I listen to a series of podcasts called “Stuff You Should Know.” It is a general knowledge podcast, with each episode selecting a theme and then giving an overview of the subject matter. Episodes can range from astrophysics, to nature, to history and occasionally ventures into religion too. I recently listened to an episode about the subject of “hell.”
In the episode, the hosts talked about the different religious views on the afterlife, with some attention given to the Christian view. While some of their general themes were correct, they did not well describe a true biblical view. For instance, they gave the overview that if you live a good life, then you go to heaven, and if not, then you go to this place called hell. This is a commonly held belief of course, but is in no way biblical. For what is a “good life?” How good is good enough? The Bible shows us that none of us are good enough, and all are destined for hell without the intervention of a Saviour – and that Saviour is Jesus Christ.
The hosts talked about the idea of “eternal punishment,” but suggested that most now felt this was extremely excessive, and that it is way out of proportion to punish someone for all eternity for a few mere sins on earth. Let’s return to this point later on…
They then discussed beliefs which they “preferred,” namely universalism and annihilationism.
I have seen a couple of slightly different definitions of universalism, but the general point is the idea that all people ultimately end up in heaven. This can come about in a number of ways. Either they could go straight to heaven for living a good life, or they could be sent to “hell” or “purgatory” to serve their time. Once they have completed the penalty, they are then promoted into heaven.
To some, this idea also carries the view that all religions lead to God. Perhaps we worship in a variety of ways, but ultimately, we all find our own way to God and so into His loving arms.
Annihilationism on the other hand is the idea that good people go to heaven, and “bad people” do not go to some form of punishment, they simply cease to exist – they are “annihilated” hence the term. This, too, the hosts of the podcast said seems favourable to that of eternal punishment.
A couple of points to note. Firstly, what we “prefer” has no bearing on what is true. I might prefer the sky to be a nice shade of green, but it remains blue. I may prefer to start work at 10am every morning, yet my boss will “prefer” to employ someone else if I do! Just because we prefer to have things another way, does not make them so. Preferring there not to be an eternal consequence of our sin does not mean there is not one. We must face reality.
The second point is this. Universalism and annihilationism are not supported by the Bible. In Luke 16, Jesus tells the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. I did a short series on this parable a while ago, and you can read the first part here – The Rich Man and Lazarus Part 1.
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’Luke 16:22-26 (NIV)
From this, two things are apparent. Firstly, the rich man is awake, aware and conscious in the place of torment (see verse 24). Secondly, we see that there is a chasm, divide or separation between the two places such that no one can travel between the two (see verse 26). Without any other biblical evidence, we see that neither universalism nor annihilationism can be true.
The rich man has no means of traversing between the good and bad places of the dead (whatever name you give them) and this means he cannot and will not end up in heaven. We too see that he is not destroyed, but rather continues to exist in that state of eternal torment.
There is other evidence in the Bible which add to this and Jesus Himself taught many things about life after death, and you cannot bend those teachings to lead to either universalism or annihilationism.
What does this mean then? If these two theories are not true, then we must look again at the frightening reality of eternal punishment. As much as we do not like he idea, we must consider it to be true alongside all else that Jesus taught.
Returning to the point that the hosts of the podcast made, that is, that eternal punishment is grossly out of proportion. How do we defend this point? If they are correct, then God is surely unjust to punish humanity for all eternity for their sins on earth?
I think part of the problem is that we fail to understand sin. We think of sin like we do crimes; there are big crimes and smaller crimes, and therefore bigger and smaller punishments. If we break the speed limit, then we get a fine. If we intentionally murder someone, then we spend a long time in prison or in some places, forfeit our lives.
Sin is not merely a crime against God. There are no big sins and small sins. Sin represents a total break in our relationship with our Holy God. God’s holiness is such that He cannot relate to our sinful selves. Sin puts a chasm between us and God, and it matters not how far we jump across – near or far – we can never reach the other side. The only way to bridge the gap is by having someone act as our substitute. That Someone is Jesus Christ.
Jesus lived the perfect life. He committed no sin, and yet was punished as a sinner. He bore the punishment that each of us deserve, and He bridged the gap between us and God. Only by accepting Him and what He did for us, can we be free of the penalty of sin.
Sin deserves eternal punishment for at least two reasons that I can fathom. Firstly, eternal punishment is merely the only other option to being in the presence of God. You are either in and enjoying His presence or you are not; the latter is what we call hell. The second reason for eternal punishment is not the sin itself, for Jesus dealt with all sins, but instead for rejecting Christ and His work. God became a human being, lived perfectly and yet suffered and died as a sinner. For us to refuse to accept that is to – for want of a better way of putting it – to reject the cross. It is to make Christ’s death of no value, or to suggest He died in vain.
Another danger of teachings like universalism is that it makes us complacent. If, ultimately, all go to heaven, then there is little driver for us as Christians to share our faith. Truth be told, if all go to heaven no matter what, then there is little point in us living out our faith in any way at all. We can live however we want to, and it won’t matter, because we’ll all end up in the same place in the end…
The take home message for us is this: there is a heaven to gain and a hell to avoid – at all costs. We, as Christians, must never be complacent and must share our faith with as many as we can. There is but one way to heaven, and His Name is Jesus Christ! All must put their faith in Him to get to heaven. We must turn from our sin and turn to Him! There are no shortcuts or alternatives, only Christ!
Our Christian lives must be driven by a sense of urgency. Even if Christ does not return in our lifetimes, we must live like He will. We must live like we only get one chance – because we do! When this life is over, there is no do-over, no reincarnation, no winding back the clock. The time to share our faith is now, and we must pray like life depends on it, because it does!
We do not know what hell is really like. There are glimpses in the Bible, but it is open to some interpretation. Is it actually a place where fire burns, for instance? It could well be, or it could be that such fire is a symbol for judgement. Either way, the Bible makes it very, very clear that hell is no place you want to be. Eternal safety is found only in the Father, and we can only reach Him through His Son Jesus.
If you do not know this Jesus I speak of, then make the effort to find out who He is today. Read the New Testament in the Bible, perhaps starting with the books of Mark or Luke. Find out who Jesus really is, and put your trust in Him. Please do get in touch if you make that choice for Him today, as I would be honoured to pray for you.
If you are a Christian already, and know Jesus, then please let this post spur you on to serve Him with your whole heart. Time is short, and eternity hangs in the balance.