Hell is Hard to Talk About
Hell is undoubtedly one of the most difficult topics for Christians to discuss. The bottom line that hell establishes is that the fall did bring loss that even God won’t undo. Evil brings consequence that even the cross does not erase. That is a difficult word indeed. There seems to be a level to this reality that we cannot get beneath or around; it simply is this way if you take Jesus at his word. There are I think some helpful things that can be said about the Biblical language concerning hell and how we can conceive of it and speak to it.
“hell” as a word isn’t in the Greek NT
Our term “hell” isn’t a word in the New Testament as such but represents a collective understanding of a group of elements and images that Jesus and other NT speakers use. The images include darkness, fire, burning, worms that don’t stop, a place of no rest with residents continually expressing their anguish and frustration. I think we can say that these images are intended to evoke the essence of hell rather than to be seen as a sort of inventory.
The Great Divorce
We can’t discuss hell in the English speaking West without discussing C.S. Lewis’ book “The Great Divorce”. There is much that can be said about his image of hell one way or the other, but what he clearly contributes to the discussion is a picture of how the door to hell is locked from the inside. The Biblical record on hell is clear that it is a place where God sends the condemned and yet those exiled are responsible for their plight. God is on record as desiring that none would be ultimately lost but for whatever reason that will not happen. Lewis nicely expresses our instinctive response to the idea of everlasting judgment that we wish it weren’t so and we hope that there be every possible opportunity for all to avoid it.
Jesus on Hell
If Jesus is on record as talking about hell the most, I think it is important that we pay closer attention to exactly how Jesus talks about hell. In the evangelical church we have long talked in a way that assumes hell to be the baseline condition. There are good reasons for this:
Historically we experience fall before grace. We imagine our jeopardy before we see our salvation.
The order of the Heidelberg Catechism for enjoying our salvation is Misery, Deliverance, Gratitude.
Evangelistically our modus operandi has been the presumption of a person’s lost estate and our attempt at declaring good news.
Joy comes first
Not all of this is bad and much of it is well founded. At the same time I think it has set within our minds a deeper assumption that perdition is foundational and joy derivative, that punishment is the rule and grace the exception. I think this is wrong and should be undone.
Blessedness, goodness, purity and joy are in fact eternal. Rebellion, corruption, loss and anguish can never be eternal, the most they can be are everlasting. “Eternal” is a line with arrows on both ends (no beginning, no end), “everlasting” always has a starting point and a vector only going in one direction (a beginning but no end). God and his goodness have no beginning and no end. Grace is foundational, punishment is the abnormality and the exception. Grace is always before, is always older, is always primary.
What Jesus Teaches us
I think this assumption is reflected in Jesus’ parables about parties and hell. Some of Jesus’ most penetrating references to hell come in the context of parables about parties. Jesus is of course working the Old Testament from places like Isaiah 25:6-9. One parable where this comes through most strikingly is the Matthew version of the parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1-14. Jesus begins with the theme of those having been invited rejecting the king and his son’s wedding and what will happen to them. This theme follows obviously from the parable of the rebellious tenants in the previous chapter. Matthew’s version has a disturbing ending to it where one man is found without the proper wedding garment and he is cast out where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. There are a number of interesting things going on in this parable but the focus of the parable is the king’s determination to host his party and to make it great. The party is primary, the casting out serves the primary objective. Grace and shalom are primary, judgment is derivative.
We are culturally predisposed to despise exclusion. Jesus is hailed in our culture for the inclusion he expresses and rightly so. This is one reasons we like Lewis’ imaginative treatment of hell and heaven, anyone can get on the bus but most chose not to stay. When it comes to the subject of hell, however, we should pay a bit more attention to what parties are, what it takes to enjoy them and what keeping a party going requires.
Joy is more than an emotion
Parties are not neutral things: always good, always pleasing, always desirable to all. Let’s assume you are a God-fearing, church going, Christian who tries to do the right thing. Let’s imagine you receive an invitation to party being given by some notorious party animal. You have a pretty good idea what kinds of things will go on at this party: there will be sex, drinking, drugs and other behavior you don’t want to be party to or have to witness. How might you feel if you actually went to this party? How might your Christian spouse feel about your attendance at this party? Would you like your children to know you attended such a thing? Truth is that you would likely not enjoy this party one single bit and for that reason you probably wouldn’t bother to attend. You were invited, you weren’t excluded.
Let’s also look at a church service. A church service is a party of sorts, there is celebration and even sometimes food. Everyone is invited, no one is excluded (we hope). Some come with joy and anticipation while others would rather (like in the parable) just stay home or go to work. Won’t this also be true for the great banquet of the Lamb? This is going to be a party the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since its creation but it would be silly to imagine that everyone would have a good time there. This evokes Lewis’ picture of blessedness and perdition. There is no reason to imagine that those who have detested God’s “intrusion” into their affairs and “imposition” into the power and glory they have hungered for will want any part of this grand party. It will simply be way too much for them, they would hate it from start to finish.
A Party that will not be Broken
Lewis helps us picture this yet he can’t take us all the way here. One side of the picture is that they wouldn’t like the party anyway, but the other side is that in fact they don’t belong, the party is no place for them. We have the man cast out of the wedding banquet, and we have the maidens without oil barred from entering the party. Remember, grace is foundational, judgment derivative. The party has precedence over the foolishness, rebellion and misbehavior of those who are not on the same page as the host. If the king is so determined to throw the greatest party of historical existence to the degree that he goes out and drags in the good and the bad to fill the seats, why do we image he will tolerate anyone or anything that in any way detracts from the party? No, the party will go on and nothing will be allowed to stop it, sully it, or diminish it in any way. The bouncers are at the door and they will permit no disruption or interruption of the King’s serious determination to party.
This is not only a future reality, it plays out today. The bridegroom is on the way, the bride is being prepared, and the preliminary parties are already underway. Where two or three are gathered, where the bread and the wine are shared, the party is already foretasted. The problem we face today is that there is no exclusion. The weeds are sown among the wheat. The king has not yet sent in the bouncers but this too is a sign of grace. The fact is that the party has many spoilers and chief among them are ourselves with our sin, rebellion and faithlessness. We are not yet ready for the party either, so the king graciously takes his time until all will finally be prepared and the grand party can begin. The party cannot be the greatest party of human existence until all obstacles have been finally removed. The party is primary, the casting out is secondary.
The awful images of hell are surely given to us as a warning, but they should not detract from the images of the party itself. There are images of hell in the Bible, but they are outnumbered by the stories of parties and banquets. This is why the parties should dominate our preaching, our churches and our evangelism. Hell should be noted in all seriousness but it must always come second. Grace must trump judgment, and joy must trump fear.