n his address to the first graduating class of The Salvation Army, William Booth (1829–1912) began his talk like this: “Brothers and sisters, perhaps I should apologize to you for keeping you here for two years—all so that you could learn how to lead a lost soul to Jesus Christ. It would have been better had you spent five minutes in hell.”
The implication of this latter line was that you would not need to be taught; you would be so stirred and convinced of the awfulness of hell and people’s need to be saved that you would speak to the lost everywhere, warning of the wrath to come and therefore would surely lead many to Christ.
Why be a Christian? Because eternity lasts a long time. All people in the world who ever lived will be alive and well in one of two final destinies: heaven or hell. This is why Jesus asked the unanswerable question: What does it profit a man or woman to gain the whole world—unlikely—but lose his or her own soul? (see Mark 8:36). What will your millions be worth when you die? What will your popularity be worth a hundred years from now? One thousand years from now? One million years from now? I think of the final verse of John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace”:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.
Put that sublime line in reverse, and consider someone in hell ten thousand years from now. It is impossible to fathom how fearful, awful, and terrible this is.
This brings the question “Why be a Christian?” into the most sobering perspective I can imagine. Remember, if there is no hell, there is no heaven. If there is no everlasting hell, there is no everlasting heaven. You have no right to believe in heaven (because it is so pleasant) except that the Bible teaches it. And the same Bible gives even more space to the subject of the lost in hell than it does to joy in heaven.
Jesus’ words put it simply, succinctly, and clearly: “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).* If you ask any unbiased person who had nothing to prove to read this verse, what do you suppose he would think it means? The natural reading is obvious: eternal punishment lasts as long as eternal life.
C.S. Lewis said, “I have met no people who fully disbelieved in hell and also had a living and life-giving belief in heaven. The Biblical teaching on both destinations stands or falls together.”
Revelation 20:10 speaks of not only Satan but two human beings, the Antichrist and the False Prophet, being cast into the lake of fire and “tormented day and night forever and ever.” Revelation 14:11 appears to apply to a large number of people: “The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.”
In the Bible, Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone else did. He referred to hell as a real place (Matthew 10:28; 13:40–42; Mark 9:43–48). He described it in graphic terms: a fire that burns but doesn’t consume; an undying worm that eats away at the damned; and a lonely, foreboding darkness.
Apologize for this teaching? We should not apologize for Jesus’ teaching on eternal punishment. Jesus’ first mention of it would appear to be in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5—7). Having referred to the “fire of hell” (Greek: gehenna, 5:22), He goes on to say:
Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell [Greek: gehenna] (5:28–30).
Jesus was using a figure of speech called hyperbole; He was not challenging men literally to pluck their eyes out—or hundreds would have done that when He finished His sermon. But He shows His belief in hell; He means it is better to give up things that are precious to you—painful though this may be—than for your whole being to be spent in hell forever.
There are three Greek words that have been translated hell at one time or another in various versions of the Bible. Gehenna, which is connected to fire, is used 12 times in the New Testament. Hades, which means “the grave,” is also used 12 times in the New Testament, yet when Jesus referred to hades in Luke 16:23–24, it was a place of fire and torment. A third word, tartarus—used only in 2 Peter 2:4—is translated “hell”: “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.”
There are times when Jesus does not use the word hell but rather a place of “outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). At the end of the age, “angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:49–50).
Hell is a place as heaven is a place. Some people would say hell is a state of mind. They speak of “hell on earth.” General Dwight Eisenhower used to say, “War is hell.” Some people would say, “Life is hell.” It has become a swear word in the world, but is seldom used in the pulpit as it is meant in the Bible.
Likewise, some would talk about “heaven on earth.” The Puritan Thomas Brooks (1608—1680) wrote a book he called Heaven on Earth. So yes, either heaven or hell may be described as a state of mind or even as a happy exclamation: “Good heavens!” or “Heavens to Betsy!”
Make no mistake, heaven is a place. Hell is also a place. Jesus said a place of “eternal fire” was prepared “for the devil and his angels.” However, it will be a place not only for the devil and his angels. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. . . . And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41, 46).
These descriptions of Jesus cohere with what Paul called the revelation of the “wrath of God” (Romans 1:18). Being justified by Jesus’ blood, “much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (5:9). Paul wanted to show the Roman Christians what he believed before he arrived there. He shows what he taught when he was in Thessalonica: we wait the return of God’s Son from heaven, “whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
If you ask me, Do I like this teaching? No. I wish it weren’t true. If God were to leave things to me, I would let everybody out of hell, save everybody, and do away with eternal punishment altogether.
In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis spoke to those who argue against the doctrine of hell:
In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.
Here is why I teach. I am God’s ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20). An ambassador faithfully represents and defends the position of his nation’s government. He may not personally understand it. He may not always be happy with it. But he defends it. That’s me.
* All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
This article is an excerpt from Whatever Happened to the Gospel? (Charisma House, 2018), by R. T. Kendall. Kendall was the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, England, for 25 years. He is the author of more than 60 books.