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HELL IS REAL (BUT I HATE TO ADMIT IT)
By BRIAN JONES
David C. CookCopyright © 2011 Brian Jones
All rights reserved.
ETERNAL DAMNATION, REALLY?
The great Christian revolutions come not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when somebody takes radically something that was always there. —H. Richard Niebuhr
My three daughters know that I have one sacred, unbreakable rule when our family drives anywhere on vacation: If you have to go to the bathroom once we're on the highway, you better have a Pringles can close by because we're not stopping.
I've learned the hard way that when it comes to small bladders, you have to exert martial law on the whole van. Otherwise you'll spend half your vacation touring the country's finest rest stops and eating twelve times the daily recommended allowance of pork rinds. In fact, after years of driving to remote vacation spots, I've learned four key principles for a successful road trip with kids: Keep 'em sleeping, keep 'em separated, keep 'em dehydrated, and keep 'em watching videos. If complaining erupts, I've also found it helpful to have memorized Bill Cosby's classic line: "I brought you into this world; I can take you out!"
There have been times, however, I've been tempted to break my own rules. For instance, I'll never forget the time we drove from Dayton, Ohio, to Dallas. We had just stopped in Louisville to fill up, and after twenty minutes we had successfully emptied all the bladders, gotten situated with our snacks, and pulled back on the road heading toward the highway. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a plume of smoke rising from the rooftop of a small apartment complex. I looked for a chimney but saw none. I reassured myself that surely someone had already called 911 and everything would be fine.
Besides, I thought, I can't even tell for sure if there's a fire.
Yet something inside of me kept wondering, What if I'm the only person who is seeing this right now? As I approached the onramp I went back and forth in my head, Should we stop? Should we keep going? Should we stop? We don't have time for this! But what if I'm the only person—I swerved to the left at the last second, drove past the onramp, and circled back into the apartment complex. My guilt (or basic human decency) had won out.
As I pulled up I discovered that it was in fact a fire, and by then the flames had engulfed a large part of the roof. Worse, my suspicion was accurate—we were the only ones there. I asked my wife, Lisa, to call 911, and then I ran inside to warn people to get out.
Once I reached the third floor, I frantically started to bang on the doors, one by one, but at each door there was no response. I then ran down to the second floor and did the same. As I was about to go down to the first floor, a shirtless young man with disheveled hair stuck his head out of one of the second-floor units. He cracked the door open, and as I ran back to meet him, I was hit with a wall of marijuana smoke.
"Yo, my man, what's up?" he said with a slight grin.
"What's up is that your apartment is about to burn to the ground. Put your joint down and help me get people out of here!"
We ran down the steps to the first floor. Two couples responded to our knocking. "There's an elderly lady on the third floor!" one woman shouted. "Did you get her out?"
My heart sank. After racing back up to the third floor, we began furiously pounding on her door. The first-floor neighbor yelled, "She gets confused easily. We may have to break down the door." But just as she said that the handle slowly began to turn. Coughing, confused, and minutes away from being consumed by the fire, she followed her neighbors down to safety. As we stepped out the front door, we heard sirens in the distance. After we guided the elderly woman into the hands of the paramedics, I turned around and watched the firemen storm up the apartment steps to stop the blaze.
As I stood there, the weight of it all hit me. I let out a deep sigh and thought to myself, What would have happened if I had kept driving?
A few hours later, when my adrenaline had finally worn down and the kids were asleep, a bizarre thought came out of nowhere. I call it a "thought" because to this day I'm still not sure if what popped into my mind came from God or from the triple stack of chocolate chip pancakes from IHOP digesting in my stomach. Here's what came to my mind:
Let me get this straight: You're willing to run into a burning building to save someone's life, but non-Christians all around you are going to hell and you don't believe it, let alone lift a finger to help.
Admittedly, I was a little freaked out by the "thought," but at the time I blew it off as a lingering remnant of my conservative-evangelical upbringing.
Four years prior to this event I had graduated from seminary, and with the endless boxes of books I lugged into the moving truck when I left, I also packed my watered-down theology, a healthy dose of skepticism about biblical authority, and a nail-tight conviction that hell was a mythological concept that no loving and thinking Christian could accept. I had weighed the evidence, read all the books, and sat at the feet of experts for three years. Now the verdict was in—the Bible's teaching about hell was inaccurate at best and hateful at worst. What I was taught as a child was a lie, and now that I was becoming a pastor, I was sure I'd never perpetuate that ridiculous myth again.
Objections to Hell
Undoubtedly, you're a smart person. You like to read, and you were intrigued enough by the topic of hell and eternal damnation to give this book a go (either that or the bookstore didn't have that Dan Brown novel you were looking for). And so I think you can understand the six good reasons it seemed ridiculous to me that God would send anyone to hell. Read through these objections and see if you resonate with how I felt.
