November 7, 2010

The Hard Topic of Hell - Nov 7, 2010

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What I’m holding here is a reading schedule for the Sundays of the Church Year. For each Sunday it has a selected reading from Old Testament, a Psalm, a New Testament Letter reading and a reading from the life of Christ - a Gospel reading.

I usually don’t select what we’re going to read on a given Sunday. I rely on this structure that others have taken the time, study and effort to arrange. With a schedule like this, the idea is to expose us to 52 of the Bible’s most important teachings - every year.

On this schedule we’re almost to the end. There are three Sundays left in the Church Year: Last Judgment Sunday, Saints Triumphant Sunday and Christ the King Sunday.

Today is “Last Judgment Sunday”. One of the topics you can’t really get away from in connection with the Last Judgment is “Hell”. That’s what we’ll be talking about today.


Hell is one of those sticky subjects that we Christians like to avoid. We feel uncomfortable dealing with it. It’s a topic that is easily misunderstood. It’s a topic that is seen as unfairly judgmental.

Perhaps you’ve had a loved one come to you and say, maybe with tears in their eyes, “So you think I’m going to Hell?” Talking about Hell can be extremely difficult, uncomfortable and awkward.

David Brickner is the head of an organization called “Jews for Jesus”. This group is made up of Jewish born people who have come to believe that Jesus is the Savior promised in the Old Testament. On Larry King Live, Brickner took part in a debate with a Jewish Rabbi who doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Savior.

Brickner got put on the spot on the topic of hell. Here’s how it went down:
Larry King: Do you believe that Rabbi Boteach is going to heaven?

David Brickner: I believe that all of us are going to hell, but God is in the business of saving us, and that’s why He sent Jesus the Messiah.

Larry King: So you’re saved and he’s not.

Brickner: I’ve got my sins forgiven. I don’t know how Rabbi Boteach is having his sins forgiven. That’s between him and God, and I’m not the one who judges Rabbi Boteach.

Larry King: But you’re making a judgment here, you’re telling us that if he doesn’t accept Christ that he’s in trouble.

Brickner: Well, Jesus made that judgment and that’s the point. I believe that the teachings of the New Testament are clear, Jesus is the way to have our sins forgiven.
If you go on “You Tube”, you can watch the highlights of this conversation. It’s pretty intense. The ideas of judgment and Hell are not pleasant. They stir up our emotions. God Himself even says He doesn’t like it. In Ezekiel 33, verse 11 God says,
“…As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live…” (Ezekiel 33:11 NIV).
I think that Brickner answered well. He pointed out the truth that “Hell” isn’t an “I’m better than you” thing. All of us have sinned against God, over and over. We’re all headed to hell because of that fact. But God is in the business of saving us. That’s why Jesus was born, why He lived, why He died, and why the Father raised Him from the dead. His sacrifice was accepted, and through Him we are saved from the otherwise inescapable fate of Hell.

The part of the Bible that we’re going to read as our sermon reading is from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonian Christians. Right at the beginning of that letter Paul emphasizes the fact that God’s grace is the only thing that saves us from trundling off into an eternity of hell.

Our sermon reading is 2 Thessalonians 1, verses 5-10. Paul opens up this letter by writing in verse 1
“1Paul, Silas and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
2Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:1-2 NIV).
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, “Grace” means “undeserved love”. We don’t escape Hell because of what’s inside us, we escape Hell because God loved sinners who didn’t deserve His love. He sent His Son to suffer Hell in our place thus rescuing us. This said, let’s read our sermon reading.

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 (NIV)

5All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. 6God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power 10on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.

Do you really think that Hell exists? Isn’t the whole idea of Hell a little cruel and mean? I mean, a loving God would never consign people to an eternity of suffering, would He? These are some of the questions that Christians get asked about Hell.

One reason people find Hell a hard idea to accept is because our culture has colored and modified the concept of Hell to be something other than what the Bible describes.

Horror movies depict hell as a place where grotesque monsters torture people in horrific ways. Books like “Dante’s Inferno” describe Hell in detail, as having descending rings, or levels, where sinners are tortured in various dark ways depending on how wicker their lives were. This ISN’T the Bible’s description of Hell. The Bible certainly describes Hell as a horrible place where you don’t want to be, but it doesn’t describe it as an underground torture chamber run by wickedly cheerful demons happy to cause pain.

