MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 7, 2007
This week, I want to follow up on Erik’s message on personal evangelism by taking up one of the more powerful motivators for personal evangelism. That is—the truth of the Biblical doctrine of hell. Lord willing, next week we will focus on heaven. There are few doctrines of orthodox Christianity more maligned by the world and even parts of the professing church than the doctrine of hell. It is openly ridiculed by the world and it is dismissed by many as being incompatible with a loving God. Hell is a doctrine of judgment and wrath in the midst of a culture whose defining values are tolerance and relativism. If as many people claim today, there is no absolute standard of right and wrong, then the idea of absolute and eternal punishment becomes unthinkable. Anyone who believes in or worse seriously thinks about or discusses hell, must be some sort of pitiful moron who desperately needs to crawl out of the Dark Ages. One of the great ironies in our very “spiritual” culture is that while it broadly embraces Jesus as the loving Savior, it is largely ignorant of the stubborn fact that 75% of the Biblical teaching on hell comes not from those fiery Old Testament prophets, but from the lips of Jesus. When you examine the Biblical record on the topic of hell, you are forced to conclude that Jesus Christ is THE hell-fire and brimstone preacher extraordinaire in the Bible.
It would be supremely naive of us to think that the world’s attitude toward hell has not in some way rubbed off on us. The church has allowed herself to be defiled by the world in every other area. How many of us are tempted to blush when someone even mentions hell in the presence of an unsaved friend? How much more do we feel embarrassed to discuss it with someone in our postmodern world? It is doubtless true that the world's disgust toward hell has influenced us as well.
This morning our goal by God’s grace is to use His word to clear away the worldly haze about hell--to bring the truth of it into clear focus. Many in the church have sadly exchanged a Biblical concept of hell in favor of a vague, general idea shaped more by Dante’s book, “The Divine Comedy” or Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost.” Hell is an important doctrine for us to regularly think about. The great Puritan theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards resolved, “when I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom, and of hell.” When Edwards (for example) tripped over a branch and sprained his ankle, he would use that moment of temporal pain to remind him of the eternal pains of hell. He believed it was profitable to think regularly on hell and in light of what the Bible has to say about hell, so should we.
We know that thinking and living in the light of the truth about hell is profitable because it is a Biblical teaching and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Hell, because it is an inspired teaching of God, is profitable for us to think about. It’s also good to think about hell because it is truth and Jesus tells his disciples that they will “know the truth and the truth will set us free.” The truth of hell can liberate us from laziness and the fear of man in telling others the gospel. It can free us from the illusion that this world is all there is. Hell is also invaluable in reminding us of the holiness and justice of God. God will not allow the guilty to go unpunished. Though there is much injustice in this world, all accounts will be settled and God’s holy hatred for sin will be expressed to the lost rebels in eternity. Thinking about hell helps us to more appreciate the cross of Christ and what Jesus saved us from. How can you be grateful for being spared eternal damnation if you have not seriously thought about eternal damnation? Finally, we will be more energized to reach the lost here and to the nations with the gospel as we more closely examine and meditate on some of the specific Biblical truths pertaining to hell.
The question that will direct our approach this morning as we study this Biblical doctrine is: "What will be the nature of punishment in hell?" This hits at the heart of this doctrine. When we think about hell, we tend to think about the more graphic nature of the Biblical depiction of the punishment--the fire and brimstone. Those are certainly Biblical images, but we shouldn't skip over the other more fundamental aspects of punishment those confined to hell will be forced to endure. Our first point speaks to this truth and is: The unredeemed in hell will face a complete absence of anything good or pleasing. The Bible speaks about two kinds of grace, both of which will be absent in hell. First, there is the grace of God mercifully received by his chosen ones in Jesus Christ--the saving grace that forgives our sins and enables us to increasingly live like Jesus. That grace, by its nature is received only by a certain group of people, his church. But there is another kind of grace God extends to ALL people. Theologians call this "common grace." Jesus speaks of this grace when he says of God in Matthew 5:45, "...for he makes his son rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." In this life, God extends many, many blessings to ALL people. The rain, the warmth and light of the sun are enjoyed by everyone.