1. Hell Is a Very Unpopular Idea
Hell has always been an unpopular concept, and for obvious reasons. According to a recent survey by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, only 59 percent of Americans believe in hell. That's six out of ten people, a slight majority in any room. But another poll narrowed the question even more and discovered that "fewer than half of all Americans (43 percent) thought people go to heaven or hell depending on their actions on earth." Furthermore, in twenty-five years of being a pastor, I would add that maybe three out of every ten Christians I've met truly believe people who die without becoming Christians go to hell.
The fact that so few people believe in hell made me wonder if it was about as factual as the lost city of Atlantis.
2. The Punishment Doesn't Fit the Crime
To my postseminary self, sending someone to hell for all eternity seemed tantamount to sending someone to death row for stealing a postage stamp. Enduring physical, emotional, and spiritual torture not just for a year, or ten years, or billions of years on end, but for all eternity—it just didn't seem fair. In fact, it seemed hateful and absurd. Who would propose such a punishment on anyone for anything done in this life? Atheist William C. Easttom put it this way,
God says, "Do what you wish, but make the wrong choice and you will be tortured for eternity in hell." That ... would be akin to a man telling his girlfriend, do what you wish, but if you choose to leave me, I will track you down and blow your brains out. When a man says this we call him a psychopath and cry out for his imprisonment/execution. When God says the same we call him "loving" and build churches in his honor.
When I looked at it from this vantage point, I understood why Tertullian, a well-known pastor in the early church, wrote, "We get ourselves laughed at for proclaiming that God will one day judge the world." In eighteen hundred years that sentiment hasn't really changed.
3. Life Is Hell Enough
The more I thought about the concept of eternal punishment, the more I kept thinking to myself, Don't most people go through enough hell in one lifetime? Think about all the suffering people go through in this life. Hell just didn't make any sense to me. One blogger does a fantastic job of illustrating this point:
Given life's headaches, backaches, toothaches, strains, scrapes, cuts, rashes, burns, bruises, breaks, PMS, fatigue, hunger, odors, molds, colds, parasites, viruses, cancers, genetic defects, blindness, deafness, paralysis, retardation, deformities, ugliness, embarrassments, miscommunications, confused signals, ignorance, unrequited love, dashed hopes, boredom, hard labor, repetitious labor, old age, accidents, fires, floods, earthquakes, typhoons, tornadoes, hurricanes, and volcanoes, I cannot see how anyone, after they're dead, deserves "eternal punishment" too.
4. Hell Seems Intolerant and Hateful
One of the biggest things that weighed on me was how cruel and arrogant the concept of hell sounded when I talked about it with good friends of mine who weren't Christians.
A friend once asked me, "How can you believe my great-grandparents who brutally suffered and died in the Holocaust won't go to heaven just because they didn't believe in Jesus? They were loving, God-fearing people." I didn't have a good answer, and the lack of an answer that sounded loving and moral troubled me immensely. The vast majority of people on this planet think that believing anyone—except people like Hitler who commit heinous crimes against humanity—would go to hell is arrogant, insensitive, ignorant, and hateful.
Victor Hugo wrote, "Hell is an outrage on humanity. When you tell me that your deity made you in his image, I reply that he must have been very ugly." I had to agree. What kind of God would send anyone to hell? I thought.
5. Respected Evangelical Scholars Reject the Idea of Hell
What troubled me even more was that everywhere I turned, noted Christian scholars confirmed my inner struggle. For instance, evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock wrote,
I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine.... How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God.
Statements like this made sense to me. Knowing that highly educated people like Pinnock and others thought this way gave me more confidence that it might be okay to veer away from my traditional Christian beliefs if I chose to do so. If they veered from clear biblical teachings, why couldn't I?
6. I Like Being Liked
Finally, truth be told, the need to be liked was a real factor in my personal struggle. I hated the fact that I could have friendships with people, but if I stayed true to my Christian beliefs, I felt like I had to spend all my time and energy trying to convert them. I wanted to embrace them, cherish their uniqueness, understand their beliefs, and celebrate our diverse cultural and religious upbringings. Hell was an affront to all of this. I didn't want to be thought of as the nutty, intolerant guy who was always trying to get people to admit that they were sinners in need of a Savior. I wanted to be the cool, relevant, and intelligent pastor people liked and wanted their friends to know.
Do you resonate with any of those objections to hell?
An Unexpected Confrontation
The combined weight of the attacks by my professors and the sheer immorality of the idea itself finally broke the theological dam open for me. Over time I simply gave up on the idea, proudly. The problem was that believing the Bible is God's Word is, well, up near the top of any pastor's job description, at least in an evangelical church. I needed a job, so I came up with what seemed like a simple solution: I would never tell anyone about my disbelief. In fact, I carried my secret around for four years after graduate school without ever telling anyone, not the people who went to my church, not the staff with whom I worked, not my friends, not even my wife. The secret was so well hidden that sometimes I was able to forget about it—until that apartment fire in Louisville, and then again a few months later at a monastery in northwest Ohio.
I was in the habit of going to a monastery roughly once a month for a spiritual retreat. I would arrive early in the day to pray, journal, take long walks in the woods, and leave late in the afternoon. On one such retreat I felt an overwhelming sense of spiritual pressure, the spiritual equivalent of the kind of pressure you feel in your ears when swimming in deep water. I sensed that something was wrong, but I didn't know what it was. For the better part of the day, I locked myself into a cold, cement-block room and asked God to show me the source of my consternation.
