Last week the Pope made headlines when he said that hell is a real place. Addressing a parish gathering in a suburb of Rome, he said noted that hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more.” He’s definitely right that we don’t talk about it very much, even in church.

When was the last time you heard a sermon on hell?

The latest research from George Barna reveals that only 32 percent of Americans see hell as “an actual place of torment and suffering where people’s souls go after death.” We’re a lot more comfortable with heaven. And most of people expect to go to Heaven – somehow, some way – when they die. Hell is not such a hot topic these days.

I have two purposes for noting this. First, to commend the Pope for speaking up in favor of the doctrine of hell. Second, to comment on the connection between hell and Holy Week. If hell is a myth, then Jesus’ death on the cross makes no sense whatsoever.

This morning I did a quick survey of the gospels to catch something of the flow of Jesus’ teaching during the days leading up to his crucifixion. I wanted to see what our Lord had on his mind as he made the long journey to the cross.

You can see the answer most clearly in Matthew’s gospel. I was struck by Christ’s emphasis on coming judgment on the unrepentant, especially the religious leaders who rejected him. That’s the point of the parable of the tenants (Matthew 21:33-46) and the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14). In the latter Jesus speaks of “outer darkness” where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. When he pronounces seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, he calls them children of hell (Matthew 23:15). Jesus speaks again of weeping and gnashing of teeth in Matthew 24:51 and Matthew 25:30.

The clearest example comes in Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus speaks of the judgment of the nations and the separation of the sheep and the goats. Regarding the “goats,” Jesus says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41). They will go away into “eternal punishment” (v. 46).

This is striking because these solemn words were spoken by our Lord on Wednesday of Holy Week, two days before his crucifixion. We cannot escape two conclusions as we think about what this means:

  1. Jesus believed in hell and warned that some people were going there.
  2. Jesus’ death is the “ransom for many” that delivers us from hell.

What is the worst thing about hell?  It’s not the fire (though the fire is real). It’s not the memory of your past (though the memory is real). It’s not the darkness (though the darkness is real). The worst thing about hell is that it is the one place in the universe where people are utterly and forever forsaken by God. Hell is truly a God-forsaken place. That’s the hell of hell. To be in a place where God has abandoned you for all eternity.