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Is the Theology of Hell Important?

by Stephen Davey

Durante di Alighiero, nicknamed “Dante,” was born in 1265 in Florence, Italy. He would eventually be considered one of the greatest poets of all time. His classic work entitled “The Divine Comedy” is perhaps his most popular poem. The poem is a visionary journey through the worlds of hell, Purgatory and heaven. 

In the first section of the poem, entitled Inferno, Dante descends into hell and finds it divided into nine circles, with each circle more progressively severe in its horrors and punishments. As Dante and his guide—the Roman poet Virgil— descend, they meet historical and contemporary individuals who’ve been assigned their places in hell according to the level of their sins. 

In the second section of the poem, Dante ascends from hell into Purgatory where souls are effectively suffering for their sins. His emergence from Purgatory symbolizes the potential for everyone to be redeemed, having suffered for their sins. Eventually, Dante reaches heaven where he meets God. 

The poem is an imaginative portrayal of the afterlife, and that word is the key: imaginative. Nowhere does Scripture promote the idea of post-death salvation, nor the requirement of souls to suffer for their sins in Purgatory before being allowed into heaven. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church was happy to see the success of this epic poem, given their disregard of the full and final substitutionary death of Christ, who paid completely for our sins once and for all. Given the lack of even one verse of Scripture, the poem supported their belief in Purgatory, where sinners are purged and prepared for heaven. 

Unfortunately, many people today view the afterlife—especially hell—through the lens of Dante’s Inferno. If you talk to many people today, their view of the afterlife is shaped through superstition, misinterpretation of Scripture, and even poetry. 

One of the most important tasks a church should undertake is the formulation of a statement of doctrine. Doctrine is belief based upon Scripture. 

Some doctrines are primary, or what theologians call, “salvific.” In other words, “you can’t be saved if you deny these doctrines.” Primary doctrines would include the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, and the triune God. Secondary doctrines, while not necessary for salvation, are still significant. They present “core issues and values” to the church. For instance, a church that believes in a pre-tribulation rapture will determine evangelism accordingly. The mission of the church will not be to prepare her to survive the Antichrist, but to meet the Lord in the air. In other words, what a church believes is going to happen next in prophecy will not necessarily determine salvation— there are many mid-tribulation and post-tribulation believers who are genuinely saved—but that one view will certainly, and significantly, define the mission of that local church. 

Some churches keep their doctrinal statements minimal, emphasizing the inerrancy of Scripture, the reality of God, and the core tenets of salvation. It is my practice—as a pastor—to consider any doctrinal issue significant if it impacts the authority of Scripture and the message of the gospel. 

Especially in matters related to the afterlife, hell, and heaven, our views must be governed by Scripture, not poetry, or church tradition, or someone’s imagination. We must be students of the Word, striving to better understand what we believe so we can give an answer to anyone who asks us (1 Peter 3:15). 

The doctrine of “The Eternal State” is certainly a most significant doctrine. In the words of a recent article, the trend toward believing in a literal and eternal hell is “down.” I have read and listened to church leaders claim that hell isn’t real, or it isn’t permanent, or that its existence is only for Satan and the demons. 

Vance Havner, the famous North Carolina evangelist from the last generation, once preached on the subject of hell. Afterward, a rather disturbed man came up to him and suggested that he shouldn’t preach so much about hell, but about Jesus, meek and mild. Havner responded, “Well, Jesus is the one from whom I got my information.” 

The truth is, Jesus spoke more, and warned more often, about an afterlife of torment than He spoke about heaven. And that makes sense to me, beloved. Having created hell, seen hell, and being very aware of the coming judgment and sentencing of unbelievers to hell, it makes perfect sense that Jeus would so often warn His audience not to go there! 

Based on the words of Christ, hell is real, eternal, irredeemable, permanent, and horrible. According to Christ’s own warnings, everyone who does not place saving faith in His gospel will eventually live there. 

Before considering the description of hell provided by the prophets, the apostles, and the Lord Jesus, we need to consider a few reasons why this doctrine is significant. 

The doctrine of hell reveals eternal attributes of God. 

Skeptics of a literal hell will overemphasize the love of God, while completely ignoring the justice of God. They will agree with the eternal nature of His forgiveness, but not the eternal nature of His wrath. And of course, skeptics have enough difficulty believing that God has already judged humanity, apart from the eight members of Noah’s family, and then drowned them all in a global flood as the result of their sin. We often read expressions of God wiping out nations; He even laughs at their rebellion against Him. 

The truth is, there is another side to the attributes of God that is much less comfortable for the unbeliever. Frankly, hell teaches us how seriously God takes our sin. For those who accept Jesus as their substitute, trusting in the death of God’s sinless Son, they are delivered, not from momentary punishment in one of the nine circles of hell imagined by Dante, but an eternal world of suffering described by Jesus. 

Beloved, this doctrine should fill us with profound sorrow and sympathy for the lost; it should increase our desire to see people saved from this impending judgment, and it should also challenge us to take sin as seriously as God does. 

The doctrine of hell highlights the eternal necessity for salvation. 

The message of the gospel is that Jesus came to earth to seek and to save the lost. To save us from what? If there is no literal judgment, or if the literal judgment is just a temporary part of eternity, then why did Jesus die? 

