In the age of Love Wins, we’ve relocated hell solely to earth and convinced ourselves there’s nothing worse than losing one’s body (Matthew 10:28). Hell, we reason, just doesn’t sound like a good God. Especially when we’ve redefined goodness.
Some preachers won’t preach hell — not because they don’t believe in it, but because they find it impolite and untoward. It is the disagreeable part about God, the part to obscure. And in obscuring the bad news it is no wonder so many churches in the West have forgotten the good. It makes less sense. Man’s chief problem, they assume, is lack of success, scarcity of happiness; therefore, our message ought to be 7 Steps to a Victorious Whatever. And thus we offer shiny new laws that only increase the trespass (Romans 5:20).
But Jesus was not skittish about preaching hell. He knew the stakes couldn’t be higher. “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you,” he tells the healed paralytic (John 5:14). Because he knows there are worse things than being paralyzed. He knows there are worse things than dying.
The Sheep and The Goats
Let’s look at one of Jesus’ direct references to the afterlife. Following the barrage of high-stakes parables concluding the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24), this word about the eternal destinies of the righteous and the unrighteous contains elements of a parable (separating people like sheep and goats (Matthew 25:32-33)) but is largely a circling back around to answer the disciples’ question about the end of the age (Matthew 24:3). Why be alert and diligent, so as to be found faithful? Because the stakes couldn’t be more high.
Then he [the Son of Man] will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46)
This passage does not, as some suppose, teach a works righteousness. We need only hold it up with the similar teaching in which Jesus sent the doers of good works (in his name!) to the same eternal punishment as these non-doers of works (Matthew 7:21-23). J.C. Ryle explains:
The last judgment will be a judgment according to evidence. The works of men are the witnesses which will be brought forward, and above all their works of charity. The question to be ascertained will not merely be what we said, but what we did–not merely what we professed, but what we practiced. Our works unquestionably will not justify us. We are justified by faith without the deeds of the law. But the truth of our faith will be tested by our lives. Faith which has not works is dead, being alone. (James 2:20.)
What the “sheep” are receiving at the end of their faithful lives is the inheritance prepared for them at the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34), before they’d done anything good or bad. Their lives of goodness, of tending to Christ, as it were, are the evidences of their having tended to Christ’s church—“the least of these my brothers” (Matthew 25:40). This is not to say, of course, that the mission of the church does not include such care for those outside the church; as I argued in the previous chapter, it does. It is only to say that the sheep receiving the inheritance are those who have been “blessed by the Father” (v.34), have been promised the blessing before time (v.34), and have made the care of Christ through the care of his people a chief concern of their lives (v.40).
Like the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, this teaching then shows us the direness of the death after death.
“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’” (Matthew 25:41).
Jesus is not talking about a fiery garbage dump outside Jerusalem. It has been common to think so, that Jesus could not mean to send people into a fiery hell for eternity, that instead the quote-unquote “historical context” shows us that he is just metaphorizing annihilationism with yet another allusion to Gehenna (explicit in Matthew 5:22, 29-30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15; Mark 9:43), the Valley of Hinnom outside the city where trash was continually burning. But this claim is, if you’ll forgive the term, rubbish. There is virtually no evidence from the time in question to support such a claim, and what has become a sort of biblical urban legend today—similar to the old chestnut, since debunked, about the “eye of the needle” being a gate into the city through which camels must walk through on their knees—actually originates well into the thirteenth century. George R. Beasley-Murray is one of many scholars addressing the claim:
The notion, still referred to by some commentators, that the city’s rubbish was burned in this valley, has no further basis than a statement by the Jewish scholar Kimchi made about A.D. 1200; it is not attested in any ancient source.
Further, we should find it suspect that the deniers of hell along these lines do not similarly metaphorize Jesus’ words about heaven. The place of punishment? An exaggeration; doesn’t exist. The idea of heaven? Realer than can be. Eternal punishment is a myth while eternal life is a reality. This is an obvious case of double-mindedness.
No, when Jesus speaks of eternal punishment he means just that. He means that hell is real. Of course, our perceptions of it may be inaccurate, but our belief in it is well-grounded in the Scriptures. It is a place prepared for the devil and his angels, so it cannot simply refer to the graves of the mortal. Likewise, as Jesus is highlighting two destinations in this passage, not one, we know he can neither be referring to the grave of death nor teaching universalism.
