When we talk about hell, we can go to two extremes. One is that we can get into lurid descriptions of the flames of hell and the torments of the doomed and damned. Preachers of another generation did this often. The other extreme is to avoid the topic altogether and declare that we will not discuss it or think about it when we come together in church.
I do understand hell is not a popular topic. Not too many sermons are preached about hell today. And a sermon on hell is not easy to preach. The older I get, the harder it is to preach on hell. Maybe it is because I know people who may be there. So it's not easy to talk about this topic, nor is it easy to hear. My goal is simply to declare what God has said and to let the Holy Spirit work in your heart.
I also understand the doctrine of hell is thought today to be a stumbling block in evangelism. There are those who say we should talk about the abundant life Jesus offers, that we should not tell people anything at all or very little about hell, because, we're told, that is indefensible and obsolete. It's not with the times.
I do believe that when we share Christ we ought to be sensitive to the culture around us and to where people are. However, we should also be true to God's Word. We should say as much as
God says about it. Whatever God says about heaven, we should say. Whatever God says about hell, we should also say. It's easy to say let's not talk about this. But I note that Jesus felt free to talk about hell. Whatever our Lord felt he should talk about, we should also feel free to talk about.
A recent survey showed that 89 percent of Americans believe there is a place called heaven, and 73 percent believe there's a place called hell. To put that in context, the number of Americans who believe in hell is actually rising. Twenty years ago it was 55 or 60 percent, but for reasons no one fully understands, the number of Americans who believe in hell is going up, not down.
When people who believe in life after death are asked, "Where do you think you're going to go?" 76 percent say they're going to heaven, 2 percent to hell, 4 percent to purgatory, 12 percent somewhere else, and 6 percent don't know or refuse to answer. So if only 2 percent are going to hell we don't even have to preach this sermon, because almost everybody is going to heaven. But against that we have the words of Jesus who said, "Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." So there's a discrepancy between what Jesus said and what others say.
There are only two possibilities. One is to say that hell is real. And if hell is real, then we must say the whole human race is going there and that men and women left to themselves face a horrific fate and someone needs to warn them about that. The only other possibility is that hell isn't real, that there is nothing like that out there. I said to an atheist friend of mine, "So what happens when we die?" He said, "Nothing." I said, "What do you mean nothing?" He said, "We live, we die, and that's it. We're buried. The body decays. There is no soul, so there is no heaven and no hell." I thought to myself, But what if you're wrong?
Let me quote from the Articles of Faith of Calvary Memorial Church:
Article LFuture award and punishment: We believe that at the moment of death the unsaved descend to hell, where they are kept under punishment, and their bodies are raised at the final judgment, after which they will suffer everlasting, conscious punishment, separated from the presence of the Lord. They are under punishment now; they will suffer everlasting, conscious punishment later.
There are three questions then about hell.
Is hell real?
Number one: Is hell for real? When we go to the Bible, we discover that Jesus clearly believed in hell. Jesus talked more about hell than he did about heaven. He had more to say warning people about hell than he did inviting people to go to heaven. Most of what we know about hell comes from the lips of Jesus.
Illustration: The great preacher Vance Havner said he was preaching in a country church as a young man and a farmer remonstrated with him because he had just preached a sermon about hell. The man said to Pastor Vance Havner, "I don't think you should preach any more fire and brimstone. You should preach about the meek and mild Jesus." Vance Havner replied, "But he's the one who gave me all the information about hell in the first place."
Jesus believed in hell. The apostles believed in hell. The Christian church has always believed in hell. Sometimes we talk about things where we differ, but here's a point where Protestants, Catholics, orthodox, and evangelicals in the main are all agreed. We've always said the same thingthose who die impenitent, having rejected Jesus Christ, will suffer the torments of hell forever. We differ in the way we explain that perhaps, but we all believe hell is a real place.
That brings me to the words of our Lord in Luke 16:
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, "Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire."
But Abraham replied, "Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.
He answered, "Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment."
Abraham replied, "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them."
"No, father Abraham," he said, "but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent."
He said to him, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."
I know the commentaries commonly say this is a parable. But I point out three things to you. Number one, it isn't called a parable. Number two, if it is a parable, it's the only parable that has a name in it. And number three, even if it is a parable, it is not simply fanciful truth. It is clear that Jesus is telling us something important about the eternal destinies of those who die with God and without God. We are learning facts here about heaven and facts about hell.
What do we learn from this story about hell?
We know the dead are still alive. In hell, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes. Lazarus was alive in heaven; the rich man was alive in hell.
We know the dead retain their personalities and essential character. That is, Lazarus was still Lazarus, and the rich man was still the rich man. Their characters were not changed.
More that that, we know they maintained some sense of their own faculties. Consider what we learn from this story about the man in hell. He could see. He could hear. He could feel. He could recognize. He could remember. He could speak. He could reflect. He could plead. He could suffer. He could even think ahead. There's only one thing the man in hell couldn't do. He couldn't get out. He was trapped there forever.
So we learn from this that death marks the final separation. It is not what happens after you die but what happens before you die that makes all the difference. Eternal destinies cannot be changed. Once in hell, always in hell; once in heaven, always in heaven.
We know the dead cannot communicate with the living.
We know hell is a place of personal suffering. Three times in the story Jesus emphasizes the torment, the agony, the suffering of hell.
We know the damned cry for help that does not come.
You could preach a whole sermon on the theology of the damned. Number one, he knew there was no way out for him. Number two, he knew his brothers on earth could avoid hell if they repented. Number three, he knew someone needed to warn them about the danger they were in. He had compassion, of a sort, that his brothers not follow him into eternal perdition.
Is hell eternal?
Number two: Is hell eternal? Is hell a place where you suffer torment in one form or another for all eternity?
Inside the evangelical world today there are teachers who have speculated and some have even said that hell is not eternal. They believe in something call annihilationism, which is the view that if you die unsaved, at some point after your death you are destroyed in the fire. You literally cease to exist, so the torment does not continue forever.
What should we say about this? The people who believe in annihilationism say eternal punishment makes God vindictive. Some people even call it immoral. They say it is incompatible with modern thought.
All we know about hell is what the Bible says. Anything else is speculation. Consider the terms the Bible usessmoke, fire, burning, torment, bottomless pit, everlasting prison, wrath, weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth, unquenchable fire, eternal fire, second death, damnation, furnace of fire, blackness and darkness, burning sulfur. That does not sound like annihilation to me.
But consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:46: "Then they [meaning the unsaved] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous [the saved] to eternal life." He uses the same wordeternalin both clauses. Whatever eternal punishment is, however long it lasts, it's the same duration as eternal life, because it's the same word in the Greek.
In Mark 9:4748 Jesus says, "If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'"
One of the Greek words for hell is Gehenna. That was the trash dump outside Jerusalem in the Hinnom Valley, where the fires burned day and night year round. They threw the bodies of the condemned criminals in there. Worms infested the garbage dump, and those worms found a way to live; though the fires were burning, the worms didn't die. It's a picture of eternal hell. And in Jewish thought, the worm is internal torment; the fire is external torment. It does not die; it is not quenched.
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: "If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name."
That sounds like eternal torment. Revelation 20:15some people have called this the most terrible verse in the Biblesays, "If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."
I respect those theologians who have asked, "Is it possible that the impenitent will be annihilated and not eternally tormented?" But on this point the Christian church in all its divisions has understood these Scriptures as teaching that the torments of hell, whatever they are, last forever.
Is hell necessary?
Question three: Is hell necessary? This gets down to the bottom line: Why even have a hell? Some would say that if you believe in a God of love and if God wants all the world to be saved and if he's not willing that any should perish and if he gave his own Son to die for the sins of humanity, how can it be that anyone will ever perish in hell? Won't God see to it that everybody eventually goes to heaven?
Evidently the answer to that question is no, as I've read. Is hell necessary? Yes. Let me give you some things to think about.
Hell is necessary, first, for civic virtue. As it has been said, there's a heaven to gain and a hell to lose. We cannot be good without God. We cannot have God without having hell. There must be a reward for good behavior and some kind of punishment for evil behavior, or the moral compass of the universe has been turned upside down. So even for this life we need the doctrine of hell.
Second, we need the doctrine of hell for final justice, for all around us we see drug dealers, rapists, murderers, serial killers, corrupt politicians, and greedy people who seem to get away with all sorts of crimes. What about rapists who rape one person after another and are never caught, are never brought to justice, and wicked people who seem to live to a happy old age? There must be a hell so the wrongs of this life can eventually be righted.
Third, hell must exist for the benefit of impenitent sinners. If there is no hell, the only place impenitent sinners can go is to heaven. And heaven would be double hell for impenitent sinners, for if you hate Jesus in this life, how much more will you hate him when against your will you are forced to bow down and worship him for all eternity? Sinners would hate heaven; they would not feel at home there. There must be a home for the impenitent.
For the saints on earth there must be a hell. How else would we appreciate our salvation? We are not just saved to something; we are saved from something. Beyond that, there must be a hell. The saints in heaven need hell. They need this doctrine, or else heaven would become like hell because it would be filled with rapists, murderers, and child molesters. Heaven quickly would be polluted. Heaven would not be heaven unless there is a hell.
Finally, there must be a hell so the glory of God, in justice and in righteousness and in holiness, can be displayed for all eternity. Yes, even so the love of God can be seen in the salvation of those who come to Jesus Christ.
We wonder when we read these verses what hell is like. Is there fire and brimstone? There's debate among theologians when we talk about fire and brimstone and all of that. Is that literal or symbolic? In the olden days preachers tended to take it as literal. I'm going to read something from my favorite preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. It's a typical excerpt from a hundred years ago:
There is a real fire in hell, as truly as you have a real body, a fire exactly like that which we have on this earth except this: it will not consume you though it will torture you. You have seen asbestos lying amid coals but not consumed. So your body will be prepared by God in such a way that it will burn forever yet without being consumed, with your nerves laid raw by searing flame yet never desensitized for all its raging fury. And with the acrid smoke of the sulfuric fumes searing your lungs and choking your breath you will cry out for the mercy of death, but it shall never, never, no, never come.
It is hard to read that. It must be hard to listen to. Many of you, I'm sure, put your head down, because it's hard to listen to words like that. That's how preachers preached a hundred years ago. We don't preach like that anymore, for better or for worse.
This week I was reading R. C. Sproul, the Presbyterian Reformed author. He was talking about this kind of commentary on hell, and he made a point I'd never thought about before. He said he thinks this is symbolic. Then he said, "But remember, if it's symbolic, it's symbolic because the reality is too awful for words. It's not better than this; it's worse." Then he said, "Whatever hell is, it will be so bad that the people in hell will pray for fire and brimstone as a relief."
Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me." The good news is that you don't have to go to hell. The only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ, but it's as narrow as the cross. Only those who trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord will arrive at the gates of heaven.
There are two things I know. Number one, I personally ought to go to hell, because that is where I belong. For a thousand days and in a thousand ways I have rebelled against the God who made me. And I do confess with the writers of Scripture, my heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. I don't even know how sinful I am, so left to myself I deserve to go to hell.
But the second thing I know is that I am going to heaven, because Jesus Christ went to hell for me. When he died on the cross, all the punishment of eternal hell was poured out on him, and not just mine but the punishment for the whole wide world. He paid the debt in his own blood, so now anybody who comes to Jesus Christ can be forgiven. He took your hell for you. Why then will you perish?
Some years ago some friends brought me a paper they had written called "Making It Hard to Go to Hell from Oak Park." God has already done that. He did it two thousand years ago. There is nobody in Oak Park who needs to go to hell. There is nobody in Chicago who needs to go to hell, nobody in Berwyn, nobody in Cicero, nobody in Oakbrook, nobody anywhere on the face of the earth who needs to go to hell. God has made it hard to go to hell. He's made it easy to go to heaven, because he put a stop sign on the road to hell, and that stop sign is in the shape of a cross.
It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Yes. And the road to heaven is paved with the blood of Jesus Christ. You don't have to go to hell.
The application is simple. We should believe all the Bible says. We should not be ashamed to declare it, and we should not back away from it. And we should earnestly seek the salvation of those around us. If we believe these words of Jesus are true, if we believe there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun, if we believe our friends and loved ones face an eternity apart from God in some horrific place, should we not do more than we are doing to rescue those who are perishing?
To the unsaved, to those without Jesus Christ, without the certainty of heaven, why will you die? Why should you die in your sins? It does not take a decision to go to hell. If you want to go to hell, just don't do anything. That's where you're going to end up. Even God can't take you to heaven if you have hell in your heart. What must you do to be saved? "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved." What must you do to be lost? Nothing. Just do what you're doing. Without Jesus hell is where you will end up.
I pray that you will run to the cross, that you will see your need and reach out and take Jesus Christ. Why will you die when Jesus has died for you? You don't have to go to hell. If you go there, it won't be God's fault. You'll have only yourself to blame for all eternity. God help us to run, run, run to the cross. Run to the cross and there find forgiveness and the pathway to heaven.
Ray Pritchard is senior pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois. His most recent book is The God You Can Trust: Strength for the Times When It's Hard to Believe (Harvest House, 2003).