THREE FUNERALS AND A WEDDING: Common Misconceptions About Hell
One of the reasons why Christians find it so difficult to talk about God’s judgement is the level of misunderstanding that already exists about what Hell is. The word and the idea is routinely used in conversation, and in advertising to represent something that it is not. Here are three common ones.
1. Hell is fun, Heaven is boring
“Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.” Mark Twain
You get this a lot in popular advertising. You know the scene—people in white with wings looking a bit bored — while those from the other place get to enjoy chocolate, or ice cream or are sipping cocktails on the beach. This portrayal of heaven as something pallid and utterly boring, and hell as a more positive place to spend eternity betrays a total misunderstanding of what is at stake.
God is the source of everything that is good. Even though we may not acknowledge him as the source of beauty and goodness, everyone daily experiences a thousand blessings from his hands. Love and family; food and wealth; music and the beauty of creation; the gifts and abilities we have; joy and laughter—they are all gifts from God. We enjoy just a part of them now, imperfectly and tainted by the realities of pain and suffering in our fallen world. But for those who have been rescued by Jesus, we will experience that joy in full in the new creation. Perfect friendships, complete joy and love.
But hell will be the absence of all those things. It will involve all the worst things about life here, multiplied many times over, but with no joy, no hope, no love. Someone may say “I’ll enjoy hell because all my friends will be there.”
To which we must reply: “No you won’t. You won’t have any friends in hell—because there will be no such thing as friendship there.”
2. People are already experiencing hell on earth
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” William Congreve
“If you are going through hell, keep going” Winston Churchill
It’s common for people to say that they have been going through hell. We can sympathise—life for many can be deeply troubling and difficult. There may be Illness; relational breakdown; caring for sick relatives; unemployment and so on. For others, there may be war, famine, persecution or imprisonment.
But if we buy into this way of thinking, we have it all the wrong way round. We are using Hell as a metaphor for suffering on earth. Jesus does the exact opposite. When some people asked him about an infamous tragedy, where people suffered badly, Jesus tells them that these are part of the way God warns us about something far worse that we could experience (see Luke 13 v 1-5). The Bible writers use language about the reality of judgement that we can understand: a lake of fire, being shut out of a party forever. They may be physical descriptions, or they may be metaphors. Whichever they are, the point they make is that if you imagine the worst thing that could every happen to you — then you are only beginning to glimpse what the reality of Hell will be like.
“I’m going through hell at the moment” someone may say. To which we must reply: “I’m sorry that you are having a hard time, but please understand that an eternity cut off from God will be a hundred times worse than what you are experiencing now.”
3. Hell is only for bad people
“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F Kennedy quoting Dante
As much as people like to say they do not judge others, we all, in fact, do. We consider some people utterly reprehensible. Others (including, often, ourselves) as flawed but passable. And some we consider to be worthy of high praise. But God sees us all alike. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” concludes Paul in Romans 3 v 23. While we love to categorise some as better than others, God knows we are all moral failures; we are all deserving of judgement and hell. The question the Bible writers want us to ask is this: “how is it possible for anyone to be spared?”
The glorious truth of the Gospel, however, is that, no matter how bad we are or have been. No matter how deserving we think we are, God has provided a way out for us in the rescue accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus. He invites everyone to a great wedding feast. Far from being dull, eternity in the presence of Jesus will be like the best wedding you ever went to. Feasting; friendship; celebration; delight.
The offer of the gospel is gracious, and open to everyone. Jesus says to all of us: “don’t go to the funeral; come to the wedding.”
Erik Raymond’s short book is available here.