I thought long and hard about a clever, lighthearted way to introduce this morning's message. I thought about praying for a really hot day and then turning off the air-conditioner, just to put you in the mood. Surely I could find a story, a movie clip, or a joke to lighten things up a bit. But after spending a couple of weeks reading and reflecting on the subject of hell, jokes no longer seemed funny anymore.
Peter Kreeft, a Catholic theologian from Boston College, puts it this way: "Of all the doctrines of Christianity, hell is the most difficult to defend, the most burdensome to bear, and the first to be abandoned." Whether you are just exploring Christianity or are a long-time follower of Christ, we all struggle with the doctrine of hell. We struggle with the notion of fellow human beings suffering for all eternity. We struggle with believing that a God of love could create and sustain a place of eternal torment. We struggle with whether it's fair that people go there who don't seem to deserve itgood people, religious people.
Yet, despite how difficult and burdensome the notion of hell is, we don't abandon it. Surveys consistently tell us that between two-thirds and three-fourths of the American population believe in heaven and hell. According to AARP magazine, the statistics jumps to nearly 80 percent among folks over 50. Almost every religion in the world includes the threat of suffering and punishment in the life to come. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, along with Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and most primitive and tribal religions all propose some form of accountability and punishment after death. The notion of hell doesn't seem to be going away.
For this reason, we need to ask some pointed and penetrating questions about this most frightening of ideas. I'm going to break our question down into three parts: What do we know, and not know, about hell? Why is hell necessary? How can I be sure I'm not going there?
What we knowand don't knowabout hell
One of the first facts we have to face is that hell is one of the most talked about subjects in the Bible. While it is only mentioned a few times in the Old Testament, it is a major topic of conversation in the New Testament. All four Gospels, the letters of Paul, Peter, James, and John, and the Book of Revelation all talk about eternal judgment. Do you know who talks about hell more than anyone? Jesus. So while we might be tempted to abandon the idea of hell, or to dissociate it from the person and message of Jesus, we simply cannot.
One of the clearest affirmations of the existence of hell comes from Jesus himself in Matthew 25:3146. After describing the final judgment, Jesus says that the unrighteous "will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
Jesus clearly teaches that every person will be held accountable for earthly lives and that every person will spend eternity in one of two destinations. One of those destinations he describes as a kingdom, and the other he describes as eternal fire.
On another occasion, Jesus told a story describing a great wedding celebration to which everyone was invited. In Matthew 22:1113 Jesus says:
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 'Friend,' he asked, 'How did you get in here without wedding clothes?' the man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'
We have to keep in mind that this is a parablea made-up story. We don't want to imagine fashion police at the door of heaven saying, "No, I'm sorry. That outfit just doesn't work on you. You'll have to go downstairs." Rather, the parable teaches us three things about hell.
First, hell means exclusion: "Throw him outside!" If heaven is a place of belonging, a great celebration of welcomed guests, hell is about being shut out, cut off, and isolated from the host and his guests. Second, hell is darkness. Light in the Bible is most often a metaphor for truth and knowledge, so darkness would imply the opposite: confusion and ignorance. If heaven is about knowing God and the secrets of existence, hell is about not knowing. When a person doesn't have all the information they need, we say they are "in the dark." Hell means being in the dark forever, not knowing anything about anything or anyone that really matters. Third, hell involves anguish: "Weeping and gnashing of teeth." Weeping is what you do when you're sad, and gnashing of teeth is what you do when you're frustrated. The two of them together suggest regretknowing you made a terrible mistake and that there's nothing you can do about it.
In Revelation 20:1114 John writes, "The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books [and] If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."
Again we're told that every person will stand before God to give an account of his or her life, and that people will be sent to one of two destinations. Again the image of fire is used to describe one of those destinationshell. Fire is the dominant metaphor used to describe hell in the Bible, and the image most commonly associated with hell: roaring flames, smoldering caves, and inescapable heat. Medieval artists and revivalist preachers painted terrifying pictures of people being roasted in a fiery pit. Dante described hell as an eternal Inferno that was nine layers deep.
We have to remember that Jesus and the writers of Scripture are trying to help us understand something beyond our knowledge and experience. Hell belongs to another realm, another reality. Because there are no earthly words or concepts with which to describe it, the writers of Scripture turn to metaphora figure of speech that describes something unfamiliar in terms of something familiar. When we say, "Love is a rose," we don't mean that love is a plant. We mean that love is beautiful and delicate, but watch out for the thorns. So what does the fire metaphor suggest about hell?
