Tough Questions 2008: Should God Send People To Hell?

Sermon audio: Should God Send People To Hell? Henry Adams, the 19th century man of letters, said that his sister Louisa was "quick, sensitive, wilful . . . energetic, sympathetic and intelligent . . . ." In their relationship as adults, Adams wrote (referring to himself in the third person) that "he was delighted to give her the reins -- to let her drive him where she would." (The Education of Henry Adams, Riverside Editions, 1973, p 85)

In 1870, Louisa was thrown from a cab in Italy, and by the time Adams arrived from London at her bedside, he wrote, "Tetanus had already set in." "Hour by hour the muscles grew rigid, while the mind remained bright, until after ten days of fiendish torture she died in convulsions." (p 287)

Adams wrote, "[T]he idea that any personal deity could find pleasure or profit in torturing a poor woman, by accident, with a fiendish cruelty known to man only in perverted and insane temperaments, could not be held for a moment. . . . God might be, as the Church said, a Substance, but He could not be a Person." (p 289)

In so exaggerating the biblical view of God, Adams expressed what many 19th century people were thinking about God and human suffering. God could never cause or permit torment. The idea was unbearable. So He was portrayed more and more as impersonal, a new, humanitarian god rising over inhumane urban landscapes, and rising very much in the distance -- uninvolved in real life, only in idealized dreams.

But here is the way Adams described Louisa's end, one paragraph before his rejection of God's being a person. In her death, Adams had finally seen "Nature." Read the passage (p 288) at length, if you can:

Nature enjoyed [her death], played with it, the horror added to her charm, she liked the torture, and smothered her victim with caresses. Never had one seen her so winning. The hot Italian summer brooded outside, over the market-place and the picturesque peasants, and, in the singular color of the Tuscan atmosphere, the hills and vineyards of the Apennines seemed bursting with midsummer blood. The sickroom itself glowed with the Italian joy of life; friends filled it; no harsh northern lights pierced the soft shadows; even the dying woman shared the sense of the Italian summer, the soft, velvet air, the humor, the courage, the sensual fulness of Nature and man. She faced death, as women mostly do, bravely and even gaily, racked slowly to unconsciousness, but yielding only to violence, as a soldier sabred in battle. For many thousands of years, on these hills and plains, Nature had gone on sabring men and women with the same air of sensual pleasure.

Though Henry Adams could not bear God as a person, he felt able to personify nature -- the nonrational, primal person tormenting Louisa, and loving it. In fact, Adams was working up to the theme of his Education, that the essence of modern life is the shift from God's power to Nature's. Human beings are still held by vast forces, but at least the savagery squashes us without reason.

It's hard for me to see what problem Adams solved.

Many evangelicals seem to have appropriated Adams' vaporized god. When the issue is even more intense than human suffering, like the question I got this year about whether God should send people to hell, evangelicals often spin into waltzes of abstraction. They hope to make the doctrine of hell bearable with banal euphemisms.

The gold standard for evading the realities of the biblical hell has been set by the phrase, Christless eternity. That is where unbelievers go, into that . . . whatever it is. The phrase is a gem of emotional dishonesty: one feels that a Christless eternity must be quite bad, but only theoretically. The apparent doom is enough to cover the phrase's total inaccuracy (Revelation 14.9-11).

In such versions of hell, God is safely depersonalized. He is absent, passive, merely allowing unbelievers to feel their poverty. Evangelicals often do the same thing with hell that Adams did with human suffering in general: make God incapable of involvement. Evangelicals apparently feel that the picture of a Personality capable of vengeance is indefensible.

But in order to answer questions about hell, that very picture is the one we must face. The Bible claims that God will take judicial vengeance on those who revile him (Jude 8-16). In fact, when the Bible pictures God in judgment, it places his personal hatred of sin front and center. Psalm 2.4-6, in which God laughs at the kings of the earth and terrifies them by pointing to Messiah, is a relatively tame example. The final judgment, as Christ himself taught it in Matthew 25.31-46, is explicitly a personal cursing of the wicked.

So evangelicals should not pretend that the question about hell is whether God punishes sin actively and personally. He does. The question is whether he is right. That is the issue we address on Sunday.

Like Adams, evangelicals do not solve any problems with a vaporized god. Hell is no less painful, no less eternal, when it is described in euphemisms. We should deal with hell as it is, not as a place where God turns away from sinners in disappointment, but as a place where He turns toward sinners, those who never wavered in their hatred of Him, with personal, perfect fury.

Hell is, by definition, unbearable.