It is manifestly untrue that the concept of hell was an invention of the Middles Ages. Not only is the idea plainly taught in the Bible (which this article will focus on), but belief in hell can be found in both Jewish writings of the pre-Christian era as well as in early Christian writings immediately following the apostolic era. After briefly examining the historical belief in the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment, we will then examine the Biblical rationale behind the doctrine.
ANCIENT JEWISH AND CHRISTIAN WRITINGS
By way of example, the Book of Enoch, a Jewish work predating the time of the Maccabees, is literally swollen with the concept of hell and eternal punishment. Here is just a small sampling representative of what is found everywhere in the book:
“And such has been made for sinners when they die and are buried in the earth and judgment has not been executed on them in their lifetime. Here their spirits shall be set apart in this great pain till the great day of judgment and punishment and torment of those who curse forever and retribution for their spirits. There He shall bind them forever.” (Enoch 22:10-12)
“And they [i.e. the heathen] shall be cast into the judgement of fire, and shall perish in wrath and in grievous judgment forever.” (Enoch 91:9)
“Woe to you, ye sinners, when ye have died, if ye die in the wealth of your sins; and those who are like you say regarding you: ‘Blessed are the sinners: they have seen all their days. And how they have died in prosperity and in wealth, and have not seen tribulation or murder in their life; and they have died in honor, and judgement has not been executed on them during their life.’ Know ye, that their souls will be made to descend into Sheol and they shall be wretched in their great tribulation. And into darkness and chains and a burning flame where there is grievous judgment shall your spirits enter; and the great judgement shall be for all the generations of the world. Woe to you, for ye shall have no peace.” (Enoch 103:5-8)
Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, wrote concerning the Pharisees (the most respected religious group in Israel in his day) that they believed in and taught the doctrine of eternal punishment:
“They [the Pharisees] say that all souls are incorruptible; but that the souls of good men are only removed into other bodies, but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book 2, 8:14)
“They [the Pharisees] also believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, 1:3)
From these few passages we can see that Jews, before the advent of Christianity, believed in the doctrine of the hell and eternal punishment. This idea was never corrected by Jesus nor the apostles, but was only confirmed and amplified by them. They spoke about hell often and assumed that their hearers understood what they meant.
Polycarp, an early bishop of Smyrna, when about to martyred in a Roman arena was threatened with fire and given an opportunity to recant his beliefs. He responded thus: "Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly." (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. XI)
"If we do the will of Christ we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment." (Clement of Rome, 2 Clement 5:5)
"We are persuaded that when we are removed from the present life we shall live another life, better than this present one... or, falling with the rest, a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere by-work, and that we should perish and be annihilated." (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, Ch. XXXI)
"The punishment of those who do not believe the Word of God, and despise His advent, and are turned away backwards, is increased; being not merely temporal, but rendered also eternal. For to whomsoever the Lord shall say, 'Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire,' these shall be damned forever; and to whomsoever He shall say, 'Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you for eternity,' these do receive the kingdom forever." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:28:2)
Therefore, to say that the concept of hell is a later theological invention is simply false. What might be truer to say is that men like Dante in the Middle Ages sensationalized it, but they certainly did not invent it.
HELL AND ETERNAL PUNISHMENT IN THE BIBLE
As I said earlier, the Bible speaks plainly about the reality of hell and eternal punishment. Here are several passage on eternal punishment from the Bible:
"And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." (Daniel 12:2)
"The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?" (Isaiah 33:14)
"And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh." (Isaiah 66:24)
Jesus quoted Isaiah 66:24 many times as his usual way of describing hell:
"And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched." (Mark 9:43-48)
John the Baptist also alluded to this:
"Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable." (Luke 3:17)
The reason the fire is not quenched is because the fuel never ceases. A horrible thought. Whether the fire is literal or not does not matter. Woe to us if they are symbols! For if the symbols are that horrible, the substance must be more.
Jesus plainly tells us about the end of the age. The following are not parables, but explanations of parables:
"The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." (Matt. 13:41-42)
"So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." (Matt. 13:49-50)
Jesus tells us who we should fear:
"And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him." (Luke 12:4)
Jesus is not telling a parable when He contrasts eternal punishment and eternal life:
"Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels... And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal." (Matt 25:41, 46)
It has rightly been noticed that Jesus talked more about hell than everyone else in the Bible put together. Let's remember that He did this to warn us because He loves us, and the whole reason He came into the world was to save us from this condemnation. Jesus spoke the hard things in love.
