TWISTED: Re-examining the topics of Heaven, Hell, Angels and Demons
WEEK TWO: HELL
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. MATTHEW 10:28
We’re in week two of our series, TWISTED, where we are re-examining our understanding of heaven, hell, angels, and demons. Our goal for each of these messages is to claim (or reclaim) a biblical understanding of God’s reign and rule on earth as well as heaven. If you missed last Sunday when we talked about heaven, you can read the message at our website, byhaliaumc.org.
I mentioned last week that, when it comes to heaven, you’ve heard many sermons on how to GET to heaven, but very few messages about heaven itself. Likewise, we preachers offer messages all the time on how to stay out of HELL, but very few sermons are given on the very place of eternal torment and punishment. It’s not exactly a warm fuzzy kind of topic, is it? And yet, Jesus did not shy away from the subject of hell and what happens there. In fact, He talked about hell more than all other NT writers combined.
And yet, polling research and interviews with random people on the street reveal that hell is NOT believed to be a reality in the minds of most Americans, even some professing Christians. In my research this week, I watched street interviews on YouTube where people were asked their opinion of hell. Most of them were long, so I grabbed a short video as a means to set the stage for today’s message. Take a look [VIDEO].
What I found astounding in that interview was the number of folks who didn’t even believe in hell, even if they believed in heaven. In fact, according to one pole about a decade ago, only half of the respondents believed in hell, while ¾ believed in heaven. In addition, 29% of practicing Christians said that their good deeds contributed to their salvation; while only 33% of practicing Christians believed that Jesus was the only way to salvation. E.g., 2/3 of Christians believe that many roads lead to heaven.
This commonly held belief—that all roads lead to heaven—is “part” of a systematic theology known as UNIVERSALISM: a theological doctrine that all human beings will eventually be saved. Universalism first crept into the church in the 2nd century AD by a man named Origen. For the most part Origen’s ideas were deemed heretical by the Church; but 1,600 years later—in the 1800s—universalism began to take shape again and continues to this day…with pastor/author Rob Bell being the latest proponent in his book, Love Wins. Here’s what Bell says, “The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most “depraved sinners” will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.”
There are many variations of Universalism. Some believe that ALL religions lead to God; while others state that belief in Jesus is still necessary…it’s just that everyone will have opportunity beyond this life and will do so. When I preached on Hell last December, I shared biblical arguments universalists make for their position and offered a counter to their argument. Let me know if you want the notes and I’ll get you a copy.
There’s another popular belief about eternal damnation…mainly that’s it’s NOT eternal. It’s sometimes referred to as Conditional Immortality (a.k.a. Conditionalism & Annihilation): This belief states that the unsaved are punished in Hell only for a finite time and the duration is determined by the seriousness and frequency of one’s sins while on earth. The individual then experiences the “second death” and cease to exist at all in any form. Annihilation.
Supporters of this belief, however, must necessarily abandon the concept of an immortal soul. Again, last year’s message explained their interpretive gymnastics to make their argument. I can give you more details if you’re interested.
A BIBLICAL VIEW OF HELL
This morning I want to spend a little time on the biblical place called Hell, but I really want to focus on some common objections to it. Let’s start with the Old Testament view of hell. Honestly, there’s not nearly as much in the OT as the New. The teaching on eternal life and death, heaven and hell, is a progressive thought, much like our doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
Daniel 12:2 is one of the few vague references to eternal punishment: Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting disgrace.
First century Jews developed certain beliefs about hell, which became the context in which Jesus taught. For Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries, Hell was seen as:
- A place of punishment after judgment. Before hell, Jews described a place known as Sheol or hades. Hades is not the same thing as “hell”. Hades is more of a holding place until judgment day. The unseen world. After judgment, the wicked are then thrown into hell as punishment for their sins. For the Jew, hell was not corrective punishment to make someone good to get into heaven. Hell was God’s final punishment for sins.
- An image of fire and darkness, where people lament. Fire is the most common image associated with hell. It’s sort of contradictory and weird. Hell is both bright with fire and dark with lament.
- A place of annihilation or never-ending punishment. While some Jewish writers held that the wicked would be “melted away” from human existence, others argued for a perpetual state of torment.
In the New Testament, hell is referenced many times, especially in the Gospels. In the opening verse I read, Matthew 10:28, Jesus is sending out his disciples into the plentiful harvest, giving them the authority to drive our impure spirits and heal every disease and sickness.
Jesus warns them not to take anything for their journey, to accept the hospitality of peace-filled homes, and to reject places that do not accept the message of the kingdom of God. He prophesies about the divisiveness of the Gospel, pitting one brother against another and a father to his child.
He tells them they will be hated by everyone because of Him, BUT THE ONE WHO STANDS FIRM TO THE END WILL BE SAVED. He tells them not to fear those who reject or persecute them. Rather, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
So, what did Jesus say about Hell? Jesus doesn’t only reference hell, he describes it in great detail. He says it is a place of eternal torment (Luke 16:23), of unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43), where the worm does not die (Mark 9:48), where people will gnash their teeth in anguish and regret (Matt. 13:42), and from which there is no return, even to warn loved ones (Luke 16:19–31). He calls hell a place of “outer darkness” (Matt. 25:30), comparing it to “Gehenna” (Matt. 10:28), which some scholars say was a trash dump outside the walls of Jerusalem where rubbish was burned and maggots abounded. Jesus talks about hell more than he talks about heaven, and describes it more vividly. There’s no denying that Jesus knew, believed, and warned against the absolute reality of hell.
