'Burn In Hell!' screamed the tabloid headline as it vented the frustration and wrath of 'the people' against a particularly evil individual. It's strange that despite the lack of teaching about hell in the Church, the idea of hell continues in popular culture.
I'm not sure when I last heard any teaching about hell in church, never mind a good old fashioned hell-fire sermon. Isn't that a wonderful thing? Isn't the rejection of hell a sign we've grown up, matured and finally come into the 21st century? Isn't this a much nicer picture of God?
Indeed it is. There is only one slight problem. Its not what Jesus taught. Which is a big problem for those who profess to be Christians – followers of Christ.
I spoke at Spring Harvest once and was given the subject of Hell. I guess they thought that a Scottish Presbyterian Calvinist would have that has one of his favourite subjects. I turned up in Skegness and was shown to a large hall, which was heated by two flame-throwers set either side of me. I said that under no circumstances was I going to teach about hell with flame throwers as props! But what astounded me that more than 100 people turned up for the seminar. These were Christians who were concerned that they did not have any real teaching about hell.
Everyone from the Jehovah's Witnesses to Christopher Hitchens wants to tell us that either Jesus did not teach about hell, or if he did it has been terribly misunderstood. But Jesus taught more about Hell than anyone else in the Bible, by a long way.
Why would a loving Jesus, gentle Jesus meek and mild, give such horrific teaching? The only reason I can think of is that it is true.
"The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matthew 13:41-43).
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats... And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matthew 25:31-46).
Jesus taught that hell is a place of torment and fire, as these Scriptures reveal:
"And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 13:42)
"Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire" (Matthew 25:41)
In Mark 9:46, Jesus speaks about Hell: "...where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched".
The bottom line is that Jesus believed that there is an afterlife. He believed that what we do, say and choose in this life determines where we will spend that afterlife. He believes that there is a judgment and after that judgment some will spend their eternity in what we call Hell. It is a place of exclusion, darkness and pain. And it is eternal. That much we know. I am not sure it is wise to speculate beyond that. Images of Dante's Inferno, magnificent poem though it is, do not really help. It is important not to confuse the speculations of later times with the simple and stark words of Christ.
It is also important to remember that Hell is about justice. I met a man from Manchester who had grown up in a nominally Christian home but had converted to Islam. Why? Because all he ever heard about in his church was a God of love, and he wanted a God of justice, who was not going to leave sin unpunished and who would right every wrong. Ironically his church, who doubtless thought they were presenting a more attractive version of God, had turned him away from Jesus because they presented Jesus as someone who let evil go unpunished. They did not teach the Jesus of the Bible – the one whose love is beyond any human comprehension and yet who spoke so passionately of hell.
In one classic episode of Inspector Morse, set in Australia, Lewis asks Morse about whether he believes there's a hell. Morse, thinking about the evil and injustice he has seen, muses: "I hope so, Lewis, I hope so."
But in Downfall, the amazing German film about Hitler's last days, Hitler is shown, just before he commits suicide, talking about how his death means he will be at peace. That is what the world believes and its what 'liberal' Christianity teaches. It doesn't matter what you do in life, there is peace at the end. There is no justice, no judgment day. In fact without hell, there might as well be no God.
To reject hell is to reject the teaching of Christ, to demean his atoning work on the cross and to attack the character of God. If you believe that as Rousseau argued "God will forgive me, because that's his job", then you end up with a God who is weak, cruel and unjust.
John Milton wrote in his epic poem Paradise Lost:
So spake the Son, and into terrour changed
His countenance, too severe to be beheld,
And full of wrath bent on his enemies (Book VI).
We struggle with the idea of the wrath of God, finding Milton's description as somehow unpleasant and inhumane. We judge God for being Judge. And yet we ourselves feel perfectly justified in being angry at the injustice we receive and indeed the injustice in the world. Is it wrong to be angry about a truck being driven through a crowd of people in Nice, killing men, women and children? Would there not be something wrong with us if we did not feel anger at the abuse and rape of young children? If it is right for us to feel anger, as weak and fallible humans, will not the Judge of all the earth do right?
There are Christians who believe that ultimately no one goes to hell. Others believe that while hell is real and lasts forever, people within hell will eventually die after suffering the punishment for their sins. The traditional view has been that hell is eternal conscious torment because those in hell keep on sinning and never repent, and so get caught in a never ending cycle of sin and punishment.
I cannot think of Hell without shuddering. I believe what Jesus says and the bottom line is that I believe that God is just. I also believe that Jesus came to save us from hell and that no one needs to go there. Indeed the only people in hell are those who have chosen not to go to heaven.
C S Lewis has been a great help to me in trying to understand something of heaven and hell. The Great Divorce is a fascinating book with lots of wonderful insights (and some things I am not too sure about). In it he says:
"There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened."
"The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words, 'Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.'"
The reason Jesus came and suffered such a horrendous death was to save us from the eternal death that is hell. He is the Saviour who not only came to save us from hell; he also came to save us for heaven.
Belief in hell is counter-cultural. It is not easy. And there are lots of questions that we will have. But we need to be aware that in denying hell, we are denying the triune God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
If we don't take hell as seriously as Jesus did, I suspect that we will not really take Christianity seriously. And our evangelism won't really work because the Good News is reduced to denying what Jesus taught and instead telling people that everything is nice and going to be OK. The Holy Spirit comes to convict us of sin, righteousness and the judgment to come (John 16:8). When a Christian says they don't believe in the judgment to come, they are in effect denying the work of the Holy Spirit.
Maybe it's time for the Church in the West to recover the teaching of Jesus about hell?
David Robertson is the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and director of Solas CPC, Dundee. Follow him on Twitter @theweeflea.