Talk of “hell” is all over the internet. Rob Bell had a major hand in this with his controversial book Love Wins (HarperOne, March 2011), spurring on as it did a thousand rejoinders including a new book-length treatment by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle called Erasing Hell (David C. Cook, July 2011) and even a short piece in the NEST Blog. While the discussion has sometimes produced more heat than light, it is certainly a topic worth examining afresh in light of biblical revelation.
The issue I will take up here is a very specific one: How should Christians feel about hell and final judgment? In other words, given the reality of hell and divine judgment as revealed in Scripture, should Christians not only acknowledge the truthfulness of these doctrines but go beyond that and learn to embrace them with passion and even love?
Kevin DeYoung’s Proposal
Pastor Kevin DeYoung really got me thinking about this. In his July 12 post “Is it Okay for Christians to Believe in the Doctrine of Hell But Not Like It?” he challenges the attitude of those who would acknowledge that the Bible teaches the doctrine of hell but add, essentially, that doesn’t mean they have to like it.  To DeYoung, this attitude is like “throwing God under the bus” and he suggests instead that we should not only take our stand on the Bible but “learn to love where the Bible stands.” He explains: “It’s never safe to dislike the truths God has revealed. We should actually like what the Bible teaches.”
DeYoung’s application of this to divine judgment is nuanced and he acknowledges that, in one respect, it is appropriate for Christians to say, “I don’t like the idea of hell” – after all, God does not want any to perish and neither should we (2 Peter 3:9). But our goal, he thinks, should be the kind of maturity in which “we not only affirm the truth of God’s word but rest in the goodness and rightness of it.”
Training our Affections in Scripture
The Apostle Paul does indeed talk about our need to learn to look at the world in a new way, a way that reflects God’s truth. He writes in Romans 12:
2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Note that this involves acknowledgement of truth, reformation of life, and even the positive change of passions and affections. And of course, part of this growing maturity is to learn to look on sin in a new way. The following is held up as an example for us in Proverbs 8:13 (see Psalm 97:10):
13 To fear the LORD is to hate evil;
I hate pride and arrogance,
evil behavior and perverse speech.
I don’t think there is any question that this maturity in our affections – this renewing of our minds – includes being distressed when evil abounds (in one’s self and in the world), praying for God to intervene (“Rise up, O God, judge the earth!” Psalm 82:8) and even being exasperated when judgment seems to be too-long delayed (Psalm 73).
Training our Affections in Dante’s Divine Comedy
One can also enlist Dante’s Divine Comedy as an excellent example of training one’s affections and feelings. In this famous trilogy (consisting of Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise) Dante writes himself in as the main character who starts out “lost in a dark wood.” His affections and desires are all out of sorts. By divine grace, however, he is progressively led through these three realms, and by what he sees, hears, and experiences, Dante slowly learns to love what is good and hate what is evil. In this way he is being prepared for the beatific vision of God, which is the chief end of humanity – that is, what we were created for.
So there is good support in Scripture and in classic Christian literature to support DeYoung in describing God’s design for us: That we not only acknowledge the objective truth of the doctrines of Scripture, but we learn to align our emotions and affections with that truth. But does that mean we should love (or like, or take joy in) specifically the doctrine of hell and divine judgment? Here, I think, we have an exception because of two important qualifications that DeYoung neglects to consider in his short piece.
Qualification #1: The Time is Not Right (The Horizontal Dynamic)
It seems to me we can affirm the doctrine of hell now but it is not really appropriate to “love” it, first, because the time is not right to do so. Specifically:
- We are not yet fully sanctified. This means it is difficult if not impossible for us to wish judgment on actual human beings without an admixture of our own sin.
- We picture those in hell to be people like us, and so we sympathize with them. But this is not, or will not always, be the case.
On this latter point, I have found C.S. Lewis’ fictional work The Great Divorce to be helpful, especially in combination with a few wise words our class once received from Prof. Meredith Kline. In hell, people will be stripped of all common grace – that is, that grace from God that everyone enjoys to some measure now and that makes even unredeemed people tolerable to each other in this life. None of us, in other words, is as bad or as self-centered as we could be. And so bereft of common grace, in hell the grumbling old woman (for example) is reduced to, as Lewis puts it, hardly more than a grumble.  Seen this way, the sympathetic features of individual humans in hell will be stripped away, making God’s future justice in consigning people there all the more apparent.