To all of this should be added the apostles' words. Here is a sampling:
"In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power." (2 Thess. 1:8-9)
"The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night." (Rev. 14:10-11)
From these passages one can understand why Bible readers have always believed in hell and eternal punishment, and have great cause to tremble at it. The doctrine of hell has its foundation here, not in Dante.
THE REASON FOR HELL
In order to understand the rationale behind eternal punishment, it is essential to understand that sin is not merely two-dimensional (that is, sin is not merely against mankind and society) but is three-dimensional (that is, sin is against God also). It is solely due to our false understanding of sin, our thinking that it is not that big of an evil, that we fail to understand the Biblical punishment pronounced against it. This is clearly demonstrated by those who argue against the idea of eternal punishment, who repeatedly claim that such a severe punishment could not possibly be merited by people living in a finite world, and that it seems absurd to think, for example, that poor, innocent "tea-sipping grannies" should be worthy of such a punishment. But once we see sin for the real evil that it is, as God considers it to be, even the "tea-sipping grannies" are found to be in the category of Psalm 14:2-3, and are found to be sinners for whom Jesus had to die.
The seriousness of sin is not finally measured by how it affected people, nor by how many people it affected, nor by how long it took to commit the sin, nor even by the amount of sin acquired in one lifetime. Although these considerations are all important in the context of human society and human justice, these alone do not provide the basis for a crime so serious that would merit eternal punishment. This fact is rightly pointed out by critics of the doctrine of hell. However, what these critics fail to recognize is the actual Biblical reason for the seriousness of sin; that is, the three-dimensional nature of all sin.1 According to the Bible, the seriousness of sin is finally determined by the worthiness of the One against whom all sin is ultimately committed: God. The more worthy the offended party, the more serious the sin. As Thomas Manton correctly remarked: "There is no little sin, because there is no little God to sin against."
Jonathan Edwards' words here are important:
“Every crime or fault deserves a greater or less punishment, in proportion as the crime itself is greater or less. If any fault deserves punishment, then so much the greater the fault, so much the greater is the punishment deserved. The faulty nature of any thing is the formal ground and reason of its desert of punishment; and therefore the more any thing hath of this nature, the more punishment it deserves. And therefore the terribleness of the degree of punishment, let it be never so terrible, is no argument against the justice of it, if the proportion does but hold between the heinousness of the crime and the dreadfulness of the punishment; so that if there be any such thing as a fault inﬁnitely heinous, it will follow that it is just to inﬂict a punishment for it that is inﬁnitely dreadful.”
Notice how the severity of the punishment is totally irrelevant when determining the justice of the eternal punishment. The only real question is: is there a sin that corresponds to (merits) such a punishment? Therefore we can see that the whole matter rests upon our understanding of sin: is it really that bad or not? While the Bible teaches it is really that bad. Human wisdom always has taught that it is not.
"Hell is one of those things that is so naturally unthinkable that it actually commends itself as belonging, not to the realm of human conceptions of justice, but of divine revelation. The greatest reason for our quarrel with hell is because we are 'cut off' and 'out of touch' with the holiness of God. We are insensible of divine reality. If God is possessed of a holiness that is infinite, sin becomes something much more than a finite, time bound event, as we tend to imagine. That is why we are incapable of knowing the degree of our sin apart from revelation." (Reginald Kelly)
On this matter we must listen to God and not to human wisdom. Who is the better judge of what sin is?
When seen in this light, the limiting and minimization of hell is actually just the limiting and minimization of God. If there is no eternal punishment, then there is no sin worthy of eternal punishment, which means that there is no being who exists who is infinitely worthy. This idea, that the measure of the seriousness of sin depends upon the measure of the worthiness of the offended party, is not off the mark. We all actually feel this way and operate on this principle. Would you not consider someone especially despicable if he murdered, for example, someone like Mother Theresa? Of course murdering any person is evil, but is there not an added element of evil if it is done to someone who is more honorable? Or does not stealing from your own mother and father who love you have more despicableness in it than stealing from a complete stranger (which, make no mistake, is also evil). Does not the despicableness rise as the honor and worthiness of the one sinned against rises? Therefore the vileness of a crime does in fact depend upon who the crime is committed against.