There are countless other expressions of common grace that God gives to all people. The beauty of God's creation can be enjoyed by an atheist, not just a child of God. The beauty of music and art are just as available to a godless person as to a believer. God gives his gifts for music and art to those who shake their fists in God’s face as well as to the most godly saint. All these good things are, according to James 1:17, "gifts...from the Father of the heavenly lights." He gives them to ALL people, not just his church. In this life, he provides those gifts to reveal Himself. He creates a beautiful sunrise to point to his creative brilliance. He gives us a Mozart or a Bach or Michelangelo to reflect HIS magnificence.
In hell, those redemptive purposes of these gifts (to reveal his glory) will no longer be necessary. There will be nothing redemptive in hell. Just as there is no need to place cut flowers in a solitary confinement cell, there will also be no need of God's common grace in hell. There is no reason for it--its purpose has ended. In hell the time for grace has past. All good things come from God—that’s the message of the entire Bible. Imagine a place with NO GOOD THING. We can't possibly imagine a place like that because in this life we so easily take all that for granted. When the first warm breeze begins to stir again next Spring after a long, cold Winter, it will take most of us about a week to accommodate to how wonderful it feels, much less will we regularly thank God for it. But if ALL the good gifts of God’s common grace were instantly removed, we would be driven to utter despair. For just a moment, strain to imagine a place with no beauty, no warmth, no friendship, no laughter, no love, no giving, no music, no hope, no peace, no joy, and no end to this absolute vacuum of God's goodness.
George Bernhard Shaw, who made a sport out of poking fun at Christianity, once remarked that all the “interesting” people would in some way be in hell. He believed the companionship of all these interesting people would make hell in some way interesting. What does the Bible have to say about this allegedly “interesting” community in hell? We know beyond question that companionship is a gift of God. He looked at Adam all alone in the garden and said, "It is not good for man to be alone." Therefore, that good gift of companionship will be absent in hell. I won't go so far as to say there will be no opportunity for contact with other people in hell because that isn’t explicitly taught in Scripture. But it’s probably safe to say the contact that people will have with others will make them wish they were all alone. There may indeed be interpersonal contact, but it will not be a blessing. There can be no blessing in a place reserved for those who are by definition cursed by God.
There are many reasons why any interpersonal contact among people in hell will make the lost yearn to be alone. One reason for that is because everyone in hell is going to be in a perpetually bad mood. Several times Jesus speaks of the fact that in hell there will be "Weeping and gnashing of teeth." The phrase "gnashing of teeth" as it is used in Scripture is used to express extreme, volatile anger. We see this in Acts seven where Stephen accused the Jewish religious leaders of betraying and murdering Jesus. In verse 54, it says of the religious leaders, "Now when they heard these things, they were enraged, and ground [same word] their teeth at him." People in hell will be, as far as we know from the Scriptures, perpetually infuriated. There will be none of God’s common grace to provide virtues like self control and kindness. They will be absolutely evil. John Blanchard says, "In hell, that anger will be more intense than any this world has seen. The wicked will be angry at the things which gave them pleasure on earth but now will give them pain in hell; angry at the sins that wrecked their lives; angry at themselves for being who they are; angry at Satan and his helpers for producing temptations which led them into sin; and...angry at God for condemning them to this dreadful place."
Even if everyone in hell were in a charitable mood (which is impossible) Revelation 21:8 tells us what kind of people will be there. "But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice sorcery, the idolaters and all liars--their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur." That doesn't include all the demons, Satan, the beast and the false prophet who will also populate hell. So much for the “interesting” people Shaw expected to meet in hell. That crowd—with every trace of the redemptive element of God’s goodness removed, will not be fit company for anyone, even themselves. The unredeemed will face a complete absence of anything good or pleasing and that will be especially manifest in whatever company they may keep.
But beyond the absence of anything good or redeeming, the sinners there will be actively, intentionally tormented. Our second point is: The unredeemed will face genuine and unceasing torment overseen by God. It’s no secret that the most common picture of the torment of hell is fire. In the gospels alone, there are 15 references to the fire of God's judgment. When people think of the horrors of hell, they think of fire. What is the nature of this fire? Is it a literal fire or does Jesus use fire as a metaphor? We get some help from texts like this one in Second Peter. In Second Peter 2:17, Peter is writing about the judgment of God on false teachers and he says, "These [men] are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved."
