Why A Moral Life Won’t Get Us to Heaven

Will a good, moral life get me to heaven?’ The answer is no, and Probe’s Jimmy Williams spells out why, including how we CAN get to heaven.

Man: The Worshiping Animal

This essay is concerned with the often-asked question, “Won’t a good, moral life get me to heaven?”

We begin first with the nature of man himself. One of the most remarkable things about humans is that from the dawn of history, and no matter where we find them on this planet, they are worshipping animals. In fact, humans are the only animals in the world who worship. Homo Sapiens is incurably religious. Why is man so inclined? What are the reasons, and how do they bear on our question about having good morals and getting to heaven?

Let’s look briefly at some foundational elements that appear to be universals when it comes to human behavior. The first, as we stated above, is simply that humans do worship. Ethnic groups of all kinds and in all places, whether remote or close to other peoples, have their own history, folklore, deities, rituals, particular moral system and life-customs. All of these enable each culture to cope with the great issues of life and its passages–from childhood to maturity to old age, and to the ultimate passage through that dark gate, Death. Christians tie this human inclination to worship directly to the fact that God says man, and only man, is created in His divine image (imago dei).

Secondly, what is also curious is how and what humans worship. The most prominent feature of human worship from earliest beginnings has been a sacrifice of some sort, whether the sheep, goats or bulls of the early Mediterranean world, or the human beings hurled into the mouths of volcanos by the Polynesians, or the child sacrifices of the Canaanites, or the ritual slaughter practiced by the Aztecs, the Incas, and virtually all of the New World Indians. In all cases, it appears some kind of blood must flow. We can also add to this (in many cultures) the prominence of self-sacrifice through flagellation, severe asceticism, or acts of personal penance.

The centrality of sacrifice in all human religious thinking points to an unmistakable reality: that humans instinctively know, or at least suspect, that there exists One to whom they are accountable for their behavior. They also assume, or know, that they have fallen short of what that higher being (or beings) requires of them. There is a universal sense that “God is not pleased with me.” So a third feature of worship is universal guilt. People worship because they feel guilty. They feel this guilt because they perceive they have fallen short of the standard that God, others, and they themselves require.

The Great Global Heresy: Religion

“Good little boys go to heaven and bad little boys go to hell!” Probably most of us, at one time or another, have undergone the ordeal of having a parent or a teacher point a finger at us (or a neighboring miscreant) and warn of the ultimate outcome of unacceptable behavior.

This “Santa Claus” mentality suggests that God is “makin’ a list and checkin’ it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.”

Everywhere we turn, we hear people speak of this religion: it is the most popular approach to God on the planet. We all know about the good little angel sitting on one shoulder and the bad little angel on the other. And we are very familiar with jokes about what happens to the person who dies and is immediately face to face with Saint Peter at the Golden Gates of Heaven. Peter stands there ready to evaluate and pass judgement on whether we’ve been good enough to be admitted and accepted inside. Saint Peter expects us to give moral account of ourselves before we can go inside.

The general, world-wide assumption is that, when we die, our good deeds and our bad deeds will be placed on the divine scales and weighed to determine if we go “up” or “down.” However, from Christianity’s viewpoint, this is a great, global heresy.

This is “religion,” but it is definitely not Christianity. In fact, Christianity is radically opposed to such an idea, teaching us that we are not to do something, but rather that something has already been done on our behalf. This global heresy, which we call “religion,” actually comes from Hinduism. It is the idea that God resides at the top of a great mountain, and it makes little difference which path a seeker chooses in his ascent up that mountain, since all paths lead to the God on top. And it is up to you to climb if you want to reach the summit–and God.

At the western end of the Forum in ancient Rome, there stood the Millenarium Aureum, the Golden Milestone, a gilded bronze column set up by Augustus Caesar to mark the junction and the origin of the major Roman roads spreading out like the spokes of a great wheel in every direction to distant destinations throughout the Empire. On this column were inscribed the major towns and their distances from Rome. From this came the popular saying, “All roads lead to Rome.”

This is what religionists believe about God. They say things like, “Well, it really doesn’t matter what you believe. What’s important is that you try to do your best and be sincere about it. After all, we’re all trying to get to the same place; we all worship the same God.”

