I was reading in the gospel of Mark this morning and came across an article in my reformation study bible on hell. It begins with these words:
“We have often heard statements such as “war is hell” or ” I went through hell.” These expressions are, of course, not taken literally. Rather, they reflect our tendency to use the word hell as a descriptive term for the most ghastly human experience possible. Yet no human experience int his world is actually comparable to hell. If we try to imagine the worst of all possible suffering int he here and now we have not yet stretched our imaginations to reach the dreadful reality of hell.” (p.1753 full edition)
Berkhof states similarly the liberal idea of hell as follows:
“In modern liberal theology the word “hell” is generally regarded as a figurative designation of a purely subjective condition, in which men may find themselves even while on earth, and which may become permanent in the future.” ~Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 735.
Nonetheless the biblical doctrine of hell deserves reflection so as to distinguish it from the false subjective notion that people refer to as stated above. Using aforementioned article, here is a brief meditation on why I am reluctant to describe 2020 as hell:
- I am reluctant to describe 2020 as Hell because Hell is a reality that exists outside of any negative subjective experience or symbol. Hell is a real entity. Hell is not merely a symbol. Symbols function to point to reality. Therefore things like: the place of torment where the worm doesn’t die, outer darkness, fire, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, a prison, a place of eternal separation from God’s blessings, etc. all function to point to a higher and more intense state of reality than the symbol itself can contain. So, symbols function not to lessen the reality, but to help capture it. To speak of 2020 or a negative subjective experience as hell devalues the reality of hell.
- I am reluctant to describe 2020 as Hell because Hell lacks the blessings that still existed on earth in this life, and does not do justice to the real justice of God that will come upon the sons of disobedience. Hell is wrathful. Hell is not separation from God. It is separation from the blessings of God. Godless people already wish to be separated from God and such would provide no problem for them. The real teaching of hell is not separation from God, but from God’s blessings that people enjoy in this life whether they are good or bad. In hell, all blessing of God is removed, and the presence of God’s wrath is administered. God is not being cruel in sovereignly ruling negative experiences in 2020 now nor in administering wrath in hell later. God is just. He is not getting thrills by punishment. He is just in his being and to offend an eternal holy God can only be met with eternal punishment proportionate to his being. Hell is setting forth the just punishment that rejectors of the eternal holy God deserve. To speak of 2020 or some experience as hell is to devalue the real wrath of God set forth in Scripture that is deserved by every person who rejects an eternal and holy God.
- I am reluctant to describe 2020 as Hell because Hell is eternal, and 2020 is not. Hell is not an annihilation where existence ceases. Jonathan Edwards says it well, “Wicked men will hereafter earnestly wish to be turned to nothing and forever cease to be that they may escape the wrath of God” but they can’t. God’s wrath will not be satisfied in hell because the objects of his wrath are unable to atone, only Christ can, and therefore it goes on forever. To speak of 2020 or some experience as hell ignores the fact that all bad experiences in life come to an end and are not forever, but hell is forever.
- I am reluctant to describe 2020 as Hell because Hell is far more crucial than a negative subjective experience in this life. Hell is “an eternity before the righteous, ever-burning wrath of God, a suffering torment from which there is no escape and no relief. Understanding this is crucial to our drive to appreciate the work of Christ and to preach His gospel.” To speak of 2020 or some experience as hell is to replace a crucial teaching to the faith with a lesser and weaker one that will have an effect on our love for God and for people in the world who need the gospel.
Nonetheless, having said all of this, there is some value in the notion that people look at 2020 or other negative subjective experiences as hell, namely that it might point them to the reality of hell and help them flee to Christ. If the notion of 2020 as hell gets people to discover the vastly superior doctrine of hell that is written in God’s Word, then it serves a purpose that will in no wise prove unfruitful. So, 2020 was not Hell, but it may point people to study Hell, and to see an incomparable doctrine so as to (if God be pleased) cause them to flee from the wrath of God and to His Son Lord Jesus Christ.