Sunday, May 15, 2011

Hell? No? They Won't Go?

This is the message I preached this morning at Light on the Corner Church in Montrose, CA.

Hell? No? They Won’t Go?

Light on the Corner Church, Montrose, CA

May 15, 2011

I’m talking on a peculiar topic today—the topic of eternal punishment. There’s a reason I am. Your peculiar pastor asked me to do it. The reason is—well, he’s peculiar. You know that!

Actually, the real reason that I’m talking on the peculiar topic of eternal punishment is that there’s a hot book out there called Love Wins by a very compelling pastor and author named Rob Bell. Rob Bell is a superior communicator. He is best known not as an author or as the pastor or Mars Hill Bible Church in central Michigan, but as the maker of a series of videos called NOOMA. I have no doubt that he loves God and loves people.

And now Rob Bell is being discussed all over the place. But it’s not for his church or his videos. Google Rob Bell’s name and get a million hits. And it has to do with the big controversy stirred up by his new book.

I want to show you Bell’s own You Tube video that was prepared for the release of his book, and maybe you can see why this is getting so much attention:

That’s Rob Bell’s style: ask compelling questions that stir thought. Isn’t the story about Gandhi and hell thought-provoking? (We’ll come back to that later.) And that is what he does in Love Wins as well: he doesn’t come right out and say that all will be saved, that hell will be empty. What he does is—ask questions. He lays out a lot of options about eternity, including a concept called universal reconciliation and asks you to decide. He also rejects the belief that conscious faith in Christ is necessary for salvation, but he never clearly lands on a specific account of what he does believe.

Here’s the key quote from Love Wins:

"Whatever objections a person may have of [the universal redemption view], and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it."

OK, I can kind of sign off on that. The doctrine of hell makes does me squirm. I don’t like the idea of people I love suffering eternally. I wish I could get rid of it somehow.

But frankly, if it were up to me, I don’t like a lot of things the Bible teaches.

The Bible says that I’m to break out of my comfort and care for the poor. In myself, there’s a part of me that says, hey, go get a job. The Bible says that lust in my heart is sin. There’s a little Hugh Hefner within me that doesn’t like that teaching. The Bible says that a tenth is the Lord’s—the tithe. There’s a part of me, after all these years of tithing that wonders what I could do with all that dough.

I surrendered to Jesus 40 years ago this past week—May 12, 1971. Soon after I did, well, I had a lot of questions. One of the best pieces of advice I got was this: if you’re following Jesus now, then what does He teach? You don’t get to pick and choose what you’ll accept or reject. If you follow Him, then what He says goes. He’s the Lord, He’s the boss—what does He say about the biggest questions we have?

There’s this website called Here’s what it says on the homepage:

Fan: an enthusiastic admirer.

In the Gospels, Jesus never seemed too interested in fans. Is that how you define your relationship with Him? An "enthusiastic admirer"? Close enough to Jesus to get the benefits but not so close to require sacrifice? He was looking for followers. Not just any follower though, but a...

Completely. Committed. Follower.

How would things change if you lived as Jesus lived, and loved the way He loved? Maybe you’re ready to join the hundreds of people who have stepped across a line and said: I am not a fan.

You see, if you’re “not a fan”, but a follower, you don’t get to edit what Jesus teaches, whether it’s about the way you live, or about what God is like, or about how eternity will play out.

We ask, why would God, who is full of mercy and grace, send people to a place of torment forever and ever for not trusting in Jesus even though they are nice people, or never heard of Jesus, or were sincerely trying to find God? Is that fair? Is that right?

But is that the place to start—to start with what I think is right, my concept of fairness and justice? What we need to start with is this: what does Jesus teach about eternal punishment? Does He teach that all will be reconciled to God—that “loves wins” means that those who reject Christ in this life will get another chance, maybe many chances to believe so that hell will be empty and heaven full—not only with those who believed on Him in this life, and not only really good people of other faiths (like Gandhi), but also really bad people with no faith (like Hitler and Stalin and Mao) or bad people of other faiths (like Osama bin Laden).

(Funny how hell makes us squirm with people like Gandhi but not with people like bin Laden.)

You see, what we want, what we inherently desire, is that there be justice. We don’t want child molesters or Nazis off the hook. A god that would pat them on the head and say, “Hey, boys will be boys” seems hardly worthy of calling God.

But the Bible says that God is holy. Holiness is incorruptibility, perfection, purity, and total absence of to sin. Holiness is the very essence of God's character. His character is perfect, without flaw, and He is the standard of all that is right and good.

The Bible also tells us that God is love. (1 John 4:16). God cares about us and seeks our well being and security. His thoughts about us are infinite and His love is too.

The Bible tells us that God is righteous. Not only that, it says that in Psalm 7:9 that "God is a righteous judge.” In Genesis 18:25, Abraham asks the question, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” God cannot do anything wrong. God must do that which is right; otherwise He would not be righteous. He would not be holy. And, He would not be loving.

So when the Bible speaks of God’s eternal punishment, it’s against the backdrop of the absolute holiness of God. Eternal punishment doesn’t happen because God gets mad. It’s because He is holy, and loving, and righteous.

OK, what does Jesus say about these things?

