Hell: How Long?
As I headed to the office to write this article, I tuned my radio to NPR, to one of my favorite programs: “1A, with Host Joshua Johnson.” He is an excellent conversational journalist who really knows how to get at the heart of an issue with winsome conversation and grace for folks on all sides of the issue. And today’s topic? Hell. The panel for the day held a philosopher from Clemson University who advises on the new sitcom “The Good Place,” a woman who serves as an Anglican priest, a more traditional evangelical, and a good old-fashioned atheist. I sat fascinated listening to the varying perspectives on the biblical idea of Hell, that place of eternal torment and punishment. What struck me particularly was a question by the philosopher from Clemson University, and I paraphrase: “How bad can anything that we do in this life really be to require that Hell go on forever?” The idea of an unending Hell seemed to boggle his mind, along with the concept of any human act in this life requiring that kind and length of punishment in the life to come. He was making the same logical error that a couple on the panel were unable to avoid, that being the reality and longevity of Hell is rooted in the dignity and honor of who we are as people. With humanity as the starting point, the panelists were right: what would require that length of that kind of punishment? However, they were starting at the wrong point.
As biblical Christians, we believe that God Himself is the fundamental reality of the universe. In fact, some theologians speak of Him as the atmosphere of all reality. We absolutely live and move and have our being in Him. Building on that concept, we understand that God is eternal. He is infinite in all of His being and perfections. That means, when we speak of His holiness, we are stating that he is absolutely, infinitely separate from sin. In Him is light and no darkness at all. One way I try to convey this concept in counseling is directing the gaze of a counselee to the wall of my office: “Imagine if that wall were painted brown. How much dust and dirt do you think it would show?” Obviously, darker colors are better at concealing daily wear, tear, and grime. I continue: “Now, can picture that wall being painted the brightest, most stark white you can imagine? How much dust, dirt, scuffs, coffee-spillage, and life-splatter do you think that wall would show?” The answer is plain! Anything that is absolutely, perfectly white will show the slightest damage or dimple. This is the reality of our sin against a holy God. The longevity of Hell, that eternity of torment, has not so much to do really with us, in the greatness of ourselves as human being, but it has everything to do with the grand holiness of the personal, Triune God against whom we have performed that sin. And any sin unatoned for by the perfect blood of Jesus Christ keeps that sinner from being in the presence, the gracious presence, of the holy, infinitely perfect God. Sadly, that same sin, no matter how slight, does give perfect permission for that sinner to spend eternity in the wrathful presence of God, otherwise known as Hell. So we, our bigness, does not determine the need of and justification for an eternal Hell. Our sin, no matter how dastardly and fiendish, brazen and vile, really does not even define that punishment. It is the eternal, unending, unchanging holiness of the Triune God that has as a consequence of his existence a wrath-filled future for all who live and die in their sinful rebellion against Him.
If you, or someone you know, struggles with the truth of Hell, finding it scandalous, or laborious to process or justify, may I suggest not beginning with wrestling through the doctrine of Hell, but spending time in the Holy Scriptures, God’s Word, indeed His very breath, getting to know our good and gracious God Himself. Once you are acquainted with Him, who He is and all that He has done for the salvation of those same rebellious sinners, you will begin to agree that: Hell is necessary, Hell is real, and Hell will and should last forever. To the praise of the eternal God of holiness!
Joel Enoch Wood is the pastor of Trinity RPC in Burtonsville, MD, between DC and Baltimore. He holds M.Div. and D.Min. degrees from the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is 1/4 of The Jerusalem Chamber podcast, a roundtable discussion among four friends who are pastors about the doctrine, worship, and piety of the Westminster Confession of Faith.