Hell is supposed to make us uncomfortable. This side of heaven, it is not a sign of spiritual health to be untroubled by the horrors of hell — that humans like us, made in God’s image for fullness of joy, will spend eternity under the righteous frown of his omnipotent justice. As theologian Wayne Grudem writes, not only is “the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment . . . so foreign to the thought patterns of our culture,” but it also offends “on a deeper level . . . our instinctive and God-given sense of love and desire for redemption for every human being created in God’s image.”
Last August, as our family visited Manhattan, we had the joy of seeing The Lion King on Broadway. And in that urban, sophisticated, and apparently progressive setting, the play’s climactic moment struck me as especially memorable, and poignant. The crowd went wild at the destruction of Scar.
Among all the educated and psychologically informed members of the audience, I didn’t observe any who expressed concern about the villain’s feelings. No one objected or stood in protest as a self-proclaimed advocate for Scar. None demanded our empathy for the misunderstood scapegoat.
Deep down, we all want the wicked to receive their due. We all have our cries for justice. Even Broadway audiences cheer the destruction of the manifest monster. Without controversy, we consign Hitler to damnation. We know great evil demands cosmic justice.
Yet we have a harder time imagining ourselves, or our beloved friends and family, as the wicked, as those justly deserving what Jesus called hell.
These Overwhelming Doctrines
There, I said it — “the crude monosyllable,” as C.S. Lewis calls it in his essay on “Learning in War-Time.”
To a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell. You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable. I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention Heaven and hell even in a pulpit. (48)
Now, Lewis’s “these days” were nearly ninety years ago, at the start of World War II. Perhaps hell was permitted to make a brief comeback in polite conversation after such a war, but surely it’s no more socially accepted today than it was in 1939. Lewis continues,
I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St. Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church. If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tom-foolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them. (48)
Note two unnerving claims here, well-spoken in 1939, and still strikingly relevant. First, Jesus indeed did teach on hell more than anyone else: “These overwhelming doctrines are dominical.” For instance, the Greek gehenna, which we translate hell, occurs twelve times in the New Testament, with eleven on the lips of Jesus. Hell comes from the mouth of our Lord himself — the one man who is also divine, preeminently holy enough to speak to such a subject, and for none who genuinely claim his name to second-guess him. It really would be profound folly to think you could have Jesus and not have, with him, his clear and pronounced teaching on hell.
Second, the paths diverge in Lewis’s double “if” statements: “If we do not believe them [the dominical doctrines], our presence in this church is great tom-foolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them.” In other words, Lewis puts the question to us, as Elijah put the question to those limping between Baal and the true God: Will you be faithful to the clear teaching of the one you call Lord, or will you be the liar or lunatic?
Hell Is Supposed to Horrify
However much we might wrestle theologically with “the problem of evil” — and with it, “the problem of hell” — it really is the existential problems of evil and hell that unsettle us the most. College students might express (and even enjoy) theoretical questions in safe, scholastic settings, but these challenges pale in comparison to losing a loved one to cancer, or murder or a freak accident, and pondering whether your beloved might spend eternity apart from Jesus and under the penalties of divine justice.