After the first section of Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? we were left with a strong exhortation not to be influenced away from Scripture’s teaching about hell by cultural trends and false teaching, but had yet to meet the book’s thesis about what Scripture actually does say on the matter.
The next two chapters deal with exactly that, and so we will deal with them as a section together to see how they help develop our thinking.
What Jesus Said About Hell Robert W. Yarbrough
This second chapter is concerned to return to the words of Jesus on the topic of hell, and so brings us to the gospels. Yarbrough starts by briefly raising the important issue of whether or not we can trust that the gospels reliably bring us Jesus’ words on any subject, let alone hell, and unfortunately this is only a very brief point. However, in raising the question it does reiterate that it’s important our focus is on knowing God’s word about this weighty topic.
Yarbrough tries to make the content of the four gospels approachable by examining it through 9 ‘vantage points’, primarily Jesus’ teaching in the gospels, echoes of Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament and the Old Testament foundation of Jesus’ teaching.
These are all just bite-sized examinations of their area, but there are some points that grab our attention for how frequently they recur. Notably, Jesus repeatedly does talk about eternal realities: both eternal life, and eternal suffering or judgment. He also uses a lot of graphic and visceral images of physical experiences of suffering in connection with eternity for those who are enemies of God, and God’s people.
As Jesus speaks about hell, it is often at a moment of offering warning and consolation to his hearers. At times, he is warning of the very real cost of rejecting God, especially as his followers were bound to face persecution or suffering that might make that tempting. He also warns his opponents of the danger of their opposition to him, and pulls no punches about the nature of the reality that awaits them. It is in this that the truth of judgment is also a consolation: God as the righteous judge who brings about justice is centrally connected to Jesus’ teaching about hell.
Three Pictures of Hell Christopher W. Morgan
In this third chapter Morgan begins with a summary of each of the contributors to the New Testament. In its brevity it is unable to do much justice to the actual texts and so it is worthwhile taking the time to put the book down and go to the passages to consider his summaries and how well they might represent New Testament teaching. However, these summaries allow Morgan to move to his next section, which I think is one of the most helpful and interesting parts of the book so far.
Morgan identifies three predominant pictures of hell throughout the New Testament (ranging through the letters, but I think also in close connection with the gospels). They are:
• Hell as punishment: always justly deserved, involving suffering, is consciously experienced, and eternal. One of the striking things reading these references in our cultural context is how one facet of the justice of God is retributive, which has become an increasingly unpopular idea in our society (at least in the abstract – perhaps the water is a little more murky when we find ourselves as the wronged party of injustices?).
• Hell as destruction: associated with words like death and perishing, and the opposite of ideas of true life. This picture does most sharply raise the issue of whether or not hell means an eternal experience of punishment or hell as the failure to enjoy eternal life, after ceasing to exist. Morgan asserts it is not that existence comes to an end, but the destruction that refers to loss of purposefulness, goodness and functionality, drawing on appropriate readings of destruction in that way elsewhere in Scripture. This seems like it is not quite as easy to determine as Morgan makes it look, but once again the pithy-ness of this little book forces frustrating limitations upon itself – it just doesn’t take the time to go too deep.
• Hell as banishment: the picture that emphasises what a person misses out on in rejecting God and is often expressed in terms of rejection, separation or exclusion. Morgan suggests that often evangelicals might be tempted to lean too heavily on this picture alone when talking about hell, as it can seem less confronting and frightening.
In conclusion, he exhorts followers of Jesus to hold all three pictures together, as they all come from Scripture, and can even exist right alongside each other in explanations and warnings about hell. Furthermore, to neglect one is to skew God’s word about hell, because when we know these pictures in complement to one another we are able to deepen our understanding of God as a just judge, of the truth of sin in the world and in our lives, the cost and the purpose of atonement won for us by Jesus, and just how good the salvation offered freely to us is.
I particularly think this last section is worthy of reflection and consideration. Firstly, in doing the hard work of reading through the New Testament writings to be persuaded of his three-picture framework. Secondly, to reflect on our response to these pictures: are there any we find particularly difficult to understand, or perhaps more frankly, just hard to swallow? If we neglect or avoid one particular element of teaching on hell, in what ways might we be impoverished in our knowledge of God and ourselves? Finally, perhaps there are some things we need to re-examine in our understanding of the gospel, and as we find the word of God to challenge our thinking, ask God to help us comprehend those things that feel beyond us.
Certainly I was reminded of the great magnitude of the gift of salvation as I read through this summary of the New Testament teaching, and renewed in thankfulness for what I deserve, yet have been spared, by the grace of the Lord Jesus. Praise be to Him!