A Brief Explanation of the Christian Doctrine of Hell

Starbuck asked what happened to the Christian doctrine of hellfire. Here’s a short response.

There is definitely a hell. No one on earth knows exactly what it will be like. The Bible refers to it in terms of “Gehenna” (a burning garbage dump outside the walls of Jerusalem), a lake of fire, and “outer darkness, where men weep and gnash their teeth.” All of these are metaphors, I think, though the last of those is probably very descriptive.

For centuries Christian imagery of hell was dominated by the fire metaphor. In the 20th century, C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce led many of us to see it instead as a place where people continue their life’s trajectory into eternity. Let me explain further what I mean by that.

Lewis said something like this somewhere: “In the end there are two kinds of people: those who say to God, Thy will be done, and those to whom God says, thy will be done.” The former group are destined to eternity in heaven with God, the latter to eternity in hell without him.

Both groups continue to live the lives they created for themselves. The one who seeks God on earth will find him in eternity. The one who rejects God on earth will live in eternity without God, just as he or she has chosen on earth.

So for example the one whose life is characterized by self-centeredness will go into eternity focused on him- or herself. The one who backbites in the office will be a backbiter for keeps. The gossip on earth will remain someone who finds pleasure in the failings of others. He who is most focused on sex here will be the same forever. Of course every person is multi-dimensional; I mean to simplify here but I don’t want you to take this as over-simplified.

So as each person carries his or her personality into eternity, what’s different about heaven or hell? Simply this: the presence or absence of God and all of his goodness. Here on earth, God is active even among those who deny him. Where there is love on earth it is an expression of God’s reality and his action. Where there is goodness here it is his goodness being manifested.

In heaven that goodness will be multiplied infinitely. In hell it will be gone.

Someone (maybe Lewis again) put it well: believers in Christ are in the land of the dying, on their way to the land of the living; nonbelievers are in the land of the living, on their way to the land of the dying.

Those who go to heaven do not do so by their own goodness, though, for none of us is qualified to enter a realm of perfect goodness. We would ruin it upon our arrival. Only by the cleansing and forgiving work of Jesus Christ can we be with God through eternity. It’s available to all who will simply accept that it’s true and that they need that infinite help from God.

(I wrote this on Saturday morning, January 5, but set the publish time and date earlier so that the system would recognize this page as being connected to the one where Starbuck asked the question.)