The hell that the Bible teaches about is on this earth and in this life. It’s what we make of the earth with our sins. Hell is the accumulated consequences of our accumulated sins. It comes on nations and it comes on individuals. On last night’s news, I heard a doctor report from an African refugee camp. The camp was teeming with starving people. What little water there was had become contaminated. As a result, disease had taken root among the refugees. A doctor said, “It’s going to spread like wildfire.” He could just as easily have said, “It’s gonna be hell.”
It seems impossible that the world should know a day when war is not going on somewhere. We see the images, we hear the reports. Not just soldiers are killed and wounded, though that’s bad enough. Civilians, too, become casualties. Add to this the enormous property damage that accumulates as fields are destroyed, buildings are razed, and factories are demolished. The toll of war’s destruction is never fully tabulated. Truly it is said, “War is hell.”
A hypothetical man and woman marry with the fondest of hopes. Years later, the hopes have evaporated and left misery in their place. The man sees the woman as uncaring and unappreciative. The woman sees the man as insensitive and ungrateful. Far from enjoying each other, they detest most of their moments together. Each regards the other as having made their marriage “a living hell.”
The Bible’s Description of Hell
The examples above represent the Bible’s hell: famine, disease, war, misery of every kind. The world God created did not have such “thorns and thistles.” Our sins and the resulting judgment against them brought all this misery forth. As painful as all these negative circumstances are, they are a necessary part of the meaning of the world we live in. Creation exists to put evil under our feet. The only way to do that is to give people a choice about it. And let them live with the consequences.
Jesus spoke about hell using the word “Gehenna.” This was the name of the valley just outside Jerusalem where wicked people once sacrificed their children by fire. Some say trash from Jerusalem was later dumped and burned there. In any case, it was outside and away from the life of the city. Just as Jerusalem epitomized for Israelites all that was good and glorious and wonderful about ancient Israel, so Gehenna represented all that was bad and shameful and disgraceful. Jesus was likening the kingdom of heaven to Jerusalem in her glory, and life outside its rule as being like Gehenna. In other words, doing the right things in life would be like living in a glorious city but doing evil would be like living in a trash dump just outside. That is, our behavior could make life like heaven on earth (Jerusalem) or like hell on earth (Gehenna).
The book of Revelation at the end of the Bible uses this same imagery. The book’s closing scene takes up the last two chapters. It paints a detailed picture of a glorious Jerusalem with walls and gates of precious stones sitting in the midst of a lake of fire. The word Gehenna per se is not found, but the connection to Jesus’ teaching is unmistakable. The picture reinforces the idea that what happens on earth is largely a consequence of human behavior. We make a heaven of it and we make a hell of it – and the two conditions coexist.
Flames and burning are the Bible’s most common images for our sins and the resulting consequences they bring. “Wrath” and “judgment” are the words most commonly used to describe the same phenomena. Some people who read the Bible apply these images to afterlife instead of this life and end up with a view of afterlife which has hell coexisting with heaven. But studying how the word Gehenna is used in the Bible reveals that it has everything to do with this life and nothing to do with the afterlife (except maybe get you to it sooner). (If you want to better understand the Bible’s teaching about afterlife and why Gehenna is not part of it see, if you haven’t already, the online book: The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven.)
Not only do the Bible’s images of hell apply to this life, they provide a way of escape! The Bible is nothing if not a book of hope. Even when life is at its worst, God is not far away. Even when we do make a hell of earth, He is nearby to be a refuge from the pain and a hope for something better.
A Place of Refuge Never Far Away
Even in those places that evil has scorched, God is only a step away. Therefore, we can find a Jerusalem in the midst of a lake of fire. Noah’s family could float in an ark above the flood. Lot and his family could be pulled out of Sodom just before it was consumed. The Israelites could be passed over when the angel of death came to take all the first-born of Egypt. This is the constant picture that the Bible gives: that we can find pockets of mercy in the midst of fiery judgment.
Refugees like the ones I saw in Africa can find food, water, and medical care from the good Samaritans who come to help them. Even the name “refugee” implies a refuge is possible. Not everyone dies in wartime. Those who survive can rebuild a better society on the war’s ashes. Even couples on the verge of divorce have redeemed their marriages and transformed their hell into a paradise. It is both a privilege and responsibility of human beings to endure hell on earth – and to even transform it into heaven on earth where they can. Not only can we survive destruction, we can thrive in the midst of it!
The Bible’s pictures of judgment are constantly colored with hope by the prophets and the apostles. The prophet Isaiah warned about a “consuming fire” and a “continual burning” that was on the way. He said that the only way to avoid the pain of these flames was to live righteously. He gave specific examples of such behavior: “speak with sincerity,” “reject unjust gain,” “hold no bribe,” and so on. Practical, personal, everyday ethics.
The apostle John similarly explained how to get from the flames of the lake of fire into the safety of the spiritual city. He said that those who “wash their robes” have the right to enter. A more modern idiom would be to “clean up their acts.” You can’t clean up your act unless you’ve been dirty. It must be possible for those of us less than perfect to find these pockets of mercy!
In the old age, the place of refuge was a physical place: Noah’s ark, Jerusalem’s temple, any place other than Sodom. In the kingdom of God, all these things are matters of the heart. God knows your situation. He can deal with you wherever you are. When His Jerusalem was a physical place, people were limited by time and distance. But now, you can find Jesus anywhere on earth. Yes, we must endure the consequences of our sins. But we can also ask for God’s mercy. And there is a consequence to that request, too: we find it. If not here, then certainly in heaven.
A Higher Purpose: Snatching Others from the Fire
There is a higher purpose to attain to than escaping the flames sparked by humanity’s evil. None of us are going to get out of here alive anyway. The higher purpose is to help others escape the flames. On the same newscast in which I saw the doctor’s report of the plight of the refugees, I also saw pictures of workers distributing food and water and caring for the sick.
The workers didn’t question whether the people they were helping had brought this famine on themselves by the way their culture had been behaving. The sins of corrupt political leaders was likely the immediate cause. Nevertheless, the practical thing to do was to help those who were suffering in this hell. There would be time later to determine the cause and try to prevent a recurrence. In the meantime, the workers were meeting the more pressing needs of the refugees. In this, the workers found purpose and meaning.
As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, love is the greatest value of all. Knowledge has its limitations, but love knows no limitations. So what if we understand every single cause that had led to the famine? Would that end the aching of any refugee belly? Sure, knowledge can prevent recurrences. But without love, that knowledge will never be put to that use. Love passes around food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. It meets pressing needs. Love is goodness overcoming evil. Knowledge can puff up but love only builds up. While some people wring their hands or curse God at the sight of starving children, these workers show us why we were put here – to help the helpless.
We cannot always know whether the trouble that has come upon a person is the consequence of that person’s own behavior (Job’s friends lost sight of this). We can most certainly know it is the consequence of someone’s behavior. God alone, however, is the judge. Our best role in this life is to hand out cups of water to our fellow refugees. It’s rewarding, it’s fulfilling, and it needs no explanation.
You don’t have to travel to find “refugees” either. Everyone is starving for something. If it’s yours to give, and if it’s right to give it, then pour out acts of kindness wherever you see needs. This is an attitude for living that has only good consequences for the giver as well as the receiver. It’s an attitude that leads to a strategy for facing consequences…whether we’ve personally been part of the cause or not.