Mary Poppins told us a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. But there’s another proverb about putting lipstick on a pig, which means something like certain medicine is so bad a little sugar won’t make it go down any easier.
The truth about hell is just such a thing, and it is also, incidentally, the subject of this article. My intention is not to candy-coat the doctrine of hell nor to put lipstick on it. It’s best to just take the thing straight.
For the sake of clarity, a brief definition of hell: a place of eternal, hopeless torment from which there is no escape.
In the sense that hell is a place of torment, it already exists. We live in it, and I’m sad to say, we created it. Life has certain heavenly moments no doubt, and I’m glad of that, but let us be raw for a moment and say it straight: life has plenty of hell in it. Being ravaged by a chronic, terminal disease is a kind of hell; finding yourself in an abusive relationship is another. Standing at the bedside of the ones you love as they take their final gasps of air is surely not heaven. The frustrating futility of wasted efforts, trying to get one step ahead only to fall two behind, is a kind of hell we’ve all experienced.
What’s worse, hell is not just imposed on us from the outside, it also springs up from within.
We seem quite adept at building our own personal place of torment. Self-destructive behavior takes the form of addiction, laziness, outbursts of rage, or verbal, physical, or sexual violence, betrayal, and on and on. It’s actually quite simple to create your own personal version of hell: do absolutely whatever you want all the time, never do anything you don’t want to do, and in no time, life will unravel at the seams and be a living hell. And that’s even if you manage to avoid the hell other people around you create or the hell of some unexpected catastrophe, which again, is tragically unlikely.
Lest we mock the Bible’s teaching on hell and think that a place of misery and torment is unthinkable in light of the goodness and love of God, it’s worth remembering that we have already, to some degree, created such a hellish place. Happy thoughts this guy has, you think to yourself. But this is about hell, and I promised no spoonful of sugar. We could say it’s not as bad as it could be, all the time. There, does that help?
But what distinguishes the biblical view of hell from the muted misery we intermittently experience (life could always be worse, right?) is that it is eternal, inescapable and hopeless.
The immortality of the human spirit has been considered a self-evident truth by virtually all of humanity for most of history. If you don’t believe me, just attend a funeral and watch how impossible it is for a family to stand before the casket and say, “Well, Gramma doesn’t exist anymore.” Somehow we recognize a fundamental distinction between the death of Gramma and the horsefly smeared on the windshield of the pickup.
Life becomes exceedingly dark the moment a person seriously entertains the notion that one simply ceases to be at death. Once entertained, despair is close behind, because this life obviously isn’t heaven and isn’t even always moving in that direction. Besides, even at its best, this life is a disappointing version of heaven, and we know deep down we’re wired for something greater than struggling to get a few cheap laughs and do a handful of exciting things before kicking the metaphorical bucket.
One of the apparent perks of the afterlife is getting to be with other people forever because we’re fundamentally social beings. Yet somehow we tend to think that the same people that created the hell around us, not to mention our own personal hell-creating tendencies, will somehow enter into the afterlife and miraculously not create hell anymore. As if pedophiles and identity thieves will instantaneously be transformed by death into tender-hearted charitable donors, and those who rose to be dictators and thugs in this life will be content forever walking little old ladies across the street in the next. There’s no real reason to assume we won’t be the same kind of people in the next life as we are in this one. What sort of misery could we expect in a world where Charles Manson and Attila the Hun simply won’t die, ever? Because they gotta be somewhere. Oh, and Satan, the progenitor of all this misery? He’ll be there too, with his hordes of minions. You’ve got to put all the hell-making people somewhere, after all.
In any good fairy tale, the evil queen’s kingdom is endlessly dark and hellish. Or in that memorable line from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia: “Always winter, and never Christmas.” We know we’re capable of creating hell. In fact, the Bible gives some indication that one of the ways God judges people is to just leave them alone–they create their own misery well enough. The Bible’s view of hell is hopeless because man’s behavior is hopelessly bent toward creating misery. There’s ultimately no therapizing the hell out of us. There’s no beating the hell out of us. Hell is far easier made than unmade. Even our best intentions can pave the road to hell.
Jesus describes hell as a place of “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth.” Sorrow and anger are, sadly, not unfamiliar to our current experience of life. The only hope of escaping hell is to be remade into a non-hell making person fit for a heavenly world. The only one who can do that is Jesus through what the Bible describes as a “new birth.” God Himself alone has the power to get the hell-making out of us. And because he’s the only one who can, those who won’t go to Him for it are eternally, hopelessly stuck in a misery of their own making, unprotected even from the misery caused by those around them. No amount of sugar can make that pill go down easy, and not even fire-engine red lipstick applied seventeen layers deep can beautify that pig.
Joe Reed is the associate pastor at Lewis Lake Covenant Church.