The “Great Gulf” Between Heaven and Hell
1) And these will go away into everlasting punishment,
2) But the righteous into everlasting life! (Matthew 25:45-46)
We pick up our study this morning on the story of the rich man and Lazarus, by considering the second “great gulf” mentioned in the text, the divide between heaven and hell. We read verses 22-26:
Luke 16:19-31 "There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. 20 "But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, 21 "desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 "So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 "And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 "Then he cried and said, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.' 25 "But Abraham said, `Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. 26 `And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.' 27 "Then he said, `I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house, 28 `for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.' 29 "Abraham said to him, `They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' 30 "And he said, `No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 31 "But he said to him, `If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'"
Another sermon this morning on the difference between heaven and hell. Perhaps, you look at it and think, “I already know this topic, what more can be said?” Certainly, this is hardly the first sermon on heaven and hell and it certainly won’t be the last. The basic topics of heaven and hell are pretty easy to understand. Heaven is the believer’s home, the kingdom of God. Hell is the abode of Satan, the prison where those who reject Christ dwell. That’s pretty much it. But, this morning we’re not focusing on bare definitions so much as we are applying what Jesus says to our lives.
To start that off this morning I’d like to turn your attention to another sermon on heaven and hell. This one was written and delivered long ago by Colonial minister Jonathan Edwards in 1741. It has been held up as a classic sermon of that time period and esteemed by many Christians as a proper description of heaven, but mostly of hell. The sermon’s title tells you a lot about its theme: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”.
Listen to a few excerpts from Rev. Edwards in that sermon:
“The Observation from the Words that I would now insist upon is this, of an angry God. There is nothing that keeps wicked Men at any one Moment, out of Hell, but the meer Pleasure of GOD. By the meer Pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign Pleasure, his arbitrary Will, restrained by no Obligation, hinder’d by no manner of Difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God’s meer Will had in the least Degree, or in any Respect whatsoever, any Hand in the Preservation of wicked Men one Moment.”
“The Bow of God’s Wrath is bent, and the Arrow made ready on the String, and Justice bends the Arrow at your Heart, and strains the Bow, and it is nothing but the meer Pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any Promise or Obligation at all, that keeps the Arrow one Moment from being made drunk with your Blood.”
The sermon continues on this theme throughout, mainly depicting the horrors of hell and how we are in no control over our fate, only sinners in the hands of an angry God. By definition alone, Edwards was absolutely correct in his portrayal of hell. It is something people should think about. It is a real place, not just some imagination in the heart. There is something to be said about accurate statements about the danger of hell. At that time period, dating back to the beginning of the Christian Church, believers were conscious and serious about hell. Today, not so much. I think the general feeling among many people, even Christians, is all too often that hell is just part on one’s imagination. The teaching of hell has followed the same current that so many others have in our modern culture, that being, believe what you want, reject what you want, everyone’s opinion is legitimate and all that matters is what you have faith in.
When it comes to the severity of hell, Edwards was right. However, his major blunder was in His description of God. The very notion of an angry God is really only a half truth. It’s true that people must realize that God hates sin. The Bible actually mentions a few explicit sins that God hates such as: divorce, child sacrifice, and idolatry. In that sense, God has every right to be angry at the sinner. But, that’s not the whole story. To tell only half the truth is not to tell the truth at all. God is holy and just and therefore must punish sin, but He’s also loving and merciful and therefore He forgives sin. To hold back on the second half of who God is is to literally hold God from people.
God does not hold us over the flame of hell in His hands and use that as motivation for us to believe. God does not draw the bow of His righteous anger and say, “Now choose what is right or I will release.” God’s love is the powerful motivator for conversion. His wrath is meant to point us to His grace. Edwards preached the way he did, by focusing only on God’s wrath, because that was a strong motivator for people. But, it was not a motivator that pushed people to Christ, rather it pushed them to the works of service or conscience that they felt they needed to do to be assured of forgiveness. At that time, often called the Great Awakening in our history books, people received Edward’s message with open arms and they sought a moral equality with God. Not a distasteful thing on the eservice, who doesn’t want to be more moral? But, it was a failed activity because no matter how hard we try, eventually the rotten decay of our sinful heart will show, even through our so-called sanctified living. We need something more, something stronger.
And that’s why God recorded in His Word exactly what the power to salvation is, as written in Romans: For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation… Another portion says, This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? (Galatian 3:2-3). If believers are converted by the Holy Spirit, working through the gospel alone, then why would we use the threats of the law, accurate as they are, to convince someone to believe? It makes no sense.
