Hell: The Subject We Must Not Avoid
Emerging generations want to talk about hell.
I first realized this leading the young adult ministry at Santa Cruz Bible Church. Every year, we surveyed the group on what they wanted to study, and each time they asked questions about hell: Is it real? Why would a loving God send people to hell and is it right to do that? It seems funny to say, but hell was on the hearts and minds of those 800 young adults.
You’d think that in today’s culture it would be counterintuitive to regularly talk about hell to emerging generations. People both inside and outside the Church are extremely sensitive to associating God or a religion with something as horrifying as hell. While it’s quite comfortable to teach about Jesus having a heart for the marginalized, studying what He said about hell can be intimidating and very uncomfortable. However, in almost 20 years of serving with emerging generations, I’ve found that they are very interested.
Why Should We Talk About Hell?
When you stop to think about it, references and allusions to hell run throughout our culture. Think about the Far Side cartoons with the red devil and pitchfork or how hell is used in our everyday language. It’s even in many rock songs (think AC/DC's "Highway to Hell"). Jesus also talked about hell and used graphic metaphors for the reality of it. When we ignore the fact that He talked about it, we allow pop culture to define it. Or it gets defined by aggressive street preachers carrying signs with “HELL” written in flaming letters and yelling offensive comments to passersby. Talking about hell gives people an understanding of what the Bible actually does or doesn’t say about something they are very much aware of already. We cannot let pop culture define hell as something cartoon- or fable-like and harmless. Or let it get defined and dismissed as something that only fundamentalist street preachers talk (yell) about in a fire-and-brimstone way.
I've found that when we only talk about the nice things of the Bible and ignore the more difficult topics, we’re seen as only teaching partial truths about what we really believe. I believe emerging generations want us to be upfront and honest with whatever we believe—both the comfortable and uncomfortable truths. And when we don’t talk about both, we can come across insincere, almost like we’re hiding something and thus, untrustworthy.
Today, there is a wonderful interest in discussing theology and the difficult questions of the Bible. I’m working with a guy in his 20s in our church who isn’t a Christian, but he’ll be helping me design and think through theological issues and difficult questions for some open forums we’re planning.
Fascinatingly, I’ve found that emerging generations are very interested when we do teach about hell. But how and when we talk about it are critical, as are our attitudes. At Vintage Faith Church, every year since we planted the church, we give what I jokingly call our annual hell sermon. Sometimes, it happens naturally when the study we’re preaching through references hell or the afterlife. A couple years ago, we talked about it in our “Hot Theology” series. Somehow, the topic of hell comes up every year, and I’m very glad it does.
When we do teach about hell, here’s how I generally go about it:
A cultural analysis of hell. I start by giving some examples from pop culture of how we generally portray or think about hell today. I teach what various other world faiths believe about some sort of hell in the afterlife to stress that the concept of hell is not isolated to the Christian faith. I also go into how Dante’s Divine Comedy and other medieval works of art have subtly shaped our concept of hell, which isn’t scripturally accurate. So we have to be careful not to come to our conclusions based on cultural or literary definitions.
Motives for talking about hell. During one of our hell sermons, we showed a Seinfeld clip (below) in which Elaine discovers that her boyfriend (Puddy) listens to Christian radio but then nonchalantly makes comments to Elaine about how she’s going to hell and he isn’t. At one point in the scene, she explodes: “If I am going to hell, you should care that I'm going to hell.” I used that clip as a springboard to illustrate that when we talk about hell, we should never do it out of mere Christian curiosity or interest, but as Elaine says, if we do believe that people will experience judgment, we should be grieved and doing whatever possible to be on the mission of Jesus, living out and communicating the Gospel. I want people to understand we’re talking about hell out of love for others, not out of condemnation, manipulation or with anything less than a broken heart.
Scriptural perspective. I then specifically teach from both Old and New Testaments to start to develop a biblical perspective on hell. We teach about the very limited understanding of the afterlife in the Old Testament and focus mainly on what the New Testament says. We’ve actually read aloud every New Testament verse referencing the word "hell." I try to lay out a biblical definition of hell before we try to answer the question of whether or not a loving God would send people to hell.
I talk about words and names used for hell in the New Testmament and show how it was around 700 B.C. when Greek writers used the terms hades and tartarus (2 Peter 2:4) in Homer’s Odyssey. I briefly go into Platonic views of the afterlife, which framed the culture Jesus lived in. We look at the specific New Testament Greek words used for hell (hades, tartarus, gehenna) and how God chose to use two familiar pre-existing Greek mythological terms describing an underworld of the dead (hades and tartarus) predating the New Testament by 700 years. He chose to use these words from Greek mythology to communicate to us about hell.
We also look at how Jesus used the word gehenna (translated “hell” in English), which was the Valley of Gehenna—the garbage dump outside the city walls of Jerusalem where dead bodies were thrown out, worms ate flesh and fires were constantly burning. So the imagery of fire, worms, etc., makes sense when looked at through a historical lens. We also need to differentiate between when hades is used, such as in Luke 16, and when gehenna is used.
And at the same time, we also have to look at possible metaphors for hell and their individual contexts. Plus, we cannot forget the many other passages which may not use the words hades or gehenna but do specifically, strongly and soberly talk about judgment after death.
Something interesting I teach is that the English word “hell” that has been translated in our Bibles from the Greek words gehenna, hades and tartarus is derived from Hel, the mythological Nordic goddess of the underworld, similar to the English word Easter, derived from the fertility goddess Eastre.
Mystery and reality. I try to approach this topic humbly and with mystery but also teach it is a reality. I specifically state that only God knows someone’s eternal destiny. We walk through various Scriptures explaining that it is appointed for people to die and that everyone will face judgment (Heb. 9:27). We also look at the differences in judgment between a Christian and non-Christian. I share that much of what hell will be like is a mystery, but that we can know it is eternal, a place of regret, etc. I do share that there are varying views about hell among Christians, including annihilation (when people cease to exist and don’t experience eternal suffering).
Escaping Hell and Where We Go in the Afterlife Are Not the Gospel
I can say that there are no dull moments when teaching about hell. It is actually a topic of high interest to most people. Again, it goes back to why and how we talk about it. Jesus didn't seem to focus on hell as a means of evangelism. His teachings primarily focused on the kingdom of heaven on earth. Too often, I think we’ve subtly made hell the primary motivation for salvation and the Gospel, altering or losing the beauty of the holistic Gospel (I Cor. 15). The Gospel is not just about what happens when we die, but about our lives being changed here. I know that as a church, we don't want to dwell on the reality of hell, but at the same time we must never forget there is a hell, even if it is a mystery to what it is specifically.
Almost every time I teach on hell, I close with this quote from Charles Spurgeon—a reminder to me and to our church why we do teach on such an uncomfortable topic:
“If sinners be dammed, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies. If they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees. Let no one go there unwarned and unprayed for.”
I know as I lead a church with a high percentage of emerging generations in it, hell is something we talk about. Not to manipulate people. Not to scare them in an unhealthy way. But because they are thinking people who definitely have questions. And because Jesus and the New Testament does teach about it. If we do believe there is a hell—even if we don’t understand exactly what it will be—we must talk about it because we care about the people Jesus loves, the people He died for so that they would not experience hell, but have abundant kingdom life here on this earth and be with Him for all eternity.
How can we not teach about it?
Churches mentioned in this article:
This is an expanded version of columnist Dan Kimball's article in the May/June 2010 Outreach. Each issue of Outreach features Kimball's column, plus ideas, innovations and resources to help you reach your community and change the world.