Somewhat understandably, our friend Paul Jenkins categorizes the discussion of, “whether Hell is ‘eternal conscious punishment’ on the one hand, or ‘annihilation’ on the other” as, “Not just piffle, but risible piffle.”
The alternative that occurs most obviously to me is, “Hell doesn’t exist — it’s a horror story told to children to stop them being naughty.”
One might question how Paul is so dogmatically certain that hell doesn’t exist. Of course it does not matter how certain Paul feels he is with regard to the alleged non-existence of hell if hell does in fact exist. It does not matter how strongly opposed one is to the existence of terminal cancer if one has it. One’s beliefs do not affect such states of affairs. The cancer is going to win out in the end. So also Paul’s opinions about hell do not matter in the end if hell is indeed real. It would serve Paul well to give more critical thought to how he knows that hell doesn’t exist.
The Horror and Comfort of Hell
Paul thinks of hell as a “horror story,” and indeed it is at least that. Hell is incomprehensibly awful. I am deeply troubled by the thought of people going there, but they will, and they do. However, it is the wicked who go to hell, and they deserve the punishment they receive there. In that sense it is comforting to know that everyone will receive his or her ‘just deserts.’ The Christian doctrine of hell assures us that in the end no one is going to ‘put one over’ on God or anyone else. Justice will be served. One sees the sharp contrast with, in Paul’s case, an atheistic worldview where in the end there is no justice served. Not only does injustice permeate the world, but the people who propagate it may and often do practice it without any retribution whatsoever. The impersonal meta-ethical theories of atheist design lack cash value in terms of real moral behavior especially when eternity is not on the line. If one may do something evil (whatever that is in an atheistic universe) and get away with it in this life, then so much the worse for the victims, and good for the evil-doer.
But don’t misunderstand me. I do not mean to imply that hell is thereby the sole motivating factor in good behavior. I do not intend to discuss hell as a motivation to do good at all. Rather, I am noting that if hell does not exist, or something very much like it, there is simply no justice in the end.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ
To claim, as Paul does, that hell is, “a horror story told to children to stop them being naughty” is to evidence a significant misunderstanding about Christian teaching on the doctrine of hell, for the child who is brought up in the Christian faith knows that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” He or she is likewise taught that, “the wages of sin is death,” and that an eternal death in hell is in view. Lest the child think he or she is able to merit God’s favor and escape hell by ceasing to be naughty and instead acting nice the child is reminded that, “there is none righteous, no, not one.” Even the smallest infraction merits hell and nothing less for, “if anyone offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” The law of God has become a curse to the one who lives by it. Sin is an offense against God, and stopping naughtiness does not erase that sin or counterbalance it. The child who is raised in the Christian faith knows that there is no hope in being naughty or nice. The child knows that the only hope for anyone, Paul Jenkins included, is the hope that comes from believing the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That Gospel is not of works, but of faith. The law of God is a curse in the sense described in the paragraph above, but Jesus Christ has become a curse for us in dying on the cross (the law says, “cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”). The wrath of God was poured out upon His Son the Lord Jesus Christ. In the end there is justice for all; hell for those who refuse to repent, and salvation from sin and eternal punishment for those who trust upon the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ who took their punishment upon Himself. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate for our sins in accordance with Scripture, buried, and raised again on the third day in accordance with Scripture. There is no hope for anyone outside of this Gospel.
There are any number of reasons that Paul might want to theorize about hell being a deterrence to naughtiness, but his conjecture is more readily compatible with ‘works based’ religious systems like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Wicca, Roman Catholicism, and virtually every other non-Christian system of religion one can imagine. In contrast to the aforementioned type of world religions, Christianity teaches a rigorous theological account of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone without any merit from works or decision on our part. That is the ‘good news’ of Christianity. It is not fundamentally about being naughty or nice. It is about the giver of life named Jesus Christ. The child who is brought up in the Christian faith has been taught that being good is not the way out of hell. Trusting Jesus is.
My hope and prayer is that one day Paul will know and believe what that child knows.