But what is the measure of the honor and worthiness of God?
Gregory Boyd, a prominent American pastor in our day, is a vocal critic of the doctrine of hell and one who has gathered quite a following. In a video interview in which he discusses the idea of hell, he asks people to consider whether it is loving and just for God to send people to hell for all of eternity on the basis of finite sins they have committed in their finite lifetimes. Boyd's criticism is an excellent example of the standard criticism leveled against the doctrine of hell, and his oversight is typical and helpful for us to see. The picture Boyd paints is a caricature of the doctrine of hell and is not addressing the Bible on its own terms. Boyd's reasoning excludes any notion of mankind deserving hell due to sinning against God. Instead, in the video, he simply juxtaposes a picture of the flames of hell with pictures of nice, smiling people and asks us to decide whether sending these friendly people to hell is right. Of course, considered from only this angle, any normal human being would see the injustice in that! Boyd appeals to our emotions, and gives us an incomplete view of the matter.
A better question is: could it be possible that mankind deserves hell? This will require us to think about sin, and to think about it in new ways and in new dimensions which we don't usually consider. In the first place, when we read the Bible, which we have solid reasons to believe is theopneustos (God-breathed), we read about God sending people to hell. We don't need to like it (God Himself doesn't like it!), but we must wrestle with the fact that it is there and ask "why": what does God see in His infinite wisdom that we are failing to see in our human wisdom? Many turn a blind eye to the fact that God explains why men deserve hell, simply because they don't immediately understand the reason, or do not want to. We ought to submit ourselves as disciples (students) of God to be instructed. What we are never permitted to do, however, is caricaturize the Bible by ignoring the explanation of hell as the just deserts of our sin against God. If one is going to criticize hell, one must criticize hell as it is found in the Bible and not as it isn't. Disagree with the Bible if you'd like, or agree with it, but don't ignore it. Boyd should have spend his time talking about how sin isn't really that bad because sinning against God isn't infinitely despicable because God isn't infinitely worthy, instead of pointing to the mere idea that God will send people to hell and concluding from this that it is unjust.
I believe with all my heart that God is love, and that His love is wonderfully revealed in and through Jesus Christ. God's love is incomprehensible love; it is deeper, wider, longer and higher than we can possibly understand. God loved this world so much that He send His Son to save it from perishing in an everlasting punishment. Christ laid down His life, not for good people, but while we were yet sinners and enemies of God, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:7-10). The love of God is displayed in the cross of Christ where Jesus died as the propitiation (turning away of God's wrath) for our sins (1 John 4:10). We needed saving from God's wrath because of our sins, and Jesus came to do just that because of God's love. God is not only wrath, but love. Nor is He only love, but also wrath. Behold the goodness and severity of our God.
As Jonathan Edwards observed, the severity of hell is irrelevant to the question of its justice. The real question is: is there a crime heinous enough that would deserve such a punishment? If a sin can be found that merits eternal punishment, the question of its justice is answered. The question of the justice of eternal punishment depends upon the existence of a sin worthy of it or not.
If we are searching out the question using only our own human experiences with other humans, then we can never see things the way the Bible declares things to be. God is not like anything else we know and experience. He is qualitatively different than all things (holy), so if we seek absolute parallels between God and man we will inevitably evade reality. This is why solely appealing to and considering human affairs is flawed. Human relations are similar, but are not identical to our relations with God. As a parent loves a child, so God loves us, but His love is even greater. As a parent would, painfully, be willing to see his son or daughter suffer the deserved punishment for their crime, so God is willing, painfully, to see the same, only God is even more just, and therefore more willing, and more loving, and therefore it is even more painful for Him. God does not revel in the eternal punishment of the wicked. In fact, God send Christ to save the wicked from it.
