People don’t even like thinking about it. I get squeamish even writing the word.
But I guess we have to talk about the “fire” in this post. It is in Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White. Granted it is disturbing, especially thinking that it is the place where we may have to go at the end of our lives.
Pastor Hamilton discusses reasons why many people find it so disturbing to ponder the concept of hell.
Generally, many folks see God as loving and merciful and the idea that God could send people to hell is inconsistent with the words loving and merciful.
Specifically, many are disturbed by the notion that good people can be sent there. It is not hard to think of a murderer, a rapist, or a child abuser going to hell. It is awfully easy to see Adolph Hitler in hell. The problem is the “nice” unbeliever is going there too. It could be a loveable grandfather, a mother of several children or maybe even a very good friend but for some reason, they just never understood the idea that they needed Christ in their lives. The gospel was presented to them but they never really felt the need to come to Christ. They just thought God was not for them. Automatically, a staunch exclusivist will say they are not going to heaven [just another way of saying they will be in eternal hellfire]. The gate indeed is narrow for the exclusivist: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it” [Matthew 7:13]. In other words the exclusivist declares that I have close family members who are not going to make it into heaven. That is a little bothersome because I know they are good people.
Secondly, many are upset that hell is going to be a place of torture and punishment for people who go there. We have all been punished in this life. I can recall doing bad things as a kid and then suffering punishment from my parents but I always felt that the punishment was designed to make a point, to teach me something or to get me not to repeat a bad behavior. I never thought the punishment was excessive.
Let me ask you to do something. Go to your favorite browser and click on images and type the word “hell”. Wow the images are so horribly frightening. Most of them are depictions of torture and for many people, torture is excessive punishment. Pastor Hamilton poses the following questions that make you think: “Would the God whose nature is love create a place where people would be tortured by fire, or worse? Can we attribute to God the creation of a prison whose cruelty exceeds that of any prisons run by contemporary diabolical dictators?”
Finally, the question of duration is discussed. Hell is eternal punishment for those who have been sent there. Yes, it seems really bad for an eighty year old to live a life of sin but would God send a soul to eternal hellfire for failing to respond to His call in this eighty year time span?
Some would say yes. Some would say that the concerns posed by Pastor Hamilton show weakness on his part, a tendency to pardon the sins of the sinner. Some people don’t think about the nature of the good people who can be condemned, the nature of the punishment or the duration of the punishment.
It is black and white for them. You are a sinner. You never accept Christ. You are going to hell. No ifs, ands or buts.
What Pastor Hamilton says in his book is that he does not take the notion of hell literally. The “narrow gate in Matthew is a bit of an exaggeration. Just as Jesus would not want us to literally cut off our hand when he says “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell [Matthew 5:30]. Jesus just wants us to take sin seriously when he refers to a narrow gate. However Hamilton is not some liberal who denies hell and is willing to throw open the gates of heaven and let all people in. Jesus speaks of the place of judgement and the place of “outer darkness” too many times for us to deny it: see Matthew 8:12, 22:13, and 25:30. Hamilton says he has thought a lot about this topic and has considered “Scripture, tradition, experience and reason”.
Maybe he is saying that the narrow gate is a serious statement warning us about the consequences of sinful living but not a literal statement. In upcoming posts we will see as we continue to write about hell…
This topic that most of us don’t like to think about.
This topic that makes me squeamish.
This notion of eternal fire…you know, that place where we are going to send all the Jews, Muslims and Hindus and all our friends and family members who have never come to the altar.