On July 8, 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached what has become the most famous sermon of that era. The title: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In one of the most frequently quoted sentences from that sermon, Edwards said, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.” The Puritan preacher Richard Baxter wrote a book titled The Saint’s Everlasting Rest. In a chapter on hell, he said that “the everlasting flames of hell will not be thought too hot for the rebellious, and when they have there burnt through millions of ages, [God] will not repent him of the evil which has befallen them.”
Later in the book he wrote, “Is it not a terrible thing to a wretched soul, when it shall lie roaring perpetually in the flames of hell, and the God of mercy himself shall laugh at them; when . . . God shall mock them instead of relieving them; when none in heaven or earth can help them but God, and he shall rejoice over them in their calamity?”
In 1993, Whitaker House published a book by Mary K. Baxter (probably no relation to Richard Baxter), titled A Divine Revelation of Hell, in which she claims that Jesus gave her a tour of hell. In one place, she saw “small dark-clothed figures marching around a boxlike object. Upon closer examination, I saw that the box was a coffin and the figures marching around it were demons.” Jesus told her that the man in the coffin was a minister who had preached a false gospel. “I watched the demons as they continued to march around and around the coffin,” Baxter said. “The man’s heart beat and real blood ran from it. I will never forget his cries of pain and sorrow.”
Later in the book, Mary Baxter said she heard “heartbreaking screams and great cries of pain [coming] from the cells [where the lost were confined]. The souls inside were being burned alive by this hotter than hot lake of fire, and yet they could not die. The demons, too, joined in the laughter as Satan went from cell to cell, torturing the lost.”
I have several problems with these views of hell.
Who’s in charge?
My first question has to do with who’s in charge of the place. According to Jonathan Edwards and Richard Baxter, God is in charge of hell. Mary Baxter describes Satan and his demons as being in charge of hell.
I’ll go for the God answer.
The Bible’s most descriptive passage about hell says that “fire came down from heaven and devoured [the wicked]” (Revelation 20:9; emphasis added).* If the fire comes down from heaven, it has to come from God, because He’s in charge of heaven, not Satan. Two other biblical accounts of the destruction of the wicked—the flood of Noah and Sodom and Gomorrah— clearly show God initiating the destruction, not Satan (Genesis 6:5–7; 19:24).
The idea that demons torture wicked humans in hell hasn’t a shred of biblical evidence to support it. It’s pure fantasy. If the Bible is to be the foundation of all Christian doctrine—which I believe it is— then anything that contradicts the Bible is simply not true, including the idea that Satan and his demons are in charge of hell.
When is hell?
I also disagree with the idea that hell is going on right now.
According to the view that is held by many Christians, hell has been going on ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were cast out of the Garden of Eden. From that time to the present, the wicked have all been cast into hell at the time they died, and they have been suffering there ever since.
Proponents of this understanding of hell cite texts such as Psalm 55:15, in which the psalmist prays that the wicked will “go down quick [that is, “alive”] into hell.” That’s how the King James Version reads. However, the Hebrew word for “hell” in this instance is sheol, which simply means “the grave.” Most modern translations say, “Let them [the wicked] go down alive to the grave” (emphasis added). Translating the verse this way, David did not mean that God sends the wicked alive into hell, a place of burning. Rather, David is expressing his frustration over the wicked and wishing for God to let them be buried alive in their graves.
Rather than hell being an ongoing process, Scripture actually describes hell as a future event. Malachi 4:1, which is one of the Old Testament’s most descriptive passages about the final destiny of the wicked, says, “ ‘Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the Lord Almighty” (emphasis added). Malachi was written in or about 400 B.C., and at his time, the destruction of the wicked by fire was still in the future.
Revelation also describes hell as a future event. A few paragraphs back, I referred to the Bible’s most descriptive passage about hell, which says that “fire came down from heaven and devoured [the wicked]” (Revelation 20:9). Revelation 20 describes the millennium, which will occur after the second coming of Christ, and the fire that comes down from heaven happens at the close of the millennium. So if hell won’t even start until 1,000 years after Christ’s second coming, it certainly cannot be going on now.
