Does Hell Exist?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week’s article, Why I Am Not A Universalist, has led to some awesome conversations, both in person and online. On Monday I was asked if I believed in “a literal hell, not just the effects, like condemnation and shame and so on, but a literal fiery place of eternal torment?” I posted my response on the article and Facebook. It led to more amazing interactions.

It was so good that I thought I would post my response as this week’s article.

If you haven’t read, Why I Am Not A Universalist, please before reading this as it will help add depth and context to the thoughts below. That said, if you don’t, I have done some light editing in this response so as to articulate further.

The question.

“Do you believe in a literal hell, not just the effects, like condemnation and shame and so on, but a literal fiery place of eternal torment?”

My answer.

Here are my thoughts on the subject of hell as of Oct 28, 2019.

I don’t believe in hell as a place of eternal torment and punishment. I don’t believe in punishment. I do believe hell exists after this life because I believe God is love and love requires that we are free to choose.

Satan was free to choose long before we had words to describe the consequences of his rejection, his story suggests free will existed before time existed, at least in the way we understand time (Isaiah 14:12-15).

One scripture that has helped me understand heaven and hell is Matt 6:22-23. Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”

I think hell is the result of truth (Love) being rejected. When this happens, light, love, wholeness, and life are perceived as darkness, hate, brokenness, and death. And how great is that hell…

When our eyes, (our perception) are true, heaven is the result. If our perception is flawed, if we reject the truth of His love, we will experience hell.

I don’t know why this wouldn’t hold true after this life.

And, of course, this raises the big “scary question” I have avoided answering for years simply because I knew my thoughts might possibly offend folks and I wasn’t yet sure enough in love to be that offensive…

The question.

“Do you believe our Father’s love and redemption is available to us after we die?”

My answer.

Yes.

God is love. Love is greater and grander and still measureless (Eph 3:16-20). Love is fully available to us in life and death (Rom 8:38-39). He is a relentless redeemer and nothing separates us from His nature (Luke 23:34). Death doesn’t end His great affection for us. He is still there, His love is still available to us (Rom 8:38-39).

The only way love works is that we are free to choose. The idea that we can’t receive or reject His love after this life is in direct conflict with the nature of Love. (see “A Few More Thoughts” below for more on this)

This raises a new question…

The question.

“How does this work after we die?”

My answer.

I have no idea. But to be honest, I don’t need to. I believe Jesus wanted heaven on earth (Matt 6:10). So, when it comes to hell, my focus is very much connected to the here and now. It’s not that what happens when we die isn’t important, it’s just that I believe my ability to understand it is greatly connected to how sure I am in His love in the here and now. I’m only 45, I have eternity to discover the measureless, miraculous, mind transforming goodness of His affection.

One last thought, I would like to suggest that any thought about hell that isn’t interpreted through a measureless revelation of heaven should be held suspect; any conclusion about hell that isn’t birthed from sovereign love is flawed and therefore dangerous to our spiritual and emotional well-being.

I have found that those who tend to preach most fervently on the horrors of hell and eternal damnation seem to have very little evidence of the Kingdom of heaven in their lives. You know, the righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit that Paul wrote about in Romans 14:17. Those last two evidences, peace and joy? They are often markedly absent. I have no desire to debate these people’s thoughts or ideas.

You don’t understand a lie by studying the lie, you understand a lie by becoming immersed in the truth. His love, revealed perfectly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is the truth. And I’m convinced this is where life is discovered and also where understanding regarding heaven and hell is discovered.

Anyway, those are my thoughts 🙂would love to hear yours.

Blessings!”

A Few More Thoughts…

Regarding the “scary question” of whether free will exists after we die.

“I believe hell exists, and I am not a universalist.”

I’m not suggesting that this life and the decisions made here aren’t important. I believe decisions have consequences. However, I don’t believe consequences are about punishment. The idea of punishment says something about the nature of God that I just can’t find in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

I grew up being taught that heaven and hell were about punishment and reward. I don’t believe that anymore. I believe the idea of punishment is absolutely contrary to the love Jesus revealed.

As far as whether or not there is free will after this life, it’s an interesting conversation, but honestly, not one I’m going to lose sleep over. When it comes to heaven and hell, I’m more focused on what both mean for the here and now.

That said, personally, I don’t know how love would work without free will, so I’m OK with it existing after we die.

Here’s what I’m convinced of: God is love. He is perfectly revealed through Jesus, and He is always good. His love continues to be better than I think.