The Biblical concept of Hell circles around one major idea. Separation from God and all His goodness. Verse 9 of our reading expresses this when it says,
“9They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9 NIV).
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a series of parables which deal with the Final Judgment. At the close of these parables, the wicked are cast out into the “darkness”, where there is “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth”. The last of these parables ends with Jesus saying…
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46 NIV).
In Mark 9, Jesus warns against taking sin lightly when He says,
“43If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—44where
‘Their worm does not die
And the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:43-44 NIV).
Jesus pictures Hell as a place where the fire never stops burning, and the maggots never die. A place of perpetual rotting, decomposition and disintegration.

Now, some are quick to point out that these are metaphors. They’re picture language. Some would say that because the Bible uses metaphors to describe Hell, it must not be a real place. They might say, how can Hell be a place of utter darkness AND a place filled with fire? Or how can worms exist in a place that’s always burning?

But they miss the point of metaphors. Metaphors are language tools that help us to communicate. We might say, “The White House announced Friday that __________.” We don’t mean that there’s a building in Washington D.C. that has a mouth. We mean the administration of the President. Duh. Metaphors make communication simpler.

Metaphors become especially helpful when someone is talking about something outside of our own personal experience. Something we’ve never seen anything like. A real thing, but one that is beyond our comprehension.

The Bible doesn’t just use metaphors to describe Hell, it also uses them to describe Heaven. In Revelation 21, John sees a vision of heaven in which the streets were made of gold. Is God trying to communicate to use what type of paving material He prefers, or is this a metaphor meant to describe the unbelievable richness of Heaven? Heaven, the place where God dwells, is so unbelievably glorious that gold is as common as dirt. Something like this is what the image of golden streets is meant to express.

The metaphors that the Bible uses to describe Hell depict a reality beyond our greatest fears. An existence where there is no light. An existence where the worst kind of pain - is constant. A place where there is no relief, no healing. No escape from deterioration. A place where the overwhelming emotion is gnashing of teeth – rage, anger and sorrow.

Why? Why did God make this place? Why does it exist?

Jesus tells us in Matthew 25, verse 41.
“41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41 NIV).
Hell was not part of God’s original creation. That creation was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). There was no sin or evil in it. But in the beginning, God created a universe in which there was real freedom. It was perfect, but the highest creatures that God created, the angels and the humans, they were free. Perfect and sinless, but free. They could of their own choice step away from God. And when the angel named Satan did, and when other angels followed him into sin, Hell was prepared FOR THEM.

Look at our sermon reading again. 2 Thessalonians 1:5-6. It says that God is JUST. Justice means sin must be punished. The angels who chose to rebel against God, to oppose Him and separate themselves from Him, will find themselves separated from God in eternity. The same is true of human beings. By disobeying God, we rebel against Him. We choose to separate ourselves from God in life, and He will honor this choice in eternity. What a horrible thought.

God does not want this to be our fate. 1 Timothy 2:3-6 says,
“…God our Savior, 4who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6who gave Himself as a ransom for all…” (1 Timothy 2:3-6 NIV).
I said at the beginning of our meditation today that we’re all on the road to Hell because we’re all sinners. If God is just God, sin must be punished. Jesus knew this was the case. And God’s eternal Son stepped down from His throne and became one of us. He lived a sinless life, and prepared Himself to experience Hell in our place.

Jesus understood that if sinners were to be released from their fate, someone would have to pay the price for sin. Someone would have to suffer Hell in their place.

Less than twenty for hours before His crucifixion, Jesus went to garden outside of Jerusalem. Matthew 26, verse 36
“36Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:36-39 NIV).
It was not merely physical pain that brought deep sorrow and trouble into the heart of Jesus. It was the reality of the Hell that He was just hours from facing. But there was no other way to prevent sinners from their fate but this. So, He went to the cross. And when darkness covered the land from 12-3 on that Friday afternoon, Jesus knew Hell in a way that we cannot understand. Mark 15:34
“34And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 NIV).
But those weren’t His final words. Before He gave His spirit into the hands of the Father, He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

Our Hell became His. His suffering for us is finished. His righteousness in now His gift, to us. It comes to us by simple trust in who He is, and what He has done for us.

Last week we read from the book of Romans for our sermon meditation. I’d like to read those words again today.

Romans 3:21-26 (NIV)

21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Prayer: Father, sometimes we lose sight of how serious sin is. We’ve all grown up in world that winks at sin. Some of us have grown up in a church that proclaims our sin is completely forgiven because of Christ. We haven’t lived under the fear of Hell. Help us to comprehend the horrible truth of Hell. That it is our destiny, apart from Jesus. You stepped in and rescued us, Lord, it was not our doing, but yours. Help us not soften the reality of Hell as we interact with people who don’t know your grace. Help us instead to speak the truth of sin and Hell in an appropriate way. Help us also to have the opportunity joyfully follow that truth with the message of Christ, who freed us from that destiny. Amen.

The Peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

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