First, hell is frightening. The intensity with which fire burns and the speed with which it can destroy something is terrifying. The New Testament writers obviously wanted us to fear hell. Second, hell is painful. A burn is one of the most painful of injuries: difficult to soothe and slow to heal. Whether it will include physical or spiritual painor bothhell is a painful destination. Third, hell consumes as fire reduces things to ashes. One of the most common words used for hell in the New Testament is gehenna, which was the name of a valley outside Jerusalem where garbage was dumped and burned. Gehenna is often used in Scripture to represent God's judgment against evil and evildoers; they will ultimately be destroyed, and their wickedness reduced to a pile of ashes.
When we put the image of fire together with the other images, we understand hell to be a destination for those who do not love, worship, or obey God. It's a place of separationfrom God, first of all, but also from other people. It's a place of darkness where people feel lost. It's a place of suffering, anguish, regret, and pain. However you want to interpret the biblical imagery, hell is clearly an awful place where no one will want to spend eternity.
Younger people and music fans will recognize the name Marilyn Manson, leader of a heavy-metal band that goes by the same name. His real name is Brian Warner, and he was raised in a Christian school but rejected his upbringing and went on to make a name for himself with music that is dark, violent, and often satanic in it's undertones. Manson is confident he'll end up in hell when he dies. Laughing, he says, "I'm gonna say it would probably be a more comfortable place for me, because everyone I know would be there, and I wouldn't really be allowed to do anything in heaven that would be any fun." That point of view is familiar but tragically uninformed and dangerous. No one will be comfortable in hell; no one will be with anyone in hell; no one will have fun in hell.
Hell, simply put, is the absence of God. Since God is the source of all good things, there will be no good things if God is not there. Whichever of his gifts we have enjoyed in this lifewhether a beautiful sunset, the companionship of a friend or lover, satisfying work, intellectual challenge, or laughing out loud at a good storywill no longer be available to us.
Sometimes people look at the evil and suffering and loneliness in the world and say, "This life is hell." Sometimes it is like hell. But other times it's like heaven, too, because God is present and active in the world. The blessings of his kingdom are available to us now, in part. But when we get to our eternal destinations, we will either be with God completely forever, or separated from God completely forever. If we are separated from God, we are separated from all that is good and true and beautiful.
In his book, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis imagines hell as a dull, gray town in which the inhabitants continually build new houses for themselves in order to move farther and farther away from the people who bother them, until eventually no one can see or hear anyone from where they live. When they are finally alone, they discover that the person they couldn't stand the most is themselves, and now they are stuck with themselves forever. However your imagination may process the biblical metaphors, make no mistake: hell is an awful destination.
There is some debate among Christians whether hell is eternal in duration or merely in consequence. In other words, do people suffer forever, or are they destroyed forever? The traditional view is that hell is an eternal, conscious experience of separation from God, with all the attending anguish. The minority view is annihilationism, the belief that the lost will experience judgment and the anguish of being cast out of God's presence, but that the ultimate end of the lost is destructionthe second death. There are Scriptures that speak about the wicked being destroyed forever, and it could be argued that the opposite of eternal life is eternal death, rather than eternal suffering. Whichever view you accept, the Bible is clear about this: hell is an awful destination.
Why hell is necessary
Why would a good God createor even allowsuch a place as hell to exist?
First, hell is necessary because human dignity demands it. If there is no life beyond this one and no accountability for our actions, then what we do here on earth really has no meaning. We are mere animals, and our lives are no more significant than that of a mosquito or field mouse. We are mere pawns in some cosmic board game; we think our choices and actions matter, but in the end our fate has already been determined.
Everything within us rebels against that kind of fatalism. Ecclesiastes 3:10 says, "He has set eternity in the human heart." Virtually every human being believes that what we do and how we live matters. Most people believe that there will be some kind of reckoning when this life is over. Virtually every earthly religion posits some sort of existence beyond this one in which we will reap consequences for the way we have lived. Philosopher and novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, "If there is no immortality, then everything is permitted." If everything is permitted, nothing matters. Human dignity demands a heaven and hell.