The God of hell
However, my greatest objection to the popular concept of hell is its view of God. My understanding from the Bible is that God loves human beings and treats them with utmost kindness. He sends the rain to fall on the wicked as well as the righteous (see Matthew 5:45), and He finds “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11). To the contrary, He begs them to turn to Him and repent (see Isaiah 45:22). The Bible consistently describes God as loving, merciful, and just (Psalms 69:13; 103:8; Jeremiah 9:24; Joel 2:13).
The popular view—that the wicked burn and suffer in hell forever and ever, ad infinitum, world without end—makes a mockery of these divine qualities.
The idea that the wicked will burn forever and ever in hell is based on the premise that they are immortal. Of course, the only Being in the universe who has natural immortality within Himself is God. Humans and other created beings do not have immortality within themselves. Any immortality we posses is derived from God, and the New Testament states very clearly that God’s people will put on immortality at Christ’s second coming (see 1 Corinthians 15:50–54). The wicked are not immortal now, and they never will be.
The fires of hell will burn up the wicked and destroy them. That’s how fireworks. The only way the wicked could burn in hell throughout eternity would be for God to keep them artificially alive just so they could keep on burning. And that is not my idea of a loving, just, and merciful God.
Imagine that you hear a news report about a terrible crime that has been committed. The police are trying to figure out who did it, but they have no clues. Unfortunately, you have positive information that your son committed the crime, and you know that if he is found out he will be put on trial and spend many years in prison. Nevertheless, you feel duty bound to report what you know. Would you rejoice as you went to the police, or would you go with a very heavy heart?
Going to the police would be the right thing to do, even though it made you feel very sad. Similarly, punishing the wicked for their unrepentant evil is the right thing for God to do. But I believe He will do so with great sadness. The cover image on this issue of Signs of the Times® shows Jesus standing in front of the world on fire—and He has His face buried in His hand. He’s weeping over the fate of sinners.
I believe that is a correct depiction of God’s reaction to the punishment of the wicked.
Compare this with Mary Baxter’s “vision” of Jesus giving her a tour of hell. She said that she heard “heartbreaking screams and great cries of pain [coming] from the cells [where the lost were confined].” She wept and begged Jesus to do something to relieve them of their pain. That’s how any sane person reacts to intense human suffering. But Mary Baxter describes Jesus standing matter-of-factly to one side, showing no emotion whatsoever. That’s a horrible distortion of God’s character!
Richard Baxter said that “the God of mercy himself shall laugh at [the wicked in hell]” and “rejoice over them in their calamity” (emphasis added). Really? How can the words mercy and rejoice go together in any description of God’s reaction to the destruction of the wicked and eternal torment? Yet popular theology— or at least Richard Baxter’s theology— would have us believe that God is both merciful and that He rejoices at the eternal torture of the wicked in the flames of hell.
I do not question the idea of hell, which the Bible describes as a “lake of fire” (Revelation 19:20; 20:14). The Bible is very clear about the fact that God will punish the wicked with fire. However, I simply cannot imagine a merciful God continuing to give the wicked immortality just so they can scream in pain throughout all eternity.
We look with loathing on Hitler, who killed six million Jews in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and similar prison camps. But Hitler at least eventually put his victims out of their misery. The popular God of hell never lets up. He keeps human beings artificially alive so that they can go on suffering throughout the ceaseless ages of eternity. That view of God is simply beyond my comprehension. It’s a total contradiction of the merciful and just God that I read about in the Bible.
Yes, God is in charge of hell. But it will last for a very short time, and then it will all be over. God will create “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1), in which those who have trusted in Him and obeyed Him will live throughout the ceaseless ages of eternity. And they won’t have to wonder whether their merciful God is laughing at the wicked suffering indescribable pain in some remote part of the universe and refusing to relieve them of their suffering.