One Wednesday I was on a peaceful zoom Bible study, we were just about to dive into the meat of God's word and all of a sudden my phone started buzzing. I was receiving a phone call. I glanced over at my phone to see who was calling, once I realised who it was, I had to answer.
It was a good friend of mine which I had met during my time at Evangelism school, we did not speak often over the phone, so this was a pleasant surprise – but the call didn’t go as I expected. I answered the phone in a jovial way, indicating in my tonality that I was happy for the call, but the tone of his voice was an instant rebuttal to my salutation.
“Douglas” he said in a distressed, heartbroken tone, “I am scared”, (bare in mind this is a grown man speaking); “I was watching some videos on Youtube and they are saying that I will burn in Hell forever. I know I’ve done some bad things in my life but, I don’t understand how God can burn someone in Hell forever.”
Totally thrown off by what he was saying I tried to compose myself, while at the same time attempting to calm him down. “You’re not going to burn forever in hell *his name*” I sympathetically responded, “I know that you’re a good guy but I also know that you believe in Jesus and He promises if you believe in Him you will have everlasting life.”
As if my words weren’t even uttered, he came straight in with a rebuttal “I don’t understand how God can burn people in hell forever, what kind of God does that?”
What I soon realised from what he had said was that he wasn’t actually asking me a question, he was stating something he genuinely believed was a fact – that God burns people in hell forever.
What type of god does that? Who would ever want to serve such a god? Yet the sad reality is, many people like my friend have this false notion in their mind, that God burns those who have not accepted Him, in hell – forever.
I had studied with my friend and his family multiple times, we talked about the love of God and how He sent His Son to die for us. We prayed together, we conversed about how beautiful heaven will be and other beautiful things, however, because the notion of eternal hellfire is pretty much smoothed into movies, cartoons, various media outlets, linguistic phrases and other things like that, naturally he assumed and genuinely believed that God burns, or plainly put, torments people forever. The problem is, from whichever side you look at it, you cannot logically harmonise a loving God who sent His Son to die for all humanity, and a god who torments people forever – it just doesn’t make sense!
The belief and teaching about eternal hellfire is a smear campaign launched by Satan against the character of God.
John the beloved who had heard, seen, handled and had a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus (1 John 1:3), who is the epitome of God the Father (John 14:9; Colossians 1:15), stated plainly – “God is love” (1 John 4:8). That is the declared character of God from the experience of someone who had an encounter with Him.
Encapsulated within the statement that “God is love”, is God’s love in action: He is patient, kind, boastless, puts others first, is not easily provoked or rude, does not rejoice in evil but in the truth. God never gives up, never loses faith, God is always hopeful and endures through every circumstance – “God is love” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) and that is His nature.
Taking it a step further, God has an ultimate aim, an ultimate desire for all humanity – He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). In other words, God will do the utmost to save each one of us, He will do everything in His power to save one person, why? Because He loves us deeply. So deeply that He sent His Son to leave heaven at the risk of eternal separation, to come and save you and me. Why? Because for Him heaven was not a place to be desired, if you and I were not there.
As pointed out earlier, the belief and teaching about eternal hellfire is a smear campaign launched by Satan against the character of God. This false notion leads many like my friend, to retain a false conception of God, as a result people ‘worship’ God out of fear rather than out of love. However, “there is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).
After the conversation with my friend over the phone sizzled down, he said to me in a distressed, heartbroken tone, “I don’t want to serve God out of fear.” God doesn’t want us to either. Imagine the heartbreak of a father and mother when they realise that their son or daughter who they created and deeply love, only obeyed them from fear of some punishment – how sad.
How much more does the heart of God break? He does not want us to obey Him out of fear but out of love because true love cannot be forced. God desires that all of us, His children, obey, appreciate and worship Him because of who He is – because of His character.
So what is this eternal hellfire belief all about then? The Bible makes it clear:
Off the bat, to make things plain and simple: there is a place called Hell (Matthew 10:28) and it will burn, not now but at the end of the world (Matthew 13:40-42). Hell is not a place that exists currently and no one is there at this present time (John 5:28-29), those that have died are “asleep” (John 11:11, 14; Acts 7:60; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Peter 3:4; 1 Corinthians 15:6, 51-52). Those that have sinned or in other words broken the law of God (1 John 3:4; Exodus 20: 1-17), and have rejected God’s free gift of eternal life which is only through His Son Jesus Christ (John 3:16) will sadly be subject to Hell (Romans 6:23). Also and maybe to your surprise, Hell will actually be on earth (Revelation 20:9; 2 Peter 3:7, 10).
