Hell is for Christians

Hell is for Christians

May 20, 2016

by Phil Lawton
Assistant Pastor at the Seventh Day Baptist Church of Shiloh, NJ

I believe in hell. I believe it is eternal. And I believe that people stay there. Most of you might not be surprised by me saying this, but some of you will be. Those that are closest to me might be downright shocked. But that is not why I’m writing this.


The shocking thing is, I believe that many who call themselves Christians, who have said the sinner’s prayer, will end up in hell.

First let me say that what we believe informs how we live. In today’s culture we sometimes think that we can have a belief and not have it affect us. This is really not the case. If I didn’t believe the chair that I am sitting in will hold me up I wouldn’t be sitting in it. I say this because this is vastly important to what we believe about God, sin, hell, heaven, and just about anything else in the Christian faith. What we believe will dictate how we live. If it doesn’t, then you really don’t believe it. Plain and simple.

I think that the best way for me to prove my point is to tell you my story. I do this not because I think that it is unique. I do it because what I now believe (and have believed in the past) informs how I live and preach. It shapes my relationship to God. It shapes how I relate to others. But most importantly, I feel that my story is the story of so many who are still Christians, and of so many more who have turned their backs on the faith.

To Hell and Back Again

I accepted Christ when I was five years old. I really didn’t know what it meant. But I did know that I wanted to be with God. As I grew up I became aware that I had made the right choice. I realized that what I didn’t want was to burn in hell for eternity. I knew that if I hadn’t made that choice that I would suffer. That is something I never wanted.

Yet as I graduated high school and began college I started to struggle with my faith. I knew that I was going to heaven and that was good. But it seemed like nothing else was good. I saw other people who seemed to have fun that I couldn’t have. My only consolation was that someday I would be rewarded in heaven and they would burn in hell. But these ideas brought questions.

Was I a Christian only because of fear? Isn’t God love? How can a loving God condemn so many? Is there more to God?

In college I began to read books about the hope of Christianity. I started to see that the point of Christianity was not just to follow rules, but it was to live a fuller life. I saw that the hope that Paul speaks of was in a new creation: a new heaven and a new earth. It was a place where all the pain of this world would cease. This was a God who wanted worship. This was a God of hope and salvation. Yet I still had questions.

What about hell?

To me this seemed so antithetical to everything that I knew of God. I started doing research. I began to ask questions and debate with my family. Then in my first year at seminary, a pastor who I loved wrote a book: Love Wins. In it, Rob Bell asked the same questions I had been wondering. In it, he described the same conflict that I had.

For asking these questions, for publicly proclaiming his doubt, Rob Bell was declared a heretic. John Piper famously tweeted, “Farewell Rob Bell.” That was it. It was over. Rob Bell was no longer a Christian. And neither was I, I guess. The responses to Bell were so vitriol that I really didn’t want anything to do with it anyway.

I continued my education, but all the while I felt that I would not be accepted. I decided to keep my questions to myself. I decided that if this was how I was going to be treated, I would only share my deepest questions with those who I knew would still love and accept me.

Hell and Christians

I’m going to interrupt my story here because at this point I need to do two things. First, I feel that I need to restate my introduction: I believe in hell. I believe it is eternal. I believe that people stay there.

I say this, not so much to defend myself, but to keep the interest of those who also believe those things. The last thing I want is for people who believe the same to stop reading here. What I say next, all Christians need to hear. What I say next is so very important that I do

not want anyone to miss it.

Now my second point: It was at that point in my life (Love Wins being published) that I had come to a conclusion. If hell did exist then it was certainly only for Christians. It is to that statement — that hell is for Christians — that I will turn.

Hell is for the Rich

Typically when I had debates about hell, specifically whether or not people stay there, I would hear people talk of Lazarus and the Rich Man. This is a parable described in the book of Luke (Luke 16:19-31). Yes, I said parable — if you

have questions about that, I suggest you look at this book: Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Hardcover use pre-formatted date that complies with legal requirement from media matrix – January 11, 2008 by Klyne R. Snodgrass). The parable has two main characters: Lazarus, a leper, and a rich man whom Lazarus saw every day. Both Lazarus and the rich man die. Lazarus goes to Abraham’s bosom (verse 22) and the rich man goes to Hades (verse 23).

What is typically talked about in this parable comes from verse 26. It says that no one can cross from one side to the other. Thus, those who believe go to heaven, and those who don’t go to hell — no one can change where you go after you die. Setting aside the fact that neither hell nor heaven is actually mentioned in this parable, here is the problem: it actually says that the reason the rich man was in Hades was because he was rich. There is nothing in here about saying the sinner’s prayer.