As there is no crime that could be committed in the two-dimensional context of human relations that would justify eternal punishment, so we need to recognize that God is judging sin in an entirely different context than mere human relations. Human beings must reckon with the fact that they deal with not only other humans, but with God. Furthermore, they must reckon with the fact that they have lived as enemies of God, disregarding Him and spurning His authority. And who is God? God is the Wholly Other, the Uncreated Creator, the perfectly Wise and Good and Beautiful, Who, by His nature, is the essence of Wisdom, Goodness, Beauty and Righteousness, and Who continually provides the raison d'être of our very existence. According to the Bible, it is against God that we have sinned, without any cause at all. This is evil and despicable beyond anything we know on earth in human relations, for the honorableness and worthiness of God adds an element of evil to our sins unlike anything we are accustomed to.
It is not my intention to suggest that there is no similarity between divine relations and human relations, but only to say that when it comes to God, we are dealing with a Being of infinite proportions unlike any other being we know, and therefore while there are similarities between how we relate to humans and how we relate to God, it is never a perfect parallel, because with God the proportions are infinitely greater.
The Old Testament law reveals that executing justice is a matter of lex talionis, tit-for-tat, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Ex. 21:24-25). This is God's retributive standard as He reveals it in the law. What this ultimately means is that the punishment needs to fit the crime. Not all sins under the law received the same punishment because there are differences in the seriousness of crimes committed in the context of human relations, and therefore there are differences in the severity of the punishments.
According to the standard of "an eye for an eye", what is the fitting punishment for sin committed against God? In view of who God is, hell is the only appropriate punishment for sinning against God. All sin has both a horizontal dimension (as it relates to humans and to human society) and a vertical dimension (as it relates to God). Horizontally, sins are more or less serious and receive different kinds of punishment. This is right and good. No sin, when considered horizontally, deserves an eternal punishment. But if we only consider sin from this dimension we will never be able to believe in the justice of hell, even though the Bible teaches it. It is only when we see that sin is committed against God, as the Bible clearly teaches it is, and only when we see how supremely evil that is, will we begin to understand the justice of eternal punishment. If it be asked: "What parent would beat their child ceaselessly and daily without end?" The answer is, no parent. There is no human situation in which a parent could justly do that. But what if, hypothetically, there was a divine situation in which eternal punishment was what a person really deserved? If there is such a sin that deserves such a punishment, it would therefore be unjust for God not to recompense it. Furthermore, because it would be a matter of justice it would say nothing about the love of God. God sends people to hell, not because He is unloving, but because He is not unjust. Eternal punishment has everything to do with the standard of retribution as stated in the law and the existence of a crime that is so serious it really merits such a punishment.
So when people say, "Hell is so bad! What loving parent would do that? How could God do that if He really loved people?" they are missing the point. It's not about God's love and it's not about how bad hell is. It's about God's justice and whether there is a crime worthy of such a punishment according to "an eye for an eye". That's the whole issue. That is why when we dismiss hell as unjust, we are actually saying that there is no sin that is really exceedingly evil, or that all sin should only be judged horizontally, or that to sin vertically against God is really just as bad as sinning horizontally against humans, because God isn't really qualitatively different than humans. In essence, the denial of hell is a denial of God in some way. That is why, in the last analysis, to deny the doctrine of hell is to be guilty of blasphemy on two counts: one, for the impudence of not giving heed to the revelation of God, and two, for the irreverence of not believing that God is infinitely worthy.
The concept of hell and eternal punishment is not an invention of men in the Middle Ages, meant to scare and control people. Men would never have come up with a doctrine like hell, as, humanly speaking, it is the most offensive and difficult concept of all for human beings to accept without first understanding the true nature of sin against God. But when you understand the true nature of sin against God, the doctrine of hell reasonably follows. Therefore the doctrine of hell is a sacred doctrine and has as its basis God's revelation to mankind. Jesus talked so much about hell, warning sinners of the wrath to come, because He came to testify of the truth, and because He came to rescue sinners from this condemnation by His own blood. Whoever believes in Jesus Christ and trusts entirely in His propitiatory sacrifice will be saved. But whoever ignores Christ's warning, and does not take refuge in Christ for his salvation, will be damned. These are the only options.
May you patiently consider this matter and choose to be a student of God rather than follow the wisdom of this world. Remember that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight." (Prov. 9:10)
1 For an excellent essay on the Biblical understanding of sin, see A God-Centered Understanding of Sin by Stephen Witmer..