You’re our new pastor? Well, give ’em hell!”
These were among the first words of “encouragement” that I heard when I left the seminary to begin work at my first church. The laugh that trailed my new friend’s advice clued me in to the fact that the irony wasn’t lost upon him.
It really wasn’t until that conversation that I began to wonder about how often we connect the idea of hell with our own lives.
While most people believe that no one experiences hell until sometime after death, we still insist on associating it with the present through a variety of idioms and proverbs: “War is hell,” “I’m going through hell,” “It will happen when hell freezes over,” and “All hell is breaking loose.” On the flip side, we say things such as, “This ice cream is heavenly,” and “It’s a match made in heaven.”
Our everyday language is heavily laced with statements of faith that we make without even thinking. Whatever else this phenomenon may mean, it cannot be denied that heaven and hell have a foothold on our human imagination.
Living the afterlife
But there’s also an element of truth in our unconscious habit of making the afterlife a part of this life. The Bible is clear that the choices we make now already begin to transform us as we go through each day. We are told that if we respond to God’s love, we will be like Him. “Love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the Day of Judgment, because in this world we are like him” (1 John 4:17; italics added).
Logically, we have to assume that the opposite is also true: the more we make choices apart from God, the less we will resemble Him. So, in some very real sense, the heaven or hell on our horizons begin in this life and culminate in the life to come. Going to hell isn’t an abrupt and unexpected punishment for the wicked but the logical direction of their present lives. It’s an environment of their own making, governed by their decisions.
The evidence of our choice of heaven or hell can be seen clearly. When someone claims to be a Christian, the apostle Paul tells us to expect certain “fruits” or by-products of a life committed to Christ. Among these are love, patience, and self-control (Galatians 5:22, 23). With a little reflection, we’re able to ask ourselves, “Is my life trending toward these virtues?”
There’s a conflict between good and evil on our planet, which can be understood as a battle between the principles of love and lust, selflessness and selfishness. God’s kingdom is a place where love is the governing principle. Paul put it succinctly when he said that “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10). In other words, the more you learn to love, the more you will act as a citizen of God’s heavenly kingdom.
Conversely, hell is a place of restlessness that results from selfishness. The book of Revelation ominously warns that those who reject God’s love are destined for hell, where “there is no rest day or night” (Revelation 14:11).
Yet this restless state begins long before we reach hell. Isaiah records in two places the truth that “there is no peace . . . for the wicked” (Isaiah 48:22; 57:21). Elsewhere he contrasts the peace of those who follow the Lord and the fact that “the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest” (Isaiah 57:20). The inspired Isaiah observed a state of restlessness that characterizes people who are actively rejecting God—long before people pass away and have their fates sealed by death.
The Bible isn’t speaking here of restlessness in the sense of not getting enough sleep the night before but of a lack of spiritual peace. Hell, according to the Bible, is a spiritual atmosphere that envelops a person the further he or she goes from God, until it finally turns into a physical reality once God fully removes Himself from the world.
Is God pro-choice?
Some Christians believe that God has predetermined in some cosmic lottery who will be in heaven and who will be in hell and that we will automatically live our lives accordingly. The Swiss Reformer John Calvin described this view in claiming that “all [people] are not created on equal terms, but some are pre-ordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.”
On the surface, this idea resonates with our experiences. Didn’t the apostle Paul call himself a “slave to sin” and confess that “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:14, 15)? Paul’s experience is my experience too. How many times have I fallen short of my desire to be consistently good? Is it because we were predetermined to be bad and so cannot escape a hellish life?
To reason that way, we’d have to assume that even Paul was destined for hell, and yet we can tell that his life wasn’t characterized by a restless separation from God but by the fruits of heaven: love, joy, peace, and so on (Galatians 5:22). God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). In other words, it is God’s deep desire that we choose Him. In God’s perspective, hell is avoidable for everyone; it’s a path people choose to take despite God’s entreaties to the contrary.
“There are only two kinds of people in the end,” C. S. Lewis writes, “those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All [those who end up] in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find.”
But the fact that heaven and hell are the result of the sum of our choices shouldn’t lead us to conclude that the earth is a perpetual fork in the road where we spend every waking moment of our lives having to make the decision which way to go. To view our lives here as neutral is to ignore the fact that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The truth is that we have already decided through sin to walk away from God. The fact that God calls us to repentance assumes our hostility toward heaven.
Lewis also warns us of this fallacy in his book The Great Divorce: “Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”
We are all part of a cosmic conflict between God and Satan, between rest and restlessness. Only eternity can afford us the clarity of hindsight that will reveal fully the direction of our life choices, which perhaps we didn’t perceive in the fog of our mortality. Yet the truth is that we are all on a path either to heaven or hell, even if we cannot fully appreciate the distance of each footstep. But we can tell by the fruits of our lives whether we are increasingly restless and empty or whether we are brimming with peace and hope, saying with the psalmist: “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).