What Is The Nature Of Hell?
In class last week, you said that judgment might be the moment when God gives us exactly what we have been asking for. I was thinking before that class about what would have happened if I had died several years ago. I'm sure I would have ended up in hell. But my thoughts about what it would have been like were not physical suffering. It was more along the lines of seeing God and that He is real. He would have been so sad as He told me how hard He tried to get me to come to Him, and I just kept rejecting Him. Now it was too late and I would be forever separated from Him. Interesting that I would have gotten what I had wanted. I never thought of it like that before.
I think you understand hell just fine. Hell is not about burning in physical fire, although that image has certainly been used repeatedly over time to describe the horror of being separated from God. When Jesus uses phrases such as “place of punishment,” “fire of hell,” and “eternal fire” in scripture, he is actually referring to a literal place in his day, a garbage dump outside the city walls of Jerusalem called “Gehenna.” This garbage dump was a horrible, stinking valley filled with refuse and always had a smoldering fire burning. So when Jesus describes being in hell (separated from God), he pointed out to that place, reeking of sulfur, and said “being without God is like being thrown in there! Awful!”
Now what is interesting is that throughout the Bible, when God shows up, fire is present. Think of Abraham’s offering being accepted in Genesis 15…God is symbolized as a flaming torch. In Exodus 3, God speaks out of a burning bush. God consumes Elijah’s offering with fire from heaven (1 Kings 18). At Pentecost (Acts 2), the sign of God’s presence is a “tongue of fire” that rests on the apostles’ heads. There are other examples, but I think you see the point: fire is a sign of God’s presence. As we know, fire can be comforting gift or destructive horror, depending on how you experience it. Perhaps the difference between heaven and hell is the difference between being in God’s presence with the joy and acceptance of forgiveness…or being in that holy presence without forgiveness. What would it be like to be in the presence of purity while completely recognizing the fullness of my sin – that is hell.
I think we make another mistake regarding hell by referring to it as the place God “sends” us. I believe God desires for everyone to receive forgiveness and be in full relationship. However, God gives us free will. God won’t force us to accept that forgiveness and love. Scripture says there are some people who continually push God away, in this life and the next. That is what I meant about God giving us what we want. For those who desire to draw near to God and receive forgiveness and love, God joyfully gives us our choice. For those that desire to push God away and be their own god, God gives us that choice as well. It is not that God judges us, but we (our actions and choices) judge ourselves. And in the end, we get exactly what we have desired.