Do you want to live forever?
What did Jesus think about Hell?
We've discussed the crime, now it's time for the punishment. Or, to put it another way, where is it that the Bible says we are all heading ... unless drastic action is taken? This chapter is not so much about the crime or the journey, but it's all about the destination.
Hell. Is it real and, if so, what's it like? After all, it is a horrible word, used as an all purpose negative term. Hell's kitchen, Hell's teeth, Hell's bells, Hell on Earth. It's the most horrible doctrine of them all, which is why we hear little of it in church. It's the rotten festering corpse of the elephant in the room of the Christian faith. It's the un-mentionable, unspeakable and embarrassing doctrine. It's been used to scare people into the Kingdom, but has just as often scared people away, because of its apparently irrational awfulness.
All that we need to know about Hell is to read the words of the one who spoke most about it; Jesus himself. In fact, Jesus spoke more of Hell than he did of Heaven. He spoke of it over 40 times in the book of Matthew alone! A sobering thought. Just using the actual words from his mouth, recorded by Matthew, here are some of these:
Hell is ... a place of fire (Matthew 5:22).
Hell is ... a place where your whole body is cast into (Matthew 5:29, 30).
Hell is ... a place of darkness (Matthew 8:12)
Hell is ... a place of weeping (Matthew 8:12)
Hell is ... a place of gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12)
Hell is ... a place of torture (Matthew 8:29)
Jesus is being very specific, very direct. This is not gentle Jesus, meek and mild, this is not baby Jesus nursing at his mother's breast, this is not the loving Jesus who opens Heaven to all. This is not a popular picture of Jesus, there is not a trace of sugar-coating here. To many Christians, a Jesus who condemns to Hell all who don't believe in him, is unacceptable. We remind ourselves of the verse:
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)
Jesus is saying here quite clearly that those who reject him don't come to the Father but end up in a dark place of eternal punishment, where all can be heard is weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is presumably where you'd find Hitler and Stalin. No problems there. It's also where you'd find your favourite auntie Jean, who never had a bad word to say against anyone and who was kindness personified, but was an atheist to her dying breath. She'd be there in utter darkness for eternity weeping and gnashing her teeth. It's a soul-wrenching thought, because we all have auntie Jeans and the mental picture of these virtuous people in such a place is just awesomely horrible. What was Jesus thinking of?
Do we voice the thoughts of the atheist thinker Bertrand Russell, who said, "anyone who threatens someone with eternal punishment is inhumane"? Surely every ounce of your humanity would agree with this and would add the assertion that a God of love could never act in this way.
Do we voice the thoughts of many Christians who take refuge in their belief that Jesus' stark descriptions of Hell are just symbolic language, meant to convey the idea that Hell is a rather nasty place to end up without expecting his listeners to take him at face value? I challenge you just to read the verses at the head of this article and decide whether you are reading a literal account or just symbolism. If you prefer symbolism then you are simply following in the footsteps of Philo, Origen and the allegorists, who trawled through Scripture and simply declared that anything that didn't fit in with their agenda had deeper spiritual meanings rather than any face value meaning.
Perhaps at this point a historical perspective would be useful to us to see how the concept of Hell has developed since Jesus' time. This we shall do next week ...
(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book Outcast Nation)
A Lib Dem candidate who was due to stand in the upcoming election...