Hell May Be Worse Than You Think


As I have previously written, John Calvin recognized an immeasurable breach between God’s ineffability and man’s ability to comprehend Him. Because of this gap, God would have to alter his message in a way to accommodate mankind. This has been called John Calvin’s Doctrine of Accommodation. On multiple occasions, he uses the analogy of a mother babbling to her infantto describe God speaking to humanity in the Scriptures.He goes on to say, though mankind proverbially creeps on the ground and dwells so far below the heavenly realms so that they could never attain any true knowledge of God, "God comes down to them in such a manner as to cause some kind of mirror to reflect the rays of his glory."[1] The writers of the Westminster Confession of Faith picked up on Calvin’s understanding of accommodation and used similar language in describing the process by which God made covenants with men: “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.”[2]

What if the terrifying descriptions of hell are just God accommodating us? What if the depictions are mere symbolism? What if the symbols actually represent a greater, more severe reality, which we who now see in a mirror dimly cannot comprehend at present? On this, Calvin writes:

Because no description can deal adequately with the gravity of God’s vengeance against the wicked, their torments and tortures are figuratively expressed to us by physical things, that is, by darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth, unquenchable fire, an undying worm gnawing at the heart. By such expressions the Holy Spirit certainly intended to confound all our senses with dread.... So we ought especially to fix our thoughts upon this: how wretched it is to be cut off from all fellowship with God. And not that only but so to feel his sovereign power against you that you cannot escape being pressed by it. [3]

There is nothing more terrifying than hell. For in hell, a person is separated from the love of God for all eternity and falls subject to His unrestrained wrath.

“Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11)

[1] John Calvin,  Isaiah 1-32, trans. by William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2009), 7: Isa 6:1..

[2] Westminster Assembly of Divines, The Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.1, emphasis mine.

[3] John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. Mcneill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Paperback (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 2:1007-8.