Time magazine's current issue carries a cover story about hell. A hot-selling book by Rob Bell seems to have precipitated it. Preachers are weighing in for their congregations on whether Bell is a heretic for his views. To say the least, Bell is light years away from Dante's Inferno and screaming evangelists.
On that last point — Good! The notion of hell as a pit of writhing agony over which God presides with some sort of sadistic satisfaction is ... well ... downright un-Godly. The biblical text makes it clear that the God who revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth takes no delight in the downfall or suffering of any human being. He doesn't want anyone to perish but wills instead that all come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Dante's gory images have inspired more of the fear-based and nightmare-inducing images of hell than anything found in Scripture.
On the other hand, if a popular pastor or dismissive unbeliever holds that there are no eternal consequences for unrepented human evil, that doesn't square with the biblical text either. Against a materialist world-view that holds this life is all there is and that death just means "everything goes black," Christian Scripture declares not only that there is life after this one, but that the status of people in their future existence depends on decisions made in this one.
It doesn't do justice to the biblical materials to say we create our own little hells "here and now" by stupidity, malice, and greed. Neither is it a solution to insist that multiple tries will be offered each of us until we finally get it right. The biblical message is that this life really matters and eternity actually is in the balance.
So is hell a bubbling lake of molten sulfur? That is a word picture for a place nobody wants to be — just as a city with gold streets and constant light is a word picture for the ideal environment anyone would enjoy. But, a "word picture" of what? The Bible doesn't indulge our curiosity about such things. It simply states the real fact that "here and now" settles "there and then."
And what would make heaven heavenly? Not gold streets or pearl gates. Not diamonds, constant sunshine, and breathtaking landscapes. History has lots of tales of the rich and famous who have had all those things but were miserable. They had no healthy relationships, no safe family or friends, and no genuine love.
Hell must be the exact opposite. It is a place and experience where God is not. Rejecting him and choosing to live this life apart from him, no one will have God forced on him in the life to come. So even if that soul walked on gold, slept on silk, and dined on delicacies, the experience would be hell. It would have no secure relationships. No safe places. No love. That some people live versions of this experience now makes it clear how horrible and dreadful hell must be.
Could the most literal depiction of hell in the Bible be this: that those who are lost are "... separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might"? (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
Enough said. Whatever and wherever that is, I want no part in it! That God is at work to rescue all of us from such a fate is grace. Amazing, wonderful grace.