I didn’t come prepared with a joke, but one presented itself. I never, ever, wear a tie, even when teaching the adult Sunday School. This time I wore a tie, although I still wore blue jeans. Anyway, there’s a guy in our congregation who is very formal (and his name is Calvin!!) who always wears a tie, except on this day, he didn’t! So after my introduction, I said: “You’ve probably figured out that my topic is hell. Today I’m wearing a tie, and I happened to notice Calvin isn’t. I think the subject of my sermon just froze over.”
Oh well, guess you had to be there.
Saved from What?
“What is man’s chief purpose?” I am confident that most of us here, apart from perhaps the very young or those just beginning to walk with Christ, would give the correct answer to this catechism question. Man’s chief purpose is to glorify God.
However, I also feel safe in saying that, while we acknowledge this answer both in our minds and somewhat in our hearts, what we are primarily concerned with is salvation; our own and that of our fellow man. In church, as we should, we discuss salvation a great deal. Are you saved? Are your children or parents saved? This is our great concern.
We know, of the saved, what they are saved to. They are saved unto eternal life. But today we want to look at the other side of the coin. Not what they are saved unto, but what we are saved from. Today we ask the question: Saved from what?
Father God, today we look at our salvation, which we acknowledge is a gift of pure grace. We acknowledge with gratitude that this gift came at a heavy price, the blood of our Lord and Your Son Jesus, who died and suffered in our stead. Today we examine not what this unspeakable gift has given us, but what it has spared us. I ask that Your Spirit teach truth through the words your servant. Amen.
MESSAGEYou have probably figured out that my message today will on the topic of hell. [NOTE: my extemporaneous joke went here.]
Pastor Mike gave me the instruction to choose a seeker sensitive topic so as not to drive anyone away, so here I am.
I say that only half in jest. About 90 driving miles from where we meet is Northampton Massachusetts, the epicenter the Great Awakening in the 1700’s, the greatest revival in American History. Jonathan Edwards was the great leader of this revival, and his preaching emphasized the reality and terribleness of hell. In his most famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Edwards wrote:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
Now of course, this frightening message concludes with good news, which we will get to. But Edwards spoke passionately of God’s wrath, and of the reality of hell, to set the stage for teaching on God’s love, holiness, mercy, and glory, those feature we like to hear about. But these “nice” things are cheapened if we neglect the truth that we are not merely saved unto, but we also are saved from.
Far from scaring people from the pews, Edward’s preaching filled the churches of eighteenth century New England to overflowing. The modern church would do well to take this lesson from Edwards: do not underestimate God’s children, they do need messages of simplistic saccharine, they long for the truth of God’s holy word.
So let us examine, in the brief amount of time that we have, what the bible teaches us about Hell. Is it really a place of eternal torment, or is it just symbolic of eternal separation from God? Or, as some evangelical churches teach, is there no hell at all, but annihilation of the souls for those who are not saved? And is hell, if indeed it exists, eternal? These are terrible, awesome questions, and we must turn to scripture for answers.
When we search our bible for teachings on hell, we are immediately struck by this fact: almost all the teaching on hell comes from the mouth of Jesus. Some like to say that the God of the Old Testament is the God of Wrath, and Jesus’ message is all about love. But it is Jesus in the New Testament who teaches us most of what we know about hell.
Maybe Jesus teaches us about hell, because the concept is so awful, that we would discount it if it came from the mouth of even the most revered human prophet. But we dare not dismiss the words of our Lord.
Descriptions of Hell
Hell is described in the bible in various was. A Place of torment. In the book of Revelation as a pit and as a lake of fire. Also, as an unquenchable fire in Mark’s gospel, and as “outer darkness” in Matthew’s.
The question immediately presents itself: are these references images or metaphors, or are they to be taken literally? The answer is clear: we cannot take these references literally, for in our understanding there is no way to reconcile, in a literal sense, a lake of fire and an outer darkness, given that fire produces great quantities of light. So, at least in our understanding of these descriptions, we cannot take, all of them, literally.
However these symbols do tell us something about hell, namely that it is a terrible, terrible place. Whatever reality they represent, it is includes the reality of pain and suffering. Unquenchable fire is not, in any way shape or form, a metaphor for annihilation.
We must also point out that the punishment is physical, not mental. For scripture teaches not only of the resurrection of the righteous, but the resurrection of all men:
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable (1 Cor. 15:52)
No, to those who hope that there is no hell, or that hell is the annihilation of the soul, there is too much scripture that teaches otherwise.
Of the images of hell, perhaps the least disturbing is the image of outer darkness. To our minds, that seems, perhaps, a bearable version of hell, and one that might suggest annihilation. Let us take a look at how Jesus used this description of hell. We find it in the parable of the talents, as the punishment for the worthless servant:
"Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 25:30)
The passage vividly indicates that the “outer darkness” is a place where there is utter anguish, represented by weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is important to note what the phrase “gnashing of teeth” represents: as used elsewhere in scripture it represents not remorse or regret, but anger. When Stephen infuriated the Pharisees with his teaching, it is written:
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. (Acts 7:54)
The image Jesus is presenting here is that hell is characterized by a growing anger toward God. This might explain a great mystery: why does Satan, who must know his eternal fate, continue to act in such a self-destructive way? The answer seems to be that without any of God’s restraining grace, fallen creatures simply and utterly hate God, and can do nothing that is not sinful. It is Satan’s nature that carries him along to his inevitable doom, and the nature of those in hell is to hate and curse God, not to seek reconciliation.