The language Jesus uses to describe hell may be symbolic, of course, but the thing about symbols is that they have referents. They correspond to things, and biblical symbols often pale in comparison to the realities for which they are the shadows. In other words, when Jesus says there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth in the place of eternal punishment it is not likely he means that it will be not so bad as all that, but actually that it will be much worse.
Similarly, to even use the phrase “eternal” in relation to this punishment, to this place of fiery condemnation is to tell us that it is exactly that—eternal. Hell is forever. The destruction is eternal (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The fire is eternal (Jude 7). The “gloom of darkness” is “reserved forever” (Jude 13). Jesus refers to the fires of hell as being “unquenchable” (Matthew 3:12, Mark 9:43). And in case we are led to believe that the eternal destruction refers to an irreversible annihilationism, Revelation 14:11 tells us that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.”
Simply (and bluntly) put, hell is real and eternal because God’s holiness is real and eternal. The unrepentant workers of iniquity will serve to showcase his justice for all eternity. This should make us uncomfortable. It should make us uncomfortable enough to make our calling and election sure.
Because the frightening thing is that to enter hell all one has to do is nothing.
“Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:45). All you have to do to go to hell is not rock the boat. Accept the status quo. Hell is quite easy to enter. Because outside of Christ we stand condemned already (John 3:18), we need simply do nothing. As Jonathan Edwards said, there is nothing between the reprobate and hell but air. The only thing preventing the breathing unbeliever’s entrance into hell at this very moment is the patience of God.
“The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matthew 7:13).
You few, you happy few, enter by the narrow gate.
Lazarus and the Rich Man
Let’s now turn to Jesus’ parable about this place called hell. It is one of his more detailed stories, enhanced by the inclusion of proper names (Lazarus, Abraham), the only time Jesus does this in a recorded parable. Some have surmised this is because it is not a parable at all, but a real incident. It is more likely that the inclusion of a proper name is to heighten the reality of what is being described, however—to emphasize that real people with real lives go to heaven and hell—although perhaps there is some significance to the fact that Jesus names the rewarded while the condemned man goes nameless.
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” And he said, “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:19-31)
In connection with the rest of the Bible’s teaching about eternal condemnation, including the teaching on the sheep and the goats, we see again here that 1) hell is real, 2) hell is eternal, and 3) hell is very easy to get to.
Some will say, “Oh, it’s just a parable.” Okay, but a parable about what? Like symbols, parables have referents. They correspond to things—things that are bigger and more real than their examples. What Jesus refers to as “torment” and “anguish” cannot mean an unconscious void. More obviously, nor can it mean “everybody goes to heaven.” Nor can it refer to “hell on earth,” since the rich man is clearly in a post-mortem place, unreachable by heaven.
Similarly, Jesus draws on the traditional Jewish designations for the afterlife: Abraham’s bosom and Hades (or the grave of the wicked). He is not essentially making a practical point about being nice to each other but a theological point that confirms and clarifies earlier divine revelation.
The chasm is fixed. It is irrevocable. The anguish will be forever, and from it there will be no relief. Whatever may be gathered from the narrative as speculative, this point certainly is not hazy. Jesus is teaching through the figure of Abraham, receiver of the everlasting covenant, that God’s promise of condemnation is everlasting.
We see here again how frighteningly easy it is to go to hell. Like the rich man, simply mind your own business. The very short description of his life reveals the depths of his excess. He “feasted sumptuously every day.” This rich man loved himself a lot. This is very, very easy for anyone to do, so it is very, very easy to be self-involved all the way into self-destruction.
It is quite easy to go to hell. You don’t even have to believe what you see! Abraham tells the man that witnessing a miracle—someone going to the living from the dead, presumably Lazarus—will achieve nothing for those who do not believe in the Law and the Prophets. Basically, seeing with the eyes of the body will not result in belief until seeing with the eyes of the soul does. Abraham is saying about the rich man’s relatives, “If they won’t believe the word of God about the messiah, miracles won’t do them any good.”
Do you remember Jesus’ response to skeptical Thomas?
Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)
Jesus condescended in mercy to let Thomas see, but he is emphatic: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
So, believe! Believe hell is real. But believe over and above that truth the One who is Truth and also the Way and the Life. Jesus’ loving embrace of our torment in the condemnation of the cross is the only way to escape the torment of eternal damnation. For all who believe in him receive his rights, his blessings, his inheritance. All who believe in him receive eternal life.
 J.C. Ryle, The Gospel of Matthew (1856), http://www.gracegems.org/Ryle/Matthew.htm
 G.R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1986), 376-377.