You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. Matt 5:21-23
When was the last time you thought about hell? If you’re like me it’s probably been awhile. That’s not a surprise because sometime around the latter half of the 20th century, hell dropped out of our culture’s vocabulary. I’m not sure how it happened or exactly when, but I do remember hell being a common phrase as a kid and then it suddenly just vanished. It wasn’t that it was there one day and then gone the next; it was as if adults had ever heard of such a concept. Instead of a common belief around which morality and life was oriented, it became a dirty word associated with fringe groups. Like those Westboro Baptist guys. It wasn’t a teaching you or your church wanted to be known for. Sure people nowadays may believe in a hell, but this concept is vague and it isn’t quite sure who makes it or who doesn’t. What is certain is that you don’t and no one you’re related to don’t. Not to mention most people. Really, the only people who would deserve hell would probably be Hitler…and that’s about it.
The Christian View of Hell
This places modern Christians in an awkward position since they have always believed in a literal heaven and hell from the time of the apostles. More than that, Christians believe that anyone who doesn’t repent and turn to a man named Jesus will go to hell, separated from any good relationship with God and in the full presence of his wrath. In tolerant times like ours, the Christian belief of heaven and hell is like jumping into a frozen pool, a shock to our system of values. This makes it almost incomprehensible and because of that it’s easy for such views to be socially rejected because of its perceived ‘unfairness’.
Can God really condemn people for a lack of belief? What about the ‘good atheist’? What about Gandhi? More importantly what about the everyday people we know and love like grandma who isn’t a Christian but is one of the most kind hearted people you’ll ever meet? If it’s an outrage when a good man gets the same sentence as a wicked one, how much more when God does so with humans. But if you pause to reflect on the nature of justice, you realize that for a perfect God to be just, hell must necessarily exist. More than that, hell must include people just like you and me.
Evil Isn’t Out There, It’s In Here
While technology like social media has readily opened up the world to us in the 21st century, being more connected to other human beings also means being more open to seeing the injustice and evil that exists in this world. When we see a news report of a school shooting, or a woman who had acid thrown on her face for leaving Islam, or that Syria has attacked its own citizens with chlorine gas, our heart cries out for justice.
But if we want the world to be a better place, wanting injustice to be remedied is only the first step. The second one is to realize that all of the evil we see in others is the same that’s present in ourselves. The scariest thing about the Holocaust, were that its soldiers, its prison guards, and its secret services were just everyday German citizens. They weren’t born monsters, they were human and this was demonstrated in the shock of one Jewish man who attended his perpetrator’s trial. As he looked into his eyes, he saw his humanity and he realized that the two were the same.
We are each capable of infinite evil. Like cancerous cells, they lie dormant within us, awaiting their opportunity to entice our souls. So if we want God to eliminate evil and rectify injustice, we must accept that a perfect God cannot tolerate the least bit of evil in the universe. He must deal with all of it and not just some out there in others. And that includes even the judgment of people like you and me who probably may not ever commit a major crime in our lives, but nonetheless harbor the very same dark desires that when fed, lead to widespread suffering.
Why Only Those Who Believe In Jesus Escape Hell
The Christian doesn’t believe that people go to hell because of their lack of belief in Jesus anymore than we believe that lifelines cause the death of people who drown. No, people drown because they asphyxiate underwater but the lifeline was the only thing that could’ve saved them. So too with Jesus. In any court case, justice demands payment. But in the courts of God, the cost of a crime against an eternally perfect being is more than any man can bear. Unless a perfect substitute exists to bear the guilt of the evil that lies within us, all we’re left with is despair – despair that despite our best efforts to scrub off the evil around us, we can never touch the evil within us and despair because we ultimately know that it will never measure up under the eyes of God. But this is the beauty of Jesus:
“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” Is. 53:5