Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Hell Q&A
Tomorrow I'll be filming an episode for the Christian TV network, TLN, which is based near here in Aurora, Illinois. The show is called Ask God, and will be a round-table discussion among pastors and theologians about various theological questions.

The show I'll be doing is about Hell. They sent us some of the possible discussion questions ahead of time, and today I tried to work through a few things I wanted to try to say in response to them. Here's a few:

Question: Are the images of Fire and Brimstone in Hell for real?

Answer: The images for Hell in scripture are just that, images, symbols - metaphors for helping us get our minds around something that is beyond our ability to really understand. Hell, as best we can comprehend it, is total rejection and spiritual separation from God. For instance, Pope John Paul II once said, "The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us... show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. Rather than a place, Hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy."

Question: Won't all the cool and interesting people be in Hell? Sounds like it'll just be a big party!

Answer: C.S. Lewis said that “The characteristic of lost souls is their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves.” And that “We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.” In other words, in Hell everyone is too wrapped up in themselves to want to hang out and party with each other.

Question: How can a loving God punish people in Hell?

Answer: Hell is not a punishment. Hell is just what it is like to have rejected the source of all life and love and joy, i.e. God. God doesn’t ever stop loving, even people in Hell. But if we turn our back’s on that love, refuse to have anything to do with it, then God’s love actually feels like Hell to those people. For instance, have you ever betrayed someone but they refused to get angry with you? Doesn’t it make you feel even more ashamed? That's the pain of hell. An early church father, St. Isaac of Syria, said “Those who find themselves in Hell will be chastised by the scourge of love.... The sorrow which takes hold of the heart which has sinned against love, is more piercing than any other pain." (Which reminds me of what Paul says about heaping burning coals on the heads of your enemies by loving and being kind towards them.)

To put it another way, Hell is what Heaven feels like to someone who doesn’t want to be there. What if the “flames of Hell” are actually what love feels like to those who have rejected love? Consider this: would Heaven feel like Heaven to those who are bigoted, arrogant, angry, and incapable of loving others? If that person had to sit down at the feast of heaven with their worst enemy – with a black person, or a gay, or a Jew, or a terrorist – would it feel like Heaven to them or would it be Hell?

Question: Does God send people to Hell?

No! God doesn’t send anyone to Hell. We choose to go there against God’s will. As Lewis says “We are successful rebels to the end... The doors of Hell are locked from the inside.”

Lewis also points out that “The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words 'Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.' There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy… We see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends.”

Question: Is Hell necessary?

Answer: Hell is the necessary consequence of free will. If we couldn’t choose to reject God, we wouldn’t be truly free. Lewis (who obviously had a lot of good things to say on the subject) says “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.” And again bear in mind that by Hell I simply mean "What it feels like to reject God and his love." It's not a question of whether it's necessary for God to punish us. It's just that, if one refuses God's love, there is no other state of being other than "Hell".

Regarding this question Lewis also said “In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.”

Question: Is eternity in Hell a fair sentence?

Answer: The Bible isn’t clear on whether Hell is eternal. Some passages (e.g. Matthew 10:28) describe Hell as destruction – i.e. we cease to exist. We’re also not told that repentance after death is impossible. I think that God’s grace and love is always available to anyone who is willing to repent and receive it.

Question: How does living with an understanding of Hell change how I live today?

Answer: I should always ask myself, am I following the way of God’s love or not? Am I preparing myself to be the kind of person who could enjoy Heaven or not? Am I the kind of person who can give and receive love freely? If I were to end up in Heaven right now, would it feel like heaven to me, or would it feel like Hell?

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posted by Mike Clawson at 10:23 PM | Permalink |


At 1/18/2007 07:52:00 AM, Blogger gerbmom

wow - that takes me back to some pretty heavy conversations a couple of years ago......


At 1/18/2007 03:11:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

It should, since I used our emails as source materials when I was working out my responses. :)


At 1/18/2007 09:18:00 PM, Blogger Scot McKnight

Good thoughts; nice wide-ranging responses too.

I believe hell is the experience of God's absence in his presence and heaven is the experience of God's presence as absolute presence. I don't believe anything anywhere is outside God's presence, so that is why I say it is the experience of God's "absence" in his presence.


At 1/18/2007 10:32:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I agree Scot. I think another way of putting it is that Heaven and Hell are the same place experienced differently. That is, they are both in God's presence, but for those who have rejected God's love, that presence is agony.


At 3/03/2007 12:56:00 PM, Blogger saint david

Is man mortal or immortal?

Paul says we seek it, Ro. 2:7
also that mortal man puts it on in Christ, I Cor. 15:53,54
also that it came by Christ and Christ alone, I Ti. 6:16

this article sheds much light on this subject:


At 3/03/2007 01:30:00 PM, Blogger saint david

CORRECTION: the verse which refers to immortality coming by Christ alone is: II Ti. 1:10

Man is not born with it.


At 5/02/2007 08:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

St David, I agree that many of the problems with an eternal hell are a consequence of the presupposition of the immortality of the soul. If, as I think, this is a greek idea, then the second death really becomes exactly what it says - second death. Over. Finito. Not even twitching.


At 2/06/2008 02:27:00 AM, Blogger Kristina

I have a question. What about the verses like Matthew 25:46 that say "and they will go away into eternal punishment." How does that affect your potential theory of people being saved from hell.


At 9/18/2009 09:13:00 PM, Blogger Erich

For your consideration: I consider "brimstone" to be a mistranslation. The Greek word "theion" means both sulfur (a rock that glows when hot) and "divinity" (the proper translation). For further consideration, see for example


At 3/04/2010 11:28:00 AM, Blogger Josh M.

Very well said, Mike! I found your post through the link you left at Scot's blog.

C.S. Lewis has been the major influence in my understanding of hell as well (plus a careful reading of John 3).

I personally can't see annihilation as an option. It just looks too much like the admission of a failed project.

I would like to think that God's love (which by definition is eternal) in the end will overcome even the most hardened of hearts. It may take what seems like an eternity to us but if nothing is impossible with God, why should there be the one and only exception in his desire that ALL would be saved? Maybe the understanding of "ages" in both the Greek and Hebrew terms used are pointing us in that direction.


At 3/04/2010 04:42:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I agree with you Josh. My own views of hell have changed somewhat since I wrote this post. While I still affirm most of what I wrote here, I think these days I'm more of a Barthian "universalist" than an annihilationist. I.e. like you, I think in the end God's love will be victorious over all.