Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reclaiming Hell

We need hell, and, from the very start, the church has laid claim to this vital doctrine. On the day of its unveiling – Pentecost – Peter preached damnation. Israel had committed the premier sin. They had murdered their promised Savior:

·        “This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23)

They were guilty as charged and knew they deserved the worst punishment. In his next sermon, Peter was even more explicit:

·        “And it shall be that every soul that does not heed that prophet [Jesus] shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.” (Acts 3:23; NASB)

 Therefore, in horror:

·        When they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37)

In order to be receptive to the Good News of salvation, they first had to understand the bad news of eternal condemnation. The condemned had to be alerted to their desperate status before they’d become receptive to the answer. No one will take medicine unless he is first convinced that he needs it.

In contrast, it is common to hear Christians saying,

·        We shouldn’t preach “hell.” This would just bring people to Christ for the wrong reason – fear. Instead, they first need to love Him for whom He is.

However, fear might be a necessary to get their attention. Besides, salvation lacks meaning if we aren’t first aware of from what we are being saved! The first Great Awakening was said to have been launched by a fear-provoking, hellish sermon.
In the sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, preached on July 8, 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut by perhaps America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards, fear-of-hell was the centerpiece. Wikipedia writes:

  • Jonathan Edwards was interrupted many times before finishing the sermon by people moaning and crying out, "What shall I do to be saved?" Although the sermon has received criticism, Edwards' words have endured and are still read to this day. Edwards' sermon continues to be the leading example of a Great Awakening sermon and is still used in religious and academic studies, over 270 years later.
Edwards had helped his people to graphically perceive the reality that confronted them if they didn’t confess and repent of their sins. They cried, "What shall I do to be saved?" This was a healthy and appropriate response, given in light of the prospect of falling into the hands of a righteous and just God (Hebrews 10:30).

It would be wrong to warn our children and our congregations about hell if there is no easy solution. Likewise, it would be wrong to warn our children about adults who might lure them into their cars with promises of candy, if this wasn’t a real threat and if there was nothing that could be done to prevent it. However, there is an easy solution, as Peter promised:

  • "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
We must reclaim “hell.” A recent study concluded that the belief in eternal judgment leads to moral living. I don’t want to let studies determine how I will believe and speak, but perhaps they are able to point out an imbalance in our understanding of Scripture. Perhaps we have discarded “hell” without good reason. Perhaps also, our message is anemic without this warning. Take for example this typical conversation. After presenting the Gospel, the hearer responds,

  • I’m glad that Jesus works for you, but I’m happy with myself and my life just the way it is.
We need to be able to retort,

  • I’m also glad for you, but this is irrelevant. We all must face an eternity of punishment or bliss, and now is the time to confront this reality.   
Eternal punishment is a reality, as Peter later attested. After listing several widely-accepted instances of God’s judgment – punishment of the angels, the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – Peter concluded that eternal judgment isn’t a fairy tale (2 Peter 2:4-9).

We need to know that a just God is in charge as we experience victimization. Otherwise, we will be tempted to seek revenge. Paul wrote:

  • For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction. (2 Thes. 1:6-9)
 It is because we are convinced that God will judge that we are free to love (Romans 12:14 – 13:4). We don’t have to play pay-back with our enemies, because justice will pay them back. If we trust God in this area, we need not take this upon ourselves.

The doctrine of “hell” was also central to Jesus’ teachings. In fact, He spoke more about hell and its horrors than did anyone else within the Bible:

  • "He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil.” (John 3:18-19)
 In one sense, we are self-condemned because we have refused to avail ourselves of the only cure – the light of Christ. Some will argue that the future judgment is therefore also a matter of self-condemnation. If we have hated the light in this life, we will continue to hate it in the next, when we are confronted with the light in all its intensity.

However, my concern is not with the mechanics of condemnation but with its reality. Even if we are merely self-condemned, this is not going to make the condemnation any more bearable. Similarly, if hell is literally a “consuming fire” or merely an “outer darkness” doesn’t address the question of pain. Instead, the question of hell’s pain and perpetuity is foremost. Jesus regarded hell as a fate worse than death:

  • "And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
 Death is not to be feared. Hell is, along with the God who has the power to send us there. The fear of God should be a healthy terror for those who aren’t on His right side. However, for those who are His, it is our “delight,” as it is for His Messiah (Isaiah 11:3).

As Jesus maintained, no one will escape this judgment:

  • “And [they] shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:29)
 I’ve heard many say that if there is a heaven and a hell, they will be going to heaven because, “I am a good person!” This assumes that God grades on a moral curve. However, Jesus assured us that any sinful act can merit hell:

  • "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, 'Raca,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” (Matthew 5:22)
There is no place for self-righteousness in God’s kingdom. Instead, we all must repent of our sins:

  • And He [Jesus] answered and said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2-3)
Anyone who knows their own conscience, knows that they are a sinner who deserves condemnation (Romans 1:32). It is only the blindness of self-righteousness that obscures this critical inner knowledge.

In many instances, Jesus taught that hell is a place of torment, so much so that if it were possible to avoid hell by cutting off both hands and feet, this would be a small price to pay:

  • "And if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the eternal fire.” (Matthew 18:8)
We cannot reject speaking of hell, seeing that Jesus so often did so. Besides, if the disease is so threatening and the cure so simple, we cannot withhold this. It would be like our doctor failing to tell us that we have an operable cancer because he doesn’t want to offend us. Let us pray that we will have the boldness of Jesus who proclaimed:

  • “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (John 3:36; NIV)

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