Thursday, March 17, 2011

Understanding Hell

Over about the past year, I have received numerous questions about hell, particularly from folks who want to be better prepared to share the gospel and from others seeking biblical answers to common objections to this doctrine.  The traditional doctrine of hell experienced sparse opposition over the first 1800 years of the church, but in the last couple of centuries, with the rise of modernism and post-modernism, the doctrine has experienced almost constant attack.  The central question posed repeatedly is this: does the Bible teach a literal, physical, eternal place of torment called “hell”?  The short answer is yes, but over the next several blog posts, we will be taking a look at what the Bible has to say, as well as dealing with some of the most common objections. 

It is the position of the elders of Providence Bible Fellowship that there is a literal, physical, eternal place of torment called hell, and that it is the certain destination of all those who die in their sin.  All have sinned and deserve this judgment, but by God’s grace and through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, those who repent of their sin and trust in Christ alone to save them are forgiven of their sin, spared an eternity in hell, and given the gift of eternal life.   We hold this position because the Bible teaches it, not because it is popular or because it is the traditional view. 

The appropriate place to start with this doctrine is with the character of God.  A skewed view of who God is a fertile ground for error.  That is because all of theology finds its foundation in the character of God.  The very word theology means “study of God.”  So it should be no surprise that when we are wrong about the character of God, we end up in doctrinal error in many other areas of theology. 

The doctrine of hell is no exception.  This doctrine is rooted in who God is.  One common way that we get into trouble with the doctrine of hell is by elevating one of God’s attributes above all the others.  “God is love,” the Bible tells us (1 John 4:8, 16).  Many people then infer that hell cannot be literal, physical, and eternal because “a loving God would not do that.”  I’ll deal more with that objection in a later post, but what we need to understand at this point is that, yes, God is love, but He is not only love.  He is also holy. 

The Bible teaches that God is holy in two different senses.  First, He is holy in the sense that He is unique, separate, and distinct from everything He has created (Ex 15:11; 1 Sam 2:2).  This could be called the non-moral component of God’s holiness.  This “otherliness” of God is related to the second sense in which He is holy: He is separated from all that is sinful.  This is the moral component.  One of the classic texts illuminating the holy nature of God is Isaiah 6:1-7.

  1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.

 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.

 3 And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!"

 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.

 5 And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"

 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.

 7 And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for."

That the word “holy” is pronounced three times in v3 represents a superlative in the Hebrew language.  It essentially means that God is ultimately holy.  He is perfectly separated from all that is sinful.  The passage clearly demonstrates God’s majesty and separation, but it goes further in that it shows the implications that God’s holiness holds for man.  Notice Isaiah’s response in v5 to being confronted with the searing holiness of God.  There was not only an awareness of his own sinfulness (“…I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips…”), but also a dread of judgment (“Woe is me! For I am lost…”), all because of seeing who God is (“for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”).  God’s revealed holiness led to an awareness of sin and judgment.  God’s holiness exposed that Isaiah was unholy. 

Notice also, what v7 teaches us.  Isaiah was able to be in God’s presence only because his guilt was removed and his sin was atoned for.  This whole passage implies that God’s holiness is the basis for understanding sin and judgment.

Isaiah 6:1-7 shows us that God’s holiness is not just a description of who He is but also a standard for His creation.  The main principle of the OT law is found in Leviticus 19:2 – “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”  The same principle is found in the NT in Matthew 5:48, where Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as our heavenly Father is perfect.”  Peter also applied this standard to the church when he quoted Leviticus 19:2 in 1 Pet 1:15-16.  The righteousness that God demands from man is based on His own character, expounded in His word.  

So when we break God’s law, we are not just breaking a rule.  We are offending the very character of God.  We are violating His holiness.  That was the reason for Isaiah’s sense of doom in the presence of this Holy God.

Because of God’s holy character, He judges men according to their deeds (Rom 2:6; 2 Tim 4:14; Heb 9:27; 1 Pet 1:17; Jude 14-15).  He is a righteous judge, which means not only that He is righteous, but that it is good and right for Him to judge men accordingly (Psa 7:11; 9:7-8; 96:13; Jer 11:20; Acts 17:31; Rom 2:5; 2 Thess 1:5; 2 Tim 4:8; Rev 19:11). 

Scripture repeatedly speaks of the wrath of God as His response to sin.  As Paul begins his explication of the gospel in the book of Romans, he writes in 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men...”  Likewise, Jesus describes the fate of the disobedient in John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”  An exhaustive list of cross-references would be too long to include here, but a few references include Num 11:33; 2Ki 22:13; Eph 5:6; Col 3:6; Heb 3:11, 4:3; Rev 14:10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1; 19:15.  God’s wrath is His righteous response to the sinfulness of men. 

God is holy. His holiness demands a payment for sin.  This is the foundation for a right understanding of hell.

Next time we’ll begin to look at what the Bible teaches about the nature of God’s wrath.  Until then, consider this: if God is not a God of wrath, why do we need a Savior?

Posted by Greg Birdwell

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