Do I really have to believe in hell?

Herman Bavinck begins and ends his discussion of the eternal punishment of sinners with the caveat that no one is really enthused about the doctrine:

If human sentiment had the final say about the doctrine of eternal punishment, it would certainly be hard to maintain and even today find few defenders.

For in eternal punishment God’s justice always manifests itself in such a way that his goodness and love remain inviolate and can never be justly faulted. The saying that he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone applies also in hell. The pain he inflicts is not an object of pleasure, either for him or for the blessed in heaven, but a means of glorifying his virtues, and hence [the punishment is] determined in severity and measure by this ultimate goal. (Reformed Dogmatics, IV, 708, 714)

Christians do not believe in hell because they find the idea enjoyable. Christians believe in hell because the Bible teaches the reality of it. Along those lines, here some important things to remember when considering the doctrine of eternal punishment:

  1. “Human feeling is no foundation for anything important, therefore, and neither may nor can it be decisive in the determination of law and justice. All appearance notwithstanding, it is infinitely better to fall into the hands of the Lord than into human hands (1 Chron. 21:13).” In short, your feelings and opinions are inconsequential to the formulation of doctrinally orthodox beliefs.
  2. “…no one in Scripture speaks of [eternal punishment] more often and at greater length than our Lord Jesus Christ, whose depth of human feeling and compassion no one can deny and who was the meekest and most humble of human beings.” In other words, if you have a problem with hell you have a problem with Jesus.
  3. “Granted, sin is finite in the sense that it is committed by a finite creature in a finite period of time, but as Augustine already noted, not the duration of time over which the sin was committed but its own intrinsic nature is the standard for its punishment.” The denial of eternal punishment minimizes the sinfulness of sin and the greatness of God.  Even in this life we recognize the varied magnitude of different decisions. There is a world of difference between choosing the wrong thing off the menu for supper and choosing the wrong person to marry. Sin is not just choosing the curly fries instead of the home-style fries at Arby’s. “…sin is infinite in the sense that it is committed against the Highest Majesty, who is absolutely entitled to our love and worship. God is absolutely and infinitely worthy of our obedience and dedication.”
  4. “…for the person who disputes [the reality of] eternal punishment, there is enormous danger of playing the hypocrite before God. Such a person presents himself as extremely loving, one who in goodness and compassion far outstrips our Lord Jesus Christ. This does not stop the same person, the moment one’s own honor is violated, from erupting in fury and calling down on the violator every evil in this life and the life to come.” Or, if you are going to deny the right of God to punish sin, you have no right to condemn it yourself.
  5. Finally, “Critics of eternal punishment not only fail to do justice to the doom-worthiness of sin, the rigorousness of divine justice; they also infringe on the greatness of God’s love and the salvation that is in Christ.” For all the talk of a loving God not sending people to hell, a denial of hell actually makes God into a hateful misogynist. If hell is not real, why would the eternal Word of God have to take on human flesh and die for man’s sin? If the eternal Son of God did not have to die for man’s sin to save him and God sent Him to die anyway… What kind of Father does that?

No one likes the idea of hell. But, “If the object had not been salvation from eternal destruction, the price of the blood of God’s own Son would have been much too high. The heaven that he won for us by his atoning death presupposes a hell from which he delivered us. The eternal life he imparted to us presupposes an eternal death from which he saved us.”

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