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"God is love, and the God I believe in would never send someone to hell!" The audience applauded enthusiastically as the TV talk-show host passionately stated her position about the afterlife. A panel of guests had been assembled to explain various views about death, heaven, hell and God's judgment. Of those authors and scholars, only one individual defended the biblical teaching about hell. And as the show progressed, both audience and interviewer seemed increasingly hostile to the lone evangelical panelist.

But why?

From action flicks such as Ghost Rider and Spawn to horror films including The Omen and Drag Me to Hell, Hollywood has scared up a lot of money over the years by depicting devils, demons and a fiery afterlife. Yet surveys show that, here in the West, belief in a literal hell is at an all-time low. And its most vocal opponents include some clergy. Scary, huh? Maybe all those creepy movies have conditioned people to treat hell as a fabrication—a mythical world on the level of a fairytale kingdom or a civilization in space.

Nevertheless, the Bible teaches that both heaven and hell are very real places and that each of us will eventually spend eternity in one of them. Most of what we know about hell, in fact, comes straight from Jesus' mouth:

• "If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell" (Matt. 18:8-9).

• "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life" (Matt. 25:46).

• "Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned" (John 5:28-29).

To deny the reality of hell undermines the authority of Jesus and what He had to say about it. We are not free to re-invent, revise or change biblical truths and Christian doctrines for mere accommodation. We must not evaluate truth based on what is popular, preferred or politically correct. Forget conventional wisdom; we must evaluate truth based on God's Word.

Others may deny hell less because of pop culture's take on it than that they find the mere notion of such a place unbearable and undesirable. If that's the case, why not drop any part of Christianity that's unbearable or undesirable? The reality of hell is inextricably tied to the person and work of Christ. If there is no hell, then our understanding of who Jesus is and what He did must be thoroughly revised.

Some opponents of the biblical view may not be trying to throw out the doctrine of hell; they just have trouble seeing how such a place can exist if God is love. Here's the truth: God lovingly offers us forgiveness, but it must be accepted. It cannot be forced. Accepting the reality of hell doesn't make God vengeful or hateful. He is characterized by love and mercy, but also by justice and righteousness. The truth is that hell is necessary because God's holy, just nature demands that evil be punished. Similarly, the sacrifice Jesus made at Calvary was necessary because God's merciful nature demanded that salvation be offered.

Since we've all been granted the freedom to choose—and without exception fallen short of God's standard (Rom. 3:23)—we all deserve hell. It is completely fair that people go there. It's anyone's going to heaven that could appear unfair. No one is good enough. The opportunity to enter God's holy presence illustrates His mercy and grace. The Bible tells us that people loved darkness rather than light (John 3:19) and it's clear that Jesus is the only way to get to heaven (John 14:6; Rom. 5:12-17). Those who fail to accept Christ's payment for their sins will go to hell. It's that simple. And it's our choice. Heaven and hell are very real places. Which neighborhood we move into after leaving this mortal coil will depend on whether we accept God's gift and follow Jesus.

In addition to hosting the radio program SoundRezn, author and speaker Alex McFarland has served as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and the Veritas Graduate School of Religion.

Published May 2012