I want to begin by acknowledging that the metaphors of damnation that we find in Scripture are quite possibly not literal descriptions — where the worm does not die, where the fire is not quenched, where it is an outer darkness, where there is a lake of fire, and so on. But before assuming that I am quietly becoming a liberal, let me point something out about the nature of symbolic language.
The symbol is always less than the reality it represents. I am married, and I wear a ring to symbolize the fact. But the ring is less than the reality. The flag is less than the nation it represents. This means that if the language about Hell is literal — straight across — then it represents a horrible reality. But if the language is figurative, then let no one take comfort in the fact, because the comfort is as false as the other lies that can take a man to Hell. If the language is literal, then it is the stuff of nightmares. If the language is figurative, then it will be much worse than that.
One of the reasons we object to language about judgment is that we believe that it corrupts our motives for coming to Christ. We should love Christ, not fear Him. Right, but as sinners we are in no shape to love Him, and our sins require us to fear Him. Jesus does not reject the motive of fear, but rather encourages us to cultivate it. “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
But we are in the grip of theological preciosity, and we are fastidious about hellfire. We think that this kind of old school conversion is beneath us. In actual fact, it is rapidly becoming the only thing that still might reach us. It is the only thing we might still be able to see and hear. When you are almost blind, the words of grace have to be written out in big block letters on Belshazzar’s wall. When you are virtually deaf, then the mercy of God must shout.
In the vanity of our stupid dreaming, we think the doctrine of Hell is a challenge to God’s justice, when it is in fact nothing but God’s justice. We are so befuddled in our self-flattering conceits that we do not recognize that Heaven is the actual challenge to God’s justice. The problem is not how a just God could condemn anyone, but rather the problem is how a just God could allow any of our muddy boots even to touch the marble floors in His presence. In order to populate Hell, out to the edges of it, nothing whatever had to be done. In order to populate Heaven with even one sinner — still less the innumerable host that will be there — Jesus had to die. Jesus had to die so that we could be saved, and God remain just. In order for us to be damned and God remain just, as I have said, nothing whatever had to be done.
This is not an academic question. We are a wicked people, and we have sinned against very great light, and sinned away some of the greatest blessings that have ever been visited upon a people. We have slaughtered millions of our own children, and this means we must either have the forgiveness of Christ or damnation. We have publicly honored anal intercourse as a noble and fine activity, and have hounded and persecuted anyone who publicly reacts to it with the same kind of loathing that God has. We have bankrupted our great-grandchildren so that we might spend their livelihood on our lusts and comforts. We are becoming an appalling people.
So there are three glimpses of Hell and judgment that we ought to consider more than we do.
The first glimpse is the language of Scripture, some of which I have already mentioned. The descriptions of judgment after this life is over are particularly vivid, and the one who spoke of these things in the most graphic detail was the Lord Jesus. When the wicked man dies, his hope perishes (Prov. 11:7). It is appointed once for man to die, and after that the judgment (Heb. 9:27). The Lord Jesus told us, for example, of a rich man who begged for a moistened fingertip to refresh him in his torment in the flames, and he was denied even this tiny mercy (Luke 16:24). He then asked that an angel go and warn his brothers, and he was denied that also (Luke 16:29).
You want to worship the beast? You want his foul mark on your forehead or on your hand — the place where the law of God belongs (Ex. 13:9)? There is a cost to that choice — the choice that our ruling elites are currently making for us and on our behalf.
“And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name” (Rev. 14:9–11).
Not only tormented, but tormented in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb. The Bible teaches that damnation has a gallery. The Jesus you have perhaps heard about is not the Jesus of the Bible.
The smoke from a flattened Babylon ascends forever and ever, and it is the only time in the New Testament that the saints of God respond with hallelujah (Rev. 19: 1,3,4,6).
The second glimpse is the historical judgments that prefigure the final Judgment. Moses left Egypt a smoking ruin. Sodom and Gomorrah are fittingly covered by a dead sea. The Flood wiped out all but eight of the human race. When the Roman armies gathered in force around Jerusalem, it was the point when “the wrath to come” (Luke 3:7) . . . came. When terror rains down from the sky, or rolls ominously in from the ocean, or shakes the very earth beneath our feet, as it regularly does, we should be reminded that the holiness of God is something we cannot afford to trifle with.
Those things that happen in history are less than those things that will happen at the end of history. Mountain ranges shake now, but it would be preferable to have those same ranges fall on us than to confront the wrath of the Lamb (Rev. 6:16). When the Throne appears, the sky and the sea and the islands and the fabric of all creation will flee away. But we, part of that creation, will not be able to flee away. We will all stand before the Throne of Christ, and there are only two ways to do it. We may stand there in Christ, or we may stand there Christless. And here is the grim aspect of the message — Christless now, Christless then. Here is the glorious side of it — Christ is offered to you now.
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).
The last glimpse of judgment has to do with the shape of damnation, which batters us into an ultimate and inchoate shapelessness. Sin turns us increasingly into malicious biters, but curved in upon ourselves, and there in the outer darkness there is nothing to bite but your own forearm. The process of sinning without repentance represents the ultimate gollumization of the human soul. Damnation is eternal, not because God has lost all sense of proportion, but rather because the damned have lost all sense of proportion, and would rather gnaw endlessly on their tongues than to say the words I repent with those same tongues. The road to damnation is the process of turning into that kind of being.
Milton’s Satan would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, but that is not the actual choice. The true choice is between serving lunatic lusts in Hell as opposed to serving the source of all gladness in Heaven. That choice can be made, and has been many times, but not by a creature not already gibbering in principle.
And that is what we are manifestly becoming. We don’t have to wait for the end of the process to arrive to see it unfolding now. We have sinned ourselves into a blank Darwinian godlessness, and so we struggle under equal measures of guilt and meaninglessness. Because we are guilty, down to the foundations, we must have righteousness. But because we are the end product of time and chance acting on matter, we cannot have righteousness. We make shift with arbitrary and socially designated standards of righteousness which are extraordinarily brittle, and which results in zero tolerance for anyone who would dare to question our ability to hang them up in midair like that. And so it is that our public definition of moral probity has gotten to the point where it consists of whatever we decide to screech at the heretics — with heresy defined as anything that doesn’t double down on the damnation.
So that is where we must look for our warnings. We must look at the solemn declarations of Scripture, we must look at the terrifying judgments of human history, and we must look in the mirror.