The Presence of Horror in a Glossy World
Besides the idea that God became a man, the concept of eternal, conscious torment for sinners--known as hell, the dreaded gehenna in the Greek--is the most startling idea in the Bible.
Hell is such a horrible concept that even Christians don't think or talk much about it. Yes, even though the New Testament speaks repeatedly about the reality of hell, and even though Christ Himself teaches extensively about it, most Christians prefer not to think or to speak about it. In our witnessing, particularly, we edit out "hell" when speaking about the consequences of sin, replacing it with the (slightly) more acceptable notion of "eternal separation from God".
Now, I'll grant you that eternal separation from God is not likely to sound good to anyone. But conscious punishment for a life of unrepentant sin is so much greater and possesses so much more horror than does "eternal separation from God". This would be like saying that heaven is "eternal separation from suffering and sin". It's true, but it's not half the story. The story--the good news, the euangelion--is that we are able to taste for eternity the sweetness of fellowship with a majestic and loving God who saved us to exalt the Lord Christ. That is a fuller description of heaven, at least to my ears. In the same way, we who desire to present the gospel as faithfully as possible need to emphasize that the fate of the unrepentant sinner is not merely separation, but torture. This very idea sounds rather draconian to our modern ears, influenced as they are by a culture with an endless thirst for tolerance and happiness. It is this culture that tempts us to avoid the truth about hell, and to speak easier, nicer words about separation and "everlasting death". Yet when we do so, when we sidestep speech about the eternal abyss, we rob the gospel of power. Irony of ironies--when we fail to speak about the bad stuff truly, we fail to speak about the good stuff truly.
The gospel is designed to be good news, beautiful news, a wonderful mystery, and we'll talk about that tomorrow. But before you get there, you have to know the bad news. You have to face the horror. You have to look into the darkness, and see yourself there. You won't be able to fully fathom the reality of hell, and the Bible doesn't require you to. You and I cannot and do not know comprehensively what hell is and is like. We have mere snapshots of this actual place, though these snapshots, like the Luke passage quoted above, are like photographs of genocidal atrocities or natural disasters: though only a glimpse, they tell a full story.
The world is light and airy, glossy and feathery, and America has airbrushed out its sense of dread and horror. With this loss has come the loss of any fear of God and of the power of His vengeance. Yet the Bible speaks of a place that is darker than the darkest corner of this world. As we read of this darkness, we are not gleeful or filled with enjoyment. We are transfixed by the horror of hell, and terrified. As such, we cannot sit with this story--so true--in our laps. We must get up, and go out, and tell our friends, our coworkers, our peers, of the presence of horror in a world that seems so glossy and fair.