WHAT IS HELL?
When evening comes, and shadows grow soft and long, and you hear the hush of the day settling around you, you might find it the right time to ask those eternal questions that arise from the depths of your spirit. Or, as you stroll along the shore and hear the roll of the old ocean's thunder and gaze into the distance without end. . .you might feel the tug of eternity within your heart.
You walk the trackless snow of a winter countryside. . .feel a quiet surround you that is almost as great as the quietness within your soul. . .and you ask the silent questions--Who made all the beauty of the world? God. Yes, God. But what is God like? God is love.
If you look at the world around you with the eyes of humility, you will see the footprints of God. You will see the handiwork of a God who loves beauty--in the vast array of colors at sunset. . .in the wild flowers that cover a hillside. . .in the pebbles of a seashore. You will see that God is love. . .that God is beauty.
But. . .some would have us believe that someplace in this universe. . .possibly someplace in the earth itself, is a place where love and beauty do not reign. A place where God is acting the tyrant, pouring out his vengeance throughout the everlasting ages of eternity. A place called hell. It is a place, they say, where an angry God chooses to cast unrepentant sinners. . .chooses to perform some miracle to keep them alive forever so they can be tortured by fire and brimstone and the unleashed anger of the devil.
Is this hell really the creation of a God of love. . .a God of justice. . .a God of beauty? The question is of utmost importance to you. The Bible's answer will help you grow in your love and respect for God. So today you have the opportunity to find out the truth about hell. By discovering this truth you will learn of the God of love and beauty.
Let's go to the time of Jesus. It's important to see what he was like because he said, "I and my Father are one." (John 10:30) When we have a clear picture of what Jesus was like, we have a clearer picture of what God is like. To see Jesus is to see God. Jesus said of himself, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." (John 14:9) Let's look at Jesus. Let's really see him. It is the night before Good Friday--the night before the crucifixion. Jesus knows that soon the guilt of the world will fall on him. He exclaims, "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death." As our sacrifice he must suffer the weight of our sins. As our sacrifice he must bear our sins. No one stands with him...no one prays with him. He knows, too, that soon all will forsake him, even those with whom he has walked and talked for three years.
"O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me," Jesus pleads with his Father. But then he adds, "nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt." He will be the lamb for the altar. He will give his life for us. Why? Because we deserve it? No. . .but because he loves us. He wants us to live forever. He wants us to be with him, throughout eternity. So three times he prays from the depths of his soul, "O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me except I drink it, thy will be done." (Matthew 26:42)
This is not Jesus suffering alone. Remember, he said, "I and my Father are one." God the Father suffers with his Son. God the Father is giving all of heaven, his most precious love, so that we might have eternal life. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son." (John 3:16) In Gethsemane we see into the heart of God's love for us. At Calvary we see even more fully how much God was willing to give so we could have eternal life. The Bible tells us that "the Lord is not. . .willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9)
Would this kind of God then become vengeful and vindictive because some would not accept his sacrifice of love? It doesn't seem so. Yes. . .he would be deeply disappointed. He would feel like Jesus felt when he wept over Jerusalem, a city which turned away from him. With sobs in his voice, Jesus said, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" (Matthew 23:37) That is how God is! He doesn't want anyone to perish. He wants you and everyone else in this world to have everlasting life.
But Satan has sought to make God appear exactly opposite. Satan is the "father of lies," the Bible says. He seeks to make God appear like a cruel, uncaring tyrant, a spoiled despot who is constantly on the watch to catch and punish sinners. Satan has sought to picture God as one who delights in vengeance. Don't believe these lies, friend. Look at Jesus. . .and see the God of love. Jesus. . .the one who called the children to him and held them on his lap. Jesus. . .the one who couldn't bear seeing a widowed mother mourning for her son, so he raised him to life. Jesus. . .the one who gave himself for us: the one who bore man's hatred, and who said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
But, you may rightly ask, if God is like this. . .if he really wants all of us to live forever, why should therebe a hell? The answer is not to punish or destroy the wicked and rebellious. But the answer is to make all things perfect, beautiful and sinless once again. You see, in the beginning God created our world perfect. He never intended that sin and suffering and death should mar this perfect creation. But sin came, with suffering and death in itswake. To all appearances there was no hope for our world. But God would not allow mankind to perish without giving them a way to be saved. He promised a Savior.
God could not allow sin to continue without end in his universe. He could not allow rebellion against his law of righteousness to continue forever. To do so would eventually destroy the foundation of his government. But God could--and did--provide a way whereby we could come back to him, be forgiven and be restored to sinlessness.
Someday God must restore our world to its original perfection. But before he can do that, this world must be cleansed. The Bible says that "the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up." (2 Peter 3:10) Someday God shall blot sin and its damaging results out of existence. Then he will say, "Behold, I make all things new." (Revelation 21:5) Therefore, there must be a cleansing fire to destroy all wickedness. In the Bible this is called hell.
Your next question might well be, When will this cleansing fire take place? When will hell happen? In order to answer this question, we must first see what will happen to the righteous. The Bible says that when Christ comes the second time, the righteous dead will be raised to life. "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first." (1 Thessalonians 4:16) This is the resurrection that Christians have looked forward to for ages.
