By Jonathan A. Mitchican
The doctrine of hell is one of the hardest Christian teachings for modern Western people to accept. We don’t know what the hell to do with hell. In our materialist age, many people write hell off in the same way that they write off heaven, or even God, by postulating that this life is all there is. But even many people who do believe in God find hell hard to swallow. If God is truly all loving, then how can he possibly consign certain people to eternal torment? It’s a fair question, given the way that most of us have been taught to think about hell. But what the Bible teaches is something different. We’ll never understand what love is until we understand what hell is.
When my wife and I were packing our stuff, preparing to move here, I came across an old notebook of my poetry from high school. Believe me, there is no more hellish experience than reading your old poetry. When I was 16, I fell in love for the first time. I’d dated a couple of other girls before then, but this was the first time that it had been real, the first time I told a girl that I loved her and had her say it back to me. We were inseparable. But she was a senior and I was but a lowly sophomore.
When she went off to college, she broke it off, and I was devastated. I felt worse than I’d ever felt in my life. I was absolutely destroyed by it. That feeling of love had felt so good that I’d bet everything on it. I’d rearranged my whole life around that relationship. I’d made it my identity, the center of my being. So when it was gone, there wasn’t anything left of me. I was in agony. Looking back with the vantage point of a couple decades, I can see how silly I was being. I was 16, and we were only together for seven months. Of course there would be other loves. Of course there was more to life than that. But you couldn’t have told me that back then. All I knew was that I was shattered. I’d put all my eggs in one basket, and the basket hadn’t been able to carry the weight.
Perhaps some of you can relate to this, thinking back to your own high school loves, or some other teenage obsession. It’s easy, when we’re young like that, to give ourselves away to something temporary and fleeting, hardly realizing we’re doing it. We see the futility of it when we look back, but we don’t see it when we’re in it. And this is the problem that we face about hell. All of us are in something of a prolonged adolescence, arranging our lives around idols, putting our faith in things that are fleeting rather than eternal.
Many of you have experience with addiction, either in your own lives or in the lives of friends and family. And you know how absolutely horrible addiction is, how it robs you of yourself. You start out simply enjoying yourself. But as the addiction grows, so does the dependency on the substance. The drugs or the alcohol, it’s no longer something fun. Now it’s the center of your life. It’s the be all and end all. You can’t live without it. And pretty soon, the hunger for that next fix is all you have left. There’s no more you. Only the hunger remains. And it takes more and more of the substance to satisfy it, until finally nothing works.
All of us are spiritual addicts. Our drug of choice differs, but the state of addiction remains the same. What we really need, what we really, truly were made for, is love, not the kind of love of teenage obsessions, but the love of God. We were made to love God and be loved by him. That yearning lives in all of us, and only God can satisfy it, but we cast our hearts on other things, hoping that they’ll satisfy us instead.
Sometimes those are inherently destructive things, like drugs and alcohol. Sometimes they’re good things, like career, family, health, love, and sex. Things that are good become evil when we try to turn them from good things into ultimate things. Even something as good and beautiful as the love we have for our families can become destructive when we make it into an obsession and try to use it to feed our spiritual addictions. It will never satisfy us completely the way we want it to. And so we, like all addicts, just keep trying to get more, until no amount is enough, and we’re in agony.
For the drug addict, the end of that agony is either recovery or death. But for the spiritual addict, death isn’t an option. We were made for eternal life. Our souls don’t die. And so, once the object of our affections no longer satisfies, we’re left with nothing but the agony, nothing but the pain, going on and on forever. This is the hell of the Bible. It’s an eternal unfulfillment, an unending existence in which we try desperately to fill our empty hearts with something fleeting.
It’s bad break-up poetry, spread out over eternity. It’s not something that God assigns to us like some kind of cruel ogre. It’s the reality of unending life without Him. We choose it for ourselves. In this life, there’s always the potential for recovery. But if we die without that recovery, we enter that place where the addiction takes over, where there’s nothing else left of us but the hunger, and there’s no way of reasoning left that will reach us, no way for us to get out of it, not because God doesn’t love us but because we won’t let him. As C.S. Lewis puts it, “the gates of hell are locked from the inside.”
Is it any wonder that Jesus says this morning that it would be better for us to cut off our hands or gouge out our eyes if they cause us to sin? As horrible as that would be, it would be better than hell. As gruesome and excruciating as that would be, it would be worth doing if it would actually prevent us from being trapped in hell. But, of course, it won’t, because our eyes and our hands aren’t the cause of our sin. Our addiction is. If you’re addicted to your career, what do you do if that career goes away? Naturally, you’re pretty upset about it, but are you destroyed by it? Is your life meaningless without it? If you didn’t have that relationship, or that activity, or that cause, would you just shrivel up and die?
Hell is the uninterrupted, unending spiritual agony of eternal life without God. And it would be the fate of each and every one of us, as spiritual addicts, were it not for Jesus Christ. In a world full of spiritual addicts, he is the one person who remains completely free. His love for God is unswerving. His identity is firmly built on his relationship with his Father, and on nothing else.
There is no hell for Jesus, and yet hell is exactly what he endures on the cross. Many people think the greatest suffering that Jesus experiences is in his physical wounds. And it’s true that he was abused physically, abused quite horribly, that this was part of his suffering for us.
But the greatest thing that Jesus suffered for us was not a physical pain but a spiritual emptiness. On the cross, Jesus Christ is utterly cut off from the Father. He experiences hell. He voluntarily takes on the spiritual suffering that we endure, the agony of being absolutely without God. And he does it so that he might break the chains of hell, so that he might survive it and make it possible for us to survive it too by placing our faith in him and receiving his grace.
Until you understand what hell is, you don’t really know what it means to have a loving God. Once you realize what the Bible teaches, that hell is eternal separation from the only One who can fulfill our hearts’ desire, then and only then can you look upon the cross and see just how very much God loves you, that he would endure his own hell just to save you from it.
No matter what hell you’ve been through in your life, no matter how much you’ve lost, no matter how bad you feel or even how much you wish you could just end it, Jesus Christ has suffered the same, and in the end he will set you free from it, along with everyone else who trusts in his grace.
The Rev. Jonathan A. Mitchican is chaplain at St. John XXIII College Preparatory School in Katy, Texas.