In Mark 9:27, Jesus says that hell is a place where "‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”

“Hell” here translates the Greek word Gehenna, which goes back to the Hebrew phrase Ge Hinnom --the Valley of Hinnom. This is a real place—here it is on the screen. Everything associated with this place is just plain bad. For a while, it was used as a place for pagan human sacrifices. Then it was converted into the city dump where garbage burned constantly. The fire never went out at Gehenna and the worms that fed on the garbage never died out. So it gave its name to the destiny of the unrighteous dead—also a place of endless burning and decay.

It’s a pretty bleak picture that Jesus paints. It’s not the only one. Let’s look a more places where Jesus mentions hell—even if He doesn’t always use that word.

Matthew 7:21-23:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

OK, hell means being separated from God. I don’t think we get just how bad that is. In this world, God is present, making the rain fall on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). God sends a whole lot of blessings on everyone—people who love God and people who hate the very idea of God. But hell means—no presence of God, not one little bit. That’s terrible beyond imagination. In that sense, hell is God granting unbelievers their wish—a world, an existence, entirely without God.

Matthew 8:12:

But the subjects of the kingdom [in context, people with religion, but without faith in Jesus] will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Another depressing image: not only are people separated from God, but they’re thrown out, into darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”—where the lost will experience eternal regret.

The picture Jesus paints is one where your eternity is being set now by how you respond to Jesus. Those who reject Him—even really religious people who reject Him, are thrown out into eternal darkness and into eternal regret.

By the way, did you notice that hell is described as both fiery and dark? On earth, fire makes light. But the nature of eternal separation is that it’s both agony (fire) and separation (darkness). Hell is worse that a lake of fire. It is unending agony of a soul utterly separated from God and hope.

Matthew 13:49-50:

49This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

It’s eternal regret again—“weeping and gnashing of teeth”, it’s the blazing furnace and its eternal separation.

Don’t like it? I don’t blame you. But hey, I’m not in management—I’m in sales! The Manager—the Lord Jesus—says that this is the way eternity plays out for the ones who reject Him.

Now the longest passage where Jesus describes the fate of the unbelieving dead is Luke 16:19-31. I’m just going to read it with minimal comment.

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Man, we could talk about this passage for a long time. There are a lot of interesting details we could go into. But by now, the pattern is clear: after death, there is an unalterable separation of the unbelieving unrighteous from God and from everything that’s good; there is agony; and there is incredible regret.

I said at the outset that there are things in Scripture that I don’t like, but that doesn’t make them any less true. Not only that, that doesn’t make them any less good and holy and right. When God judges, He judges rightly. Hell is just. Hell is fair. In Revelation, twice there are outbreaks of praise to God for His judgment, like this passage in Revelation 19:1b-2a:

Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments.

God’s judgments are true and just, and He is worthy of praise, not excuse-making, for His judgments.

Several years ago, a woman in my church came to me after a worship service with a question. Her boss wasn’t a believer; if anything he was a cultural Buddhist. But he was a great guy. He treated people with respect. If he had an employee with a relative in the hospital, he’d visit and bring flowers. He gave money to worthy causes. He was faultlessly courteous.

On the other hand, she had a Christian co-worker who was always cranky. She had a mean streak and was ill-tempered—just not a nice person. All this made her wonder—how could she say that her boss wasn’t closer to God than her cranky Christian co-worker?

I said to her—remember that Jesus said that the first commandment was to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength? Yes, she did. Well, I asked, does your boss do that? Because that’s the #1 commandment, according to Jesus. And if he doesn’t do that, he may be good in the sight of the world, but not in God’s sight.

And that brings us back to Gandhi. Was he good to people? Did he do well? Yes; as he studied the Sermon on the Mount—this is what he said—he found principles, that when applied, changed the world. But he saw Jesus as no more that a great teacher, not the Savior of the world, not God in flesh going to the cross to rescue us from our sin. And if that’s the case, he was just a very good example of the kind of man that boss was—a good man who didn’t love God—not the real God, who sent His Son to die for us—he didn’t love God with all his heart, mind, soul and strength.

So what does this all mean for us? Can I suggest three things?

First, if you know Him, be thankful, reminded what a great salvation He’s given you. I mean, salvation is way more than hell insurance, but it sure does include that. It means that on the cross, Jesus endured the spiritual equivalent of eternal hell for all who would believe. Amazing love, how can it be, that Jesus, our Lord, should die for me?

Second, while hell isn’t the greatest motivator to share Jesus (the glory of God is the best), the truth about unending hell should compel to even more to share Jesus with lost people.

A skeptic said this about hell: “I don’t believe that it’s true, but if I did, I’d crawl across this country on my knees on broken glass to warn people.” If you do think it’s true, then—what’s stopping you?

Third, remember: The only way to escape the righteous judgment of God is to trust in the provision He has made. This provision is found in Jesus. "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life," (John 3:16). As God in the flesh, Jesus' life is of infinite value. This means that His sacrifice is sufficient to cleanse you of your sins. It is capable of satisfying the infinitely righteous standard of God that is required to match His infinite holiness.

Jesus' sacrifice is the only provision acceptable to God the Father. If you want to escape the eternal judgment of God, you must put your trust in Jesus and what He did on the cross and in nothing else. Without Him, there is no hope of escape on the Day of Judgment. How do you do this? You trust in Him alone. You can ask Jesus to forgive you of your sins. Trust Him alone, and do it now.


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