But in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, we encounter something very different: in fact, we discover that there are two possible approaches to God, but only one is acceptable. After Adam and Eve had disobeyed God, they immediately hid in the bushes, took out needle and thread, and began sewing fig leaves together to cover themselves.

God came and found them in the bushes–flunking the first home economics course ever offered! God looked at the clusters of fig leaves they had hastily sewn together, and He was not pleased. In fact, He scolded their efforts and their conduct. Adam and Eve not only had to admit their guilt and disobedience, they also had to acknowledge their inability to make things right through their own efforts. They could not cover, or atone, for what they had done. The account goes on to say that God had to take the initiative to adequately clothe them. He killed some animals and made garments from their skins for a covering.

All philosophy, philanthropy, asceticism, religion, ethics, and all other systems which seek to gain the approval of God through human self-effort are the “fig-leaf” approach. This method is at the heart of what we call “religion,” man’s best effort to reach up and find God. But the problem every worshipper encounters when climbing the mountain is an impenetrable barrier which denies all further advance: it is the barrier of God’s holiness and perfection. Each individual’s personal sin and imperfection prevents him or her from coming any closer.

In his autobiography Mahatma Gandhi, a devout Hindu, speaks eloquently of his own struggle with this when he says: “Oh wretched man that I am. It is a constant source of torture to me that I am so far from the one I know to be my very life and being, and I know that it is my own sin and wretchedness that hides Him from me.”

The Problem of Sin

When the word “sin” comes up in a conversation, most people look as though someone just slipped them a mildewed fig! We do a lot of it; we just don’t like to talk about it! Many people do not know what sin or a sinner really is. What is sin? Sin is a violation of the law, the standard God requires of every human. A sinner is therefore someone who has broken that standard.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that there is no good at all in people. There is a great deal of good. Humans are not as bad as they could be. The point is simply this: if our premise is that to get to heaven one has to be good, then how good is good enough?

The Scriptures are quite clear about this. God is not demanding “goodness.” We saw above that Adam and Eve’s best efforts to cover themselves (fig leaves) were not enough. The good which is in man, all his moral achievement, is not acceptable to God–because God is not demanding goodness, He demands perfection!

Many will say they try to live by the Ten Commandments or by some other rule of life, such as the Golden Rule. And yet, if we are honest, each of us discovers we have violated our own standards at some point. This is what Paul meant when he said, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

The Grand Canyon is 6 to 18 miles across, 276 miles long, and one mile deep. The world’s record in the long jump, set by Mike Powell at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo is 29′ 4 1/2″. Yet the chances of a person jumping from one side of the Grand Canyon to the other are greater than that of someone attempting to establish fellowship with God through his own efforts.

The standard man must meet is God’s perfection. Who can match that? It is a goal so far away that no one could ever reach it. To make matters worse, James tells us that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). This means if someone breaks just one of the commandments, he is as guilty as if he had broken all ten!

The purpose of giving the Ten Commandments in the first place was not because God knew human beings would keep them perfectly. The Bible tells us that these revealed standards were intended to be to us what an X-ray machine is to a broken arm. The machine reveals the condition of the arm, but it will not set and knit the bones, nor will it put the arm in a cast. By the same token, the Ten Commandments can only reveal to us the condition of our lives; they cannot heal us or cover our sin.

The Pharisees looked at the Law and then at their own lives and said, “I’m pretty good, really good.” Jesus had wanted them to come to the opposite conclusion. He even called them hypocrites! He said they were wrong to claim they were righteous enough and that all was well between them and their Maker. That is why he said, “Those who are well do not need a physician” (Matthew 9:12). When you are well, you don’t seek a doctor. The time to consult a physician is when you realize you are sick. Jesus was urging the Pharisees to be honest about themselves when He said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (v.13).

When my wife Carol and I travel, and I discover I’m lost, I really hate for her to make her classic statement, “You’re lost. Why don’t you ask for directions?” In my case, the issue is always my male pride! With the Pharisees, it was religious pride, as it is for all who would seek heaven on the basis of their own merits.

