Tom Ascol: The Horror of Hell

There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell.” So wrote the agnostic British philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1967. The idea of eternal punishment for sin, he further notes, is “a doctrine that put cruelty in the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture.”

His views are at least more consistent than religious philosopher John Hick, who refers to hell as a “grim fantasy” that is not only “morally revolting” but also “a serious perversion of the Christian Gospel.” Worse yet is theologian Clark Pinnock who, despite still regarding himself as an evangelical, dismisses hell with a rhetorical question: “How can one imagine for a moment that the God who gave His Son to die for sinners because of His great love for them would install a torture chamber somewhere in the new creation in order to subject those who reject Him to everlasting pain?”

So, what should we think of hell? Is the idea of it really responsible for all the cruelty and torture in the world? Is the doctrine of hell incompatible with the way of Jesus Christ? Hardly. In fact, the most prolific teacher of hell in the Bible is Jesus, and He spoke more about it than He did about heaven. InMatthew 25:41–46 He teaches us four truths about hell that should cause us to grieve over the prospect of anyone experiencing its horrors.

First, hell is a state of separation from God. On the day of judgment, Jesus will say to all unbelievers, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (v. 41). This is the same sort of language that Jesus uses elsewhere to describe the final judgment of unbelievers (see 7:23).

To be separated from God is to be separated from anything and everything good. That is hard to conceive because even the most miserable person enjoys some of God’s blessings. We breathe His air, are nourished by food that He supplies, and experience many other aspects of His common grace.

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