Most people assume that as long as they don’t mess things up in their time here on earth, they’ll go to heaven when they die. But Scripture says the opposite. God created us for heaven, but the rebellion of the human race, in which we are all participating, has destined us for hell.
Hell, not heaven, is our default destination.
Notice the breadth of who is described as going to hell in Revelation 21:8: “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” (ESV).
Included in that list are the ones you’d expect: murderers, sorcerers, etc. The “really bad” guys. But it also includes a lot of people who could be found in the church, like:
- The cowardly – those who would never stand for Jesus in front of their friends
- The faithless – those who went to church but never really trusted God enough to obey him with their relationships or their money
- Idolaters – those who wouldn’t put God first in their lives
- Liars – those who came to church but whose submission to God was not sincere
Hell is an eternal place of torment, and all of us—no matter where we fall in that list—are deserving of its agony. That reality makes me think of the words of Charles Spurgeon: “These are such weighty things, such that when I dwell upon them, I feel far more inclined to sit down and weep than to stand up and speak to you.”
The images described in Revelation are awful, including fire and burning sulfur. There is some question as to what is metaphorical and what is literal in Revelation, but even if these things are symbols, whatever they are pointing to is unspeakably awful.
And, we have to assume hell is eternal, because the same word that is used for “everlasting life” is used for “everlasting death.”
You say, “But how is that fair? An eternity in hell for only 70 years of sin?”
Sin gains its wickedness by the one it’s committed against. If you punch a hole in a wall, you have to pay for the wall. If you punch a dog, that’s worse. If you punch the woman behind you in the grocery line, you’re going to jail. If you approach the Queen of England with your fists raised, something worse than jail may happen to you. Sin against an infinitely holy God is infinitely wicked.
You say, “Why can’t God just let it go?” Because he is just. And justice demands restitution in some way. The desire we all have for God to ultimately right all wrongs and restore justice to the universe—that necessitates judgment.
You say, “Well, why doesn’t God do something about it?” He has! He put on Jesus the full punishment for our sin. He took on every single ounce of it so nothing would be left for us.
There are only two ways to pay for sin: The eternal Son of God can die for it, or we can pay for it eternally in hell.
And if we don’t receive what he has offered to us—the free gift of salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross—then what other choice does God have? If we won’t accept salvation, if we continue to push God away, if we insist on subverting his will and exalting our own, what more can God do? As C.S. Lewis said, there are, in the end, only two groups of people—those who say to God, “Your will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Your will be done.” Hell is a door locked from the inside.
The predominant image of hell in the Bible is that of fire. Fire represents insatiable desire. Leave a fire unchecked, and it continues to grow. Nurse a particular sin—jealousy, lust, racism, pride—and that fire will eventually consume you, burning brighter and brighter until you are indistinguishable from it. Hell is the place where God removes his hand and allows you to become your sin.
But it doesn’t have to be that way for you.
Look at how John ends Revelation: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17).
The last voice you will hear as you step out into a godless eternity is Jesus’, pleading with you to take his hand, to receive life, to come.