But what about the righteous ones who are living at Christ's second coming? Again, the Bible is clear on this. It says, "Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." (1 Thessalonians 4:17) With Jesus the righteous will then return to heaven. The Bible says, "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years." (Revelation 20:6) The picture becomes a little clearer now. The righteous dead are resurrected at Christ's second coming. The righteous living join them in going to heaven with Christ.
But what about the wicked? What happens to them? The Bible says that the wicked ones who are living at Christ's second coming will not be able to stand the glory of the Lord. Wickedness cannot stand the presence of the Holy One. Christ does not have to do anything but be the Lord. His brightness will be light to the righteous, but death to the wicked.
The Bible says that when the wicked see Christ coming, they will say to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us, and hide us from theface of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of his wrath is come; who shall be able to stand?" (Revelation 6:16,17) Those who don't love the Lord don't want to see him. Their inability to stand his brightness will destroy them, "whom the Lord. . .shall destroy with the brightness of his coming." (2 Thessalonians 2:8) As for the wicked dead, the Bible says, The rest of the dead lived not again till the thousand years were finished." (Revelation 20:5) Now, we come to that phrase again- -"the thousand years." It's time to explore it some more. What happens during the thousand years?
We saw that the living righteous and the resurrected righteous returned to heaven with Jesus. There they shall "reign with him a thousand years." (Revelation 20:6) We saw that the wicked living at Christ's return die from "the brightness of his coming." And we saw that the wicked dead remain dead for a thousand years.
Where is Satan during all this time? The book of Revelation tells us that he is bound for a thousand years upon this earth. (Revelation 20:2) He can deceive the nations no more. . .because there are no more nations. There is no one on earth whom he can deceive. There are no wicked to lead. There are no righteous to tempt. A thousand years is a long time. But eventually it will come to an end. What happens at the end of the thousand years? First, there is the "resurrection of damnation." The "resurrection of life" occurred a thousand years earlier, when Christ came for his saints. "But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished." (Revelation 20:5) Now, all the wicked are alive, and Satan goes on with his plans. "And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison." (Revelation 20:7) Again he can tempt and lead. He has an army of billions--all the wicked who ever lived on earth.
At this time Christ returns to this earth, bringing with him all his people. The Holy City, New Jerusalem, descends also. The writer of the Bible's last book described it this way: "And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband." (Revelation 21:2) Christ is ready to move his capital to our earth, to dwell with us. But Satan has not changed. He still is bent on destroying God,s work on our earth. And now he has an army in the billions. He prepares for the war. "And (Satan) shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth. . .to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea." (Revelation 20:8)
Satan is ready for his final attack. He leads his vast army against Christ's capital on earth. "And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city." (Revelation 20:9) But Christ is not unprepared. In fact,this is the time of his judgement against the wicked. The apostle John describes it this way: "And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened. . .and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works." (Revelation 20:12)
In a sense the wicked judge themselves. When they see Jesus, they cannot help but confess that he is Lord. They bow before him. As the Bible says, "At the name of Jesus every knee should bow. . .every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." (Philippians 2:10,11) Satan and the wicked see that their way of evil and rebellion has led only to suffering and disharmony. They see that they do not deserve life. They see that they could not live in the presence of the Holy One, Christ the Lord. They see that for them destruction is best.
In his great mercy and justice God destroys Satan and the wicked. "Fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them." (Revelation 20:9) God does not send this fire with anger or vengeance, but with sadness. His heart of love cries out, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked. . .turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die?" (Ezekiel 33:11) The Lord is talking of the second death here, an eternal death that shall end everything wicked. "And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death." (Revelation 20:14)
How complete will this second death be? Will hell continue forever and ever? How long will the wicked burn? The Bible says that hell will not last very long. "For behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble." (Malachi 4:1) Not only shall they be as stubble, but the Bible says they shall burn up. . .that they shall be left neither root nor branch. "The wicked shall perish. . .they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away." (Psalm 37:20)
Not only the wicked, but Satan and his fellow devils shall be completely destroyed. The fire that comes out of heaven devours them all. It turns them into nothing but smoke and ashes. "For they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts." (Malachi 4:3) After destruction of everything wicked, then God will create a new earth. As a God of beauty, he will make it perfectly beautiful. As a God of justice, he will make it for those who deserve it. As a God of love, he will dwell with us.
Friend, won't you determine now to be a citizen of that new earth. . .to be a dweller in New Jerusalem? There is no need for you to be outside the gates, with Satan and his army, facing the flames of everlasting destruction. God gave you Jesus Christ, who died for you, who rose from the dead that you might have everlasting life. This Jesus said that he would come again and receive his loved ones to himself. He gave all of himself so you could be with him throughout eternity. Won't you give all of yourself to him now as we pray?
Dear Father, thank you for loving us so much that you gave us your Son, Jesus Christ. Thank you for providing a way for us to be forgiven of our sins so that we can be citizens of the new earth. Lead each of us here to grow in our love for you and in our understanding of your truth and justice. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen