The Reality of Hell

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To know the good news of the Gospel, you have to understand the bad news

by Greg Laurie

I heard a story a while back about a man who lived in Chicago. The winters are really cold there, and he decided he wanted a break. He scheduled a vacation to Florida. His wife was on a business trip so they traveled separately. She was planning to meet him in Miami the next day, so when he got to Florida he emailed his wife to let her know he’d arrived safely.

These were the early days of email, and the man made a mistake. He typed in his wife’s email address wrong. The message didn’t go to her but instead delivered to an elderly woman whose husband, a pastor, had just passed away. The poor widow was reading her emails, opened up the mistaken one, shrieked and fainted.

The grieving family came running in to see what happened. They saw the email on the screen, which she believed had been a message from her deceased husband. “Dearest wife,” it said. “Just checked in. Everything is prepared for your arrival tomorrow. By the way, it sure is hot down here.”

(OK. That’s just a joke.)

The Most Important Topic

As a pastor, I’ve been asked before why I speak so much about eternity. Whatever topic I’m preaching about, my messages always seem to go back to our eternal fate. Why? It’s because, when you get right down to it, our eternity is the most important thing there is. I teach the Word of God because I want to see people who were on their way to hell get to heaven. I want people to change their eternal address.

Pastors like to talk about heaven. Hell is a much less popular topic. For every American who believes they are going to hell, there are 120 who think they’re going to heaven. That contradicts what Jesus said:

“…wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. 14 Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”—Matthew 7:12-14

If we believe the Bible, we have to acknowledge that most people today are not headed to heaven. We have to accept this simple fact.

We make jokes about hell and people use the word “hell” frivolously in their language because we are uncomfortable with the idea. But Jesus took hell very seriously. He spoke about hell more than any of the other prophets or teachers in the Bible put together. Most of the teaching we have on the topic of hell was given to us by Christ Himself.

That surprises people. They say, “But wasn’t Jesus the very personification of love and mercy and grace? Why would He talk about hell?” That’s why—because Jesus is the personification of love and mercy and grace. He doesn’t want anyone made in His image to spend eternity in hell. But He knows it happens, so He used His time on earth to warn us about it.

Lazarus and the Rich Man

Of the 40 parables, Jesus told, more than half of them deal with God’s eternal judgment and hell. One of the most famous parables is the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man from Luke 16. Here it is in its entirety:

19 Jesus said, “There was a certain rich man who was splendidly clothed in purple and fine linen and who lived each day in luxury. 20 At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. 21 As Lazarus lay there longing for scraps from the rich man’s table, the dogs would come and lick his open sores.

22 “Finally, the poor man died and was carried by the angels to sit beside Abraham at the heavenly banquet. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and he went to the place of the dead. There, in torment, he saw Abraham in the far distance with Lazarus at his side.

24 “The rich man shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have some pity! Send Lazarus over here to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I am in anguish in these flames.’

25 “But Abraham said to him, ‘Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides, there is a great chasm separating us. No one can cross over to you from here, and no one can cross over to us from there.’

27 “Then the rich man said, ‘Please, Father Abraham, at least send him to my father’s home. 28 For I have five brothers, and I want him to warn them so they don’t end up in this place of torment.’

29 “But Abraham said, ‘Moses and the prophets have warned them. Your brothers can read what they wrote.’

30 “The rich man replied, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will repent of their sins and turn to God.’

31 “But Abraham said, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Luke 16:19-31, NLT

One man owned everything but possessed nothing. The other, Lazarus, owned nothing but inherited everything. One went to comfort and the other ended up in torment.

The Great Equalizer

I’ve often taught that there will be two surprises when we get to heaven. One, a lot of the people we never thought we would see there will be there. Two, some of the people we were sure we would see in heaven will not be there.

But at the other end of the spectrum, almost everyone who ends up in hell will be surprised about it. And what happens there, according to this passage, is pretty bleak. The rich man experiences torment.

First, we should note that the sin of this man was not his wealth. It was that he had no time for God. He was possessed by his possessions. That description of him being “clothed in purple and fine linen” indicates that he had unlimited resources. He dressed like royalty. He probably lived that way, too.

Yet Lazarus, covered in sores, was living off the scraps from the rich man’s table. The passage seems to imply that Lazarus was weak or disabled, living at the rich man’s gate, so surely the rich man was aware of Lazarus’s situation. He could have invited him to his table or sent decent meals out to him. But he probably wouldn’t give the man the time of day. He had everything and he gave nothing.

Then death came. And death is the great equalizer. The princely rich man ended up in hell while the suffering beggar ended up in heaven. So what do we learn from this story? I think there are three main truths:

1. People in Hell Suffer

The fact that this man spoke of torment indicates that suffering is a very real thing in the hereafter. The words torment and anguish are used multiple times in the text of this story. People in hell are in literal pain.

2. Hell is Permanent

Once you are in hell, you cannot cross over to heaven. Some people seem to think they will be able to negotiate their way into heaven, but once you’ve arrived it will be too late. This passage says there is a “great chasm” between heaven and hell. It is uncrossable. This means there are no changing things in eternity. Our chance to make changes happens here on earth. We have thousands of opportunities before we die—but zero opportunities afterward.

3. People are Conscious in Hell

When you are in hell, you are conscious and fully aware of where you are. You are also aware of where you were. The rich man remembers elements of his life before he died. He asks about his brothers and wants to warn them of his fate. In some way, he seems to be blame-shifting—“Hey, nobody warned me about this!”—until Abraham shuts that down by reminding him of Moses and the prophets.

We Have a Choice

Jesus taught about hell because He wants to do everything possible to keep people from going there. But God has given each of us a free will. We have the ability to choose, and God will not violate our choice.

If you want to go to heaven, you will, as long as you put your faith in Christ.

If you want to go to hell, that also is your choice.

The pastor and author Timothy Keller once said, “People only get in the afterlife what they most wanted. Either to have God as Savior and Master or to be their own saviors and masters. Hell is simply one’s freely chosen path going on forever.”

God gives us a choice and it’s up to us what we are going to do with that choice. Will we choose Christ or will we reject Him? That’s the eternal question.

Speaking as a pastor, none of us like to preach or teach about hell. It’s not a fun message to deliver. But if I don’t share this, then I am not giving the whole gospel truth. If I only talk about heaven and never talk about hell, I’m doing you a disservice. My hope is that an article like this makes you want to redouble your efforts to reach people with the Gospel before it’s too late.

Feel free to share this article with them. Better yet, share Jesus with them!

We have to be direct with people because that is the full message of the Gospel. That word, Gospel, means “good news.” And I can’t fully appreciate the good news until I first know the bad news. And the bad news is we are separated from God and we are headed to judgment. The good news is Christ paid the price for our sins. If we will turn to Him, we can be forgiven. We can go to heaven. We can spend eternity in His presence.

With the events of the end times seemingly as close as they have ever been, I desperately want that to be true for as many people as possible.