While we are on this side of the veil, we may not know exactly what hell will be like. However, Christians have good reason to believe it is a horrible state of existence, a place that anyone in their right mind should fear.
Jesus’ description of hell in the Gospels is shocking (see, for example, Luke 13:24-30; Luke 16:20-31), and it doesn’t seem that the Good Shepherd would use such horrific language if hell were a place of mild punishment that most people shouldn’t worry about.
It is more likely that He used such awesome and horrifying symbols to communicate an awesome and a horrifying reality, a reality in which (to paraphrase C. S. Lewis) some are on their way to becoming creatures of unimaginable beauty and joy and others to creatures that will embody all that is evil and hideous in the universe.1
Belief in a place of terrible punishment for the wicked isn’t limited to the Christian tradition. People of all religious traditions—ancient and recent, major and minor, pantheistic or theistic—have believed in a terrible state of suffering for the wicked in the afterlife. There seems to be a universal sense of the reality of character formation and the fact that a spiritual abyss lurks below willful evil deeds. But while the Bible clearly teaches the reality of hell as well as nearly all other religious traditions, modern Americans—although generally expressing belief in some kind of hell—aren’t very worried about it.
While there is no dominant view of Hell, two particular perspectives are popular. Four out of ten adults believe that Hell is “a state of eternal separation from God’s presence” (39%) and one-third (32%) says it is “an actual place of torment and suffering where people’s souls go after death.” A third perspective that one in eight adults believe is that “Hell is just a symbol of an unknown bad outcome after death” (13%). Other respondents were “not sure” or said they that they do not believe in an afterlife (16%). . . .
Most Americans do not expect to experience Hell first-hand: just one-half of 1% expect to go to Hell upon their death. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) believe they will go to Heaven. One in 20 adults (5%) claim they will come back as another life form, while the same proportion (5%) contend they will simply cease to exist.” (Taken from the article by the Barna Research Group, “Americans Describe Their Views About Life After Death,” October 21, 2003.)
It’s interesting that while most people believe in some kind of hell, only a tiny percentage (one half of 1% in the Barna survey) think they are likely to go there when they die. It’s probably true that throughout history more people have generally professed belief in hell than thought it would be their destination, but it’s clear that the fear of hell had considerably more impact in the past than it does now. Preachers throughout the centuries preached sermons centering on the reality of hell that called for repentance and faith, and periods of great spiritual revival resulted from their preaching. Today’s general lack of concern about hell is reflected by the fact that contemporary preachers seldom make hell the subject of their sermons. In fact, there is such avoidance of the topic that one gets the impression that it is viewed as too controversial and offensive to bring up.
At the same time, much of the current popular distaste for hell is based on the Western cultural reaction to the past exploitation of the fear of hell by religious and political rulers. For example, one of the issues that triggered the Reformation was the sale of indulgences to fearful masses by a Catholic hierarchy that was corrupt almost beyond imagination.2The misuse of the doctrine of hell was widespread within the authoritarian culture of the Middle Ages. Torture and sadistic forms of punishment were in common use and depictions of hell and torment were a constant artistic theme. The very people who terrorized the masses through the fear of hell, were those who most violated the gospel’s standards. There was an extreme cultural reaction against these abuses during the enlightenment when cultural leaders like Voltaire, Rousseau, Gibbon, Hume, and Paine caustically exposed this kind of hypocrisy. In fact, the abuse of the truth about hell by past ruling classes has helped create the “Elmer Gantry” stereotype of the hypocritical, exploitive preacher, providing a dramatic illustration for Jesus’ warning in Matthew 18:5-7.
“And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” (Matthew 18:5-7 NIV).
One of the results of the abuse and exploitation of Christian faith has been a turning away from faith in God and a fear of hell to devotion to the state and fear of social disapproval. Just as the Roman masses were once pacified with “bread and circuses,” most Christians are ready to progressively surrender more and more of their dignity and freedom to a godlike state that promises them cradle-to-grave security. Despite the fact that their rulers fostered the greatest wars of world history during the past 200 years with lies and propaganda, most people worship at the altar of state religion and blindly identify the decisions and demands of the state with the will of God.
Modern technology and communication make the modern “secular city” more all-encompassing and invasive than any prior civilization. Modern people are insulated from reality by a quasi-divine social-economic system that shields them from many of the consequences of their actions. Instead of forging their own tools, weaving their own cloth, growing their own crops, or treating their own injuries as did most generations before them, we are provided with previously unknown material luxuries—as long as we are willing to trust the ruling social/economic system. Although today’s economic system may collapse like a stack of cards some day, just as it did during the Great Depression, we are more than willing to trust in its illusion of a seemingly indestructible prosperity. Caught up in its illusory peace and security (Ezekiel 13:8-12), our consumer society is focused on creating and satisfying immediate desires, and tends to view serious concern with future consequences or non-material values as neurotic or mentally unbalanced.
People are naturally drawn to the bait of immediate gratification. It’s our natural inclination to be focused on present needs and desires, and not to feel as urgent about things in the future—however important. Because heaven and hell aren’t on the immediate horizons of most people, they tend to focus on more immediate anxieties and pleasures. Especially when everyone around them is doing the same thing.