N.T. Wright

My friend, Joshua Fletcher, posted a great 3 minute video from N.T. Wright on hell. I think his thoughts are insightful and helpful.


Jason Clark
is a writer, speaker and lead communicator at A Family Story ministries. His mission is to encourage sons and daughters to grow sure in the love of an always-good heavenly Father. He and his wife, Karen, live in North Carolina with their three children.

6 Comments

  1. Seth Stone

    As a recovering Calvinist I often struggle with the simplicity of grace and the love of God. Much of what you write is challenging because it is so different from what I have always been taught but I am so thankful for it. The theological questions that you tackle are thought provoking and help draw me out of my comfort zone. I am not sure exactly what I believe about many of these questions anymore but I do know that the Fathers love for us is what matters. Thank you so much for always pointing back to the love of Christ. Every time I read anything you have written I find myself really examining what I believe and all the old arguments start coming to mind. Somehow your timing is perfect and just before I fall down the rabbit hole of reading old books I don’t understand and questioning the entire meaning of life as we know it…you remind me that none of that is the point. Thank you for always pointing to Christ and encouraging us to rest in his love. Keep up the good work!

    Reply
    • Jason Clark

      Thanks, Seth!

      The last decade or so has been a wonderful journey of growing sure in His affection. It’s been kinda like learning a new language, but one I was born to know.

      His love is the whole story, yes and amen.

      Thanks for the encouragement!

      Reply
  2. Allen Kemp

    Jason,

    Thanks for being willing to take a big bite on a big topic that continues to perplex Christians through the centuries. Basically, the idea goes “How can a loving God send anyone to hell?” or “How can hell exist as a place of eternal torment if God is Love?” Every generation has struggled with this question.

    Unlike perhaps a lot or your blog readers I grew up in the permissive, rebellion culture of the 60’s and early 70’s (I fully gave my life to Christ in Dec. 1974 at age 17). My home Presbyterian church was “liberal,” following the popular theology that educated, enlightened people did not believe in anything the Bible says that could not be proved by science. Thus Jesus was not really resurrected from the dead, Mary was no virgin, all of Jesus’ miracles were redacted into the text in the third century, … sex outside of marriage was good and healthy, drugs are fun… hell does not exist as a place of just punishment. My youth pastor tried to talk me out of my faith by reading Nietzsche visiting the Edgar Cayce center in Virginia Beach.

    So I approach this topic not as a “recovering Calvinist” (I truly wonder how many who claim this have actually read “The Institutes”) but as one “on guard” towards the slippery slope of a prejudicial “love only” reading of Scripture. I am with you on your hermeneutic of Love. God is Love and His Love is always good. YES! God revealing Himself to me as Father in 2012 during our sabbatical year was absolutely life changing. This is what I preach and teach today everywhere I’m given opportunity. It’s something God is doing today, revealing Himself as Papa. But even given this call on my life now, my life altering experience of God flooding my heart with His love in 2012 (and continuing today), I dare not let this experience and revelation prejudice my view of Scripture to the degree that I deny anything of what it actually says.

    The liberal/progressive theology of today was birthed when 19th century theologians like Ruldolf Bultman and Paul Tillich asserted their intellectual “competence” over the doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of Scripture. They denied the veracity of the text, implied they “knew better” than such “primitive understandings” of God and led the world’s mainline Protestant ministers then their churches by the thousands down the path of unbelief and subsequent rebellion and apostasy. I chose, as a 17 year old, to resist this trend and follow the path of faith and obedience. After graduating college with a degree in biopsychology I chose an “evangelical” seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, to train for ministry. There we were taught well the the whole of Scripture, that every word in every book, Old and New Covenants, are divinely inspired. And if inspired by the Holy Spirit, “without error” or “infallible” and thus authoritative over my heart, mind, and soul.

    So, back to the topic of hell as a “place” and not just a condition of one’s soul. As a Christian, I am required to go to the whole of Scripture, to references that even challenge what I want to hear, and obediently submit my heart and mind to what the Bible says, trusting that this word is indeed Father’s Word. Biblical obedience is willful “hearing”, both the Hebrew and the Greek words mean “Listen, Hear”. So when I don’t understand something or simply just don’t like it, I must stop, look, and listen to what my Father is saying and ask Him to reveal its meaning, not just for me but the text’s implication to everything happening in our world today. Sometimes I am stupefied. Frequently awed, and always humbled. And our Good Father speaks.

