Hell in the Dock

Hell in the Dock

“If there is no Hell, a good many preachers are obtaining money under false pretenses.” - William A. (Billy) Sunday



Hell is a curse word to many people and nothing more. They do not like to think about it, and when they do. they treat it as a religious myth or legend calculated to spoil their fun. Pope Benedict the 16th has declared, “Today, society does not talk about hell. It's as if it did not exist, but it does. There is eternal punishment for those who sin and do not repent.” In fact we have all heard people jest about it and say that they are not worried because all their friends will be there. Mark Twain said, “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.” This is a delusion, and the reason sinners refer to hell as a fantasy and illusion is to create a smokescreen. The concept of eternal punishment is embedded deeply in the human conscience as demonstrated in various religious writings. For example, the Hindu Bhagavad Gita says “Hell has three gates: lust, anger, and greed.” Men know there is a judgment coming according to Paul’s words in Romans 1:28-32, And even as they refused to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up unto a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, hateful to God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, unmerciful: who, knowing the ordinance of God, that they that practice such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but also consent with them that practice them.
Many have said that the day has long passed when the Church could club men into obedience by preaching hell to them. But as Dorothy Sayers wrote, about Dante’s “Inferno,” “The doctrine of hell is not "mediaeval priestcraft" for frightening people into giving money to the church: it is Christ's deliberate judgment on sin.... We cannot repudiate hell without altogether repudiating Christ.”  The reality is that men are afraid, Hebrews 2:14 and 15 reminds us, Since then the children are sharers in flesh and blood, he also himself in like manner partook of the same; that through death he might bring to nought him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver all them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. There is indeed a torment that extends from the pit into our present lives as John Calvin wrote, “The torture of a bad conscience is the hell of a living soul.” The framers of the Westminster Larger Catechism wrote in question and answer 83, “What is the communion in glory with Christ which the members of the invisible church enjoy in this life? The members of the invisible church have communicated to them in this life the first-fruits of glory with Christ, as they are members of him their head, and so in him are interested in that glory which he is fully possessed of; and, as an earnest thereof, enjoy the sense of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, and hope of glory; as, on the contrary, sense of God’ s revenging wrath, horror of conscience, and a fearful expectation, are to the wicked the beginning of their torments which they shall endure after death.” It is clear that there is a taste of hell now for the unbeliever, just as there is a taste of heaven now for the believer. Strangely, however, this foretaste does not create a corresponding fear of judgment.
The cavalier attitude of the majority toward Biblical warnings of eternal punishment is a product of a society that in its post-modernist fervor has not only denied the Bible, but also the possibility of any objective religious truth. After all, we are hearing warnings from all sectors of our society. There are health warnings, terrorist warnings, economic warnings, weather warnings, and end-of-the-world warnings. Just a few days before this was written we were besieged with the predictions of another self-styled prophet, Harold Camping, who said May 21 was the end. Some warnings are valid, others are simply the fears of certain people, and have no basis of accuracy. We live in a very litigious society so there are some silly warnings we can afford to ignore,, because they are common sense such as the one on a package of toaster tarts, “Warning: Tarts may be hot,” or the one on a hairdryer that says,”Warning: Do not use while taking a shower.” How about a warning that if we swallow an triple A battery we should see a Doctor promptly, or the warning on the aspirin bottle that says don’t take it if allergic to it, or the warnings on a number of products designed for the microwave that say, “Product will be hot after heating.” My favorite is a health site where warnings are given. The warnings for cardiac arrest are that the patient is unresponsive and is not breathing. Too late for a warning; it's a symptom!  In Florida, where we live, June to November is the hurricane season and there is a never ending succession of watches and warnings about storms, and I can understand why people tend to ignore them, but they do so at there own peril.  As C.S. Lewis wrote, “The safest road to hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.“ And so we become somewhat hardened to warnings that are useless or silly, or so often repeated that they become like the boy who repeatedly cried “Wolf” when there was no wolf. When the wolf finally came, nobody believed him. There are some warnings however that ought not be ignored, especially when they come from the mouth of Jesus.
As Dr. Robert Peterson says in his book, “Hell on Trial,” “Jesus Christ says more about the fate of the wicked than anyone else in the Bible...Jesus speaks frequently of hell because he is the Savior of the world. He warns of unspeakable torment in order to move his hearers to flee from the wrath to come.”  J.I.Packer is convinced that those who deny the Biblical doctrine of hell have given in to a secular sentimentalism that assumes that in the world to come our joy in the manifestation of God’s justice will not differ from the way we feel now. He writes, “It is certainly agonizing now to live with the thought of people going to an eternal hell, but it is not right to reduce the agony  by evading the facts; and in heaven, we may be sure, the agony will be a thing of the past.” If we take the witness of Scripture including the words of Jesus seriously then we must judge that the warnings are genuine and take the threats soberly. All joking such as, “All my friends will be there,”  would be improper. What’s more it is false, not because others will not be there, but because you have no proper expectation that you will enjoy their company. One of my favorite books is “The Great Divorce,” by C.S. Lewis. The story is not intended to be a theological exposition of hell, but rather a psycho-spiritual one. It shows the utter folly of those who assume that hell will be populated with friends. It is a grim and joyless place called the “grey town.” In the story a bus takes people from hell to heaven. When they arrive the country is the most beautiful they have ever seen, every feature of the landscape (including streams of water and blades of grass) is unyieldingly solid compared to themselves: it causes them immense pain to walk on the grass, and even a single leaf is far too heavy for any to lift. When offered the opportunity to stay, the visitors refuse. They return to hell, but the evil of hell works so that if a soul remains in, or returns to, the grey town, even its happiness on earth will lose its meaning, and its experience on earth would have been hell. None of the ghosts realize that the grey town is, in fact, hell. Indeed it is not that much different from the life they led on earth: joyless, friendless, and uncomfortable. It just goes on forever, and gets worse and worse, and they are drifting farther and farther apart in isolation from one another.
Lewis has painted a picture for us that is revealing the real fire and brimstone of hell, that is, the utter loneliness of separation from God. As the Westminster Larger Catechism, question and answer 89 puts it, “What shall be done to the wicked at the day of judgment? At the day of judgment, the wicked shall be set on Christ’ s left hand, and, upon clear evidence, and full conviction of their own consciences, shall have the fearful but just sentence of condemnation pronounced against them; and thereupon shall be cast out from the favourable presence of God, and the glorious fellowship with Christ, his saints, and all his holy angels, into hell, to be punished with unspeakable torments, both of body and soul, with the devil and his angels for ever.” Far from being with friends, hell is the place when and where we have none. Neale Donald Walsch writes in “Conversations with God,”Hell is the opposite of joy. It is un-fulfillment. It is knowing Who and What You Are, and failing to experience that. It is being less.” When I read the Westminster Catechism, question and answer 89, my thought was that a time was coming when those without Christ have no hope and no comfort from another presence. They are profoundly alone in their misery; they are deserted, desolate and abandoned. A true Christian is one who understands, believes, and relies upon Jesus as the one who was abandoned in our place. Our Savior suffered all the pain and loss for us. He was deserted when he cried out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And when He said, “It is finished,” the desolation we deserve was terminated in His vicarious death. And so we can sing with zeal Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Jesus! the Name High over All.” “Jesus! the name high over all, in hell or earth or sky; angels and mortals prostrate fall, and devils fear and fly. Jesus! the name to sinners dear, the name to sinners given; it scatters all their guilty fear, it turns their hell to heaven.”