Hell is one of the most liberating doctrines in the Bible. To understand it brings health to your soul. But you might need some convincing about that…
We’ve already said that modern people seem far more fearful of “fire and brimstone” preaching than of “fire and brimstone” itself. But the fires of which the Bible speaks are the flames of God’s jealous love. The LORD who says “I am a Jealous God” burns with zeal for His people. Those on the inside of this fierce, committed, marital bond experience it as the sunshine of His love. Those on the outside experience it as a consuming judgement – hell fire.
But who is “hell fire” for?
One answer from Matthew’s Gospel is this: “the devil and his angels”. In Matthew 25 Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. He speaks of Himself as the Judge of the world who will finally and fearfully separate humanity into only two groups. This is His final word to those condemned (the “goats”):
“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.” (Matthew 25:41)
Hell fire is for Satan and his servants.
In the popular imagination hell is full of devils with pitchforks prodding humans. This is not Christ’s picture. The devil and his angels are not the jailers of hell, they are chief among those punished. Indeed, first and foremost, hell is the judgement reserved for these supernatural enemies of God.
In a very deep sense, hell fire is not for human beings.
Yet, soberingly, in another sense, hell fire is for all of us, and even in all of us.
The context of the phrase is the sermon on the mount. Jesus proclaims the Good Life from the mountain, like Moses before Him. Yet, unlike Moses, Jesus also proclaims Himself to be the Fulfiller and Accomplisher of the law.
So from Matthew 5, verses 21-48 He fills full the law of Moses, contrasting what was said in the Old Testament (ye have heard that it was said) with His own filled-out interpretation (but I say unto you). Verses 21-22 fall within this whole “filling full” section:
“Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
Someone might have read “Thou shalt not murder” as a simple prohibition against homicide, but, says Jesus, it’s much deeper. And so is our sin. Similarly, (v27-28), you might understand “Thou shalt not commit adultery” as a command to stay out of other people’s bedrooms. But it’s deeper than that, and so is our depravity.
Every lustful thought shows me to be tangled up in sin and Satan and heading for “the judgement.” Every angry word convicts me that I deserve “hell fire”. Not those wicked people over there - me! To say to another human being “Idiot!” is truly damnable. In fact it is the unleashing of the powers of damnation, as James would say:
“Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.” (James 3:5-6)
Hell fire is not simply a destination – there and then. It is a power, here and now, the influence of which we all feel. That should make us shudder. Hell is a power that we often wield – even we who belong to Jesus! And it’s a power that grips the whole world.
The judgement of the wicked will not be the consignment of sinners into the hands of some foreign power. It will be a case of leaving sinners in the hands of their life-long master. Hell fire is not just there and then, it’s also here and now.
So when our anger or lust or any sin condemns us, we should feel it very keenly. It is sulphurous evil that belongs to the deepest pit. We haven’t merely made a mistake or committed some religious faux pas. We have proven a natural bent to evil whose end is utter destruction. We must give up the pretence of piety and confess that it’s hell we deserve and hell which bubbles out of us.
When we do this, we begin to know the health-giving power of the doctrine of hell. It shows us our smallness and our complete inability to save ourselves. We can’t insulate ourselves from hell fire – the problem is within. Such a realization ought to make us despair of ourselves and our own religious powers. And it ought to drive us to Christ.
Jesus not only filled full the law, He also accomplished it. He practiced the kingdom-life that He preached – a life of peace and purity. A life that brings my hellish sin into sharp relief.
But then on the cross He became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). This means He became the world’s most heinous murderer… and sex offender and… insert the name of your sins here.
Christ fought fire with fire – and it’s the only power to save hell-bent sinners.
The doctrine of hell wonderfully takes the focus off me. Hell is so much bigger than me. I cannot quench the consuming fire. When I face my sin properly I realise that my life does not douse the flames – it’s fuel. In realising that, I stop trusting myself and cry out in helplessness, looking to Christ alone. I find peace and eternal gratitude in His salvation. Then I can know hell fire as a liberating and health-giving doctrine.