Spirit of Grace Ministries
Spirit of Grace Ministries
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The Problem of Hell


By Dennis Pollock

In the latter part of the twentieth century, a charismatic black preacher named Carlton Pearson was making a huge splash on American Christianity. In those days it seemed as though he was everywhere and doing almost everything. Carlton had talent in almost every area that a person can be talented. He was a great speaker, a wonderful singer, he was funny, charming, and dynamic, and had a stellar personality. It seemed as though there was no limit as to how far he would go as a leader in the Christian world. He was a rocket headed for regions few ministers would ever go, and there appeared to be nothing that could stop his appointment with greatness and destiny.

But in the midst of his meteoric rise, he suddenly shocked his 6,000 member congregation and the rest of the American Christians who followed him with an announcement that would soon bring his ministry crashing down to earth in record time. Carlton announced that while watching a video about starving African children, he heard the voice of God speaking to him. But what he heard disagreed with almost every other evangelical Christian in the world, as well as the Scriptures. Carlton declared that God had told him there was no hell. No sinners” would ever go to hell because there was no hell. And the logical extension of this was that every single person in the world was already saved.

Carlton was extremely naïve in supposing that Christians would either accept this new concept he was espousing or else just ignore it. In fact, they did neither. There was an immediate uproar among the Christians of his own congregation as well as Christians who watched him on television or simply knew about him. His church began to bleed members and over a couple of years the remaining faithful were forced to sell the building. Within a very short time, for most American Christians Carlton Pearson dropped out of sight and became essentially irrelevant to evangelical Christianity: unseen, unheard, and ignored.

Although at first he tried to suggest that he was not rejecting Scripture, but simply re-reading” it and seeing it in a new light, over the years he moved away from any pretense of believing in the inspiration of the Bible. His favorite slogan these days is that the Bible is not the inspired word of God,” but rather the inspired word of men about God,” which is a disingenuous way of saying, It s a great book, but don t be so stupid as to believe it all.”

Jesus Preached Hell

Jesus Christ, the One we honor as Savior and Lord, and as our Alpha and Omega, referred to hell and a punishment for the wicked in the afterlife more than any other person in the Bible. Jesus tells us:

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him! (Luke 12:4-5).

Elsewhere He warns:

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched (Mark 9:43).

And he blasted the hypocritical religious leaders of His day, saying, Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:33). He said of Judas, It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:24). These verses would make no sense if, as Carlton Pearson believes, everyone is saved and we are all on our way to heaven. But they make perfect sense if we believe there is a place of punishment for the wicked where they will suffer for their sins after their life on earth is over. These verses are only the tip of the iceberg. There is such an overwhelming preponderance of verses which speak of eternal accountability and an afterlife where sinners will pay for their crimes against God and against their fellow-man, that the only possible way to believe otherwise would be to deny the Bible.

The Church s Problem

This being said, the church has for years had a big problem with the idea of hell. Much of this problem has to do with the traditional view of the nature of this place of the damned. Hell has often been pictured as a great sea of molten lava, bubbling and boiling with intense heat, where every sinner who dies will be plunged, and forced to suffer there year after year, century after century, and millennia after millennia. Little children will scream in agony along with adults, serial murderers and rapists will writhe in horrible, intense pain there, right alongside “little old ladies” who loved to bake cookies for the neighborhood children. Adolf Hitler will have his place in the boiling lava, but so will 12-year-old boys and girls who died in their youth and never even achieved adulthood. Christ rejecters who lived in towns with dozens of churches will scream constantly in pain, alongside Hindus who never heard the gospel of Jesus even once in their lives, and went from childhood to old age assuming that the religion their parents taught them, the only religion to which they were ever exposed, must be the truth. Every person who dies without putting their faith in Jesus will suffer and scream and cry in torment in this boiling lava forever and ever.

Now what I ve just done is push this concept far harder than almost any pastor would ever push it. My purpose was to show that anybody with any kind of tenderness of heart would shudder from such a thought, and find the very idea difficult, if not impossible to accept. This is our orthodox view of hell, and we tend to believe it must be correct and are fearful to suggest anything other than this. But since almost no one could accept this, the result is that most evangelical preachers, while believing in the classic view of hell, will almost never preach anything about it.