    So, does hell exist as a physical place of eternal punishment? To find an answer to the question I have to be willing to submit my prejudicial assumptions, be they “loving” as I think they may be, or “judgmental,” as others may accuse me, to the whole of Scripture. Since I don’t know my Bible nearly as well as some great Bible believing scholars, I pulled off my shelf this morning Wayne Grudem’s seminal text “Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine,” Intervarsity Press, 1994, 1264 pages. I wish I had this text while in seminary in 1983 as it is perhaps the best text out there on topics like this. Chapter 56 “The Final Judgment and Eternal Punishment” is worth the cost of the book by itself (I paid $39.95 some time ago). It’s compelling, true to the Biblical text, and his scholarship and faith are admirable.

    Is hell a place? Just look up the word hell: “Gehenna (fire) or “Tartarus” in Greek and see it is a place one can be “thrown into,” e.g. Mat 18:9 if a person causes a “little one” to stumble. Even in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus refers to hell as a place (Mat 5.22,27, 30), and in the Greek word “Tartarus” in 2 Peter 2:4. Do a study on the word “punishment” or the word “judgment” or “fire” and perhaps the idea of what is “final justice”. It’s all over the New Testament, The Gospels, Paul, and Revelation. Jason, you are right, this is not a topic we like today and those who preach “hell” to inspire fear and obedience in their churches may well not be motivated by love. But we do need to always read the whole Bible, not just the parts we like.

    Two final thoughts. First, ask God what He wants us to know today, what He is revealing to you about Himself right now. Then read His Word. Recently I started reading an unmarked translation of the Bible I used many years ago. I set on my side table my favorite Bible with all my highlighting and marginal notes, so now I will look at each sentence and paragraph without a “highlighted” prejudice. And wow, I see Father’s love all over the entire Bible, not just in John now. New eyes.

    But second, maybe think twice about your (and my) aversion to anything that suggests “judgment”. On July 8, 1741in Enfield, Massachusetts, a preacher named Jonathan Edwards preached a message entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This title is repulsive to many today but his sermon ignited the fire of what is now known as the First Great Awakening in America, the spiritual revival that is attributed to our nation be founded as a Christian republic. Upon hearing Edwards explicit description of hell being read in monotone, people fell to the ground, repenting of their gross immorality and/or lukewarm hearts, and literally hundreds of thousands became believers in few short years. Today, too many “grace” preachers are falling away from their faith… it’s all over Christian news right now. Why? Perhaps they very warnings in Scripture about sin and judgment have been so overlooked that Satan is enticing many into sin, and consequent unbelief.

    Let’s humble ourselves and come to God’s Word, our Loving Father’s love letter, and trust Him for what we don’t understand or just have a hard time receiving. After all, a Loving Father does discipline his children (Hebrews 12) and it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace

    Reply
    • Jason Clark

      I am so thankful for you Allen. I so enjoyed our lunch together a couple of weeks back. The love you and Deborah walk in is stunning. I am always richer for connecting with you both!

      Thankful for how you think and the wisdom you steward. Also thankful for your journey, your story adds depth, grace, and wonder to every conversation, including conversations on hell 🙂

      My favorite thing you wrote was “when I don’t understand something or simply just don’t like it, I must stop, look, and listen to what my Father is saying and ask Him to reveal its meaning, not just for me but the text’s implication to everything happening in our world today. Sometimes I am stupefied. Frequently awed, and always humbled. And our Good Father speaks.”

      Amen!

      At the end of the day, that’s what these articles and conversations are about. That each of us would know how to access our Father’s lap, know how to be loved and love, know how to ask Him the questions for ourselves; that each of us would grow in our one of a kind friendship with Jesus!

      My greatest desire is that anyone reading anything I have written would encounter their Father and know His measureless affection. I know that’s your heart as well!

      When it comes to any of the “deep end” theological questions such as hell, salvation, grace or anything else, I often feel immensely unqualified. Believe it or not, I am often timid and hesitant to write and post. Especially on controversial ideas like God’s sovereignty or hell.

      It’s not that I am insecure or think I’m stupid, it’s that, outside of the Bible, most of the books you mentioned, I haven’t read them. And to be honest, at this point in my life, knowing how I learn, it’s likely I never will.

      I am not belittling systematic theological studies. I am eternally grateful for the men and women who write with such focus, passion, and vigor.

      Some of my best friends are brilliant academic and relational theologians; deep thinkers with a capacity, desire, and grace to study the Hebrew and Greek, to spend their lives on historical context, to parse through scripture with analytical precision.

      These friends often encourage, challenge, and disagree with me. I am thankful for them.