Many of you may be scratching your heads in confusion or shaking your fists in anger. I assure you this is the point of the parable. The last few verses make it clear. To go to Abraham’s bosom one needs only follow the law (Moses) and the prophets (verse 29). In fact we are told that if people don’t follow them, they would not change even if someone came back from the dead (verse 31).

And what do the law and the prophets say? Well, mostly they say to take care of the needy. All the laws of Deuteronomy are about caring for the community. This was the crime of the rich man: he did nothing for Lazarus. In fact, after death he was still expecting Lazarus to serve him (verse 24).

Brothers and sisters, I hope you are hearing me. This does not say that all we need is a prayer. No — this says that what is required is caring for the outcast and the disenfranchised.

We All be Goats

I can hear some of you saying, “But Phil, the Bible says that salvation is by faith.” I agree, it is. But as I said before, what we believe affects how we act. If we don’t act — do we really believe? Jesus thought this as well.

We find in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) the story of the greatest commandment. Often we think of this as two commandments, but Jesus is really just saying one. He is quoting from the Shema. This is a passage from the Old Testament where Israel is called to listen to God.

What follows it is a declaration from God that Israel follow no other gods and that they care for one another. Thus, the command that Jesus is declaring is to listen to God. And what happens when we listen to God? We will love God and we will love others. To listen to God is to love God and to love God is to love others.

Jesus teaches another parable on this in Matthew 25. Essentially it says that Jesus will judge the world. It says that when he does there will be two groups: sheep and goats. (verse 46) The sheep will go to eternal life and the goats to eternal punishment. And of course the sheep are believers and the goats are not — right?


Both the sheep and the goats call Jesus Lord. It says nothing of whether or not the sheep said the sinner’s prayer. No, — what is says is that the sheep (verse 40) cared for the sick, and the poor, and the naked, and those in prison. The goats (verse 45) did not. That is the difference. And why is this important? Because care for those who were in need was the same as care for Jesus. Love of God IS love of neighbor.

I could go on, but I think that shows my point. If you think I am cherry-picking, I encourage you to do some research of your own. Look at the passages about hell. I think you will find that in most cases, if not in all, the distinction made has to do with the fruit of belief and not just belief alone.

Francis and Rob

Now I want to return to my story. I was discouraged by the response to Rob Bell for years. Recently, I learned that Francis Chan wrote an excellent book: Erasing Hell. In this book, Chan actually answers Bell’s questions. He doesn’t dismiss him as a heretic. No. He embraces him as someone seeking the truth about God. Chan declares that he will not hold to a belief simply because he has always believed it.

Most of you out there will be happy to find that Chan concludes that hell does exist. That it is eternal. And that people stay there. What you may not like is that he concludes the same thing I do. Many who claim to be Christian will end up there. It is these types of people — people who confess Jesus with their lips but deny Him with their actions — that God reserves the most scathing descriptions of hellfire and brimstone. This is not something that either Chan or I come to lightly. This is not something that I say with delight. My heart breaks for the many who think they are destined for life who are not. I write this, not to condemn my own, but to show them the way to life. Brothers and sisters, if you claim to be a Christian, then take heed. We are told if we call one another fools that we will be sentenced to hell (Matt. 54:22). We are told if we do not forgive each other that God will not forgive us (Matt. 6:14-15).

Brothers and sisters, this is not something to make light of. This is not something to reason away. This is the heart of God. God cares for people. God’s kingdom is a kingdom without racism, hatred, back-biting, and malicious talk. It is a kingdom where people actually love one another – not just act nice to their face.

You Don’t Want Jesus to Return

I can think of no better way to illustrate this then to read Amos 5. Brothers and sisters, let this be a warning to us. Here Amos declares to Israel — yes, the nation of God’s chosen people — that they do not want the Day of the Lord (the coming of God). He says they may ask for it, but that is only because they do not know that it will mean judgment on them.

Alas, you who are longing for the day of

the Lord, For what purpose will the day

of the Lord be to you? It will be darkness

and not light;

Brothers and sisters, this should shake us to our core. This should cause us to look at ourselves. For too long we have been declaring hell on others. For too long we have created divisions in our own churches. For too long we have sought wealth and prosperity with little concern for how that affects others. These are not the things of the kingdom of God.

Brothers and sisters, my prayer for you is that you truly believe what you say. That you truly make Jesus the king of your life. That you do the things of God. Let us not be a people characterized by hypocrisy, deceit, and wealth. Let us be a people of peace, hope, and love. Let us truly show Jesus to the world.

May God, in His mercy, point out your selfishness. May you truly seek the kingdom of God. May your churches be places of healing and not hate. May you truly believe in hell. And may that belief spur you to deeds and good works.


— Phil Lawton, Assistant Pastor at the Seventh Day Baptist Church of Shiloh, NJ. He is currently attending seminary online at North Park in Chicago, IL. Read more on Phil’s blog at http://contemplatingkenosis.blogspot.com

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