A wise old Baptist preacher once said, “It isn’t difficult to get people saved; it is difficult to get them lost!” This is man’s dilemma: like the Pharisees, people cling to the old fig leaves of self-effort instead of submitting to the covering God Himself has provided for all (Christ’s sacrificial death, the Cross). Each of us must choose one or the other (John 3:18, 36).

The Problem of Righteousness

While morality and human goodness are to be commended, God makes it clear from the very outset that no one, through his own efforts, possesses the ability to make himself presentable before God. It was Charles Haddon Spurgeon who said, “Man is basically a silkworm. A spinner and a weaver … trying to clothe himself … but the silkworm’s activity spins it a shroud. So it is with man.” Adam and Eve are classic examples.

Our problem is not only that we have fallen short of God’s standard (Romans 3:23), by sinning; we also lack something. We not only need the removal of personal sin through blood sacrifice to satisfy divine justice; we need something further to make us fit for heaven and the divine presence of God. In other words, Christ’s death in our place will keep us out of hell–but we still have the problem of getting into heaven. Isaiah spoke of this when he said, “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are as filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6). Not our sins, but our good deeds! We need not only atonement for our sins, we also need righteousness to enter heaven! But it has to be a certain kind of righteousness.

The most righteous people of Jesus’ day were the Pharisees. They knew the Old Testament by heart. They went to the synagogue three times a day and prayed seven times a day. They were respected in the community. But Jesus looked right through their religious veneer and, in their presence, admonished the crowds that “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

The crowds responded by staring at each other in bewilderment. “You mean the Pharisees aren’t righteous enough to go to heaven? If they can’t make it, who will?”

In the Garden of Eden we observe this conflict between two kinds of righteousness–human righteousness, which is clearly symbolized by the fig leaf garments Adam and Eve sewed together to make themselves presentable before God, and divine righteousness, which is symbolized by the adequate covering of the slain animals provided by God Himself. We find these two kinds of righteousness marching and clashing with each other all the way through both Testaments.

Paul referred to these same two righteousnesses when he said of his Jewish brethren, “I bear them witness, that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit themselves to the righteousness of God” (Romans 10:1).

In the former Soviet Union, rubles are printed and circulated. With those rubles you can buy your dinner, pay your hotel bill, and purchase things in the shops. But if you brought those rubles back to America and tried to do the same thing, the rubles would not be honored. It would be futile to try to do business with rubles in America.

Let’s think of these two righteousnesses in mathematical terms. Let’s call God’s righteousness “+R” and human righteousness “-R.” The first righteousness is absolute, while the second is relative. Over a lifetme, a human being can accumulate a huge pile of -R, but added up, it still totals -R. To do business with God in heaven, we must deal with Him in the only “currency” honored and accepted by Him, and that is +R. It is futile to try to negotiate with God on the basis of relative, human goodness. We need +R.

Where do we get such “currency?” It is given to us as a gift if we will accept it–the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. The yardstick God uses to measure everyone is His Son. This +R righteousness is ours only in Christ: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

This gracious provision is a radical departure from all other religious ideas humans have ever conceived or set forth. It is so radical that human beings would never have thought of it.

The Uniqueness of Christian Grace

We have sought to arrive at a biblical answer to the question, “Will a good, moral life get me to heaven?” We have examined the bankruptcy of every attempt by people to reach that goal through any and every means of self-effort. We have discovered that the salvation offered by Christianity is uniquely opposed to all human efforts to secure it by working one’s way into God’s good graces. In fact, if God expected us to attain our salvation through good deeds, then God made a terrible mistake. He allowed His only-begotten Son to come to earth–robed in human flesh–and die a horrible death on a cross for our personal, eternal benefit. To choose a “good works” path to God is to negate the total significance of Christ’s death, making it meaningless and unnecessary.

What God has to offer is free. It is a gift that is not deserved by any of us, nor could we ever repay what the gift is worth. God has dealt with humankind in grace and love. The only thing that God has asked us to do is to humbly admit that we have broken His laws, acknowledge that He has indeed made things right through His Son’s sacrificial death on the cross, and accept His forgiveness by faith. We are invited to lay aside our own “fig-leaf” costumes and freely submit to the covering God has provided for us, the blood-stained garment of His Son, the very righteousness of Christ.

