I like to joke around. I grew up with brothers, and we said and did all kinds of dumb stuff. For six years, I played organized football and heard enough locker room talk to last a lifetime. When I worked for a supplement retail company, there was always some type of goofing around going on in the back of the store when there wasn’t a customer in it. I enjoy being around godly people who can handle and give a joke.
But there are some things in life you should never joke about.
Jefferson Bethke has a book out called, To Hell with the Hustle: Reclaiming Your Life in an Overworked, Overspent, and Overconnected World. The description on Amazon says, “This is your wake-up call to resist the Hustle culture and embrace the slowness of Jesus.” The book advocates living life at a slower pace and not being incessantly busy. The word “Hell” in the title is used over and against a lifestyle of hustle, sort of like saying, “Get rid of it” or “Eliminate it forever.” It’s like saying send hustle to hell.
You may have heard Christians say sentences like these:
“That was a hell of a game.”
“Caffeine is a hell of a drug.”
“Get the hell out of here.”
In response to these sorts of sayings, David Platt keeps it blunt: “The way we talk about hell shows that we have no idea what we are talking about.”
In the examples above, the term “hell” is used flippantly. Along the same lines, however, the word hell is often not only used in a flippant manner by believers but also in a humorous way. Examples abound. In his book, How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge, Clay Scroggins gives an illustration of goal-setting and motivation in leadership. Scroggins writes:
“If you just lack motivation, pick a goal, set a deadline, and create an artificial consequence to motivate you. I’m convinced this is why people run marathons. Think about it. You’re paying money to show up early on a Saturday morning to inflict pain on your body. Why? I ask people that all the time. The answer never makes sense to me. ‘Because it’s fun!’ Not for me. Sounds like hell. Literally.” (p. 105)
A marathon is slightly over 26 miles long. Marathon runners often prepare months in advance for the grueling quest of completing a marathon — often with strict sleep schedules, a structured diet, and frequent running training sessions throughout the week. Running, a common grace gift from God, is an activity beloved by countless thousands. In this example, Scroggins compares marathon running to hell.
We have seen the word “hell” used flippantly and jokingly. But the reason why we shouldn’t speak flippantly or joke about hell is because the biblical authors never do.
The biblical authors are crystal clear about hell. It is a real place, where all unbelievers suffer consciously under the wrath of God as a just penalty for sin, and it never ends.
A quick survey of a few texts should serve as a forewarning. Jesus says he has the power to destroy someone’s body in hell (Matt. 10:28). John tells us that anyone’s name who was not found in the book of life was thrown in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15). The author of Revelation also says that hell lasts forever, with no relief, not even for a single second (Rev. 14:11). Our Savior speaks of hell as a “fiery furnace” where people there are crying out from the top of their lungs and gnashing their teeth (Matt. 13:50) in utter and incessant agony. In hell, the fire is never quenched (Mark 9:48), making zero room for purgatory or annihilationism.
Considering that some of us have family and friends who are destined for hell apart from God’s intervening and saving grace, there is simply nothing here to laugh about. Even more, if we took these texts seriously, we’d think twice before speaking flippantly or joking about hell.
Charles Spurgeon once said, “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.”
Look at the seriousness of Spurgeon’s tone as he speaks about hell. There is not a hint of taking hell lightly.
Back before things got crazy with COVID, I was in Chicagoland for a theology conference held by my denomination. I loved every second of it. Afterward, I and a pastor buddy were texting about highlights from the conference. I sent mine. He sent his and said: “My biggest takeaway was from Carson: don’t you dare take hell lightly.”
What he’s referring to is a lecture from D. A Carson on hell. During his lecture, Carson spoke about a time in his life where he was a pastor of a Baptist church in Canada. A competent guest preacher was in town. The preacher gave an illustration and joked about hell. Sitting next to Carson that night was a deacon named “Norm,” a man who Carson says was a better preacher and theologian than he. After the joke was made, Norm leaned over and whispered in Carson’s ear, “Don, never make jokes about hell.”
Language matters. Every word counts. What you say, how you say it, and the implication behind what you mean should be taken into account before uttering a word.
I understand that a joke is a joke and your conscience may disagree with another Christian’s conscience as to what is permissible to joke about and what is not. But as Carson says in his lecture, we should never speak about hell in such a way that belittles the reality of hell. Myself, I sometimes laugh when someone gives a joke and the word “hell” is used carelessly in the joke. I always feel conviction afterward. I want to take this doctrine more seriously and watch every word I say and what I find entertaining. There’s grace for these kinds of errors, but ain’t no grace in hell.