THE time: the 1870s.
The place: Atlanta, Georgia.
The topic of conversation: hell.
"I'm afraid I'll die and go to hell..."
"You are pretty healthy — and maybe there isn't and hell."
"Oh, but there is, Rhett! You know there is!"
"I know there is, but it's right here on earth. Not after we die, Scarlett. You are having your hell right now."
"Oh, Rhett, that's blasphemous!"
"But singularly comforting. Tell me, why are you going to hell?"
This remarkable discourse took place between two of the most famous fictional characters in literary history — Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara (Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind, page 826).
The conversation aptly illustrates a point: almost no two people in the world can fully agree on what hell is, or even if it is.
Some years ago a survey for Catholic Digest conducted by Dr. George Gallup indicated that 68 out of every 100 Americans believed in heaven; but only 54 percent were persuaded, like Scarlett, that hell was indeed a reality.
A similar survey in New Zealand revealed that six out of ten of its inhabitants believed, along with fictional here Rhett Butler, that hell is a state of mind. Only 26 percent believed it was a literal place.
An Australian cleric declared that the 19th-century concept of an ever-burning hellfire makes God out to be worse than Hitler.
Some theologians even view hell as "the loss of communication, insensitivity to spiritual values, the realization of how far short of our capacities we have fallen, the memory of some of the things we have done. These are things that need to be burned away in the heat of God's love" (James Kallas, The Satanward View).
On the other hand, Pope Paul VI warned that "those who refuse the love of God are going to the fire that is not extinguished" (Credo of the People of God, issued June 30, 1968).
Surprisingly, not a single one of these human opinions, including Scarlett's and Rhett's, is completely correct.
Let's get our bearings and sweep away all this theological balderdash with a short series of simple questions and answers. The answers are not to be found in the imaginations and ideas of men, but in God's Word — the ultimate arbiter of truth (John 17:17).
Question: "Is there punishment after death for unrepented of evil deeds committed during the human life-span?"
Answer: Yes. No responsible biblical scholarship can excise all the scriptural passages referring to permanent punishment of the incorrigibly wicked. Jesus said: "And these shall go away into everlasting punishMENT [not punishING]... " (Matt. 25:46).
Q: "Would Scarlett, if she were a real person, go to hell or a place of punishment for her sins?"
A: Not if she really repented of those sins.
Q: "But if her sins were to remain unexpiated, would Scarlett's punishment consist of perpetual, never-ending torture in a burning brimstone lake of fire?"
A: No! The Bible simply states that "the wages of sin is death..." (Rom. 6:23). Death, by definition, is the diametric opposite of life. The second death* — the total absence of life — is eternal in the sense of its permanence to the individual; but pain of punishment lasts only a very short while.
Q: "Would not Scarlett be thrown into a lake of fire if she refused to heed God's call to repentance? Would not her punishing be perpetual suffering in this fiery hell?"
A: Yes to the first question; no to the second. Have you ever seen a fire that kept burning after all the combustible materials were exhausted? Or doesn't it happen according to the true proverb — "Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out"? This lake-of-fire punishment is eternal only in this respect: the sinner is completely burned to ashes — never again to be regenerated in a future resurrection. Malachi wrote: "For, behold, the day cometh that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up... it shall leave them neither root nor branch.... And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet..." (Mal. 4:1, 3).
Q: "Does the word 'hell', as the fictional Rhett asserted, accurately reflect some type of troubled mental state or totally chaotic condition right here on earth?"
A: Many on the American scene use this word in such a manner. We speak of a bad marriage as being "hell on earth," or war is pictured as "pure hell." But this semi-slang usage is foreign to the biblical Scriptures.
Q: "Do you, in your library of theological publications, have a single booklet that exegetically expounds and explains all the difficult-to-be-understood scriptures about the doctrine of hell — logically tying the whole subject together?"
A: Yes. Entitled Is There A Real Hell Fire? this color-cover, fully illustrated, digest-size booklet is available free of charge.
* The second death (Rev. 20:14) occurs after a third resurrection (a resurrection to physical life). Details are explained in our free booklet After Death... then What?