It takes a certain courage to look at what the Bible teaches, not like it all that much, and still believe it. I am thankful for brothers and sisters who believe in hell or believe in complementarianism or believe in election and reprobation or believe homosexuality is a sin despite their internal protestations. It’s a good sign when we take our stand on the Bible even when we’d prefer to take our stand somewhere else.

But it’s a better sign when we take our stand on the Bible and learn to love where the Bible stands.

Take hell for example. Should Christians rejoice in the doctrine of hell? That’s a loaded question that does not allow for a simplistic answer. On the one hand, if God does not want any to perish, neither should we (2 Peter 3:9). Paul has great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart at the thought of his Jewish brothers falling under God’s curse (Rom. 9:1-3). It is natural and right that we should be sad to think of people we love suffering in hell. So in one sense it is appropriate for Christians to say “I don’t like the idea of hell.”

But be careful. It’s never safe to dislike the truths God has revealed. We should actually like what the Bible teaches. We may struggle to get there–we may not immediately resonate with the hard parts of the Bible–but the goal is to get to the place where we can. The law of the Lord should be our delight. We should tremble under the word of God, not begrudgingly accept it. Hell is a hard doctrine to embrace, but God sends people to hell for his glory. The punishment of the wicked in hell vindicates God’s honor (2 Thess. 1:5-12), avenges the persecuted church (Rev. 6:10), exposes the utter sinfulness of sin (2 Peter 3:11-13), upholds divine justice (Rev. 19:1-2), and makes known the riches of his glory to vessels of mercy (Rom. 9:22-23).

To admit that God says hard things is admirable honesty. But to profess our dislike for what he does or wish that he were a different kind of God who did things in a different way–even if we come around to accept these ways in the end–is not the right kind of humility. It’s one thing to say to unbelievers and skeptics, “I struggled with the same questions you’re asking.” It’s another to throw God under the bus, admitting “I don’t like hell anymore than you do. I’d take it out of the Bible if I could. But it’s in there, so I can’t deny it.”

God is good and his ways are always right. It is a measure of our maturity that we not only affirm the truth of God’s word but rest in the goodness and rightness of it. Christians should have anguish in heart at the thought of eternal suffering, but we should also see the glory of God in the Bible’s teaching on eternal punishment.

Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing is one way to put it (2 Cor. 6:10), even with the doctrine of hell.

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108 thoughts on “Is it Okay for Christians to Believe in the Doctrine of Hell But Not Like It?”

  1. Alex Jordan says:

    Don,

    I’m not so sure of the extent to which all this historical background is critical and essential to understanding. In any case, to get back to the topic, can you provide a specific example(s) of how you think our understanding of hell today is incorrect or distorted because of not knowing the historical context.

  2. Don Johnson says:

    OK, here is a tricky question, where is paradise located? To be specific, when Jesus tells the robber “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” what was Jesus referring to?

    Many people might think that he was somehow referring to being with Jesus in heaven. Thinking this way is very Greek (and even Gnostic) and is wrong. To a Jew, paradise meant being in Abraham’s bosom, which was one part of hell/hades/sheol, the abode of the dead. The righteous dead were said to be in Abraham’s bosom or paradise. Jesus talks about Lazarus being in Abraham’s bosom.

    All of these terms, heaven, hell, earth, and seas were a part of the Bible’s cosmology, the way the Jews carved up what they saw into parts.

    Here is another, when Jesus talked about the “gates of hell shall not prevail”. What “gates of hell” was was an Jewish idiom for a specific location where pagan “gods” (idols) were places in carved out areas on a rock face of a cave. It was given that name as it was considered a place to avoid by Jews, but Jesus taught that EVEN AT such a place, the idolatry would end.

  3. J says:

    How exactly are you supposed to like the concept of eternal damnation? Unless you are a masochist with a death wish, no sane person would savor the notion of unending pain. And further, what kind of masochistic crew would create such an ideology in the first place?

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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