This is the “Great Gulf” between heaven and hell, which Jesus taught about in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. We know the difference between the two in definition, that’s easy. But, at times its harder to see just exactly where we’re being led. Like Paul said, false teachers us “fair words and smooth talk to deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:17-18). Sometimes that smooth talk is only feeding people the wrath of God. The “great gulf” between heaven and hell is really the great gulf between a righteous and loving God. To detract from either respect of who God is is really the same as detracting from either heaven or hell. We must walk to the middle of the road.
The thoughts of our text today almost seem like the Hindu teaching of Karma. Almost everyone knows what karma is. It’s that sensible idea that whatever you do to others, good or bad, will be returned upon you at some point. Doesn’t that fit? The rich man was cold and cruel to poor Lazarus during life. The rich man certainly knew who Lazarus was, after all the beggar sat at his gate day after day, hoping and pleading for something. Lazarus, on the other hand, trusted in God despite his poor circumstances. In the end, the roles were reversed. As Jesus would say elsewhere, the “first became last and the last became first.” (Mark 10:31) Isn’t’ that karma?
Obviously, it wasn’t. Karma doesn’t actually exist. It’s not a real force. Sometimes life turns out that way, but not because of some mysterious force called karma. Changes happen and roles are reversed because of God. The rest of our text continues by explaining what the difference was; it’s the topic we consider next weekend for our series’ conclusion, the “great gulf” between signs and scripture. Like Paul wrote, the power for change is bound to the Word of God, and specifically the hope of forgiveness in the gospel. That is what exalts the lowly, while the law remains intact to humble the proud. That was the difference in the places where the rich man and Lazarus ended up. It wasn’t some random twist of fate or the desires of the gods in some distant and out of touch reality. It was the true God, the One who came down into this world and made sure that the Word He had breathed-out centuries before was completed. He made sure of this by guaranteeing it with the shedding of His own blood and the offering of His own life.
It’s discouraging when Christians preach karma, even if it’s only in tongue and cheek, because so many people are led astray by it. Why even joke about karma when you have the full authority of God’s Word of truth at your disposal? Remember, eternal judgment is an impending reality for everyone. It’s not time to take that lightly or to misconstrue our faith in any way. People simply cannot afford that kind of indifference, especially those who are misled about truth and salvation.
But, we should also come to realize that messages like Jonathan Edwards’ are, in effect, committing the very same mistake. Sure, Edwards preached about God. Sure, most of his message was spot on. Sure, his descriptions were accurate. But, in the end, if it doesn’t direct the hearer to Christ and His cross for the cure, it has failed. If the message doesn’t lead to the Gospel, even though it come from a Christian and it uses Bible text, it does not accomplish any more than the elements of heathen religions like Hinduism and karma. Because, it leaves people in God’s wrath, in the “hands of an angry God” as Edwards put it.
I often ask people, does the power of God give you comfort? Almost everyone says yes, especially if it’s under the context of a class or some other element of church. What kind of Christian would dare speak ill of the power of God? Well, that’s true. And I for one wouldn’t argue with taking comfort in the power of God. But that’s only because I also know of the love of God. Without forgiveness, mercy, or gospel, the power of God is not a comforting thing at all; and I’m certainly not led to life by the Holy Spirit. Without God’s love, in connection with His power, I have no hope.
The same is true of heaven and hell. As you contemplate eternity and judgment, which in your heart you know is an impending reality, don’t focus on God’s power alone. You’ll never have any hope without the complete picture. God’s love in Christ is the missing piece that all people seek. I hope that we all believe with the sincerity of Jonathan Edwards, fully recognizing the danger at hand in these latter days. That information is important, we need to hear it and we need to continue preaching it with clarity. But, let our hope remain in Jesus. Let our motivation toward sanctified lives be that which tells us that “while were still sinners, Christ died for us, and that is how God demonstrated His love for us (Romans 5:8).”
The divide between heaven and hell for the rich man and Lazarus was not some arbitrary, random act by God. It was determined by the deliberate work of Christ for sinners in the world that God the Father chose from the foundation of the world. Our lives are not up to mere chance with God simply deciding who is worthy enough and who isn’t. Let us not throw that burden on ourselves or on others. We don’t need to live in despair and fear; for we have power and hope. Today, and every day we can declare and believe with confidence that we are forgiven sinners, held securely in the hands of a loving and just God. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.