The foolishness and shortsightedness of modern mass society penetrates to the hearts and minds of all of us. We have absorbed the values of this city that has forgotten the fear of God. We adore and fear the city rather than the Creator. God seems distant, secondary in importance at best, unreal at worst.
The church itself has been infected by the relativism of modern culture, a relativism that makes it difficult to say—or believe—that any perspective is truly “wrong.” In a relativistic cultural context, about the most shocking thing one could say is that some people are not only “wrong” but on their way to hell.
As children of this age, we expect the joys of heaven in the constricted space of here-and-now. But the behavior that accompanies our demand for heaven on earth nurtures anti-Christian evil, an evil that may soon be strong enough to stage an overt assault against the Christian values we claim to revere, transforming our counterfeit “heaven” into the vestibule of hell.
Fear of hell is directly proportional to consciousness of the seriousness of life and sin.
Jesus spoke powerful images of hell to confront the self-righteous complacency of people who assumed they were secure as part of a “chosen” group and that religious play-acting was sufficient to shield them from spiritual danger. Awakening to the wickedness, hypocrisy, and corruption of the “principalities and powers” of their civilization was an essential part of becoming a disciple of Jesus (John 1:9-11; Romans 12:2; Galatians 1:4; Ephesians 2:2-3; Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 1:16; Colossians 2:15; James 4:4; 1 John 5:4,19; Revelation 12:9; Revelation 13:8). The wickedness and corruption of modern civilization is obvious to anyone who is willing to see it, just as the wickedness and corruption of Roman and Jewish civilization was obvious to Jesus, and became obvious to His followers when He was scourged and nailed to a cross.
Modern people lack a sense of the seriousness of sin in particular and life in general. The degree of complacency of us who claim to be the followers of Jesus Christ is often hard to distinguish from the complacency of self-professed atheists and unbelievers. Perhaps it is hard for us to be worried about hell in this post-modern age because, like a giant parasitic plant, hell is already gripping every aspect of our lives with its tendrils. Perhaps we need to awaken to the extent of anti-Christian power and realize just how evil our civilization is before we will again take sin seriously and realize that hell is truly something to be concerned about.
- The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory).Back To Article
- The concept of indulgences is a classic instance of theological creativity, as opposed to the mere interpretation of revelations (or scriptures), and the same is true of the concept of purgatory on which indulgences were based. It all began with Saint Augustine, who deduced from passages in Maccabees (12:39-45) and 1 Corinthians (3:11-15) that upon death no one except the occasional saint goes directly to heaven. The condemned go directly to hell, but the remainder go to a slightly less painful form of hell to do penance until they are purged (hence “purgatory”) of those sins that had not been offset by good works during their lifetimes. That is, a sin must be offset by sincere contrition, by confession to a priest and receipt of his absolution, and then by a sufficiency of good works. The Church taught that for nearly all people, at death their sins will greatly outweigh their good works, hence the need to suffer the terrible pains of purgatory for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of years before they are allowed to enter heaven.
Since time in purgatory was a substitute for good works, it followed that the more good works one accomplished, the shorter one’s stay in purgatory, and someone hit upon the idea that good works of benefit to the church counted more than other varieties. Indeed, the Church soon began to identify such works and assign them values as to time remitted from one’s sentence to purgatory. For example, participation in a Crusade was rated as bringing complete remission from purgatory. This was extended to include those who gave the Church an amount sufficient to hire a crusader. As the Crusades petered out, the Church’s desire for funds did not; hence it was promulgated that through donations or services to the Church everyone could “earn” an earlier release from the tortures of purgatory. Soon, the Church began to sell signed and sealed certificates of specific indulgences, some specifying a period of remission, others providing dispensations to commit or for having committed various sins. For example, large numbers of people purchased indulgences permitting them to eat prohibited foods on fast days; others bought permissions to keep ill-gotten property.
As time passed, and as the Church’s financial ambitions continued to grow, an elaborate indulgence sales network of traveling monks developed. Then, in 1476, Pope Sixtus IV recognized how to greatly expand the market. Seeking funds to pay his many debts and to continue work on the Sistine Chapel, the pope authorized the sale of indulgences to the living that would shorten the suffering of their dead loved ones already in purgatory. As a sales slogan of the day put it, “The moment the money tinkles in the collecting box, a soul flies out of purgatory.”
From the start, some members of the Church of Piety such as Peter Abelard had questioned the validity of indulgences, as did Wyclif, Hus, and Erasmus, and the practice of selling indulgences on behalf of the dead had offended Luther for several years before he wrote his famous protest. What prompted Luther to act was a massive sales campaign launched in 1517 to peddle indulgences in Germany to fund the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome (it had also been secretly agreed that half of the funds were to go to the archbishop of Metz to repay the immense debts he had accrued to buy his office, as well as three other bishoprics). Johannes Tetzel (ca. 1465-1519), a prominent preacher of indulgences, took charge of the campaign in areas near Wittenberg. Drafts of some of his sermons have survived, and the following passage was typical: “[D]o you not hear the voices of your dead parents and other people, screaming and saying ‘Have pity on me, have pity on me . . . We are suffering severe punishments and pain, from which you could rescue us with a few alms, if you would.’ ” Luther was infuriated by this commercialized fear-mongering (Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, pp. 80-81). Back To Article