This is what Jesus sought to communicate in Matthew 22:1-14, the parable about the wedding feast that a king was preparing to give his son: “So the servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all, as many as they found, both good and bad: and the wedding was furnished with guests. And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man who had not on a wedding garment. And he said unto him, ‘Friend, how came you here not having on a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth!’”

The text does not tell us whether this person was one of the “good” ones or the “bad” ones. Why? Because it is irrelevant to what Jesus wants us to understand. The important issue was proper attire for the occasion. God is telling us that the only acceptable attire for heaven is the righteousness of Christ.

As a gracious host, He stands holding out to humanity the most expensive, costly garment in the universe, and He eagerly desires to wrap us up in it–safe and warm and happy and secure:

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God: for He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10).

So how does this apply to you and me? Simply this: Everything that needed to be done for your salvation and mine was accomplished the moment Christ died on the cross. The penalty has been paid and God’s righteous demands satisfied. God is now free to extend eternal life as a free gift. He declares, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Gifts, of course, must be received. For that reason, Jesus said, “He who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). “Believe” means “to trust or depend on.” God is asking each person to come to Him as a sinner, recognize that His Son died on the cross of us, and trust His Son alone as our only hope of heaven.

This was the message, the good news which the first Christians took to the world: “Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

In reality, every human being is just a prayer away from receiving the grace and forgiveness of God and the promise of heaven. But it has to be the right prayer, based on the right facts: that Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners, not “Do-Gooders”: “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). You can begin to trust Christ for your salvation today instead of your own, futile efforts of trying to be a fairly nice person all your life. Obviously, your heart attitude, your sincerity, is what really counts. God knows your heart. But if the following suggested prayer will help to bring a sense of closure and certainty to your decision to believe in, to trust Christ, then please feel free to use it as a simple guide:

“Dear God, I admit that I am a sinner, and nothing I can do will ever get me to heaven. But I believe Jesus Christ died for me and rose from the grave to prove the validity of His claim to be my Savior. He took my place and my punishment. So right now, I place my trust in Christ alone to make me presentable and acceptable to you. Come into my life. I accept the gift of your Son. Thank you that you are now within me, not based upon my feelings, but upon your promise that if I open the door of my life and invite you to come live within me and be my Savior, you would (Rev. 3:20, John 1:12). Make me the kind of person you want me to be. Begin to show me that you really have entered my life and heart, and now give me the guidance I need to live a new life in fellowship with you. Amen.”

©1998 Probe Ministries.


Is There Really a Hell?

Rick Rood discusses the biblical teaching on hell, as well as the practical effects of this belief for
Christians.

This article is also available in Spanish.

The story has been told of C. S. Lewis listening to a young preacher’s sermon on the subject of God’s judgment on sin. At the end of his message, the young man said: “If you do not receive Christ as Savior, you will suffer grave eschatalogical ramifications!” After the service, Lewis asked him the question, “Do you mean that a person who doesn’t believe in Christ will go to hell?” “Precisely,” was his response. “Then say so,” Lewis replied. (1)

This story illustrates something that most Christians know, but few articulate: that of all the doctrines of the Christian faith, the one we feel most uncomfortable discussing is the doctrine of eternal punishment or hell. And it is not difficult to understand why this is so. The doctrine of hell is offensive to unbelievers, and contradicts the emphasis on tolerance and on human potential that dominates our times. Who of us enjoys alienating our friends by speaking of eternal judgment for sin? For many of us, the doctrine of hell is also difficult to reconcile with the the love and grace of God. Furthermore, we are well aware of Christians who have misused the doctrine of hell by using it to manipulate and control other people. In seeking to distance ourselves from the abuse of this doctrine, and to avoid appearing intolerant and uncaring, many of us have eliminated the word “hell” entirely from our vocabulary (making our belief an entirely personal matter).

