Hell: A Terrible Problem or a Beautiful Promise?

Last year, Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins, a book about “heaven, hell, and the fate over every person”sold more than 185,000 copies. When it was released, it took the # 2 spot on the NYT best-seller list.  For all of 2011 it went in and out of the “Top 100”—often in the Top 10.  The book tour included audiences of 3000 people.  In all, it amassed an incredible response of a subject—hell—that most in our culture would choose to ignore. Sadly, the book’s presentation challenged orthodoxy and worse, misread the passages that defend the literal reality of eternal judgment.

Shortly after the book was released Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle released their response: Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up.  In their book, Chan and Sprinkle provided a strong, biblical exposition of the doctrine—there is a literal, conscious, eternal hell for those who are outside of Christ.

Their defense was needed, bold, and biblical.  But was it beautiful?  That is what Trevin Wax asked last year.  And it is a valuable question.  Can hell be beautiful?  And if so, how?  Does the Bible command orthodox Christians to love hell, or simply to believe that it exists? (This is a question that Kevin DeYoung wrestled with last year as well in his post: Is it Okay for Christians to Believe in the Doctrine of Hell But Not Like It?)

Such questions led me to preach a sermon last year entitle “The Beauty of Hell.”  While not trying to paint a picture of hell as unalloyed beauty—because the vision of men and women made in God’s image suffering eternally is a horrific reality—it is vital for evangelicals to see that when all is said and done, the Scriptures portray God’s eternal victory over evil as a beautiful and glorious thing.

Accordingly, we will look at one passage which displays God’s eternal destruction of those in hell as a beautiful. In Revelation 19:1-5, John hears and records a chorus of hallelujahs.  Each shout of praise tells something about God and his cosmic victory. These include the victorious judge, the eternal victory, the beauty of a defeated foe.

The Victorious Judge: A Beautiful Picture of Christ

In verse 1, the first hallelujah sounds forth because of who God is and what he has done. Now, it is easy to misread this passage—not because we cannot understand its intended meaning, but because we may limit our reading to the cognitive level, instead of asking why these saints are so passionate about their praise?

Great damage is done if you take the terms “salvation” and “glory” and “power” and “God” in the abstract.  God is a Savior.  God is glorious. God is powerful.  That’s all true, but those statements are like saying.  “Milk is white.” “Mountains are tall.”  “Hurricanes are strong”—all truth but little beauty.

The praise of the saints is not abstract.  It is particular. The purpose clause in verse 2 explains the reason why the saints are praising: “For his judgments are true and just.”  That is, God is without deception or oppression.  Christ the Lord is the faithful witness and righteous king, worthy of endless praise.

But it goes deeper.  Glory and honor are ascribed to Jesus “for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality.”  This verse designates who God’s enemy is: It is the whore of Babylon who destroys the earth and who sheds the blood saints with her violence.  Yet, the great prostitute will not be alone (v. 17-21).  Just as the Holy Spirit regenerates and indwells believers; so the spirit of Babylon corrupts and enslaves sinners (cf. Eph 2:3).  The spirit of Babylon is not some special class of sinners; it describes every sinner outside of Christ.

As Revelation 18 describes, those who love money, sexual immorality, and all things in the world are drunk with the wine of this prostitute.  For them judgment is coming, and thus God is praised for destroying those who destroy the earth (Rev 11:18).

In all this, Christ is the victorious judge.  He saves his people from sin, and defeats their enemies (cf. Zeph 3:15).  In this way, Christ extinguishes the effects of sin by reconciling his saints to the Father, and subduing all those who reject his offer of mercy and grace.  Truly, Christ’s victory over the forces of darkness is a beautiful thing, praised in heaven by all those who love him.

May we who love Christ labor to exposit and exult in all that Scripture says about heaven and hell.  Tomorrow, we will pick up the rest of this meditation on God’s eternal judgment.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss