Hell's Horrors vs. Heaven's Happiness (Updated)
May 5, 2015
Updated: response to Professor Helm below.
When we speak of grace, hell, heaven, etc., we must not merely speak in generalities, but as specific as the Scriptures allow us, which includes good and necessary consequences (Matt. 22:32). Someone may reference the horrors of hell or the happiness of heaven in a sermon but to little effect because they fail to explain why hell will be so horrible and heaven will be so happy. Even the popular idea that hell is "separation from God" is so misleading and wrong-headed that I'm amazed people still describe hell this way. It is quite the opposite: a God-hating sinner, who does not have a mediator, lives in the presence of a holy, righteous, and powerful God.
Christ spoke on hell more than anyone else in the Bible. But he did not merely talk about hell; rather, he also described hell (Matt. 10:28). The Scriptures don't just offer us generalities, but specifics. For example, consider the language of Luke 3:17, which ends by describing hell as an unquenchable fire. Elsewhere hell is described as a "fiery furnace" where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 13:42). Moreover, hell is a lake of fire (Rev. 19:20), an eternal fire (Jude 7), outer darkness (Matt. 22:13), blackness of darkness forever (Jude 13), and a place where "their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" (Mk. 9:44).
What I want to do in this post is consider the torments of hell in relation to the joys of heaven from the perspective of "time." In doing this, we might be able to understand a little better the glories of heaven and the terrors of hell. True, hell is a punishment so great and heaven is a reward so wonderful that neither can be properly comprehended by our thoughts in this life. But how do we seek to join with Paul, for example, in persuading men because of the terrors of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:11)? Here is one way.
Time has a beginning and an ending for all creatures in this world. "Time began with the creature" is a truer statement than that which says, "The creature began with time" (Bavinck). Eternity, properly understood, belongs to God alone. The marks of eternity are: 1) there is no beginning; 2) there is no ending; and 3) there is no succession of moment.
But Christians will receive "eternal" life (Jn. 5:24), and those who do not love the Lord Jesus with an undying love will receive "eternal" death (1 Cor. 16:22). There is another word used by Reformed theologians, going back to the Medieval tradition (e.g., Bonaventure), called "Aeviternity" (aeviternitas). Aeviternity has a beginning but no ending; it belongs to angels and humans. Eternity has no beginning, succession, or ending; it belongs to God alone (Ps. 90:2). This is an important distinction as we try to understand how our "eternity" differs from God's "eternity."
Some (e.g., Bavinck) have also distinguished between extrinsic time and intrinsic time. We measure the motion of the earth, the heavenly bodies, etc., according to extrinsic time. Extrinsic time will cease in eternity.
However, there is also intrinsic time. This refers to our existence by which events have a past, present, and future. All created beings live in the realm of intrinsic time, and we cannot escape the fact of intrinsic time because we are creatures.
As we think about time in eternity, and the manner in which we comfort the godly and warn the ungodly, preachers should remind their hearers that in hell it will feel as though there is only time - "slow" time. In this world, when we suffer, time seems to stand still. Even waiting in traffic or in a doctor's office, time does not fly by. We become more sensitive to the seconds. This happens when listening to poor sermons, too.
However, in heaven, because we resemble Christ, and because we shall have joy unspeakable, we shall have a far different response to intrinsic time than the person in hell. Time flies by when you're having fun: imagine how time will seem to evaporate in heaven because of the joy that awaits us. Or consider the difference between speaking to your mother-in-law on the phone compared to when you were first courting your wife. For us a "year" will feel like a "second" whereas for those in hell a "second" will feel like a "year."
Moreover, in connection with this, consider:
1) As we enjoy heaven, our joy can only increase, not decrease. Knowing that our joy will not end only heightens the joy we will experience at that moment. One sadness in experiencing a joyful moment in this world is knowing that the experience is likely to end or change (e.g., this Belgium beer is almost finished). Not so in heaven. There will be no end to our joys, which will therefore cause us more joy in each successive moment.
2) But for those consigned to hell, their despair will only increase, not decrease. As the creature in hell realizes more and more that he or she is suffering forever, the despair of eternal judgment can only increase. Hope has utterly vanished. In our sufferings here on earth, we always have the promises of God to look to (Rom. 8:18, 28ff.). But those in hell have no promises, and thus no hope, but only increasing despair.
According to Thomas Goodwin, in hell the wicked will despair, for the "wretched soul in hell...finds that it shall not outlive that misery, not yet can it find one space or moment of time of freedom and intermission, having for ever to do with him who is the living God." The wicked will despair because there is no end to the wrath of the living God. For that reason, there will be perfect fear, because wicked souls in hell will not only be tormented by what they experience in the present moment, but also by what they will experience forever.
The only response of the creature in hell will be to blaspheme God. And because the creature blasphemes God, there can be no end to his/her punishment. God's eternity, coupled with the sinners perpetual blasphemy against God demand an eternal place of torment.
Therefore, the concept of ever-increasing despair for all eternity, whereby the creature damned to hell can do nothing else but blaspheme a living, eternal God, gives us all the reason in the world to persuade men and women, boys and girls, to put their faith in the one who experienced hellish despair on the cross (2 Cor. 5).
If you really believe in the cross of Christ, then you have to believe there is a hell. If you believe there is a hell, then you are beyond thankful there was a cross for Christ.
I'm always happy to hear from my drinking buddy, Professor Helm. I think perhaps he reads a little too much into what I wrote. I actually (vigorously) stand with him on the society of resurrection bodies in heaven. "Solipsistic consciousness" is about the last thing I'd want to ever affirm about heaven, and still can't quite understand how my post lends itself to such an interpretation. What was my point? Simply this: Tasks in heaven will not feel "painful" - i.e., we will not suffer in our work or feel bored - because we are "cheerful laborers."
Bavinck speaks of the "abundant and exuberant life of the cheerful laborer, for whom time barely exists and days fly by. From this perspective there is truth in the assertion that in hell there is no eternity but only time, and that the more a creature resembles God and is his image, the more he or she will rise above the imperfections of time and approach eternity."
I expect to drink better (Belgium?) beer and better wine in heaven (alcoholic, of course), and I shouldn't at all be surprised if I have to actually make the wine myself in a vineyard. Without the curse (Gen. 3) on my labor, I expect both the wine-making and wine-drinking to be pure bliss! I also expect to enjoy the wine with my drinking buddy, and we'll both see how the time flies by.
But, and let's not forget this: I was quite serious about the solemnity of hell. There is nothing entertaining about eternal perdition.