Recent surveys have revealed some very interesting facts about current attitudes toward hell. A survey conducted by George Gallup in 1990 revealed that just under 60% of Americans believe there is a hell (down over 10% from 1978), though only 4% believe that hell was their own personal destination. A survey in the mid-1980s of American evangelical college and seminary students revealed that only one in ten believed that the first step in influencing unbelievers for Christ should be to warn about hell. 46% of seminary students believed that to emphasize to non-believers that eternal judgment would be a consequence of rejecting Christ was “in poor taste.” A survey conducted in 1981 revealed that 50% of theology faculty believe in the existence of hell (61% of Roman Catholics, and 34% of Protestants)! (2)

In spite of the prevailing current attitudes toward hell revealed by these surveys, however, it is still apparent to most Christians that the doctrine of hell is firmly grounded in the teaching of Scripture. All but one of the letters of the Apostle Paul mention the wrath or judgment of God on sin. And of the twelve uses of the word gehenna (the strongest word for hell) in the New Testament, eleven come from the lips of Jesus himself! In fact, the Savior taught more about hell than He did about heaven! Of the more than 1850 verses recording the words of Christ, 13% pertain to the topics of judgment and hell. Of the 40 or so parables uttered by Jesus, more than half relate to God’s eternal judgment on sin. Surprisingly, the much beloved “Sermon on the Mount” contains some of Jesus’ most straightforward words about hell!

What Does the Bible Teach About Hell?

In his book simply titled “Inferno,” Dante Alighieri describes in great detail his imaginary tour through nine levels of hell. Dante’s book makes for fascinating reading. But to learn what hell is really like, we must turn to another source: the Bible.

As we begin reading through the Old Testament, we find frequent references to “sheol” (the world of departed spirits) as the abode of all the dead (cf. Deut. 32:22). As we continue reading, we find also that a day will come when the bodies of all who are in sheol will be resurrected: some to “everlasting life” but others to “everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2).

The common belief of godly rabbis during the intertestamental era that sheol was divided into two sections is reflected in the New Testament, which refers to the abode of the righteous as “Paradise” (Lk. 23:43) or “Abraham’s bosom” (Lk. 16:22), and the abode of the unrighteous as “Hades” (Lk. 16:23). After Christ’s resurrection, it appears that those who resided in Paradise were ushered into the presence of God in heaven where they await the future resurrection of their bodies. But those who are in Hades await a resurrection to a different destination– hell.

The word that is used most frequently in the New Testament for hell is Gehenna. Gehenna is a reference to the Valley of Hinnom located on the south side of Jerusalem, which served as the city’s “garbage dump” during Jesus’ time. The fires that burned here never went out.

As did his contemporaries, Jesus referred to Gehenna as the place where “the fire is not quenched” and where “their worm does not die” (Mk. 9:48). Whether He implied a literal flame and a literal worm is not of great importance. Jesus also described hell as a place of “outer darkness” (Mt. 22:13). But it is clear that He meant us to understand that hell is a place of continual deterioration and suffering for those who inhabit it! Jesus also referred to those who were cast into hell as being “cast outside” (Mt. 8:12), or as Paul simply puts it “away from the presence of the Lord” (II Thess. 1:9). Hell is a place of exclusion and loss of every blessing that comes from God. Hell is described as a place of “contempt” by the prophet Daniel (Dan. 12:2)–where every person is despised by every other inhabitant. As one writer has put it: “Sinners in hell will have company but no sympathy” (3)

Jesus said hell will be a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13:42). The weeping no doubt speaks of terrible remorse and grief. But the gnashing of teeth speaks of intense anger–anger at oneself, anger at Satan, anger at God. Paul speaks of hell’s inhabitants as experiencing “wrath and anger … trouble and distress” (Rom. 2:8-9).

The Bible also tells us that in hell not all will be judged alike. Jesus made it clear that there will be degrees of judgment in hell. He said that the one “who knew his master’s will and did not … act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few” (Lk. 12:47-48). But though not all will be judged equally, all will be judged with certainty. Exodus 34:7 tells us that though the Lord is “compassionate and gracious, … yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.”

Why Would a Loving God Send People to Hell?

Does the Bible teach that hell is a place of eternal conscious punishment for sin? One alternative proposal is that for many (if not all) a second opportunity will be given after death to respond to the grace of God. Appeal is usually made to the statement in Peter’s first letter that “the gospel … has been preached even to those who are dead” (4:6). William Barclay states that in this passage we find a “glimpse of nothing less than the gospel of a second chance” (Commentary on the Epistles of Peter). Yet, the context makes clear that he is speaking of those to whom the gospel was preached during their lifetime, but who now were deceased! There is no indication at all that a “post-mortem” opportunity to repent exists.

