Afterlife Matters: Common misconceptions of life after death and why they matter Part Three

In this series, we’re walking through some common misconceptions about life after death. If you missed the first two posts where we looked at why people don’t become angels and why hell isn’t the devil’s domain or playhouse, click on the links to look back.

In this third installment we’re looking at the misconception that hell stands outside and against the will of God

I, like many Christians, have struggled with hell.

It’s not that I struggled with whether or not hell was real. The Bible is clear that hell is very much a real place. What I have struggled with (and in my fallenness what I still sometimes struggle with) is the why of hell.

As I grew up as a young Christian man and I would sit and marvel at the eternal promises of God, the rich blessings of salvation and life eternal, even in those moments of delight there was a nagging question, “But what about hell?”

Here’s the problem: if, in the end, God wins, if he conquers all, if his kingdom and his glory cover all creation, then how can there exist for all eternity a place that is the epitome of sin? How can God’s kingdom be said to reign if a large portion of his creation exists in a place that is fundamentally “bad”?

What I had was an unbiblical view of hell, and it was leading to an unbiblical view of the gospel that hindered my understanding of my own salvation.

Misconception #3: Hell is a “bad” thing.

Here’s the biblical reality – hell is not bad. And by “bad”, I mean that hell is not a place that stands outside and against the will of God. It is not evil. In fact, according to the Bible, hell is the exact opposite of evil. It is the place where evil is finally and eternally thwarted. Therefore, rather than hell being bad, in actuality, it is eternally good.

Let’s look at how the Bible describes hell, not as a bad thing, but as a place of divine justice and goodness.

  • First, hell was made by God.

Rather than being outside the purview of the Almighty, hell is God’s construction. Hell has not always been. Hell was made. Matthew 25.41 tells us that hell was prepared for a purpose, namely for the devil and his angels and, as we find out in Revelation 20, for any whose name was not written in the book of life. So we know hell was created, and it was created for a reason.

The question then becomes, “Created by whom?” Maybe (again because we see hell as bad), we think it necessary to separate God from hell’s existence, to think that, perhaps, it was made by another. But we know from Scripture – God alone can create. It’s part of what makes him God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1.3). So let’s put this together. We know hell was created, and we know that everything has been created by God, that nothing was made unless he made it. This leaves us with a clear conclusion from straight from the Bible: hell is not a dark realm that stands in opposition to the things of God, hell was made by God.

  • Second, hell exists by the will of God.

If God did not want there to be a hell, there would be no hell. Hell was not an aspect of God’s creation that he was forced to construct. It exists, then, solely because God wants it to. In fact, the Bible tells us of his will in creating hell and in executing his wrath there. Romans 9.22 – “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction…?” So God formed hell in order to show his wrath against sin and his power as king over all creation. Hell is not a place outside of God’s will. Rather, it is a place designed to show that there is nothing that can escape the power and will of God, who seeks out sin from every corner of his creation and holds it under his wrath.

  • And, lastly, not only is hell not a bad thing, hell is praiseworthy as the justice of God.

Here’s a reality we sometimes miss: God would have been praised by the heavenly host for all eternity if he would have damned every single member of the human race to hell, because, in so doing, he would be the God of justice, the One who punishes sin. If God had simply given us what we deserved, the angels would have glorified him forever and ever.

If that sounds far-fetched, let’s ask ourselves, “What do we know of the praise God receives in heaven?”

Heaven is not short on praising God for his justice against sin. We see angels praising God for his holiness, praising him for his sinless perfection (Isaiah 6). When God shows himself to Moses, what does he proclaim about himself? That he is merciful, yes, but also that he will not let the guilty go unpunished (Exod 34.7). In fact, there are those in heaven who are calling on God to do that very thing and punish the wicked (Revelation 6.10). That is why, far from being scared of the reality of hell, the Bible says that the angels, and even Christ himself, are present at the outworking of that justice (Revelation 14.10).

Think about that, “meek and mild” Christ has no problem with hell. He does not shield his eyes. He does not shake his head at this wicked realm. He stands there with the angels and watches the justice of God give sin what it deserves. God is praised that he is a just judge that will not let evil in this world go without punishment. That punishment is finally meted out in hell.

But what does any of this have to do with the gospel? Why care about whether or not hell is a “bad” thing?

First, it’s important because we need to get a picture of hell that corresponds with the Bible and not with our emotions, and our hope is that, as our vision matches Scripture, God will bring our emotions in line with his word.

But also we must understand the innate “goodness” of hell to understand the full gravity of the gospel.

Hell doesn’t exist because God loses; hell exists because God wins over sin. If hell is the anti-heaven, then you have a realm that stands outside God’s domain, an area of creation that his kingdom has not conquered. But hell is not the anti-heaven. While the new heaven and earth are a place where God’s grace is displayed, hell is a place meant to display his justice. Both are praiseworthy, and both celebrate God’s victory over sin and death. In heaven, that death is defeated in the cross of Christ. In hell, that death is defeated in eternal punishment (Revelation 20.13). Hell, like heaven, declares God’s victory, they just declare it in different ways.

Not only is understanding hell important for grasping God’s victory in creation, it is also important for grasping God’s victory in us. A right view of hell sharpens our understanding of our salvation. The Bible actually says that one of the purposes of hell is to make us more astounded by God’s grace and mercy to us.

Romans 9.22-23 – “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23  in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.”

Understanding that hell is fundamentally good and right, a place not of sin but of divine justice, makes our salvation even more wonderful. Think about it. God didn’t save us from some wicked evil; he didn’t rescue us from some demonic future; he saved us from a place that he made to show his justice, a place prepared to punish sin and its followers, a place our whole lives proclaimed that we deserved. That’s exactly what he says he intends for believers to learn about their salvation.

God would have been praised for all eternity for sending us to hell. Yet in his mercy and he chose to pour his justice out, not on us, but on his Son. He pulled us from the future he made for people like us, a future of eternal justice and gave us, instead, eternal grace.

It is seeing the wrath that we deserved, the wrath he could have given us, that causes us to marvel at the mercy we’ve received. Understanding hell for what it is helps us to understand our salvation for what it is, unmerited and unnecessary grace from a God who is both just and merciful.

This series is brought to you by Chris Gore who pastors at First Baptist Church in Beggs, OK.