How do you handle hell? Hell is so awful that Scripture describes it both as an “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43) and as “darkness” (2 Peter 2:4). We know that where there is fire, there is light. Darkness subsides. But no metaphor like fire or darkness can fully contain the horror of hell; hell is unfathomable even to the most demented human imagination.
How do you handle hell? Do you deny hell’s existence outright? How could a loving God send anyone to such an awful place? Do you attempt to get God off the hook by softening hell, imagining it as something more bearable?
Here is the danger: when you redefine hell, you redefine your Savior. A savior saves. What does our Savior save us from? If Christ doesn’t save us from our sin, death, and the devil, what is His purpose? Perhaps He’s a cosmic Dr. Phil, who teaches us that through positive thinking any challenge can be overcome. Maybe the Lord is a path toward spiritual enlightenment or an exemplary humanitarian. If the reality of hell is forgotten, why do we even need a Savior?
So, how do you handle Jesus? Jesus is a man. He ate bread and drank water. He labored as a carpenter. He walked on human feet, saw with human eyes, and touched with human hands. He is a natural man with an ordinary body. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2).
The Lord of the universe is so unrecognizable when veiled in human flesh that His condemners thought He would die like any other man. They crucified Him like a common criminal. Jesus died, they buried Him, and everything went according to plan. He even descended into hell.
But hell didn’t know who it was getting! St. John Chrysostom proclaims figuratively in his famous Easter homily that when Christ descended into hell, hell made the same mistake as Christ’s crucifiers.
Hell grasped a corpse, and discovered God. Hell seized earth, and encountered heaven. Hell took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
Hell took what appeared to be a lifeless human body and found that it had swallowed up God Himself. Jesus a rrived to proclaim His victory. Despite the appearance of defeat on the cross, the Lord defeated hell.
But Christ isn’t a one-time event, relegated to the annals of history, recalled only in books and epistles. He’s here today, veiled beneath what in appearance seems to be ordinary water. He’s here today, veiled beneath what in appearance seems to be ordinary bread and wine.
More often than not, we sinful beings think like hell thinks and do like hell does! We swallow up Jesus’ body and blood while sinful thoughts at the same time consume our minds. The old Adam constantly tempts us to take the Lord’s body and blood in the same way we eat anything else: once the eating and drinking is done, we forget all about it and go about our lives as if nothing happened. You and I receive what we see—water, bread, and wine—but we’re overcome by what we don’t see. We receive earthly elements and encounter heavenly salvation! As hell swallowed up a body and discovered God Himself, we too swallow the Lord’s body and blood—it looks like ordinary bread and wine—but we receive Jesus Christ! How so? It’s not about getting your head wet. It isn’t about eating your fill of bread and wine. The Lord puts His Word into these elements. Where there is His Word, He leaves no doubt. Jesus is delivered.
Despite the humble appearances of the means of grace, the Lord takes the sinner and does away with him. Having defeated the foe, the Lord rises from the depths of the crucified Old Adam and claims our bodies, our entire self, as His own. How could a loving God send someone to hell? God’s loving doesn’t go in the way we expect; His love follows the path of the cross. We confess both hell and heaven in accordance with Scripture; Christ descended into one, ascended into the other.
This isn’t even the end of the story. There’s more! Confessing what Christ has done for us, united to Him, we also confess our hope patterned after Him: the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
How do you handle hell? How do you handle Jesus? Wrong question. It isn’t your job to handle hell or even Jesus. Christ has already handled it all! He has defeated hell and given Himself to you.