In John 8, Jesus says that for those who “die in their sins” there is no possibility of joining Him in heaven (vv. 21,24). In contrasting the expectation of the believer of being reunited with loved ones in heaven, he says that unbelievers “have no (such) hope” (I Thess. 4:13). These statements are difficult to reconcile with the belief that the deceased are offered a second opportunity after death. Hebrews 9:27 says that “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.”

Another proposal, that is gaining a wider acceptance today, is that unbelievers will simply be snuffed out of existence or “annihilated.” Support for this belief is often sought in statements throughout Scripture that describe sinners as “perishing” or being “destroyed.” The psalmist says, “May the wicked perish before God” (68:2). The same word, however, is used in Isaiah 57:1 to refer to the righteous: “The righteous perish and no one ponders it in his heart.” It is clear that in the latter case, the word implies “severe suffering.” It could not possibly mean that the righteous are “extinguished.” There is, therefore, no reason to believe that the opposite is the case when the word is used to describe the fate of sinners. To “perish” or be “destroyed” means to “suffer ruin,” not to be “annihilated.”

That the Bible teaches eternal conscious punishment for sin in hell, is the only deduction that can be reached from the fact that the most emphatic words available to the biblical writers were consistently used to describe hell’s endless duration, as well as to describe the duration of heaven, and even the eternal existence of God! Just as Jesus described the destiny of the righteous as “eternal life,” so He described the destiny of the unrighteous as “eternal punishment” (Mt. 25:46). Just as John described God as the one who “lives forever and ever” (Rev. 15:7), so He described the fire of hell as lasting “forever and ever” (Rev. 14:11).

Sometimes it is said that the Greek word for eternal (aionios) really means “age lasting,” implying that at the end of a series of ages God will empty hell of all its inhabitants. Those who hold this interpretation, however, fail to recall that while this present age is finite in duration, it was the common understanding among Jesus’ listeners that the “age to come” was eternal!

In reference to the fate of Judas, Jesus said: “It would have been better for him if he had never been born” (Mt. 26:24). If indeed it is as terrible a fate as these words suggest, and if it is eternal in duration, why would a loving God send people to hell? If God is a God of love, why would He consign anyone to an eternity as terrible as the Bible describes the fate of those whose destiny is hell?

Perhaps the biblical doctrine of hell can begin to make more sense to us when we reexamine our understanding of two other teachings of Scripture: the nature of God, and the nature of man and of sin.

One of the wonderful revelations of Scripture is that God is a God of infinite love and grace. Who of us is not refreshed when we read the words of the psalmist: “But Thou, O Lord, art a God merciful and gracious, Slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth” (86:15)? Yet it is the same God who is also described as the One who “will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Ex. 34:7)! The God who loves the sinner is also the God whose “eyes are too pure to approve evil” and who cannot “look on wickedness with favor” (Hab. 1:13). The psalmist quotes God at one point as saying, “You thought that I was just like you” (50:21). But we are in need of the realization that just as God’s love is far beyond our own, so the purity of his holiness exceeds all our conceptions! When Isaiah was granted a vision of the Lord on his throne, he was shaken by his impression of his holiness (Isa. 6:3)! For sure, God is a God of indescribable love, but He is just as much a God of absolute holiness and righteousness! When we gain a vision of the holiness of God as it is portrayed in the Bible, we begin to understand the reasonableness of the doctrine of hell.

We are also helped when we allow Scripture to more fully inform us in our comprehension of the nature of man and of sin. The emphasis in our generation on the value and dignity of the human person has been a welcome corrective to a past overemphasis on the depravity of man. Yet it is easy for us to lose sight of the fact that though we are indeed created in the image of God and of very special value in His eyes, nonetheless we are also deeply and indelibly stained by sin in every area of our being. The God who knows every thought and motive of every human heart, said that it “is more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Jesus himself said that “from within, out of the heart of men, proceed (all manner of evil)” by which we are defiled (Mk. 7:21-23)!

