Today I preached a sermon on hell. A friend and pastor, who was interrupted in a sermon series on heaven by a surgery, had scheduled the sermon for today to address hell as the obverse of heaven. As I agreed to cover for him it was a chance to visit an important but rarely visited topic.
The limited time I had both in preparing and in preaching the sermon kept me from any breadth or depth of coverage. Yet reading the Bible with a Trinitarian lens set me up to see some features I’ll share here.
First it jumped out at me that Jesus forces the subject to the fore. In the Gospels he regularly pits the destination of heaven over against the alternative. It’s not that he regularly mentions hell. He doesn’t. Instead he set out themes of the kingdom, using his insistent calls to embrace God’s kingdom to polarize his audiences. He forces them to the question of trajectory: one either loves God, his Father, and is moving towards him; or one hates him. There is no middle ground. So that every invitation to participate in heaven contains an implied opposite: those who dismiss him display themselves as children of hell. The final outcome is twofold: “And these [the ungodly] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46).
The Trinitarian piece is this: the purpose of the Father-Son-and-Spirit One is to bring together a people to join and enjoy the Godhead’s eternal loving communion. Joined not as equals-in-being but as those elevated into a marital union with Jesus, the God-Man. The Son came to gather his bride to himself and, in his true humanity and true deity, offers a relational/ontic bridge into the eternal Life of God. We who respond are a collective bride, drawn into oneness by the Father. The Spirit is the one whose union with our spirits—in the awakening moment of regeneration—unites us with each other and to Christ: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? . . . But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with him . . . . Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Cor 6:15-20).
This union of the Church with Christ illuminates a sometimes overlooked reality: heaven and hell are already present realities of this age. Some in this world are experiencing heaven already, and others are experiencing hell. Yet the realms are still overlapped—a confusion of old and new that Peter illustrated when Jesus rebuked him for still holding, Satanically, to former values rather than to the new kingdom reality Jesus was presenting (see Matt 16:21-23). Jesus was bent on distinguishing—but not yet separating—the two realms before he returned to the Father. In John 8, for instance, he dismissed a group of pseudo-disciples for being “of your father, the devil”; and he confronted the religious leaders of his day for turning converts into “twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt 23:15).
We should note here that the underlying Hebrew and Greek terms for hell (sheol and gehenna) also speak of simple physical death: the “grave”. Yet physical death is not the ultimate issue of the words but an indicator of the death Satan unleashed on the world in Eden. That is, the debate in Eden on whether eating the forbidden fruit would lead to death—as God said it would and as the serpent said it would not—was answered by the instant loss of God’s gift of Spiritual life in Adam. He and Eve died in the moment they ate—now functioning separately from God’s eternal life.
Yet their physical life continued for a time. But only until their dust-based bodies, consisting of the material of the newly cursed and dying earth, also expired. The point is that they had two aspects of life and death—what Jesus distinguished as the life birthed of the flesh and that which is birthed of the Spirit—so that they were now physically living but spiritually dead. Paul, of course, broadened this to all humanity in Ephesians 2:1-2, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”
What, then, is hell? How does it overlap with, and yet differ from, physical death? Jesus clarified the point by speaking of the dual aspects of life and death in yet another warning meant to help his followers catch the distinction: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Hell denoted the place where all who reject God’s love and life will be found in the future state of eternity. In Revelation 21: 7-8 God enlarges the warning:
The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.
Finally let me underscore the most important point of all: sinners prefer hell over heaven. No one will be in hell without their having voted for that option! And, as now is the case, they will blame on God all the evils that they have birthed and embraced in their autonomy.
Consider, for instance, Psalm 2, where God is represented as laughing as the nations rage against him. He is not upset by a world that votes against him, even if it is by a vast majority. Why not? Because the measure the fallen world uses is “freedom”—meaning the freedom that forms the fallen human identity. Ever since Adam first declared independence from God in Eden, a preference for personal freedom has been reaffirmed in every subsequent generation. A freedom that flies in the face of the Son who tells us, “For apart from me you can do nothing.” And so it is that in Psalm 2 the Father warns the world, “Kiss the Son.” This is the measure of heaven and hell: how we respond to the Son.
Hell is simply this: the locale where all who hate God and who refuse to love—to “kiss”—the Son, despite the beauty of his own sacrificial love, are free to retreat from his presence for all of time: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed” (2 Thess 1:9-10).
Let me conclude by saying that my own conversion came in reading the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. I invite readers to turn there: there Jesus pits heaven and hell against each other. There he confronted me for being a hellbent sinner, even in my youth. And he then invited me to join him in heaven as one whom he loved. My response to his invitation to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” came in the context of discovering that Jesus was both strong as hell—as he swallowed death on my behalf—and as heavenly as any can imagine! Let’s all join him in a complete and joyful dependence.