For the first three hours, I heard nothing—my prayers seemed as if they were bouncing off the ceiling. By noon I felt like I was starting to make a connection with God, but I wasn't prepared for what happened next, when I felt God's Spirit impress upon my heart, "Brian, this charade has to end. You're a pastor and your job is to teach people the Bible, but you don't believe what you're teaching. You don't believe in hell."
I was a little startled, so I picked up my Bible and did something I had up to that point discouraged people in my church from doing—I played what I call "Bible Roulette." In his book Formula for a Burning Heart, A. W. Tozer said, "An honest man with an open Bible and a pad and pencil is sure to find out what is wrong with him very quickly." I can attest to the truth of that statement.
I closed my eyes, wildly fanned the pages back and forth, and randomly pointed to passages and read them. The first passage was about eternal punishment. I looked up at the ceiling and said, "That's a coincidence." The second passage was about God's wrath. This time I felt a little uneasy. Then I did it a third time and couldn't believe my eyes—eternal punishment again. I'm not usually the most mystical person in the world, but I slowly closed the pages of my Bible, put it down on the table next to me, and said, "I get the message." Church leaders must "keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience" (1 Tim. 3:9), and hell is one of those "deep truths."
I spent the next five hours reading and underlining every passage about hell in the New Testament, and as I did, I felt an overwhelming sense of conviction. What I discovered shocked me. I had always assumed that the Bible contained only a few scattered references to hell. I was wrong; hell is taught everywhere.
Take the book of Matthew, for instance, just one book among twenty-seven in the entire New Testament. Here is what we learn about hell from that book alone:
Twelve separate passages record Jesus' teachings about the judgment of nonbelievers and their assignment to eternal punishment. Matthew 13:49–50 summarizes them all: "This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Jesus employed the most graphic language to describe what hell is like: fire (Matt. 5:22; 18:9); eternal fire (18:8); destruction (7:13); away from his presence (7:23); thrown outside (8:12; 22:13; 25:30); blazing furnace (13:42); darkness (22:13; 25:30); eternal punishment (25:46); weeping and gnashing of teeth (8:12; 13:42; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51).
Jesus twice used the word eternal (18:8; 25:46) to convey that the punishment of nonbelievers would continue forever.
As I moved from the Gospels into the rest of the New Testament, I was struck by how the writers unashamedly addressed the issue. There is no hesitancy or apology in their words. The basic tone is, "This is a reality. Now let's get out there and tell people how to avoid it." Second Thessalonians 1:7–9 summarizes what these other New Testament authors taught:
This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
My heart raced as I flipped page after page after page. I discovered, by the end of my study, that the New Testament's teaching about hell is not an ambiguous topic supported by a few hard-to-understand passages. It is inescapable: Virtually every book in the New Testament underscores some aspect of the reality of hell. Jesus taught it; Paul, Peter, and every early church leader taught it, but I wasn't teaching it. I realized I had a decision to make. Could I discount what Jesus taught about hell if I based my belief in heaven on similar passages in the same books?
Could it be possible that Jesus' disciples actually had some of the same reservations I had but still persisted in teaching it because they knew in the depths of their souls that hell was real? Wasn't my hesitancy to believe in hell a sign of my compassion for people? Yet, if hell really exists, and I knew that but wasn't willing to tell people how to avoid it, wouldn't that also be the most extreme form of cruelty imaginable? Most of all, could it be that I was ultimately basing my acceptance of this teaching more on what people thought of me than on whether I felt it was intellectually plausible?
As the weight of it all finally set in, I dropped to my knees, stretched out my arms and legs to the sides, and fell prostrate on the unfinished concrete monastery floor. Not content, however, with the act of simply lying facedown, I shoved my face over and over against the concrete as if an invisible hand pushed against the base of my neck. I buried my face in the silence and wept. After an hour or so passed, I just couldn't stomach listening to myself any longer. I stood up, gathered my belongings, and walked out of the monastery retreat house I had rented for the day. While my planning retreat certainly didn't end quite like I thought it would, I left knowing exactly what I needed to do.
I drove straight home and met Lisa in our kitchen, sharing everything that had transpired from beginning to end, and then I begged for her forgiveness. Then I drove over to the church, gathered my staff, and did the same. Later that night at an emergency Leadership Team meeting, I walked our bewildered church overseers step-by-step through every detail of my secret. A few days later, standing before the church, I completely fell apart. Four long years of strategic rationalizing couldn't protect me from the inevitable—my sin had indeed found me out.
Do you want to know what's scary? When I confessed this, nobody really cared. In fact, the response from a man on my Leadership Team captured the response of just about everyone: "Oh, thank God. You really scared me," he said. "I thought you called us together to tell us that you did something serious like have an affair."
Excerpted from HELL IS REAL (BUT I HATE TO ADMIT IT) by BRIAN JONES. Copyright © 2011 Brian Jones. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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