Here, hell is pictured as "utter darkness." Jesus uses this image for hell as well. In Matthew we see this three times. In the parable of the talents, Jesus says of the servant who buried his talent in the ground, "...cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." [Mat. 25:30] Hell is seen as both fire and darkness. That leads us to conclude that the fire of hell cannot be the same kind of literal fire we have here because fire by its very nature gives light, not darkness. Hell cannot possibly be a literal fire and literal darkness. There is no contradiction in the Biblical record because these are metaphors for something far worse than fire or darkness. In the case of metaphors, you can say a fast track athlete "runs like a deer" or you could say he "runs like the wind." You haven't contradicted yourself--you have just used two metaphors to communicate that the person is fast. Likewise, the Bible simply uses different metaphors to communicate that hell is unspeakably bad.
The fact that fire is a metaphor for the torment of hell should in NO WAY diminish its horror! As many have observed, the reality behind the metaphor is always more powerful than the metaphor used to represent the reality. We know this from what the Bible says about heaven. When John looks at heaven and tells us about the pearly gates and streets of gold, he was using some of the most graphic images available to his audience to communicate inexplicable beauty and opulence. Heaven will be far more glorious than created things like gold and pearls. The Revelation tells us the glory of God Himself will light our way in heaven! In the same way, hell is much more dreadful than some created thing like fire. Jesus is communicating the horrors of hell by using the most dreaded agent of destruction available to convey the truth. There is perhaps nothing more painful than a bad burn and to be in an eternal state of burning is the worst image Christ could find given the limited power of language and the limited range of our finite understanding. Hell will be worse than any lake of fire. The fires of hell represent the personal presence of a holy God who vents his wrath on the sinner in hell.
Let me support that. First, we know that fire is a consistent metaphor for the judgment of God.
seen that. In addition, God, when he is spoken of in the context of judgment is often referred to as
the fire or the "consuming fire." Nahum 1:6 says of God, "His wrath is poured out like fire." Deuteronomy 4:24 says, "For the LORD your God is a consuming fire..." Hebrews 12:29 says, "for our God is a consuming fire." So, we know that judgment is used synonymously with fire and God is referred to as "the consuming fire."
we have even more explicit proof than that. Isaiah 33:14 says, "The sinners in
The most explicit reference to this is perhaps in Revelation 14:10. John is speaking of the punishment reserved for those who worship the beast and he says they, "will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.” The "Lamb" is Jesus Christ and John says He will be present when the wrath of God is poured out on sinners in hell. When the damned in hell look into the face of a holy God, they would welcome a lake of burning sulphur. When Isaiah, who was not at all within the context of God’s judgment, looked upon the face of God, his response was to bring down a curse upon himself. “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” The consuming fire of hell is the very presence of a holy God who pours out his wrath full strength on the godless. We know that the personal presence of God issuing his holy wrath is far worse than any natural phenomena like fire because in Revelation 6:16 the evil rulers of this earth at the second coming will be, "calling to the mountains and the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb."
These wicked rulers, when facing the prospect of looking into the angry face of God, beg for the worst trauma this world can offer up—devastating natural disasters to be unleashed upon them in order to spare them from the personal outpouring of the fury of the wrath of Jesus Christ. Send the avalanche, send the earthquake, send the hurricane, but please, oh please, don’t make me look on the face of the Holy One.” Beloved, to be perpetually on fire is a light affliction compared to presence of Jesus Christ venting his holy wrath on condemned sinners! Ralph Venning is right when he writes, "Hell would be a kind of paradise if it were no worse than the worst of this world." That begs a question. If God will be present in hell, then what about those verses which seem to indicate that hell is a place where sinners are SEPARATED from God? Jesus tells the sinners in Matthew 25:41 "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." The answer to this apparent inconsistency is we must view separation in the same way the Scripture does.