When Ezra learned of the disobedience of the people of Israel in marrying unbelievers, he said, “I tore my garment and my robe, … and sat down appalled” (Ezra 9:3). When the Apostle Paul saw the city of Athens filled with idols, “his spirit was … provoked within him” (Acts 17:16)! Is it possible that we have lost something of the sense of the seriousness of sin that seemed to grip the heart of these two men?

Some have objected that while sin is certainly worthy of punishment, a “finite” sin is hardly worthy of the “infinite” punishment of hell. But that our rebellion against God should be considered “finite” in nature is not entirely clear.

When we consider that the One against whom we have rebelled is the One who gave us life, who is the source of every good thing that we know in life, and who has extended his love by giving his own Son as payment for our sin, how can we possibly measure the gravity of our sin or the punishment it deserves? When we consider too that there is no indication that those in hell will ever experience a “change of heart” in attitude toward God, perhaps we can see that God’s judgment is entirely just.

The Doctrine of Hell: What Difference Does It Make?

We want to focus on three areas of life that should be impacted by our understanding of the biblical doctrine of hell.

The first is our attitude toward sin … particularly our own. A number of years ago, Dr. Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled Whatever Happened to Sin? In it he challenged the popular notion that all of our thoughts and actions can be accounted for by factors beyond our own personal control, that we are rarely responsible for our own conduct. For sure, there are “mitigating” factors in most of our lives that influence our character and conduct to greater or lesser degree. And God is not unaware of these things. “He knows our frame, that we are but dust” (Ps. 103:14). He knows as well that we are born with a sinful nature that is beyond the power of human will to overcome (cf. Rom. 7:14-25). But He also knows that the choice is our own as to whether we approve and condone the fruit of our sinful nature, or whether we turn to Him for grace to hold in check our sinful impulses and to learn to follow his will. In his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” The choice is ours as to which kind of person we will become.

When we realize that we are responsible for what we choose to do about our sin, and that it is more than merely an act that may result in unpleasant consequences for ourselves, but that it is also a disposition of rebellion against God, that requires his holy judgment, we cannot help but become more sensitive to its presence in our lives!

The second result of a biblical understanding of hell is a much greater appreciation for the grace and salvation we have received from God! Our appreciation for the immense value of this gift is greatly enhanced when we fully comprehend the nature of that from which we have been delivered. Our perception of the awesomeness of salvation is determined in large measure by our perception of the awfulness of hell!

Finally, a biblical understanding of hell should move us to include in our proclamation of the gospel a clear warning about the consequence of failing to respond. We need to be more forthright than the preacher whom Charles Spurgeon reported as saying, “If you do not love the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be sent to the place which it is not polite to mention.” (4) C.S. Lewis once said: “If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years. A bit more makes no difference.” (5) If there really is a hell, then Christianity is far more than one more bit of good advice!

In his book Our Guilty Silence, John Stott recounts how the seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries to China, not wanting to offend the sensitivities of the Chinese, excluded the cross of Christ and other details from their message. Quoting Hugh Trevor- Roper, Stott says, “We do not learn that they made many lasting converts by the unobjectionable residue of the story.” (6)

There is little question that the doctrine of hell has at times been abused. But as one writer has well put it: “May its misuse not result in its disuse” in our efforts to lead people to Christ.


 

Notes

1. Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News, Wheaton: Victor Books, 1992. p. 13

2. Dixon, pp. 10-13; Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992, pp.2-3.

3. John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 1992, p. 146.

4. Quoted in Ajith Fernando, Crucial Questions About Hell. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991, p. 171.

5. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan Press, 1960, p. 133)

6. John Stott, Our Guilty Silence. London: Hodder & Stoughton, nd, p. 45.

Recommended Resources on the Subject of Hell:

Blanchard, John. Whatever Happened to Hell? Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 1992.

Dixon, Larry. The Other Side of the Good News. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1992.

Fernando, Ajith. Crucial Questions About Hell. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991.

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan Press, 1960.

Morey, Robert A. Death and the Afterlife. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1984.

Stott, John. Our Guilty Silence. London: Hodder & Stoughton, nd.

Walls, Jerry L. Hell: The Logic of Damnation. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.

© 1995 Probe Ministries.