“Our problem is hell and our job is to put hell out of business.”
Have you heard that? I keep hearing it. Like most things I’m sure it began with one person somewhere, and then gets repeated because it sounds good and caring and it is catchy. When I first heard it, I reacted the same way. But a few moments later, I thought, “Wait a minute, is that right?” What is it that we’re actually saying when we encourage people to put hell out of business?
I understand the good intentions and expressed care for all peoples of the world behind this desire, but I’m wondering what sound biblical grounding, if any, the statement could possibly have. Would this really be a good thing to do? Is the fear of God—his judgment and hell a bad thing?
J. G. Machen in his article “The Fear of God” writes:
Even the Christian must fear God. But it is another kind of fear. It is a fear rather of what might have been than of what is; it is a fear of what would come were we not in Christ. Without such fear there can be no true love; for love of the Saviour is proportioned to one’s horror of that from which man has been saved. And how strong are the lives that are suffused with such a love! They are lives brave, not because the realities of life have been ignored, but because they have first been faced — lives that are founded upon the solid foundation of God’s grace.
So what do we mean by “hell?”
First, if by “hell” we mean simply evil happening in the world—your hell, their hell, my hell, in other words, the product of human sin—then we’re dealing with a different topic altogether. This unwarranted redefinition of the word is no more than a verbal sleight of hand and has no connection with the Scriptures. We can toss the meaning out.
Second, if regarding hell we have in mind that traditional, now orthodox image of hell as the subterranean torture chamber or eternal electric chair, why then of course we should want to shut that business down. But I doubt that’s what we’re talking about, and again we need to take into account what the Bible says about it.
In any case, let’s take a second look at this call to put hell out of business and ask ourselves another question: Does Jesus want us to put hell out of business even if we could? If this were the case, you’d think that he might have said a word or two about it. He seemed pretty set on hell staying in business as long as it needed to be.
So if he didn’t intend to, or suggest that anyone else should, why would we? And we need to ask: What really is the business of hell?
The evening news is filled with endless cases of unimaginably heinous crimes and moral outrages by people who will never even be caught, as well as shocking judicial travesties for those who are. This present life is just not the place where perfectly balanced justice takes place. We’re lucky even to see approximations of it. The Bible teaches us that hell is the only place where absolutely perfect justice will ever take place, what we will never see on this earth.
If hell is that place designed by God—the only place where such justice will or could occur—then why would we want to put it out of business? What is there about perfect justice we object to? Or do we imagine ourselves kinder, more merciful, or more just than our Creator?
In Jesus Christ what we get is not justice (thankfully!), but mercy. Believers escape justice (“hell”) because of the cross of Jesus. So those who want nothing to do with the salvation that Jesus provides will get perfectly balanced and proportional justice instead. And that’s the worst any person, anywhere, at anytime will ever get. So what’s the problem with perfect justice?
And what could it mean to “put hell out of business” if not the final escape from justice of those who never saw God’s perfect moral balance on this side? Such nice rhetoric might make for good sound bites, but it isn’t really Christian theology. Only adherence to some form of unbiblical universalism or a new redefinition could actually eliminate hell from our theology.
How many times have we heard the question, “How could a loving and just God allow so much evil in the world?” Without hell there would be no answer to give, for apart from the fact that God uses and exploits evil for his own good purposes on this earth, hell is how he deals finally and decisively with evil itself.
We have no reason to think that hell will ever be put out of business until or unless God himself puts it out of business. If God opens a door that no one can shut, or if God shuts a door that no one can open, then it’s probably not wise to think or preach otherwise. Our job is not to put hell out of business, but to proclaim the Gospel and leave the rest to God. On what grounds do Christians believe that what God has decreed for unrepentant human wickedness can be short-circuited by their well-meaning efforts? Do we think that both salvation and justice are ultimately in our hands?
If that’s the case, let’s put Jesus out of business!