The one allowance we do make in this area is to declare that children have an age of accountability.” Until they reach a certain age and ability to reason, we believe God will not hold them accountable for their sins, and they will automatically be allowed to go to heaven when they die. Some evangelicals do not believe this, but most do.

Some Correction Needed?

But is it possible that our traditional view of hell needs some correction? As I have shown earlier, there is no possible way to deny hell, but this does not mean that our traditional view of hell is entirely correct. In fact, I believe it is incorrect in several possible areas. First is the idea that hell is a great sea of molten lava or a huge blast furnace of fire where sinners will scream in agony. I think this is not likely to be the case. I will grant that there are references to fire associated with hell, but the Bible s use of imagery and symbolism does not require us to take the flames of hell literally. Second, I am not at all convinced that the sinner s torment in hell will go on eternally. Throughout the history of the church, there have been theologians who believed in a conditional hell, one which lasted until the sinner had paid for his or her sins, then to be extinguished and no longer exist. Martin Luther believed that our souls were mortal, not immortal, and that only salvation through Christ would bring about immortality.

The highly respected British theologian, John Stott, held to a conditional view of hell, where the sinner would be punished according to his sins, and eventually his very existence and consciousness would be snuffed out. David Reagan, my mentor and one of the most respected and intelligent of all Bible prophecy teachers, has always believed in a hell for the sinner that results eventually in the annihilation of the soul. You may ask, But what about the lake of fire that Revelation describes?” Yet in this lake of fire we learn that hades (the home” of the dead sinners), as well as death itself will be thrown there, indicating that this is a place of everlasting destruction, rather than an eternal torture chamber.

One of the major verses that throws into question our traditional view of hell is this one, from the mouth of Jesus:

And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more. (Luke 12:47-48).

Jesus, comparing men and women to servants of a rich master, declares that some, who never properly heard what their boss expected of them, would be punished with few stripes,” a rather light beating. But the servants who knew exactly what their master expected would be beaten with many stripes, a much more severe beating. Now if Jesus is referring to the punishment of sinners in hell, this presents a big problem for the traditional viewpoint. If hell is a boiling mass of hot lava, where every single sinner will be plunged into it and be tortured in it forever and ever, this makes no sense. How can God punish people with many or few stripes? How can the punishment of any sinner be worse or milder than any other sinner? Being perpetually burned up in hot lava is going to be equally bad for all. Is God going to turn down the temperature slightly for some sinners and turn it up more for others?

Everlasting Torture or Everlasting Punishment?

This calls into question the whole notion of hell being a literal fire which will go on forever and ever, torturing every single sinner with an equal degree of pain, with Joseph Stalin and Jack the Ripper burning right alongside mild, quiet little sinners whose worst crimes in their lives were to criticize their wives cooking or to speak negatively of their bosses.

Some may protest that the Bible speaks of an everlasting punishment, but if the sinner is punished appropriately and specifically for the sins he has committed and then is extinguished and loses his existence in the lake of fire, is that not an eternal and everlasting punishment, or as Paul puts it, an everlasting destruction?” Jesus tells us: Fear Him (God) who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” – not torture soul and body in a lake of burning lava forever and ever, but destroy soul and body in hell.” Could this not be what the Bible refers to as the second death?”

A Reasonable & Scriptural Alternative

I cannot say that this is proven conclusively in the Scripture, but there are enough passages to support it as a reasonable alternative to the traditional view. Unlike Carlton Pearson I very much believe in being saved; I do not believe that everybody is saved, or that everybody will go to heaven, and I very much believe that many will go to hell, whatever that looks like. The sinners, who spent their lives running from God and seeking to escape Him, will find that they have been horribly successful. In hell there shall be none of God’s joy, none of His peace, and none of His presence.

I realize that some ministers would protest loudly that I am most unorthodox in this perspective of the afterlife of the sinner. But I suspect that most of these same men almost never preach on the subject, and certainly will never go into the details. They realize that the prospect of every single sinner writhing and screaming in a burning lake of molten lava forever and ever would be so awful to contemplate that they would not dare to ever speak of it. It would be bad PR for God.

We might wish that God would have made the specific nature of hell plainer, so that there would be no controversy over it. But whatever the specifics, we know 1) hell will be terrible, 2) those who die without Jesus will find themselves there after death, and 3) those who receive Jesus will never go there, but will live with God in heaven forever. The Bible tells us: Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:15).



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