Why would Jesus use such horrifying and strong language to depict hell? Could it be that Jesus—because he loves us so much—wants us to avoid it!!! Isn’t that more merciful than letting us go blindly into judgment and eternal torment?
In case you’re wondering, other NT writers spoke fervently about hell in hopes of leading people away from it. The writers of Paul, Peter, Jude and John all confirmed not only the glory of trusting in Jesus but also the ramifications of being an unbeliever and of living a life of sinfulness apart from God. I wish we had time to cover some of them. But let me share some thoughts again from the one book that speaks more of eternity than any other: Revelation.
Rev. 20:10 points to a conscious, never-ending torment for the devil and his agents. And later passages affirm that a similar end awaits human beings who ultimately refuse to repent. Rev. 20: 15 says that “anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. And Rev. 21:8 says that “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murders, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
OBJECTIONS TO HELL
Lots of folks in this room have a traditional view of God, heaven, and hell. You believe what the Bible says. You have a strong moral compass and you feel you have an obligation to be good. That’s wonderful! However, there is a danger for folks like us. For us, our religious zeal may come from a place of fear only. We may be motivated to obey God for fear of eternal punishment in hell.
Yes, the wages of sin is death. Yes, our sin is serious business. But our real motivation has to be a love for the One who bore the sin of the world out of a love for us.
Pastor and author, Tim Keller, says, “Unless we come to grips with this terrible doctrine of Hell, we will never begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross. His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, but that was a flea bite compared to what was happening to his soul. When he cried out that his God had forsaken him, he was experiencing hell itself.
“If a mild acquaintance denounces you and rejects you—that hurts. If a good friend does the same—the hurt is far worse. However, if your spouse walks out on you, saying, “I never want to see you again,” that is far more devastating still. The longer, deeper, and more intimate the relationship, the more torturous is any separation.
But the Son’s relationship with the Father was beginning-less and infinitely greater than the most intimate and passionate human relationship. When Jesus was cut off from God the Father, he went into the deepest pit and most powerful furnace, beyond all imagination. And he did it voluntarily, for YOU and me!”
But there’s another group of folks in this room…folks who accept Jesus died on the cross for their sins, but still can’t accept that a loving God would eternally punish people in hell for not believing in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Good, well-intentioned people of differing religious traditions should be in heaven if they live a good life. They shouldn’t be held accountable for holding a wrong belief. You want God to be more inclusive because YOU are more inclusive.
This gets back to universalism: We develop a good record and give it to God, and then he owes us. But Keller rightly says, “God develops a good record and gives it to us, then we owe him. Romans 1:17 says this: For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Here’s the deal. We can believe that faith in Jesus Christ is NOT necessary, or we can believe that WE ARE SAVED BY GRACE through FAITH, BUT YOU CANNOT BELIEVE BOTH AT THE SAME TIME.
Or, you may struggle to believe in a loving God who would pour out infinite suffering for sin. Hell is the default for all of humanity. The wages of sin is death. We willingly CHOOSE our fate by NOT choosing Christ as our Redeemer. God is merely sentencing us based on the guilty verdict we have imposed on ourselves. He’s the JUDGE, not the prosecutor. Satan is our accuser. BUT Jesus STANDS IN for us, taking the punishment WE deserve. That’s the Gospel!
Maybe it’s even more basic than that? Maybe some in this room are wondering, “How can a good God be filled with wrath?” I read Romans 1:17 a minute ago. Listen to Romans 1:18-19 à The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
The Greek word for wrath, “orgay,” can mean anger, wrath, passion; punishment, vengeance. Let me ask you this: have you ever gotten really angry at someone you love because of something they did. Were you passionate about it? Have you ever stopped to ask yourself WHY you got so angry? It was because you loved that person. If someone you love gets hooked on drugs, you’re hurt…angry. Right?
We’re not tolerant of our loved one’s unwise behavior? We don’t shrug it off. It BOTHERS US! Why? BECAUSE WE LOVE THEM! So if we—self-centered, flawed, sinful creatures can feel great pain and anger over somebody’s condition, how much more can a morally perfect God who made them? In her book, Hope that Reasons, Becky Pippert writes, “God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.”
God is both compassionate AND just, loving AND holy, wrathful AND forgiving. We can’t set aside those attributes of God that make us feel uneasy. Hell exists. It is an eternal, conscious, bodily torment and punishment to unrepentant sinners. Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost. Jesus satisfied the wrath of God on the cross. The wrath he endured was meant for US; and He endured it…FOR US!!! Hell provides the backdrop for the grace of the cross. Hell brings to light the significance of our sin while the cross shows us the undeserved favor of God. AMEN.