I was in the habit of going to a monastery roughly once a month for a spiritual retreat. I would arrive early in the day to pray, journal, and take long walks in the woods, and leave late in the afternoon. (Ironically enough for a Protestant, I’ve found that some of my greatest spiritual insights have come while visiting Catholic monasteries.) On one such retreat I felt an overwhelming sense of spiritual pressure, the spiritual equivalent of the kind of pressure you feel in your ears when you are swimming in deep water. I could sense something was wrong but didn’t know what it was. For the better part of the day, I locked myself into a cold, cement-block room and asked God to show me the source of my consternation.
For the first three hours, I heard nothing—my prayers seemed like they were bouncing off the ceiling. By around noon I felt like I was really starting to make a connection with God, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened next, when I felt God’s Spirit impress upon my heart, “Brian, you’re a pastor and your job is to teach people the Bible, but you don’t believe what you’re teaching. You don’t believe in Hell.”
I was a little startled so I picked up my Bible and played what I call “Bible Roulette.” I closed my eyes, fanned the pages, and randomly pointed to passages and read them. The first passage was about eternal punishment. I looked up at the ceiling and said, “That’s a coincidence.” The second passage was about God’s wrath. This time I felt a little uneasy. Then I did it a third time and my finger landed on a passage about judgment day. I’m not usually the most mystical person in the world, but I slowly closed the pages of my Bible, sat it down on the table next to me and said, “I get the message.” Church leaders must “keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Timothy 3:9), and Hell is one of those “deep truths.”
I spent the next five hours reading and underlining every passage about Hell in the New Testament, and as I did I felt an overwhelming sense of conviction. What I discovered shocked me. I had always assumed that the Bible contained only a few scattered references to Hell. I was wrong; it is taught everywhere. Take the book of Matthew, for instance, just one book among twenty-seven in the entire New Testament. Here is what we learn about Hell from that book alone:
Thirteen separate passages record Jesus’ teachings about the judgment of nonbelievers and their assignment to eternal punishment.3 Matthew 13:49, 50 summarizes them all: “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Jesus employed the most graphic language to describe what Hell is like: fire (vv. 5:22; v. 18:9); eternal fire (v. 18:8); destruction (v. 7:13); away from his presence (v. 7:23); thrown outside (vv. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30); fiery furnace (v. 13:42); darkness (vv. 22:13; 25:30); eternal punishment (v. 25:46); weeping and gnashing of teeth (vv. 8:12; 13:42; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51).
Jesus twice used eternal (vv. 18:8; 25:46) to convey that the punishment of nonbelievers would continue forever.
As I moved from the Gospels into the rest of the New Testament, I was struck by how the writers unashamedly addressed the issue. There was no hesitancy or apology in their words. The basic tone was, “This is a reality. Now let’s get out there and tell people how to avoid it.” Second Thessalonians 1:7-9 summarizes what these other New Testament authors taught:
This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.
My heart raced as I flipped page after page after page. I discovered, by the end of my study, that the New Testament’s teaching about Hell is not an ambiguous topic supported by a few hard-to-understand passages. It is inescapable: virtually every book in the New Testament underscores some aspect of the reality of Hell. Jesus taught it, early church leaders taught it, but I wasn’t teaching it. I realized I had a decision to make. Could I discount what Jesus taught about Hell if I based my belief in Heaven on similar passages in the same books?
Could it be possible that Jesus’ disciples actually had the same reservations I had, but still persisted in teaching it because they knew in the depths of their soul that Hell was real? Could it be that my hesitancy to believe in Hell was really a sign of my compassion for people? Yet, if Hell really exists, and I knew that but wasn’t willing to tell people how to avoid it, wouldn’t that also be the most extreme form of cruelty imaginable? Most of all, could it be that I was ultimately basing my acceptance of this teaching more on what people would think of me than whether I felt it was intellectually plausible?
Sign up HERE to get my articles delivered straight to your inbox.