For more information on the material in this session, read the preface and chapter 1 of the book Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We Made Up.
Heaven and hell are familiar terms for Christians and non-Christians alike, especially if you live in an English-speaking country. The words appear in movies, in television shows, on the radio. Sometimes they are used as swear words (especially hell), spouted off flippantly upon hearing a piece of bad news. We use them as empty modifiers in everyday speech. Instead of saying “no,” we say “heavens no” just to get our point across. Needless to say, the words heaven and hell have lost their biblical richness through overuse. All the more need to understand precisely what we mean when we talk about heaven—and hell.
This workbook is a study of hell. And before we get started, it’s important to realize the seriousness of the subject. We are not studying a natural catastrophe, a violent war, a fatal disease, or any other so-called “hells on earth.” This life brings much tragedy and suffering—but nothing we experience in this life compares to the heart-wrenching misery that will accompany the place we are studying in this book. This study is a sober one. You will find no jokes or cute stories to make the doctrine of hell more palatable. But this is a study that will change your life forever. You don’t have to meditate on the reality of hell for very long before you begin to live differently in light of it.
Before we go deeper, I want to ask three questions up front. And I really want you to be honest with your answers.
Q1: Without looking at the Bible, list all the characteristics about hell that you can. For example, you can describe what it is like, or who will go there, or where it is located. If you don’t know much of what the Bible says about hell, just describe what you have heard about it.
Q2: Now, in light of your previous answer, describe what this view says about God. If hell is the way you’ve portrayed it, then what does your perspective teach us about God?
Q3: Lastly—and be honest here—what are the hardest things for you to believe about hell? These may include logical problems or emotional difficulties that you have when you think about hell. What makes it difficult for you to believe that God would send people to hell?
Hell is not an easy doctrine to swallow. If you listed quite a few things in question 3, that’s okay. I have a long list myself! This is why I begin Erasing Hellwith the line: “If you are excited to read this book, you have issues.” It’s true. Hell is not something we must delight in and love to talk about. After all, even God said that He does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11).
But if hell is real—if the Bible says that there is a real place of punishment for those who don’t love Jesus—then we must take God at His word. We must embrace what God has said about Himself and His plan of justice, even when it is difficult to believe. This is what our study here is all about. Yes, it’s a book about hell. But even more, it’s a book about God. So before going any further, take a brief moment and ask God to answer the following prayers:
Heavenly Father …
- Help me to embrace You more firmly and cherish You more fervently by understanding Your Word more.
- Prevent my emotions or mere human logic from clouding my view of hell.
- Open up my heart to Your ways and Your character. Give me eyes to see and ears to hear, so that Your ways become my own.
- Kindle afresh in my heart and mind a higher view of who You are. And may my life be radically transformed by a fresh encounter with You through this study.
Next, we need to talk about the possibility of an after-death conversion. I suspect that you may have wondered about this. Every Christian believes that God accepts sinners who repent and turn to Christ in this life. This is a cardinal truth. But does this invitation extend beyond death? Will unbelievers have a chance to “get saved” after they die? This question is an important one, because if there are second chances after death, then the reality of hell is not nearly as important. Plus, there are a growing number of Christians who believe that God’s invitation to follow Jesus extends beyond the grave.
But what does the Bible say? This will be a question that permeates this workbook. Regardless of what we think or what we’ve always been taught, what does the Bible actually say about the matter? Does the Bible hold out hope that God will give unbelievers a second chance to believe in Jesus after death?
Chapter 1 of Erasing Hell discusses a few passages that seem to say God will save everyone in the end. One of the difficulties in interpreting these passages is the meaning of the word all. For instance, 1 Corinthians 15:22 says, “In Christ shall all be made alive.” By itself, this verse could mean that everyone will end up being saved, but the context doesn’t support this interpretation. Paul was clearly thinking about the resurrection of believers (“those who belong to Christ” in 15:23). Basically, 15:22–23 says that all who belong to Christ will be made alive at His coming.
Q4: Do you find it persuasive that “all” in this case doesn’t mean “every single person who ever lived”? Explain. (You may want to have a look at pages 26–33 of Erasing Hell, along with 1 Cor. 15:20–26; Phil. 2:9–11; Rev. 21:24–25.)
Another difficult passage is 1 Timothy 2:4, which says that God “wants all people to be saved” (ISV). If God “wants” all people to be saved, then this raises the question: Does God get what He wants? But Scripture talks about two different kinds “wills” of God, His “wanting” something to happen: the moral will of God and thedecreed will of God.
Q5: Explain the difference between God’s moral will and His decreed will. It may help to go back and read how these are distinguished in the life of Samson (page 32 of Erasing Hell).
Studying the Bible can be hard work! Some passages are easy to understand, while others demand much more time and reflection, or even some time in Greek dictionaries. But when we’re studying, we need to make sure that our goal is not to win an argument or just to have good doctrine. Our end goal of all Bible study is to love God and love people more—even when we are sorting out difficult doctrines, like themoral and decreed will of God!
With that in mind, let’s bring this back to the practical level. In Erasing Hell, I argue that the word all often means “all types” of people. So in 1 Timothy 2, Paul reminds Timothy that God even wants pedophile maniacs like Caesar Nero (“kings and all who are in high positions”—1 Tim. 2:2) to repent and come to Jesus. God is in the business of loving and saving sinners—especially the really bad ones!
Q6: Is there anyone in your life who you feel is beyond the reaches of God’s grace? You may not verbally admit this, but deep down you feel that there is no chance this person will come to Jesus. Write down the name of this person (or people) below, and pray for him or her.
Q7: What are some things you could do to show this person (or these people) that God loves him or her?
The church is a multiethnic, multiage, multiclass body of redeemed sinners. God loves this diversity because God loves all types of people. This seems to be the main point of passages like 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9.
Q8: Is there anyone in your life (Christian or not) whom you have not loved the way God loves? This may be a person of a different ethnicity, language, social class, or age.
God extends the offer of salvation to all types of people—but the offer is only available in this life. There is nothing in the Bible that suggests that unbelievers will have a chance to accept Jesus after they die. In fact, Luke 13:22–30 says clearly that a time will come when the door of salvation will be closed and people will have no more opportunities to turn to Jesus.
Go back and read through this passage. Read it slowly. Meditate on it. Jesus doesn’t tell this parable to prove that people will go to hell, but to challenge His followers to live different lives. Rather than arguing that the door will be closed, we need to live differently while that door is open!
Q9: Even though Luke 13:22–30 never mentions the word hell, Jesus uses a phrase in this passage that He uses elsewhere when describing hell. This phrase is weeping and gnashing of teeth. What do you think it means?
Q10: What do you think Jesus means when He says, “I do not know where you come from” (Luke 13:25)?
Q11: Jesus told His parables not only to challenge our intellects but to grip our emotions. As you read through Luke 13:22–30, what emotions does this story raise in you? Does it make you fearful? Sad? Scared?
Luke 13:22–30 is a tough parable to meditate on. I often picture friends and family who don’t know Christ, on the outside knocking, begging for Jesus to let them in. Again, God gave us this parable to change the way we think, feel, and act throughout our daily routine. So pray that God would use the reality of hell to transform the way you live—that He would use this study to help shape your life and thinking so that it looks more like Christ.
Q12: Further reflections on this session ...