John Blanchard says it well. He writes, "We tend to think of separation in terms of distance; the Bible speaks of it in terms of relationship. In hell, the sinner will not be separated from God in the sense that he will not see him or know of his existence; instead he will live forever in his awesome presence." For one thing, God is omnipresent. “…where shall I flee from your presence?” He’s everywhere so it is impossible to be separated from him in any kind of literal sense. The biblical concept of separation is better understood as alienation. You can be standing right next to someone and be alienated from them. The sinner will be in excruciating contact with God, alienated from him relationally. The unredeemed will face genuine and unceasing torment in God’s presence. Perhaps you have heard evangelists call lost people to repent of their sins so that they will be spared a “Christ-less eternity.” They use “Christless eternity” as a euphemism for hell. What a horrible way to appeal to the lost. As if they didn’t already want a Christ less eternity! The lost don’t want Jesus—they have all turned away from him. To refer to hell as a Christ-less eternity is not only as we have seen, Biblically inaccurate—Christ will very much be in hell--it does nothing to help the lost see the true horror of hell.
Another related question is—how can the God of love in the Bible not only send people to hell, but oversee their punishment? The answer to that question is worth a book, but the answer is as Augustine has said concerns the nature of God. God is holy and hates all sin and his holiness, like all his attributes is infinite. Humanity was created by God for one overarching purpose—to glorify God, but we are full of sin and rebellion against our Creator. Humanity, unlike God is finite, but our sin is against a holy God and therefore must be punished on an infinite level. The only way an infinitely holy God can justly punish finite humanity is to punish them for an infinite duration—eternity. Because of God’s infinite nature, any crime against him is worthy of an infinite punishment. Beloved, the only way a finite human can receive an infinite punishment is for that punishment to be administered in the way the Bible describes hell. As rebels receive the eternal punishment of God in hell, they receive a punishment that is utterly consistent with the severity of their sin against an infinitely holy, sin-hating God.
We can either be repulsed by the holiness of God and from it, or we can stand in awe as Isaiah did and experience profound gratitude for his saving grace offered through Jesus Christ. Whatever your response to this topic, the important question I want to close with is—what impact is the Biblical teaching of hell having on your life today? Most of us are not where Jonathan Edwards was. That is—if we get up in the morning and smash our toe against the end of the bed and feel that exquisite pain, we probably don’t process that by thinking, “This pain could be a lot worse and it could be all over my body and if could be forever. Thank you Lord for this reminder—this ever so faint picture of the horrific torment of hell—thank you for what this reminder does to help me love you more and for what it does to motivate me to share the gospel with my neighbor.” Most of us aren’t there.
For most of us, Biblical truths like hell are placed in a special file in our brain labeled with something like “Unpleasant Truths of the Bible.” We seldom open that file and then probably only for a few moments. Many respond by thinking, “Yes, hell is real and I believe what the Bible says about it—no one could accuse me of not believing in hell. I’m orthodox where hell is concerned.” The trouble is--after that brief assurance of our own orthodoxy, we close the file and it has NO impact on our lives. There is a huge gulf separating on the one hand, what we say we believe about hell from on the other, the screaming implications that belief should be having on our lives.
If we really believed this doctrine, it would have a profound impact on how we view our own life and how we relate to the unsaved people in our life we are called to love. If we saw someone we were called to love, dead drunk and climbing behind the wheel of a car, we would try to stop them because the consequences of their behavior could be horrible for them and others. But we see people all around us who are reeling in the drunken stupor of spiritual darkness and we know they are headed for the ultimate, eternal crash and burn. What are we saying to them? When was the last time we lost sleep over the fact that people we know will be spending eternity in torment if they don’t receive God’s mercy? We so easily allow ourselves to become obsessed by what is trivial in this life and miss what is of ETERNAL significance. Are we intentionally, strategically praying and witnessing to these people who are hell-bound? Are we profoundly grateful that, as unspeakably horrible as hell is, and as much as we all deserve to go there, by the grace of God those who have placed their trust in Christ have been spared by his blood? Do we see God as willing to inflict eternal wrath? Is that behavior of God consistent with our picture of him? If the Biblical truth of hell seems inconsistent with our view of God, the problem is not with the Scripture, but with our inadequate, compromised concept of God?
Finally, for those of you who have never accepted Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, do you want to spend eternity in this place we have just examined? Oh, I plead with you to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved-- accept his death as payment for your sin penalty. Don't wait for tomorrow--if you die before you accept him, it will be the most costly mistake any human being could possibly make. Come to Christ! Allow Him to save you from the consuming fire of God and give you eternal life in bliss and in this life, unspeakable joy and abundant life. May God grant us the grace to allow these truths to change our lives for the good of our own soul and the souls of others who need Jesus.
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