      Because of such faithful academic Biblical pursuits and thanks to technology, I am able to click a button and know the cultural context of Abraham’s day. That’s amazing! My life and writing have been greatly enriched because of it.

      That said, when it comes down to it, I can’t play in that playground. Literally, I don’t have the capacity, desire or grace.

      Capacity – I have lived in our house for 14 years but couldn’t name more than 10 roads in our area. I can get you anywhere, but don’t ask me the name of the road we’re traveling.

      Desire – Because of how I’m wired and my upbringing, if the information isn’t directly connected to a relational experience, I’m simply not interested.

      Grace – If it doesn’t reveal and empower identity, no thanks.

      For me, if God’s nature has to be read in a book for it to be understood, I am in deep trouble. I’m not knocking scholarly pursuit, but I would like to suggest that for some of us, it has to be simpler. For me it certainly does.

      I’d also like to suggest that when it comes to the “deep end,” most of us just need to know how to sit in Dad’s lap.

      I love the Bible! I read it, almost every day. I’ve been reading it since my early teen years. However, when it comes to reading it for knowledge or to develop clear thoughts about topics like hell, I often feel like how you feel, noted by your comment just before suggesting some really good books.

      You wrote, “Since I don’t know my Bible nearly as well as some great Bible-believing scholars…”

      Exactly! I also truly believe my Bible, but unfortunately, I am no scholar.

      What’s crazy to me is, there are so many scholars who would say they believe the Bible and yet so often strongly disagree on the interpretation.

      Why does this happen? I think it’s because no matter how much a person believes the Bible, everyone has a God lens, and that God lens is everything.

      Thanks to my “deep end” friends (you included), I understand that most scholars use the word hermeneutic to describe their God lens or method of interpretation. I also understand that most scholars would consider their hermeneutic Biblical. That is to say, they use the Bible to interpret what God is like.

      I think that’s why there are so many Biblical scholars with vastly different interpretations regarding the nature of God.

      I too have a God lens. I’ve grown into it over the last decade. It’s been brilliantly life-giving and transformative.

      My methodology of interpretation is simple “God is Jesus and He looks like love.” He can be found everywhere in the Bible but you discover Him best in the Gospels. Above all, He is perfectly revealed in Jesus on a cross.

      Any thought that would undermine this lens, even if it’s Biblical, in my mind, is untrue.

      I interpret the whole Bible through Jesus on a cross, reconciling the whole earth to Himself, forgiving us and not holding our sin or sense of separation against us.

      I may be doing it wrong, but as I mentioned, I’m no scholar.

      When it comes to hell, or any other “deep end” theological question, for me, it has to be this simple – Jesus loves us perfectly and nothing we can do changes that.

      When it comes to hell, I’d say it this way. “God is always good, and He is the relentless redeemer.” For me, if I can’t explain hell to my 13-year-old daughter, it’s probably not something I should be writing about.

      The bottom line, my hermeneutic makes no room for Jesus as a punisher. And my thoughts on hell are simply the product of my God lens.

      I believe Jesus revealed God’s ultimate thoughts on punishment while on a cross. “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” I believe this is similar to when Jesus rebuked the disciples who wanted to send fire down on a city, “You know not what spirit you are of!”

      I understand there are plenty of scriptures that suggest God is a punisher, but I am not looking at them through that lens so I don’t see it that way.

      Again, I may be doing it wrong, but so far so good 🙂

      But seriously, if there is one thing that has been constant in my life it’s this, every time I think I get how good God is, He is infinitely better. Every time I think I understand the wondrous depth of His redemption, or grace, or hope, or love, I find I hardly have a clue.

      I am only 45 and my lens continues to be formed by His love, by Jesus in scripture, and through brilliant friends like yourself. I imagine I will continue to develop thoughts on the subject of hell for the rest of my life. And I imagine they will be even more radical than the thoughts I have now – yay God!

      Love ya man!
      Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  3. Clark Howell

    Jason, I love your heart. Too, I appreciate Allen Kemp’s response. This post is more an appeal to reason than an exegesis of the relevant scriptures. Similarly, the NT Wright video is a position appealing to history not exegesis. Of course, that’s an effort out-sized for a short blog post. Nevertheless, it is the searching of the scripture, led by the Guide in All Truth, that must rule our understanding. Where there are truths misunderstood, we must come at them with reason and history and trust of our teachers subjugated.

    Hopefully, your post will make us all seek Holy Spirit for the truth irrespective of what position we hold beforehand.

    Blessings in overflow, Clark.

    Reply
    • Jason Clark

      Love you, man, thankful for you today!

      Reply

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