With that said, here are six tragic truths about hell that are relevant to this controversy; truths that are tragic enough to compel us to hold the line on orthodoxy, as well as to take seriously the call of every believer to labor in prayer and mission for our lost neighbors.
What is Hell?
Is Hell Overkill?
Hell is overkill only if God isn't infinitely valuable. Attack a possum and you may get fined. Attack a child and you’ll be thrown in prison. Attack a president and you’ll be water-boarded. Assault a butterfly and you’ll get strange looks. The idea is that punishment will fit the crime when it appropriately reflects the value of the person or thing that has been assaulted. To merely give strange looks or to fine someone who has assaulted a child is injustice. On the flipside, to water-board someone for assaulting a possum is injustice. God is infinite in value. To assault him requires nothing less than that which approaches infinite punishment. To appease him require nothing less than the death of the infinitely valuable Son of God, God the Son, God himself enfleshed as our substitute. For God to do anything less is to commit injustice.
There (Calvary) the sword of thy justice smote the man, thy fellow;
There thy infinite attributes were magnified, and infinite atonement was made;
There infinite punishment was due, and infinite punishment was endured.
Christ was all anguish that I might be all joy,
cast off that I might be brought in,
trodden down as an enemy that I might be welcomed as a friend,
surrendered to hell’s worst that I might attain heaven’s best,
stripped that I might be clothed,
wounded that I might be healed,
athirst that I might drink,
tormented that I might be comforted,
made a shame that I might inherit glory,
entered darkness that I might have eternal light
-Valley of Vision
Why Doesn’t God Just Annihilate People in Hell?
The above considerations also partly address those who think that God ought to take people out of existence who are consigned to hell (also known as Annihilationism). The Bible is clear however that just as life is eternal for believers, destruction is eternal for unbelievers (Dan.12:2; Matt.25:46). God sustains the existence of people in hell eternally, for this is the only way to secure the most justice for crimes committed by creatures against the infinitely valuable God. To snuff people out before hand is to undermine his righteousness.
Why Must Hell Be Painful?
C.S. Lewis argues that the suffering of hell is the most merciful thing God can do for a creature that persists in his opposition to him. Put differently, a man in a painless hell is worse off than in a hell with pain. Why? I think his first step is to insist that it is better for sinner in hell to be conscious of his guilt rather than forgetful. I tend to agree.
“It is better for the creature itself, even if it never becomes good, that it should know itself a failure, a mistake. Even mercy can hardly wish to such a man his eternal, contented continuance in such a ghastly illusion.”
The second step, which Lewis doesn’t spell out, would have to be this: such a man, due to a spiritual condition of absolute alienation from God in hell and complete ruin of God’s image in him, will with the greatest ease forget all about his sin, his crime, God’s person and glory. The most holy are the most conscious of God’s holiness and their own inadequacy. The least holy are oblivious to God’s holiness and their own sinfulness. For this damned man without pain, his hell would be a God-less heaven. And yet this man’s true and best possible good in this horrible state is to have some consciousness of God. Pain is the delivery system...“the megaphone.” “Pain plants the flag of truth within a rebel fortress.” Perpetual pain perpetually brings such a man to some level of true self-understanding and God-understanding. It is far better that a person to be in pain and know he is a sinner before God, then to be painless and forget his sin and his God.
Are There Really Flames and Worms in Hell?
Hell is described as being a place of outer darkness (Matthew 8:12), a lake of fire with fire that is not quenched and gnawing worms that do not die (Mark 9:39; Rev. 20:15). People’s torment creates smoke that arises from the pit forever before God. They weep and gnash their teeth (Matt.13:42). It is a place of eternal destruction and abandonment (2 Thess 1:9; Matt 25:11-12).
It is likely that these descriptions are metaphors in the same way that “God is a consuming fire” is a metaphor, or Jesus returning with a sword coming out of his mouth is a metaphor. One thing that tips us of this is the tension found with the metaphors. A lake of fire doesn’t fit well with outer darkness. Another consideration seems makes the case clear. Jesus used the word “Gehenna” as a description of “hell” or eternal damnation (e.g., Matthew 5:22,29,30). “Gehenna” literally means “valley of Hinnom” which was located just south of Jerusalem. The Jews would come to stigmatize this place due to the rank idolatry that occurred in this region in the past. Specifically, the Jews worshipped the god Molech and sacrificed children as an expression of that devotion (2 Chronicles 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31). The great reformer Josiah converted the area into a trash heap for the city into which carcasses and the bodies of criminals were disposed to illustration his repulsion for the area. To deal with the putrefying flesh, maggots, and refuse, a fire was kept burning perpetually. The smoke from these flames were a constant reminder to all in the area of the Jew’s past idolatry and God’s judgment. One can begin to see how this area served to vividly portray God’s final judgment (ultimate and eternal deportation from God’s kingdom) for sin.
Some might feel that to maintain that these various descriptions are metaphoric is to downplay the anguish and severity of hell. I think it’s quite the opposite. Does the imagery of a sword exhaust the reality of Jesus’ vengeance, or does it begin to point us to the severity? His vengeance is much more than a person wielding a sword against his enemies. When God describes himself as a mother bird that covers her young under his wings (Ps.91:4), did God mean to communicate that his care for us is no more than a bird? Or course, it is much more. Similarly, unquenchable fires and gnawing worms and outer darkness point to realties far more severe than these imperfect but informative descriptions.
Why Won’t God Give People Second Chances After Death?
Firstly, Scripture declares there to be more than enough compelling evidence for people before death to respond to. People don’t experience 2nd chances, but millions of chances before death. All men are said to be without excuse (Romans 1:20) in light of creation, and especially with the hearing of Scripture. In the later case, the testimony of Scripture is of such weight that people will actually add to their suffering in the afterlife as they disregard them in this life (Romans 2:1-6). Secondly, it is likely that any conversion after death would be a false one: people who are sorry for the punishment and not the crime. As was argued earlier, without pain people in the afterlife will likely forget and disregard God. And with pain, though they are aware of God and their sin at some level (and no doubt want desperately to escape hell), in reality they don’t want this escape for the right reasons, and certainly don't want to make the very basic steps of true repentance and worship of God. Deep down they want a godless existence. Hell is not merely a choice made in this life, it's a post-mortem choice as well. Hell is eternally self-chosen.
"Scripture sees hell as self-chosen . . . [H]ell appears as God's gesture of respect for human choice. All receive what they actually chose, either to be with God forever, worshipping him, or without God forever, worshipping themselves." (J.I.Packer, Concise Theology p.262-263.)