Scripture speaks of a literal lake of fire, or hell. But some believers find this hard to reconcile with biblical teachings about God’s love, forgiveness, and grace. They consider it excessive for a God of love to send people to hell forever. After all, they reason, how can 70 or 80 years of sin merit an eternity of torment?
That question reveals an error in their understanding of sin and God’s nature. If man’s eternal destiny were a matter of counterbalancing his bad deeds with good, these questions might have some merit. If hell were part of a system that allowed a person to repay the Lord for sin, 70 years versus eternity would seem disproportionate. If God arbitrarily decided the rules about who goes to heaven or hell, we would have good cause to call His fairness into question.
But hell is a reality because we have an incompatibility problem. God’s holiness cannot coexist with man’s wickedness. And no amount of time spent away from His presence will change that.
The rules that determine who goes to heaven and hell are established by God’s holy nature. It is hard for us to grasp the power and awesomeness of His glory and holiness. John—who also knew Jesus well—saw the Savior in all His divine splendor and fell down like a dead man (Rev. 1:16-17). Why? He was overwhelmed by the magnificence of God.
The only solution to this dilemma is for the Lord to change us, which is the very reason Christ came and died—to pave the way for change in our very nature. Those who accept Jesus’ death as the payment for their sin are made holy (2 Cor. 5:21). That is why we who believe in the Savior are referred to as saints, and the Holy Spirit is able to dwell in us. At salvation, there is a fundamental change in our nature, and we become one with Jesus Christ.
Those who reject the gift of salvation go to hell because their natures are incompatible with heaven. The quantity or severity of their sins doesn’t send them there. The problem is that they have not been cleansed of sin, so they remain unholy.
Although hell isn’t the most pleasant topic discussed in the Bible, there is some good news about it. Like heaven, hell will not be the same for everyone there. On one occasion when Jesus was sending His disciples out to preach in the surrounding villages, He made a notable comment about the final judgment:
Whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you; yet be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near.” I say to you, it will be more tolerable in that day for Sodom than for that city (Luke 10:10-12).
The phrase “more tolerable” indicates that there will be different degrees of punishment. The judgment—and hell—will be more unbearable for some than for others. Because they had been exposed to more teaching and miracles, people from the towns visited by Christ’s disciples would be held more accountable than the residents of Sodom—having received more truth, they had less excuse for not believing.
In John’s description of the final judgment, we find further evidence for hell not being the same for everybody: “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds” (Rev. 20:13, emphasis added). What a person does in this life does not determine where he will go when he dies, but it does affect what it will be like when he gets there.
The Bible doesn’t elaborate on how punishment in hell will differ from one person to the next. Neither does it outline which sins will incur a greater punishment. All we know is that before handing down a sentence, Christ will take into account the type of life each person lived.
Now, this in no way implies that hell will be a good place for anybody. People in hell will forever be separated from God and all that is good. As much as I dislike the idea, I do believe that the lake of fire (hell) is a real, literal place. And as hard as it is to grasp, I do accept the Bible’s teaching that people will eventually be sent to remain there for eternity.
I believe this because of the sacrifice Jesus made. If He had not thought hell was real, He would not have gone to such extreme measures to pay the price for humanity to avoid it. His belief was so deep, and His mission so clear, that it drove Him to leave His throne in glory and die an excruciating death.
So how should you respond? Christ’s desire to rescue you from hell motivated Him to give His life for you. If you haven’t already accepted His sacrifice on your behalf, I encourage you to do so. Jesus wants to cleanse you of sin and give you a brand-new life. Confess your wrongdoing to the Lord, ask Him to forgive you, and invite Him to be the leader of your life. Then you can be sure of spending eternity in the God’s presence.
If you are already a follower of Jesus, let His sacrifice motivate you to reach out to and pray for lost people. Ask God for divine opportunities to share about new life in Christ. Allow the Lord to speak through you and use you to rescue people from eternity without Him.
Adapted from “Charles Stanley’s Handbook for Christian Living,” 1996.