By the way, my understanding from Scripture is that no one at this very second is conscious and experiencing hell. That experience awaits the Great Judgment (Rev 20:11-15). Heaven, in contrast, is enjoyed by many right now as is clear from passages like Luke 23:42-43 and Philippians 1:23-24.
Qualification #2: We Stand “Between Two Worlds” (The Vertical Dynamic)
The second qualification I want to suggest to DeYoung’s proposal relates to our calling and commission. In the present age the role of Christians and the Christian church is to stand between two worlds (the divine and the human), much like the experience of the Old Testament prophets. The prophets announced divine judgment to the world, and they knew – and even felt – its “rightness”. But that does not mean they necessarily liked it. In fact, the prophets often pleaded with God that he would have mercy instead of releasing divine judgment, however just or fair that judgment might be. Amos 7:4-6 is a classic example:
4 This is what the Sovereign LORD showed me: The Sovereign LORD was calling for judgment by fire; it dried up the great deep and devoured the land. 5 Then I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, I beg you, stop! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!”
6 So the LORD relented.
“This will not happen either,” the Sovereign LORD said.
Instructively, the one prophet in the Old Testament that seems genuinely delighted with judgment falling on sinners is Jonah, and he is clearly held up in Scripture as a bad example. He is something of an embarrassment to his profession and is rebuked by God at the end of the narrative.
So if the OT prophets stood in the gap – between two worlds – and interceded for God’s mercy, how much more should Christians who are been entrusted with the life-giving gospel? Our role right now is not to passionately embrace the idea of divine judgment on individuals but to feel instead something of the compassion reflected in Jesus’ words from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
A Proposed Solution
DeYoung is right in general that we need to train our affections and passions to love what the Bible teaches. However, I suggest there is a difference, biblically, between how we should feel about hell today and how we will feel about it after the Great Judgment. That is because “today is the day of salvation” and we are ambassadors of that salvation (2 Cor 5:20-6:2).
So what should we feel today about hell and divine judgment? I suggest the biblically-appropriate affection can be described not as love but as seriousness, gravity, and awe – all of which respect the ultimate rightness of a holy God standing in judgment over a defiant humanity.
Whitefield as an Example
How does this work out in practice? The example of the great 18th century evangelist George Whitefield is instructive. In a letter to a missionary to the Alleghany Indians he wrote, “See that you feel the truths that you speak.” And indeed, Whitefield took the doctrine of hell and divine judgment with absolute seriousness; he felt its gravity, knew its “rightness”, and all of his preaching was done in light of this awesome truth. However, it is hard to imagine Whitefield loving this doctrine. It was not the time, and it was not his role. Instead, he radiated love for Christ, for the gospel, and for the people he ministered to. “He speaks,” Sarah Edwards wrote, “with a heart aglow with love.” Today, in our own small ways, may we emulate Whitefield in these biblical affections.
 My guess is that DeYoung is reacting in particular to Chan-Sprinkle, whose work contains passages like the following: “As I have said all along, I don’t feel like believing in hell. And yet I do. Maybe someday I will stand in complete agreement with [God], but for now I attribute the discrepancy to an underdeveloped sense of justice on my part. God is perfect. And I joyfully submit to a God whose ways are much, much higher than mine.” Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell. (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2011), p. 141. Erasing Hell is a thoughtful work, careful in its biblical scholarship yet popularly pitched, and deserves a wide readership.
 Lewis writes: “A silly, garrulous old woman who has got in the habit of grumbling…That is what she once was…The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble.” C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (NY: Macmillan Paperbacks Edition, 1963), p. 74.
 Quoted in Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: Volume 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1970), p. 502 and citing Works, Vol. 1, pp. 170-1.
 From Sarah Edwards’ letter to her brother, the Rev. James Pierpoint, dated October 24, 1740. Quoted in Dallimore, pp. 538-539.
By Ray Pennoyer (July 16, 2011; note 1 added on July 24)