Are most people destined for Hell?

Yes, some Christians say, most people are destined for Hell, because, 1 Peter 4:18, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” Since it’s hard enough getting Christians saved, what chance have non-Christians got?

But the context of that verse has nothing to do with non-Christians going to Hell, or that non-Christians won’t be saved. Instead, it’s a message from Peter to his fellow Christians about the hell they’re already going through right then. That’s clear from verse 12, which starts off with “Dear friends,” so Peter is writing to Christians, the message to them being, “do not be surprised at the painful trial you (Christians) are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.”

Peter is answering Christians who are wondering why God is letting them suffer so much. But rather than wonder, Peter replies, “rejoice (in your sufferings),” verse 13, because “you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” One day the suffering will end, and joy takes over. And if they’re being “insulted because of the name of Christ,” verse 14, then “you are blessed, for the Spirit of Glory and of God rests on you.” They could rest assured that if they were suffering for being Christian, then the Spirit was with them every step of the way to strengthen and comfort them.

And remember, Peter adds, “it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God,” verse 17, so their suffering had purpose. It was happening for a reason. God was working directly in the lives of Christians to get them ready for eternity, and, yes, that could get tough at times, especially when people despised them for being Christians. And if life was that tough on Christians, what on earth was to become of non-Christians (verses 17-18)? So Peter understood what they were going through. He also understood the way through it, verse 19: “those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” Trust Christ and keep on trucking.

Yes, Christians suffer, but “the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast,” 1 Peter 5:10-11. God also understands what we’re going through, and to prove it he’ll pick us up, dust us off and use the situation to make us even stronger.

In context, then, it’s encouragement for Christians. It’s got nothing to do with anyone being destined for Hell.

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Is eternal punishment really “eternal”?

Is it true that once a person has made his (or her) decision to reject God and not accept Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf, there is no going back? Once that decision is made, will they burn in hell forever?

The answer from Scripture is a resounding “No” – on both counts. No, first of all, their decision isn’t final, and No, secondly, they will not burn in hell forever. No decision of ours is final, because that would mean our salvation depends on our ability to choose rightly. But all of us have sinned, so clearly we don’t have the ability to choose rightly. It’s only because the Father draws us to Christ and reconciles us to himself through the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection that we respond to God at all.

Fortunately, Jesus did all the deciding, accepting, confessing, repenting and trusting necessary for our salvation for us. That’s why he’s called our Mediator, because he’s already bridged the gap between us and God. Our decisions, then, are irrelevant to our future, because through Christ’s actions on our behalf we’re already saved.

But if Jesus has already saved everyone, what’s the point of hell? If it’s not punishment for making a wrong decision, what is it for instead? It’s for all those who won’t believe the above, that Christ in his death and resurrection saves us completely. They believe, instead, that their salvation depends on something they must do – which is a terrible hell in itself, because you never know if what you’re doing is enough to earn salvation. Or they believe they’re above the need for Christ’s death and resurrection. They’re fine as they are.

And nothing makes God more angry than humans not believing, or not taking seriously, what his Son has done to save and heal us from the ravages of sin. It breaks his heart because life is hell for us. But so many people carry on completely oblivious to the state they’re in, so God has various forms of hell to wake us up, like handing people over to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:3), or facing us with who we really are (Hebrews 4:12-13). And that hell will continue for as long as it’s needed. It’s never burning in hell forever in agony, though, because how does that save and heal someone?

God’s anger is never forever, either (Psalm 103:8-10). God’s patience with us is unlimited, because his purpose is to see us all saved. Sometimes it takes a dose of hell to make it happen, though. To those experiencing that hell it may seem like it’s “eternal,” but it’s only temporary and it’s meant to save, not destroy.

“If I reject God, do I go to hell forever?”

So who’s going to hell forever? According to many Christians it’s those who reject God, won’t accept Jesus Christ, refuse to go to church and don’t repent.

But why do people reject God? And why won’t they repent, accept Christ and go to church? Is it because, in their minds, they have just cause and legitimate reasons for doing so? – like the teenager who rejects God because he asked God for help on a test and God didn’t help him. Or the child who asked God to heal Grandma’s cancer and God didn’t heal her. Or the person who rejects God because God won’t stop terrorists, end war, or prevent natural disasters. And what about all the abuses caused by Christians themselves? What’s God doing about them? And why isn’t he bringing down fire and brimstone on Christian churches that bully people into obedience and threaten children at Sunday School with agony in hell forever if they aren’t Christians?