Beloved, the unthinkable separation of the eternally unified triune God was so severe that Jesus longed for some other cup to drink, symbolizing His abandonment at the cross. 

The doctrine of the Eternal State (heaven and hell) is a biblical reminder of the magnitude of Jesus’ love for us, rescuing us from eternal separation from God our Father. 

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Comments

Brenda Murphy says:
Would love to hear a more in depth preaching series on this topic. Thank you for your ministry.

[From WI: In Stephen's teaching series through Revelation, scroll down to Revelation 20:11 for a three-part series https://www.wisdomonline.org/teaching-series/revelation]
Greg Hartline says:
I agree with you 100 percent I have read Charles spurgeon sermon “heaven or hell” he really explains why Jesus spoke much more on hell than heaven so sad we live in a time of great apathy Paul warned in 2nd Timothy they will not put up with sound doctrine I’ve heard of preachers over the last 10 years being told to leave because they preach too much on hell oh how we need to proclaim the whole counsel of Gods word thank you for your ministry
Connie Corbin says:
Great message! And great reminder of the need for mercy and pity for unbelievers. The statement below that I copied is why I so appreciate Wisdom International. I have learned so much through the Wisdom Journey - but still so much more to learn and excited about it. Especially in matters related to the afterlife, hell, and heaven, our views must be governed by Scripture, not poetry, or church tradition, or someone’s imagination. We must be students of the Word, striving to better understand what we believe so we can give an answer to anyone who asks us (1 Peter 3:15).
Brian says:
I have been reading The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, and he does a wonderful job of painting the miserable picture that is Hell. Noting good whatsoever. I believe we need this reminder more than ever.
David Foltz says:
If people would only read the Bible instead of going by folk lure, they would know what hell is really like. People are misled that the account of the Rich Man and Lazarus was merely a parable when in fact it literally happened! Jesus didn't mention proper names in His parables. The description of hell in Luke 16 is very accurate and sombering.
steve welnick says:
I know that I am saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ who died for my sins and endured the punishment of hell so I wouldn't have to. I am ashamed that Jesus had to feel my sins and go through what he went through and can't begin to fathom how he felt taking on the sin of all mankind from Adam to now. I am thankful that God is a forgiving God and that on my final judgement he won't look back at all of my sin but will welcome me Home!!
Florinda Johnson says:
Preach on!!! The truth is what needs to be taught from the scriptures!!! Thank you for your ministry & preaching!!!
Peggy Nicholson says:
I believe everything you have said. That is doctrine of our church and we stand firm on it. God's Word is alive and very exciting to read. I believe in the security of the believer and those who do not accept that is not living a victorious life. I'm a Sunday school teacher and I do a lot of research on the things you mentioned so I can explain it to my class at church properly.
Timothy Zigler says:
I agree, Just as many believe satan has horns and a pointed tail. Many believe hell will be a big party. They are sadly mistaken
Jane Bobish says:
I’ve learned so much from your ministry and look forward everyday to hearing your teachings. So many people attend churches that make up their own man made rules & regulations, then when they decide that those rules & regulations become too old fashioned for the times we’re living in they are abandoned & replaced with new & different ones. The Bible is the inerrant word of God. It’s the only truth, the truth that never changes. I want to thank you so much for your words of wisdom!!
Roxanne Spragan says:
Thank you for boldly teaching biblical truths. I found the article interesting.
Rohsy Jim says:
Because our Lord Jesus talk more about hell than heaven, likewise, there should be more seremons on hell than love, so people will think twice about committing sins.
Marilyn says:
Amen and Amen to what you have written regarding Hell. I just wish more people today could realize that Hell is real and they will end up there if they don't acknowledge Jesus and his sacrifice. I have had people tell me that they plan on partying with their friends in Hell. I tell them based on what the Bible says you won't even be able to see another person let alone a friend.
Mary Dean says:
Thank you for this writing. I hear lot of people comment that there really is not a hell; that JESUS would not let ‘us’ go to hell because HE loves us. I find it difficult to convince these people that the BIBLE tells us there is a hell. It is real. It saddens me to know that people have abandoned JESUS.If they would read the BIBLE, they would know the severe torture JESUS went thru to take our punishment of sin. You would think they would change their minds. Thank you for all your writings. Very enjoyable.
Bob Scott says:
First and foremost, I want to thank you and also to commend you that you preach the whole Bible and not just the so-called popular sections. I am convinced that Hell is real, and that we who call ourselves a Christ follower must be more urgent than ever to tell the Good News to all that only in Jesus Christ is life, Eternal Life, and apart from Him their eternal destination is Hell. We all are made in the image of God and therefore are in need of a Savior, Jesus Christ. In Him, Bob
Annette says:
I appreciate this article and your insight into the word of God. When I think about hell, I wish it wasn’t a real place, but Christ said it is real and horrible, and I believe my God and Savior. I’d like to hear more about the Lake of Fire after the Great White Throne Judgement. Thank you for your continued ministry and your faithfulness to teaching God’s word. I’m especially enjoying “Wisdom Now.”
Desiree Balser says:
Your article is excellent it tries very hard to tell us there is heaven and hell. I believe it is black and white.