Chapter 4 – What Jesus’ Followers Said About Hell
So if Jesus clearly taught about hell, did his followers see it that way as well? Surely it was those closest to Jesus who understood his teachings best, so the question we must ask is whether or not they understood Him the way we understand Him. If it’s different than how we’ve taken it, maybe we need to reexamine what we’ve taken from Jesus. So what did they say?
Chan begins with Paul, and points out something interesting. Paul never uses the word “hell”. This is important to point out, because Rob Bell claims that he uses every verse in the Bible in which “hell” is used. This might be true, but though Paul doesn’t use the word “hell”, there is no mistaking that he uses the concepts and terms of hell which Jesus and the other teachers used quite frequently. It is Paul who says that those who do not obey Christ “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (II Thessalonians 1:9)
Of course, there are many who say that we shouldn’t preach the “hell-fire and brimstone” sermon. There have been people who went too far, and never paid any attention to the grace and love of God in their teaching, preaching or witnessing. That is certainly wrong. But we need to watch out that we don’t swing the opposite direction, and begin to ignore hell completely. Chan says “God is compassionate and just, loving and holy, wrathful and forgiving. We can’t sideline His more difficult attributes to make room for the palatable ones.” (pg. 101) There needs to be some balance.
Paul demonstrates this for us in Acts 17. Here we have Paul preaching a clear message of God, but doesn’t say anything of forgiveness, atonement or cross. There is, however, talk of the Day of Judgment. Paul tells the listeners that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness.” This certainly isn’t an argument that we should only preach judgment, but that it is certainly wrong to ignore it.
He then goes to a couple other authors in the New Testament, Peter and Jude. In II Peter 2 and Jude we have some very vivid imagery. Demons and false teachers, along with the unrighteous, will be punished in hell. There will be “destruction,” “punishment,” “judgment,” “condemnation” and more.
Then, of course, you have the book of Revelation. No where is the image more vivid, though Chan doesn’t talk about the possibility of John using apocalyptic language. Regardless, though, of how realistic the images are, there are certain things you cannot avoid when you read Revelation. There will be a Judgment day, and the “cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for the murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (21:8)
Do the writers back up the understanding we took from Jesus’ teachings? They certainly do, yet the idea of hell is so unpleasant, most don’t even think about it. I, with Chan, agree that I don’t often life as if hell is an actual place. “What causes my heart to ache right now as I’m writing this is that my life shows little evidence that I actually believe this. Every time my thoughts wander to the future of unbelievers, I quickly brush them aside so they don’t ruin my day. But there is a reality here that I can’t ignore.” (pg. 107)