By L. Alfred James
In their gigantic hit song, Devil Inside, INXS singer Michael Hutchence spoke for millions of people when he said, “It’s hard to believe we need a place called hell.”
Hell is, without a doubt, hard to believe in. It is not overreaching to say that the doctrine of hell has been the greatest stumbling block for intellectually minded people who are investigating the Christian faith. And this doctrine has proven to be a difficult concept even for spiritually mature Christians to hold on to. In fact, C.S. Lewis once said, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.”1
So, why do we even “need a place called hell”?
We Shrink Back From Vast Superiority
There are good philosophical reasons for believing that everyone has a consciousness of God, a basic understanding of what God is like.2 And the Bible insists that every human being has an awareness of God, but most of them “suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18-21). They either don’t want God to be real, or they don’t want him to be holy, or both. Why?
Because a holy God is very uncomfortable to be around.
Do you know the discomfort you feel when you are in the presence of a person who is way more intelligent than you, vastly better looking than you, much stronger than you, or just plain superior to you in some area of life that you care about? Many of us feel quite small in the presence of great people. We feel inferior, and we don’t like it.
If you pay attention to the biographies of great professional athletes you will often see people who are interviewed because they played alongside of this great athlete when they were in high school. And these former teammates will invariably be asked, “What was it like to be a teammate of so and so?” And they will commonly say something like this, “We all loved having him on our team. We all loved how much he did to make us winners. And he was a really nice guy. But, individually, we all hated him. We all felt inferior in his presence. We all felt threatened by him. When he was around, we were nothing.”
Superlative people make us feel threatened. They make us feel small.
Almost all of us have something we care deeply about, something we pride ourselves on, something we find our identity in. It could be our looks, our intelligence, our musical skills, our athletic ability, or a hundred other things. What happens when you unexpectedly encounter someone who is leagues ahead of you, and they aren’t even famous? How do you feel? If you are anything like me, you can’t stand it.
In fact, there are theories of management and leadership that say that super-competent people in any company will have to leave that company and start their own businesses. They’ll never get promoted. They’ll never be allowed to climb their way up the hierarchy of a big corporation. Why? Because they deeply threaten their superiors. They make their superiors look bad. So, according to some management gurus, these folks will probably have to leave.
Not Everyone Wants To Be With God
If we feel this way with people, how much more is this the case with God? How much more inferior will we feel in his presence? But with God, the thing we most keenly feel is not a deficiency in our athletic ability or intelligence or any other peripheral attribute. We will most keenly feel a deficiency that goes to the very core of our identity, our moral character. This is why Peter begged Jesus to leave his presence. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). This is why Job, after having an encounter with God said, “I despise myself” (Job 42:6). This is why David was wondering if it was possible to get away from God’s presence: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7). When David realized how God knows all of his thoughts, words, and ways, it was too overpowering (Psalm 139:1-6).
This leads to an important principle of human existence:
If we will not admit the truth of our own sinfulness then we will hate to be in God’s presence. It will feel like hell to us.
We will want to get as far away from God as possible. This is one important reason for why hell exists. Some people, when they see God for what he is (and not what they imagine him to be), will not humble themselves and admit their own sinfulness. Because of this they want nothing to do with God. They want to get away from him. In truth, they hate him.
I know it sounds shocking, but the people who go to hell actually don’t want to go to heaven. They don’t want to be in God’s presence. This is why C.S. Lewis said:
The doors of Hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of Hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man “wishes” to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.3
To answer the question we started with, one reason why hell needs to exist—though certainly not the only reason—is this: anyone who will not admit their sin will want nothing to do with God. To quote another book by C.S. Lewis: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'”4
1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 1940), 120.
2. See (or listen to) William Lane Craig’s summary of this issue at https://www.bethinking.org/truth/religious-epistemology
3. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 1940), 130.
4. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperCollins, 1946), 75.