Thoughts about Hell

Thoughts about Hell

Jackie Stone is very angry at Bernie Madoff, and I don’t blame her. She and her whole extended family—parents, aunts and uncles, cousins—face an uncertain financial future because they had invested everything with Madoff, and it is now all lost. Jackie is not satisfied with the court’s decision to sentence the investor to 150 years in prison. She wantts more: what “Bernie deserves,” she says, is “a longevity pill—not death—so he can watch each generation suffer and see what he did.”

Ms. Stone’s comments are published in the August 2009 Harper’s Magazine, in a brief piece (“The Bernality of Evil”) listing quotations from Victim Impact Statements in the Madoff case.  Another of the victims, David B. Spanier, sounds a similar theme: “Madoff’s jail cell could consist entirely of mirrors so that he would have to face himself each  day, or it could contain a continuous video reminding him of his ill-advised frauds.”

I happened to read those comments on a plane, shortly after talking about hell with a friend from another seminary. We had agreed that we are not universalists, even though we live with quite a bit of mystery about how far the salvific net is cast. These Madoff-victim comments were a good reminder to me to keep it all in perspective.

In some of our evangelical conversations about hell these days, the discussion goes along these lines: we admit to moods in which we hope that everyone gets saved in the end, but those impulses are held in check by a sense that the Bible does teach that hell will be populated. That can easily reinforce the idea that we morally enlightened types can’t think of a good case for hell, but since God says that there will be one we will go along, albeit somewhat grudgingly.

The Madoff victims point us in a different direction. They are saying that  Madoff must live with the consequences of his actions. And not just in the sense of  “paying a debt to society,” whether he feels indebted or not. He has to face the very real impact of what he has done on the lives of very real people.

There is a deep sense of justice embodied in those imaginative proposals—“longevity pill,” inescapable mirrors and video recordings of his victims’ suffering. These folks want something like a hell for Bernie Madoff.  The 150 year sentence is not enough.  In thinking about that instinct, we should also keep in mind those men in places like Southeast Asia who kidnap young girls and sell them into sexual slavery. Their victims are right to hope beyond hope that someday, somehow, their deep desire for justice will be satisfied.

To be sure, as the hymn goes: “The vilest offender who truly believes/ that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” That too stretches me. The same issue of Harper’s has a long piece by William Gass about the horrors of the Nazi era. A German commander, for example, provided picnic lunches for people to witnesses the mass killing of Jewish children. An instantaneous pardon for him the moment he repents and accepts the gift of salvation in Christ? If the Bible teaches that, I will believe it. But here too I am left living with a lot of  mystery!


  1. Thank you for writing about this. It is important that we do not let another person do this. SIPC, the insurance portion of the investment community has not had the laws updated since 1972!!! That is very unfair to all investors. My parents and family are fighting back and staying strong and rebuilding. You can see my Dad’s company at Once we have enough money we will redo the website. Thanks for writing and keeping our story in the worlds eyes

    Comment by jackie — August 17, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

  2. These are some helpful reflections on Hell. But I wanted to add how important it is to note that Hell is not only a matter of justice and punishment, but also people’s decision to reject God and their refusal to be in God’s presence. Because otherwise, we would have no explanation for why it would be eternal suffering for only finite crimes …

    Comment by Virgiliana Pickering — August 18, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

  3. Spot on, Dr. Mouw, you have truly articulated my feelings. Thanks!

    Comment by Xergio Chacin — August 19, 2009 @ 11:06 am

  4. Dear President Mouw:

    I have just noticed your blog and appreciate your penultimate sentence: “If the Bible teaches that, I will believe it.”

    I share that sentiment. I believe the Bible, and uncompromisingly so, having studied it for the past 30 years. However, I now find myself in a quandary. Eight years ago, I read the Qur’an and found that there is harmony between the principal teachings of the Bible and the Qur’an, without compromising any teaching or damaging the integrity of any verse in either book.

    I know that this claim may seem utterly ridiculous. Had anyone even suggested such a thing to me 8 years ago, I probably would not have wasted any effort in examining any evidence that the claimant might have provided. Therefore, I am very sympathetic everyone who prejudges the claim as fanciful, and even dangerous. Nevertheless, I stake my 20-year professional reputation on the integrity of the research.

    I have provided the compelling evidence in ‘Brothers Kept Apart’. The book was subjected to 7 years of rigorous critical pre-publication review, because I fear the Lord and do not want to send any error into the Body of Christ. I am also fully aware of the consequences of misleading others, and have no intention of doing so. Perhaps you could add ‘Brothers Kept Apart’ to the list of books that you are reading. I am available to discuss the evidence with anyone, anywhere, and anytime.

    Yours in Christ,
    Walter Phillips

    Comment by Walter Phillips — August 19, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

  5. Professor Mouw,

    Based on your comments re: “becoming saved” meriting God’s forgiveness, I suppose you have a big problem with the Apostle Paul, becoming such after what he did as Saul?

    Comment by Blades Elliott — November 10, 2009 @ 2:56 pm