What is hell? There are non-serious descriptions of hell such as Mark Twain who said, “Go to heaven for the climate; hell for the company.” Or Marge Piercy who said, “My idea of hell is to be young again.” On the opposite side is the oft quoted saying by William Tecumseh Sherman who said, “War is hell.” There are many descriptions but what does the Bible say about hell? Sometimes hell is pictured as this smoking, burning furnace where the unfortunate inhabitants are guarded by devilish creatures with pitchforks. Or at times it is portrayed by some preachers as a blazing eternal inferno where the damned are condemned to spend eternity with no relief at all.
This darkness was symbolic of Jesus’ descent into sin and suffering. At nine o’clock, Jesus had been crucified. For 3 hours he had endured all the mockery and abuse from those around him. Now 3 hours later, at twelve noon, suddenly it becomes totally dark. Now Jesus’ suffering for the sins of the world intensifies. For 3 long hours, Jesus descends into the depths of human sin and misery. This darkness is a fitting “visual aid” of Jesus’ descent into the depths of our sin. But this darkness does not mean that God is out of the picture by any means.
For 3 hours, Jesus falls deeper and deeper into the pit of human misery. For 3 hours, he is being constantly reminded of God’s curse falling fully upon him. Yet apparently he says nothing until 3 pm when the darkness is shattered by Jesus’ cry, “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?” In a very real sense, it was at that moment that Jesus suffered all the torments of hell.
Jesus’ cry is not a defiant shout or a maddened cry, but it is really a prayer. It is a prayer of complaint common in the Psalms, especially when someone was in great need. Psalm 10:1 cries out, “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Jeremiah 12:1 says, “You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” Jesus’ cry is like that kind of prayer. You see, even though Jesus is forsaken by God, he has not cut himself off from God. This is reflected in the fact that Jesus still says, “My God.” Jesus still claims God to be his God, his Father. Yet, he knows that he has been separated from God, his Father. However, it was human sin, our sin, that separated Jesus from God’s holy presence. Jesus was truly abandoned by God because of our sin which he took upon himself.
Now in many ways this is really the true nature of hell reflected in Jesus’ statement. A popular definition of hell in Christian circles is that hell is total separation from God. That would be true torment to be permanently separated from God. However, as Helmut Thielicke points out, “Separation from God may not be all that much torment at all for many people.” Think of the potential relief a person might well feel thinking that God is now and forevermore going to be off his back! Now they can do whatever they want, even after death! That sounds great! No rules or laws; no God breathing down their necks; just pure unadulterated pleasure doing what they finally want! However, if final separation from God was all that hell was, there would be many people today who would be living in hell. There is something missing from that simple definition.
Hell is total separation from God, but with one added fact: people in hell will have to admit that God was right! They will have to admit that not only does eternal life with God exist, but it is beautiful and the only truly good and meaningful existence. Philippians 2:9-11 says: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess! Where?? In heaven, earth and under the earth. All, believers and atheists and pagans alike, will have to confess: that God was always there; that God offered them the opportunity to spend eternity with him; and that they turned it down and it was the worst mistake they ever made.
That then will be true hell and for those who didn’t believe, it will be too late. Hell is knowing and experiencing that a relationship with God has been permanently broken. It means looking with longing eyes at the joy of those who are with Christ and knowing it will never happen to you. That is the pain that Jesus felt as he descended into hell with the load of all our sins. Jesus had that beautiful relationship with God, his Father but now that fellowship is gone. Jesus suffered exactly what was in store for us if Jesus had not died in our place.
It first of all calls us to give God undying praise! We must praise God for his great love shown to us in that he gave his one and only Son to suffer the anguish of hell for us so that we don’t have to. That means we must praise him as we worship him in the songs we sing. That means we must praise him in the prayers we pray. We must never let it stop being a part of our prayers. We must continually acknowledge and thank God for all he has done for us.
There was once a Vermont farmer who was sitting on the porch with his wife. He was beginning to realize just how much she meant to him. It was about time--for they had lived together forty-two years and she had been such a help, a very willing worker. One day as they sat together, he said, “Wife, you’ve been such a wonderful woman that there are times I can hardly keep from telling you.” That sometimes describes us and our God: we love him so much for what he’s done for us that we can hardly keep from telling him. Let us tell him and express our gratitude in praise in our words to him.
More than that, we must continually praise God in our whole life. Philippians 2:12-13 says, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” We are to continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We know what God is doing through us now through the Holy Spirit to help us put to death the old so that Jesus may live in us in every part of our lives.
But Christ’s descent into hell also speaks to us with comfort as we face problems in our lives. Question 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Why does the creed add, “He descended to hell?” Answer: To assure me in times of personal crisis and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, especially on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.” Jesus suffered on the cross but also his whole life by being on earth for us. We will suffer in this life while we are living here on earth. We will face crises in our jobs and work places. We will face problems in our marriages and family relationships. We will face trials in our personal health and the health of our loved ones. We will face the pain of the death of loved ones and loss of friends.
But in times in crisis, let us not despair and give up hope. Jesus died for us to save us from eternal separation from God, even when we fail. Let us remember that as long as we struggle to remain faithful to Christ, regardless of what happens, we will always be cared for, always will have the love of God and the promise of eternal life with God. This is what Paul reflects in Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We have this as a promise from God himself because Jesus suffered the curse of being separated from God so that we may enjoy fellowship with God forever. Let that fact comfort us, assure us and motivate us to press on in our lives dedicated to Christ.