My friend Walt Grayson started this.
Walt is a character if Mississippi ever had one. Living in the Jackson area, he does features on people and places all over the Magnolia State for a television station. He writes books on the people he has met, places he has found, pictures he has taken. (Find his impressive work on amazon.com.)
I was the Grayson family’s pastor in my first church following seminary, in Greenville, Mississippi, in the late 1960s. Walt was a teenager, his father was a deacon, and his mom a mainstay in the church. Precious people.
“Joe,” Walt messaged me last night, “you need to get to know Gordon Cotton, retired curator of the Old Capitol Museum, Vicksburg.”
Walt knows of my interest in Civil War stuff. I had just told of my son Neil giving me “Seen the Glory” by Hough, a novel on Gettysburg.
The Old Capitol Museum is in Jackson, so I assume he means Mr. Cotton has retired to Vicksburg. Which is not a bad place for anyone interested in the War Between the States to dwell.
“You remember Daniel Pearl? Reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was killed in Pakistan following 9/11.” I do indeed.
“Pearl was researching something and he and Gordon spent a lot of time talking on the phone. They talked about everything, not just history. Including religion. And one day, Daniel Pearl told Gordon he did not believe in hell.”
“Gordon Cotton said, ‘If you don’t believe in hell, then where is Sherman?'”
Walt said, “That became the headline for Pearl’s article in the Wall Street Journal the next day.”
That is a reference to General William Tecumseh Sherman whose “March to the Sea” helped to bring the war to a close by killing untold numbers of southerners. When he said, “War is hell,” Sherman spoke as a practitioner of the art.
If there is no hell, then Sherman got off scot-free, seems to be Cotton’s point. Debatable, I suppose, since it was war-time and God alone can sort out who is responsible for what during those times of mass killings and pandemic cruelties.
If there is no hell, then a lot of people have worked the system.
Here are ten responses for anyone saying “I don’t believe in hell.”
1) That’s interesting, but does it matter what you believe about hell?
One’s unbelief does not affect any reality on the planet. You can choose not to believe in gravity, but stepping from a skyscraper rooftop is still going to get you dead. For centuries, people did not believe in bacteria or viruses but were slain by the millions by those very real critters invisible to the human eye.
As Paul says in Romans 3:3-4, one’s unbelief changes nothing except for that individual.
2) If there is no hell, then where is the justice in the universe?
Answer: without a hell, there is none. Adolf Hitler causes the deaths of (choose your number) fifty million, a hundred million, then puts a pistol to his temple and escapes all accountability? Where was the justice in that?
3) Then Jesus Christ is not to be trusted.
He thought there was a hell. If he was wrong on that, we may safely assume he’s wrong on much of the rest. Jesus called hell eternal fire, everlasting punishment, outer darkness, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. He said it like He knows whereof He spoke.
4) If there is no hell, then where is Hitler? Stalin? Nero? Vlad the Impaler? Hannibal Lecter? (Oh, I think he was fictional.) Jack the Ripper? Lenin? Goering? Goebbels? Tojo? (Unfortunately, we could go on and on listing history’s tyrants and despots.)
5) IF there is no hell, then we can close the churches and call in all the missionaries. We had labored under the assumption that people were lost and in danger of hell. If this is wrong, then everyone is all right and we’ve been wasting our time.
Some will protest that this is backward, that Christian workers still have a great deal of good we can do–protecting the children from molesters, feeding the hungry, etc. We answer, “Why?” If in the long run, nothing matters, then why do it. The nihilists are right, if there is no hell.
Christians in countries hostile to the faith, who pay a great personal price for their loyalty to Jesus, do not subscribe to the philosophy that, “Well, even if it’s not true, it’s still the best life.” Paul agrees with them. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (I Corinthians 15:19).
6) Then God’s Word is a liar of the worst sort.
The very idea of telling us such a place existed and using that as one of the motivating forces for our service, if such a place does not exist, is unforgiveable.
7) If there is no hell, then there is no grace.
We need no grace or mercy if there is no punishment for wrongs following this life.
8) If there is no hell, then I’ve been taking money under false pretenses.
Then what I have preached was a lie. I told people that Jesus died for our sins to redeem us from a life of hell and an eternity of the same. But if there is no hell, there was nothing to be redeemed from. And Jesus died in vain. If indeed He did.
9) If there is no hell, then the liberal theologians among us were right all along. And if those guys are right, then all bets are off and nothing makes sense any more. It’s “whatever feels good to you, go for it.”
10) If there is no hell, then despair is the proper attitude toward all of life.
Some will read this and want to argue, accusing me of saying our faith is in hell.
My faith is in the integrity of the Lord Jesus Christ and God’s faithfulness to His Word. That’s what’s at stake.
I hate hell and everything about it. I will honestly admit that it would please me to come to the end of this life and learn from God that we have misinterpreted the Scriptures and find hell is something entirely different from what we have believed.
But I will not stake my life or anyone else’s on that slim chance. We have the Word and no amount of parsing verbs and tracing etymologies and explaining odd Greek words can undo the plain teaching that hell is a place of everlasting punishment on workers of iniquity.
There has to be a hell.
If there is any justice in this world, there has to be one.
If the Bible is to be believed on a thousand other claims it makes, there must be a hell.
If salvation has any meaning at all, there has to be a hell.
If the righteous are blessed and the wicked are punished, there has to be a hell.
Some say, “Even if there is no afterlife, it’s still worth it being a Christian and following Jesus.”
That, I submit, is fool talk. To say that believing lies makes a life worth living is nonsense.
Which, I pause to point out, is reason aplenty for this boy not to be a member of quite a few religious groups, Mormonism being chief among them. Those who bring their false message to your door bring lies, whether in innocent ignorance or by evil intent. And all who believe their doctrine are deluded. It’s one of the saddest things I know.
There has to be a hell for those who concoct bad theologies and con millions into following them, staking their destinies on the integrity of a flawed leader.
For those who reject the very notion of hell’s existence and grow angry at anyone (like me) who preaches it and defends its reality, we reply that your argument is not with us. It’s with the Lord Jesus Christ. He spoke more of hell than of heaven. Take it up with him.
This is not to say that the common cartoonish images people have of hell are right. I suspect Dante’s “Inferno” planted a lot of those in the minds of people which the centuries since have not been able to displace.
Satan is not the custodian of hell. He will send no one there, he is not the keeper of the flame, nor the warden of that miserable prison. Instead, he is destined to become its most notorious inmate.
“And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (Revelation 20:10)
“But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolators and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8)
And finally this promise:
“Behold, I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me, to render to every man according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:12-13).
We have His word on it.