New Testament,  Theology

Why Do Some People Believe in Hell?

picture signifying the flame of hell

The NY Times recently ran an article entitled, “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” The opening line states, “The idea of eternal damnation is neither biblically, philosophically nor morally justified. But for many it retains a psychological allure.” In other words, there is no reason to believe in hell except for some psychological brokenness.

Later in the article, the author gives the following reason why many believe in hell:

“How can we be winners, after all, if there are no losers? Where’s the joy in getting into the gated community and the private academy if it turns out that the gates are merely decorative and the academy has an inexhaustible scholarship program for the underprivileged? What success can there be that isn’t validated by another’s failure?”

Needless to say, I have never met anyone who believed in hell because they wanted to see losers in life in order to contrast their winning ways. Rather, most people who believe in hell do so for biblical and theological reasons. Although this is a much larger discussion, here are three brief reasons belief in hell makes sense.

1. Eternal punishment is described in parallel with eternal life (Matt 25:46)

It is very difficult to imagine a situation where the adjective “eternal” could mean something different in such close proximity and parallel usage. In addition to the parallel use of “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:46, the descriptor “eternal” is also used in contexts describing eternal fire (Matt 25:41; Jude 7), eternal destruction (2 Thess 1:9), and eternal judgment (Heb 6:2). All of these contexts are associated with hell. Thus, it seems we have a firm biblical basis for seeing eternal punishment in life after death.

2. Sin against an infinitely holy God deserves infinite judgment.

Perhaps an illustration can help. It would be one thing for someone to disregard all manners and insult a child or a friend. However, it would be something else entirely for someone to insult a dignitary or a president. We would rightly be appalled at the offense of one so dignified and worthy of respect. We understand there are varying levels of offense based on the dignity and honor that is due.

In similar manner, we can’t even imagine the offense that sin brings to a perfectly holy God. Many individuals rebel against the idea of hell because they themselves have evaluated that it is unjust to eternally pay for a finite amount of sin. However, a fallen created being is in no position to determine what is just with regards to offending a perfectly holy Creator.

3. Sin continues to accumulate in hell, therefore continued judgment is needed.

Nobody is hell worships God. They are in a constant state of rebellion and anger against God. This is proven in part by the description of gnashing teeth in the judgment (Matt 13:32, 50; 22:13; 25:30; Luke 13:28). The word for gnashing teeth (βρυγμός) is used in its verbal form in Acts 7:54 where the Jews were enraged at Stephen and “ground their teeth” (βρύχω) at him. This verb is also used in the LXX in Job 16:9 and Psalm 34:16 to describe enraged humans. Thus, the picture of gnashing teeth is likely one of anger and not sorrow over sin. Because those in judgment continue to be angry and rebellious against God, judgment must continue to be carried out perpetually.

This is far from an exhaustive defense of hell. There will no doubt be a need for other posts on hell in the future. However, I simply wanted to lay out a few biblical and theological reasons why believers throughout church history have believed in hell. Never have I known a Christian to enjoy the belief in hell, nor have I met a Christian who embraced hell because he wanted to feel superior to others.

Christians believe in hell because it is taught in Scripture, and because it complements the very idea of a supremely holy Creator who demands perfect obedience from His creatures. As any Christian will be able to tell you, this is why we rejoice so greatly in Jesus Christ—He alone is the way anyone can escape an eternity in hell.

Photo by Felix Weinitschke on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

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