The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I've had a lot of conversations about death, dying, and the afterlife lately. Chalk it up to the extraordinary number of families planning funerals, memorials, and graveside services after a long COVID wait.
Often, the subject of judgment and hell emerges. And behind it are two primary concerns: "What is hell?" and "Will God condemn people to everlasting torment?"
Before launching into some thoughts about hell, a place hotter than here, I want to share what one of my best teachers at Luther Seminary, Dr. Gerhardt Forde, taught us. He said the Lutheran answer to hell and judgment is finally the Gospel. The answer to the question of whether people you know are "going to hell" is to preach the Gospel to them. It is a move from second-order discourse (a kind of talk about something) to first-order discourse, which is the proclamation of the Gospel (a kind of speaking that accomplishes what it says it does). With the Gospel proclaimed, the need to ponder questions beyond it, particularly those about hell and damnation, are ended. The Gospel saves. That is answer enough.
Still, however, the Bible (Jesus included) talks about hell, and poets, artists, and theologians have advanced different opinions of what hell is like. In the 15th century, the Italian poet Dante pictured hell as having many levels with different torments, the worst reserved for Judas Iscariot in the mouth of Satan, caught not in a fire but a hell of ice.
In The Far Side
, Gary Larson has depicted musician Charlie Parker's hell (Parker was a legendary Grammy-Award-winning jazz saxophonist) as eternally listening to mellow, new age music.
A seminary classmate of mine came up with a terrifying image. After moving to southern California and taking countless family members to Disneyland, he described hell as an endless boat ride through the "It's a Small World" attraction.
One of the best literary descriptions of hell is in C.S. Lewis' novel, The Great Divorce
. He paints a word picture of hell as a gray, dingy place, where people live lives of quiet desperation, a place without God and therefore without beauty, mercy, or hope.
We Christians cannot conceive of a worse fate than living without God, whether the existence is lived in fire or ice or listening to new age music or an endless ride at Disneyland. Life without God is life without beauty, mercy, or hope. That is actual hell.Do Christians need to fear that God will send us to hell?
We Lutherans teach that we do not. Jesus Christ has promised to be with us throughout this life and to bring us safely into his kingdom when we die. We are invited to trust that promise, to trust that Christ means what he says, to believe that Jesus died and rose for us and lives with us now and forever. That's why Lutheran preachers rarely preach hellfire and brimstone sermons. Christ has already promised eternal life and salvation to those who trust his promises. To preach the fear of hell would be to cast doubt that Jesus fulfills his word.
But what about those we know who show no signs of believing in Jesus? And what about those who profess faith but openly sin, mocking God at every opportunity? Does God send those people to hell?
There is little doubt that the Bible tells us there will be a day of judgment. We profess it each time we recite the Apostles Creed. God is serious about sin. However, we must remember that God's Word reveals a God who seriously and even more so loves us. There is no one we love in this life whom God does not love more. That love moved our Lord to take human form and die on a cross. That love may move our Lord to be more merciful than we can ever imagine.
Whatever happens to persons after they die, we Christians know, whether they confessed it in this life or not, they are in the hands of a merciful God who loves them and cares for them far more than any of us can imagine. Further, we do not know what repentance can work in an individual before death—or even after the judgment. So we condemn no one to hell. We let God be God on this one. We do know that God desires to bring salvation to everyone. So we confidently trust our Lord to do what is best for all ... and persist in proclaiming the Gospel.
You may be tempted to believe or even worry about a place hotter than here. You can think about it, but you need not dwell on it. For God has prepared a good place for you. And if you read that sentence, you've just experienced God announcing that promise to you again.