Hell was not designed for us, but was designed for Satan and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Satan was the one who began this mess we're in, He is one to blame for all the suffering and havoc that is happening in our world (John 10:10; 8:44; Revelation 12:7-12). So God’s design for hell is to get rid of sin because sin separates us from Him (Isaiah 59:1-2) and God desires a personal relationship with us (Revelation 3:20).
But doesn’t the Bible say that sinners, and ultimately those that have rejected the free Gift of eternal life through Jesus will burn forever? Let's touch on a few texts:
“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” - Matthew 25:41
“And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” - Revelation 14:11
There seems to be a dichotomy here, I am sure you can agree. But there is more to it than meets the eye. We need to dig deeper and understand what “forever” and “everlasting” mean in the context of hell because the Bible speaks for itself.
Jude gives us a potent point that we need to unravel, he states:
“Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” - Jude 1:7
Sodom and Gomorrah are examples. Just as Jesus is the example of how a Christian should live, Sodom and Gomorrah are examples of what eternal fire is like. But just to show that this belief was shared by another inspired writer, Peter tells us the exact same thing but in his own words:
“...turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly” - 2 Peter 2:6
If you took a flight over to Israel and Jordan where Sodom and Gomorrah were located, just off the coasts of the dead sea, you will come to the conclusion that Sodom and Gomorrah are not currently burning. So if Sodom and Gomorrah are an example, hellfire must not be eternal.
In the context of Hell, forever means as long as an event should last.
Hannah had this in mind when she had Samuel and promised to dedicate him to God:
“for she said to her husband, “Not until the child is weaned; then I will take him, that he may appear before the Lord and remain there forever.” (1 Samuel 1:22) Then she later goes on to explain what forever means:
“Therefore I also have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives he shall be lent to the Lord.” - 1 Samuel 1:28
Jonah had the same thing in mind when exaggerating the length of time He was in the belly of a whale, he said:
“I went down to the moorings of the mountains;
The earth with its bars closed behind me forever;
Yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God.”
- Jonah 2:6
Although I can hardly imagine how it felt being in a whale’s belly (Matthew 12:40), poor Jonah wasn’t there forever, he was only there for “three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17; Matthew 12:40). Or in other words, as long as the event lasted, which is the meaning of eternal or forever. Jonah was not in the whale’s belly forever, neither is Samuel still in the temple before the Lord because he has passed away.
Hell does not burn forever, but the effect is forever in its consequence. Anyone who chooses to end up in hell will be destroyed and separated from God forever, the effect is irreversible. Peter told us that Sodom and Gomorrah were turned into “ashes” (2 Peter 2:6), so with hell: the Devil and his angels along with those who choose to unite with them will not burn forever but will turn into ash. Ash cannot be brought back to its original form – it is done and dusted. This is the meaning of eternal fire.
“For behold, the day is coming,
Burning like an oven,
And all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble.
And the day which is coming shall burn them up,”
Says the Lord of hosts,
“That will leave them neither root nor branch…
You shall trample the wicked,
For they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet
On the day that I do this,”
Says the Lord of hosts.” - Malachi 4:1,3
Although this is an uncomfortable and bothersome subject, let’s not miss the essence of it which really shows the beautiful character of God. Hell was not designed for us but for Satan and his angels because of their sin.
God will do, and is doing whatever it takes to draw you to Him. God says to you personally:
“Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you.” - Jeremiah 31:3
God does not want to draw you to Him through fear, absolutely not, but because you see and experience His beauty and character, and as a result you choose Him. God loves you and will continue to love you – you are precious in His sight (Zechariah 2:8).
“As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die.” - Ezekiel 33:11
As you look to the cross, Jesus Christ, God with us, sagging there naked, with his arms and feet bolted to the cross with inches deep nails stabilising Him. As you picture this scene in your mind, never forget that His sacrifice was because of mine and your sin; it was not the nails that kept Him there but His love for you and me.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” - John 3:16
God has done all that He can to save you from your sins. What is ironic though, is that God who is all powerful, all knowing and can be everywhere at one time cannot, and does not have the power to make you choose Him – that power is in your hands.
Anyone who will be lost will never be able to say that God never tried. Whoever will be separated from God forever will have chosen that fate.
Right now God's arm is outstretched, reaching out to save you. Will you receive Him and accept His helping hand or will you decline His saving hand?
I hope that as you have read this you have been able to get a glimpse of the beautiful character of God and accept Him in your life. My simple prayer for you reading is this:
“My heart’s desire and prayer to God for [insert your name] is that they may be saved.”
- Romans 10:1