I just returned from a trip to the Middle East where it became increasingly clear to me that the traditional concept of endless suffering in Hell is not good news!
It’s not good news for a Muslim to hear that every ancestor, relative, friend or loved one who has died, and the vast majority of those still alive, have no hope. It’s not good news for a Hindu or Buddhist to be told that all or almost all of the people they love and honor are experiencing or will experience endless, conscious suffering at the hands of the God you are telling them about. For them, the message of never-ending punishment in Hell is not the most joyful news ever announced. It’s the most dreadful news ever announced.
That is one of the reasons it has been so hard for the gospel to take root in cultures that place a high value on family relationships. The first Christian missionary to Japan, St. Francis Xavier, experienced this response to the message he preached. He sent the following letter back to the Vatican in 1552:
One of things that most of all pains and torments these Japanese is that we teach them that the prison of hell is irrevocably shut. For they grieve over the fate of their departed children, of their parents and relatives, and they often show their grief by their tears. So they ask us if there is any hope, any way to free them by prayer from that eternal misery, and I am obliged to answer that there is absolutely none . . .
They often ask if God cannot take their fathers out of hell, and why their punishment must never have an end. We gave them a satisfactory answer, but they did not cease to grieve over the misfortune of their relatives; and I can hardly restrain my tears sometimes at seeing men so dear to my heart suffer such intense pain about a thing which is already done with and can never be undone.
Not Then . . . Not Now
The greatest time of expansion in the Christian Church was in the first few centuries after Christ, when the dominant view of the Church was that God would ultimately restore all of His creation to its intended perfection. For them, Hell was real, but it didn’t last forever. And it had a positive purpose. They knew something about God's sovereign power coupled with His unfailing love for all that we have forgotten.
Punishment for sin is not the issue. The real issue is whether or not suffering in Hell goes on forever, and the true teaching of Scripture is that it does not.
Over the years, I have listened to many people share testimonies of how and why they became Christians.
Many have mentioned the example of a friend or acquaintance who demonstrated an inner strength, power over sin, or quality of life that impressed them. Others have said that entering into a personal relationship with God gave them a sense of purpose in a world that seemed to have no direction, or that He provided a solid source of security at a time in their lives when everything else was falling apart. A number have mentioned that Biblical Christianity provided clear answers to questions about life and the world around them that had a ring of truth to them.
I can honestly say, however, that very few of the people I’ve talked to have said that they came to faith because they were afraid they would suffer endlessly in Hell if they did not believe, and becoming a Christian gave them peace of mind in that area. In fact, in my experience, the doctrine of never-ending suffering has caused far more people to be driven away from the faith than drawn to it.
The experience of a friend speaks to the issue very well.
I used to be afraid to share the gospel, for fear that the conversation would come around to the subject of hell. I was afraid that someone would ask, “What about those who have never heard”? or “How can a good God allow billions of people to be tormented forever?” or “What’s the point of bringing people into existence only to suffer in this life, die, and then suffer forever with no hope of relief?” I had no good answers. Sure, I knew all the standard answers, but they didn’t satisfy me any more than they satisfied those who asked the questions.
Now I am free to share the gospel without worrying about getting trapped by good questions that have no good answers. I can confidently proclaim that God is Love, that He is not a monster who allows people to spend eternity in perpetual suffering apart from Him. At the same time, I can confidently proclaim that He is holy and righteous, He is a consuming fire, and He will not let anyone get away with anything. He will do whatever it takes to make sinners holy, fit for spending eternity in His presence.
Now that is Good News!
Adapted from Heaven's doors . . . Wider Than You Ever Believed!
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