrine
is horrible because the reality is horrible. But that's not a reason to
avert our eyes and ignore it, much less to reject it. There are those
who think that, by rejecting or at least ignoring the doctrine in their
preaching, they are making God more glorious and more loving.
Far from it! What they are really doing is unwittingly stealing glory
from the Savior Jesus Christ, as if what he saved us from was
well, not so bad after all. In fact, the horrific nature of what we have
been saved from only intensifies the glory of what we have been
saved to. Not only so, but as we see ever more clearly the horror
of hell, we look with ever more love, ever more gratitude, and ever
greater worship to the One who endured that hell for us and saved us.
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon