A red devil with horns, a tail, and a pitchfork. Fire, torture, and torment for eternity. When I was a 6th grader, these images came to mind every time I heard the word hell. I remember hearing a similar description at an open-air revival as a child, and being afraid that if I didn’t accept Jesus I would be sent to a sad and painful place. Looking back, I’ve found that motivation by fear is not the way I want to introduce people to Jesus—the one who went through hell precisely so we wouldn’t have to.
Last year, we asked students what they wanted to learn about and formed messages based on their questions. They asked about hell. The following are a few questions we looked at in preparation. This is far from perfect, but it spurred great discussion and led us to better questions about God’s love and sacrifice.
What does the Old Testament say?
The Old Testament’s afterlife is usually described by the Hebrew word “sheol.” Sheol means, “the grave, or the depths” (also “the shadow place”). Deuteronomy 32:22 shares of a fire that blazes “to the depths of the grave”—sheol (CEB). The Hebrew Scriptures view sheol as a place of the dead (Ps 88:3), where all righteous and wicked go after death (Eccl. 9:2-3)—similar to Odysseus’ underworld. For Judaism and the Hebrew Scripture, there isn’t a huge emphasis on what happens after you die. More important is what you are doing with your life now.
What does the New Testament say?
The word most often translated as hell in the New Testament is the Greek word “gehenna.” Jesus uses this word 11 times. The literal translation of the word is the Valley of Hinnom (“ge”+“hinnom”). The Valley of Hinnom was Jerusalem’s landfill where people burned their trash. So when Jesus speaks about burning in hell, he’s using this image. Jesus’ hell is a place devoid of hope and love, a place where God’s will is absent, separate from the community.
When Jesus talks about hell, he mentions the following: those who call their neighbor a “fool” (Mt. 5:22b); those who lust after women in their hearts (Mt. 5:27-30); religious leaders who are hypocritical (Mt. 23:1-36); those who are not good stewards of the gifts God has given them (Mt. 25:14-30); and religious people who refuse to help those in need (Mt. 25:31-46). These are people who hold their own will above God’s will. Indeed, Jesus teaches us to pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” (Mt. 6:10) that our lives might reflect God’s will in bringing God’s kingdom to earth. The opposite of this kingdom of God would be a place where there is no evidence of God’s will being done. And just like there are glimpses of God’s kingdom breaking into our world, there are glimpses of hell on earth as well.
Does God Send People to hell?
Many of us struggle with two understandings of God. In one, God sends billions of people to an eternity of torment because they didn’t say a particular prayer. In the other, God works constantly to bring people into the fold, inviting humanity to be more loving, peaceful, beautiful, and extraordinary. I do believe in a God who is more interested in restoration than sending people to hell. But we still have to look at the first story.
God is love (1 John 4:8). But love cannot exist without freedom. Love cannot exist in a relationship where one is not given the freedom to choose. God gives us freedom to choose God or another. Some argue that God might one day override freedom to secure salvation for all, but true love does not and can not override freedom.
Therefore, God does not send people to hell. As C.S. Lewis states in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”
Talking to Youth About Hell
This lesson is flawed and incomplete. There were MANY things we did not touch on. Our greatest desire was to redirect our students away from something we know little about to someone we have experienced. Hell is certainly an interesting topic of discussion. Still, it is a much greater thing to ask how we, as the body of Jesus Christ—the one who holds the keys to hell and death—can work to bring the kingdom of Heaven to earth right now!
Quote from C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (Great Britain: Collins, 1946), p. 66-67.