Is Hell Separation from God?
Yes and no. It is separation, but not in the sense that we would secretly hope for. The separation is described in the continuation of the passage from Matthew:
31"But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.
32"All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats;
33and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
"These (goats) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matt 25: 31-33, 46)
So there is a separation, but it is the separation of the final judgment. Some will be placed on the left, and some, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, will be placed on the right, although all will be judged for their deeds. In verse 46 the same word, eternal, signifies the duration of the punishment and the duration of life with Christ, although some translations use the word “everlasting” for the second occurrence. There is then no substance to the teaching that hell is of a finite duration.
The kind of separation we would like hell to mean is that the punishment of hell involves a separation from God. We say aloud “the terrible thing about hell will be the absence of God.” At the same time, we say to ourselves, “but that’s a whole lot better than a lake of fire.” Unfortunately, it’s a fantasy. God is omnipresent. There is no place in the universe, even hell, which excludes His presence. We read:
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. (Ps. 139:8)
It has been said that if an election were held in hell to cast out one person, it would end in a universal tie with everyone receiving one vote. However, if the rules were changed so that you couldn’t vote for yourself, then the unanimous winner would be God. It is not the absence of God that will make hell unbearable, but his presence. Since the garden of Eden we have wanted to hide from God, his presence making our degradation all the more awful and obvious.
We should not have asked the question “Saved from what?” Instead, the question is: Saved from whom? And the answer is: God Himself. Our salvation saves us from God Himself. From facing the punishment that is due us after we stand before Him, naked, and are charged with every crime we ever committed, every idle thought.
How does God do it?
Naturally we ask, how can a loving God send people to hell? It makes the mind reel. Sometimes people say that God doesn’t send people to hell, they send themselves. And there is truth to that. But that doesn’t really change anything, for we can still ask why does God allow it, or why doesn’t God prevent it?
Some say that a loving God punishes just like a loving parent. And that is also true. God chastises those whom He loves, the bible tells us, and this corrective punishment is indeed analogous to a parent’s punishment of a child. But the punitive punishment of hell is altogether different, and nothing at all like a parent to a child.
The punishment of a parent is, done properly, is:
- not in anger
- pointing toward reconciliation.
The punishment in hell is:
- in the full presence of God’s anger,
- with no hope of reconciliation.
A parent’s punishment for a child and God’s punishment of the damned, far from being analogous, could not be more different.
In truth, I cannot tell you why God does it beyond the usual explanation that He is a righteous and good God, and because of His own righteousness and goodness, sin must be paid for. In our own courts we recognize a good judge as one who justly punishes, and a bad judge as one who doesn’t. Sin must be paid for, either by the perfect blood of Christ or by the punishment of the sinner. Exactly why that is so is surely tied to God’s holiness which, while we acknowledge, is nevertheless a mystery to fallen man.
Personally I do not struggle with the conundrum of how can God send those he loves to hell. I think the answer lies in what we mean by God’s love. There is a benevolent love, a common grace that God bestows on all, but there is also a special love for his chosen people, those who love Him because they were first loved by Him.
10And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac;
11for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God's purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls,
12it was said to her, "THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER."
13Just as it is written, "JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED."
14What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! (Rom 9:10-14)
It’s a thorny question: does God love everyone unconditionally? The apostle, I believe, gives us the answer: He does not. Although “hate” may not mean what we mean by the word, Paul has clearly distinguished between God’s view for Jacob and His view for Esau.
Today, if you do not know Jesus as your savior, you are in one of three places, roughly speaking.
First, there are those who do not see their own sinfulness. At worst, they would characterize their crimes as victimless. They feel no need to repent, because they don’t believe they do anything wrong, as long as nobody gets hurt.
The second group are those who acknowledge their sin, but they enjoy their sin so much that they have no repentance. They comfort themselves that there is but one life to live, and they are intent on living to the fullest. If someone else gets hurt, well that’s too bad, but to the victors go the spoils.
To these first two groups, I have no good news; the bible tells us that Jesus came not for the righteous and well, but for the unrighteous and sick.
The third group consists of those who acknowledge that they are sinners, know that it is wrong, and yet recognize their own inability to change themselves in any substantive way. It is to this group that I bring the good news. You may lack the faith that gives you assurance, but your repentance is more than a sign, it is proof that you are ready. God brings none to repentance only to cast them aside, all of His good works are finished to perfection. If you feel the need for a savior, but lack faith in Jesus, then pray for that faith. Scripture tells us that it will be given to you as a gift, not mustered from within. Stop burdening yourself with the quest for a faith that you cannot produce on your own, for you bring nothing to your salvation except your sin. Ask God for the faith; He will provide all. Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, we bow down before you and offer a simple prayer for faith. Strengthen the faith of your saints, equip them for the good works you have prepared in advance. And gracious Father, for those amongst us whom you have brought to repentance, we pray that you will draw them closer and provide them the faith through which they can proclaim that their standing before you rests only in the righteousness of your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.