In all those examples you hear an audible cry of, “God doesn’t really care about me, the world or my Grandma,” because something happened that turned them off God, and made them bitter. So if I was to get all huffy at a person for rejecting God he’d simply come back with, “So what? God rejected me.” In other words, the person feels justified in dismissing God, because God wasn’t there when he desperately needed him. Or the person’s had horrible things happen to him at the hands of Christians and Christian churches. He’s rejecting God, therefore, because he feels God has forsaken him.

But Jesus knew that feeling exactly when, moments before his death, he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – because at that moment he felt God didn’t care about him either. He felt utterly forsaken. God had deserted him in his greatest hour of need, and the pain was unbearable. He didn’t reject God because of it but he certainly understands why WE reject God when we feel forsaken.

So why would God send anyone to hell forever for rejecting him, when on the cross he shows us he knows exactly how we feel? Instead, on the cross, he cries our cry. He’s crying out on our behalf, knowing how we all feel forsaken by God when he doesn’t answer a prayer or he won’t correct a wrong. It hurts, and sometimes it hurts so badly that we want nothing more to do with God. He doesn’t make sense. He doesn’t care.

Does God send us to hell forever because we feel that way? No. He shows us on the cross that he understands.

Hell – the great Christian con-trick

Ever been sold a piece of junk by a clever salesman? Or been taken in by gossip? Or been conned into a risky investment? Or bought a work of art for a high price because it made you feel sophisticated, only to discover it’s a fake? Or supported a political party because it sounded believable, only to see it break every promise it made in its first year of office?

It’s embarrassing, but not surprising, because our culture thrives on conning people. It makes us think it has our best interests at heart, but it’s really just a money and power-making machine for those who know how to manipulate and control people. It’s all a big game for them, where the slickest marketer, the smartest advertiser and the best hoodwinker wins. But even they’ve been conned too, because all the money and power they get in this life evaporates into nothing when they die.

But God did demonstrate how gullible we are by how easily a serpent conned Adam and Eve into investing their lives in a piece of fruit. But if we think they were dumb, think of the con-trick the serpent’s pulled off through the Christian church in its preaching on hell.

Hell has been marketed by Christianity with immense success. It’s conned people into thinking God is this awful ogre who’s going to fry people forever if they don’t become Christians. Has it worked? Oh yes. Preaching a terror campaign of fear to unbelievers through frightening visions of hell has been a great marketing tool for increasing church attendance. But it’s a con, because the gospel isn’t supposed to create fear, it’s supposed to drive fear out, 1 John 4:18. The gospel isn’t a message of bad news, it’s a message of good news, Romans 10:15. And it isn’t about God punishing people for unbelief, it’s a message about his mercy on the unbelieving, 1 Timothy 1:13.

Christians who preach a message of fear, therefore, are doing the devil’s work for him. So were the Pharisees, Jesus said, in the message they preached. “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are,” Matthew 23:15.

Imagine finding out, then, that the great Christian con-trick – of using hell to scare people into becoming Christian – is actually a con-trick by the serpent on the church to use it to breed sons of hell. How embarrassing, that the church’s use of fear has been the devil’s best marketing tool for manipulating and controlling people.

Of all the cons that have ever been pulled, that one takes the biscuit.

Can hell be “good news” too?

Christianity and hell have been a toxic mix over the centuries. Christian preachers have either used hell to scare people into becoming Christian, or ignored hell because it scares people off becoming Christian. But explaining hell is awkward. How do you make hell into good news to fit in with the gospel? It’s like telling your child that the punishment you’re inflicting on him is “good for him” and that you’re doing it “because you love him.” But, the child wails, how can applying punishment be an act of love? And how could you, his caring parents, talk of your ever-abiding love for your darling little offspring while you’re putting him through hell?! It defies logic, the child cries.

“So,” you ask your child, “what would you have me do instead if your brother or sister kicks you on the shin on purpose, or steals your favourite toy and hides it, or tells lies about you to get you into trouble? Would you have me do nothing?” Well of course not, the chlld cries. When a crime against himself is committed he wants assurance that sufficient punishment will be inflicted on his siblings to stop them hurting him in future. He wants to know his parents are being fair, just and unfailing in their determination to see evil dealt with. And he’s all for them doling out a dose of hell on those doing the hurting to stop them in their tracks. When a crime is committed against oneself, of course hell is justified, because it works. It assures all parties involved that evil will not be tolerated and justice will be done. And that’s good news for those who hate conflict and ugliness in the home.

