We’re sitting at a picnic table. The conversation turns to religion. He says, “Jesus seemed like a pretty nice guy. Too bad he had to go and spoil everything by talking so much about hell.”
I say, “Well, you’re right about the fact that he talked a lot about hell. Some Bible students say that he talked more about hell than he did about heaven. And it’s a certain fact that he said more about hell than Daniel, Isaiah, John, Peter and Paul all put together.”
He says, “Maybe people accepted that stuff in those days. But today we’re
wiser. We’re beyond that, thankfully.”
I say, “Are you suggesting that people don’t believe in hell anymore? The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life polled 35,000 people in 2008. Fifty-nine percent said that they believe that hell exists.”
He says, “Well, that number is probably down from previous polls.”
I say, “You’re right — it is. But what do polls have to do with the truth about hell anyway? Jesus said that hell exists.”
He says, “Here on Earth, maybe. But I for one am not interested in a God who tortures people forever.”
I ask, “Do you think that your personal preferences determine whether hell is real or not?”
He says, “It’s more a matter of sensibility than preference. I mean, what sort of deity would get his jollies from watching people roast forever?”
I say, “On the other hand, what sort of God would force people to spend eternity with him in heaven when they die if they didn’t want to spend even one hour a week with him when they were alive? Seems to me that hell actually honors and dignifies human choice.”
He asks, “What about the torture bit?”
I say, “If those who have chosen to avoid God in life are granted an eternity without him, how is it possible that they could ever be anything but tortured? They’ve locked themselves away forever from all that is good, with nothing but themselves and other miserable souls for company.”
He says, “If that’s true, most people, once they’ve experienced hell, would probably repent. Why won’t God allow that?”
I say, “On the contrary, Revelation 16:10-11 says that at the end of this age, men will actually gnaw their tongues because of the pain of being scorched with fierce heat. But instead of yielding to God, they blaspheme him. They do not repent.”
How could anyone get to such a point?
Little by little. Through negligence. By making many small wrong choices.
Consider an alcoholic lying in a gutter on skid row. He has lost his job, sacrificed his family and forfeited his health — all for liquor. Walk up to him and offer him a choice of a) more liquor or b) the restoration of his former life. He will choose more liquor. His very ability to choose rightly has become depraved, bit by bit, over time.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others … but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God sending us to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud.”
Lewis wrote about hell being locked from the inside. “All that are in hell, choose it,” he said. Theologians Jonathan Edwards and J.I. Packer concurred: “Scripture sees hell as self-chosen.”
Is hell as awful as the graphic horror described by Mary K. Baxter in “A Divine Revelation of Hell” and Bill Wiese in “23 Minutes in Hell”?
In an excellent new book, “The Reason for God,” Timothy Keller says that nearly all theologians agree “the Biblical images of fire and outer darkness are metaphorical … [But] to say that … is of no comfort whatsoever. The reality will be far worse than the image.”
Is hell real? Yes. Does God ever just arbitrarily, cruelly damn people to hell? No.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him.” (John 3:16-17)
To discuss this subject at greater length with the Rev. Daryl E. Witmer, attend Areopagus II America Institute’s “Conversations” event on Aug. 8 in Monson. See AIIAInstitute.org for details, or call 997-3644. Witmer is founder and director of the AIIA Institute, a national apologetics ministry, and associate pastor of the Monson Community Church. He may be reached at the Web site AIIAInstitute.org or by e-mail at AIIAInstitute@aol.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.