Hell is not mentioned much these days, except when used as a curse word. It is a topic that many consider outdated and a place that few believe actually exists. And in these days of hyper-tolerance, which quickly becomes intolerance when anyone sounds the least bit doctrinaire, speaking of hell is seen as a strange, brutish thing to do.
So why do it?
In a word, it’s all about love.
For you see, hell does exist. Mocking it, ignoring it, forgetting it – none of that changes its reality. Jesus Christ preached about it repeatedly, warning his listeners of its danger. He taught that it is a real location where those who do not live as the Bible commands will be punished consciously forever. Not to believe in hell is to distrust the very words of Christ. The Westminster Confession of Faith, speaking about the final judgment, uses Biblical language as it describes hell in this manner: “The wicked, who know not God, and obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.”
So what does speaking of hell have to do with love?
If someone is about to step into front of a speeding car they did not see, and you yank them back to the safety of the sidewalk before it is too late, you have shown love to that individual. For it is love to warn and protect people from dangers they might not see. Spiritually speaking, many do not see hell and how their sin is putting them in danger of its torment.
Love commands that the church warn people about their eternity. Yet the church struggles to do so. On the one hand, too many churches do not want to offend those in attendance. So they endanger souls by failing to teach and warn properly about sin, the final judgment, and hell. On the other hand, I know of presentations of hell that are too much like monster movies. They employ outlandish means to try to “scare the hell” out of people. Neither is a loving approach. What is needed in matters of eternity is a clear, passionate explanation of what the Bible teaches and sober reflection upon one’s ultimate destination.
In explaining the relationship of love to hell, we must go further than only the need to warn people about it. By its very definition, hell is the absence of love. Early American pastor Jonathan Edwards taught from the Bible that hell is “where God manifests his displeasure and wrath, as in heaven he manifests his love. Everything in hell is hateful. There is not one solitary object there that is not odious and detestable, horrid and hateful…No love to God will ever be felt in hell.”
That is one reason why Jesus described it as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. And he should know.
For one only need look upon the cross of Christ to understand the relationship between love and hell. During those agonizing hours of his crucifixion, Jesus Christ experienced the agonies of hell. His cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” reveals that the Heavenly Father took his Beloved Son and put the hell of his wrath upon him as he turned his loving face from his Son. Simply put, the cross not only shows us that hell is real, but allows us to glimpse into it.
Then consider why Christ endured the cross. At the cross, God demonstrated his love for those for whom Christ died in rescuing them from sin and hell (Rom. 5:8). As Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
To verify his love for Christ and those who believe in him, God raised his Son from the grave three days later. The promise is that God and his people will dwell eternally in heaven, and that it will be a place, as Jesus prayed, where “the love with which You loved me may be in them” (John 17:26). Indeed, Jonathan Edwards said heaven is “a world of love, in which “dwells the God from whom every stream of holy love, yea, every drop that is, or ever was, proceeds.”
Commentators tell us that Jesus spoke of hell far more than he did of heaven, because he knew the threat was real and dangerous to lost sinners. If we really love people, we will warn them of hell like he did.