But it’s not good news on those being punished. Hell hurts. And because it hurts it seems like it’s being done in hate. So how do you let a child know that he or she isn’t hated when being punished? By assuring them that they’re loved. Which is what God did when he threatened hell and terrible punishment on nations and cities for their awful crimes. He assured them he wouldn’t destroy them forever for what they’d done. Sometimes he relented and didn’t punish them at all (Exodus 32), and at other times he cut the punishment short (Hosea 11). He even changed his threats of everlasting destruction to promises of restoration (Ezekiel 16). Punishment, therefore, was only aimed at eradicating evil, not people. Justice had to be done, yes, but with justice came mercy, compassion and hope of restoration.

Hell not only highlights God’s justice, then, it also highlights his unlimited patience – both of which are good news.

A message to those who pervert the gospel

Paul’s message to those who pervert the gospel was clear. They could go to hell. Twice he wrote, “Let him be eternally condemned!” Galatians 2:8-9. That was Jesus’ view too. “You snakes! You vipers!” he yelled in Matthew 23:33, “How will you escape being condemned to hell?”

And who was he yelling at? “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees,” verse 2 – the spiritual leaders and preachers, whose job it was to learn the gospel and preach it accurately, “BUT you were not willing,” verse 37. Instead, verse 4, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

The same thing was happening in Paul’s day. People “who were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel,” Galatians 2:14, were trying to “make us slaves (1:14),” by trying to force new Christians “to follow Jewish customs (2:14).” It was exactly the same problem Jesus confronted the Pharisees and preachers of his day with. Instead of lifting burdens off people, these so-called preachers “who seemed to be leaders,” Galatians 2:2, were loading all kinds of religious rituals and customs ON people, burdens that had nothing to do with the gospel.

Adding burdens, therefore, is a telling sign of a false preacher at work, because the gospel isn’t about making life more burdensome, it’s about freeing us from our burdens. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus cried, “and I will give you rest….for my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” Matthew 11:28, 30. And as Paul wrote in Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

But slavery to what, exactly? Well, in context, verse 4, it’s slavery to the idea that we have to justify ourselves before God – by how good we are or by how much effort we put into our Christianity (3:3). But, Paul cries, “if righteousness could be gained through the law” – or by any effort on our part – then “Christ died for nothing!” Galatians 2:21. Christ didn’t die to put the burden of our salvation – or righteousness, or justification – on our backs. He died to take all those burdens on himself, because God wants our salvation to be entirely his doing. That way it’s guaranteed to be successful!

To those who were confusing and perverting that message, Paul had this to say: “The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be,” Galatians 5:10. And what penalty did he, like Jesus, have in mind for such people? “Let them rot in hell.”

The importance of good preaching

It is God’s wish to reach everyone with the gospel message, and he’s gone to great lengths to make it possible. He gave us a conscience that lights up when the true gospel is preached ((2 Corinthians 4:2), and he pours out his Spirit all over the world to enable us humans to understand truth when we hear it (Acts 2:18). So he hasn’t made it difficult for us to understand the gospel message. In fact, Romans 10:8, “‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,’ that is, the world of faith we are proclaiming.”

God, therefore, has certainly done his part to enable us humans to “confess with our mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in our heart that God raised him from the dead,” verse 9, so that he can then “richly bless ALL who call on him,” verse 12.

But the key to that actually happening is good preaching, because, as Paul asks in verse 14, “How can people call on the one they have not believed in?” In other words, what’s the likelihood of people turning to Jesus if they’ve never been given a reason for turning to him? “And,” Paul continues, “how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” because if people haven’t heard anything about Jesus worth listening to, why on earth would they even want to believe in him?

So how do people get to hear about Christ in a way that rings true to them – and in a way that they want to hear more? Well, Paul asks in verse 14, “How can they hear without someone preaching to them?” What they need is a good preacher. Someone who can explain to them, in words they can easily grasp, who Jesus is, why God sent him, and what he’s doing now. Because that’s the way God set things up. He isn’t reaching people by talking to them personally – like a voice in their heads – he’s reaching people through good preaching.

He makes sure that such preachers exist too, because, as Paul asks yet again, “How can they preach unless they are sent?” verse 15. But God has always sent good preachers, from the Judges and Prophets in the Old Testament, to the apostles and preachers in the New Testament. And the proof they are preachers sent by God is that they “bring good news!” verse 15. If there’s any bad news in their message, it’s a clue right there that they haven’t been sent by God.

God set things up so that it’s good preaching about the good news that people respond to. That’s why good preaching is so important.