Second, hell is necessary because justice demands it. There is a universal sense of right and wrong in human society and the human conscience. While the particulars may vary from person to person and society to society, there is universal agreement that wrong things must be punished and that evil must be judged. Interestingly, surveys revealed that after 9/11, the percentage of people who believe in hell jumped significantly, from about 64 percent to 71 percent. The reason for this, according to one survey, was because our moral outrage demanded such wickedness be punished.
The objection, of course, is that most of us are not terrorists. While most people believe there should be a hell, they also believe it should be for other peoplebad people. The Bible tells us that we're all bad people. We're not bad all the time, and we're not as bad as we could be, but we consistently sin against God and other people. We fall short of being the people God created us to be. We may not think we deserve eternal separation from God, but if heaven is a perfect place, with no greed or lust or envy or pride or prejudice, then people like you and me would wreck it within 24 hours of our arrival. People don't go to hell for believing the wrong thing; they go to hell because they have violated God's good and perfect will for human beings, revealed in the Bible and written on the human heart. Hell is necessary because justice demands it.
Finally, hell is necessary because love demands it. God loves us so much and is so eager for us to love him, that he allows us the freedom not to love him back. Every guy who's ever chased a girl knows that you can't force someone to love you. You can desire them; you can pursue them; you can do everything in your power to win their heart; but the one thing you cannot do is force them to love you, for to do so would not only be futile, it would no longer be love.
I've heard a father say, "God is often compared to a loving father. As a father myself, I cannot imagine condemning my kids, no matter what they did to reject me. I would be devastated if they rejected me, but I would not send them to hell." What would you do then? Let's say you're an earthly parent, and your child decides he wants nothing to do with you and leaves home for the west coast. What are your options? You can send him letters expressing your love; you can send money to help him get on his feet; you can visit him and plead with him to come home; you cannot bind him hand and foot, drag him home, and chain him to his bed for the rest of his life. That's not love; that's kidnapping and imprisonment, and God doesn't work that way.
Peter Kreeft puts it this way: "Those who do not wish to love God must be allowed not to love him. Those who do not want to be with God must be allowed to be separated from him." The answer, then, to the question, "Why would a good God send people to hell?" is that he doesn't; but he will let people go there if they so choose. Hell is not some eternal torture chamber God has constructed to inflict pain on people he doesn't like. Hell is simply a place where God is not, so that people who don't want to spend eternity with him don't have to. Hell is an alternate destination for people who don't want to go to heaven.
But who in their right mind would choose hell over heaven, you ask? People do it all the time. People choose every day to live their lives apart from Godto ignore him, deny him, or even rebel against him. Every day people choose to live their lives apart from God, and God allows them to do so. If they want to live apart from him for all eternity, he will allow them to do that, as well. C. S. Lewis suggests that if the doors of hell are locked, they are locked from the inside. People who go there choose to go there, and if given the option of leaving, Lewis suggests, they would choose to stay. They prefer to live in darkness, isolation, and stubborn denial of their need for God.
How to ensure you don't go to hell
If you want to be sure you're going to heaven, all you need to do is turn to God in repentance and faith. Turning to God means telling God that you want a relationship with him. Repentance means admitting to God that you're a sinner who needs to be forgiven and changed. Faith means believing that Jesus Christ, who died on the cross and rose again, is the only one who can forgive you and make you God's child forever. That's it. God has made it as easy as possible. You don't have to do any good deeds, you don't have to join anything; there's no ceremony you need to go through, no secret knowledge you have to obtain. You simply turn to God in repentance and faith.
What about people who haven't heard of Jesus? Is there some other way they can be saved? That's another question for another day, but the simple answer is this: it's the only way we know ofthe only way God has revealed in the Bible. Is it possible that if a person somewhere is sincerely seeking God, that God will reveal himself to them and give them enough light that they can be saved? Is it possible that someone who has never heard of Jesus could turn to God in genuine repentance and faith and be saved? These kinds of things may be possible, but God hasn't told us so specifically. What he has told is this: "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:13).
Think of it this way. If you were working in a hospital and a fire broke out, and you knew a safe and secure fire exit, what would you do? You could say to yourself, "There must be another way out of this hospital. I can't believe the architect wouldn't have provided a back stairwell somewhere that no one has told us about." You could even go looking for that other way out as the smoke thickened and the flames grew. But to do so would be putting yourself and all the patients at great risk. The only sensible thing to do would be to head toward the exit you know about as quickly as possible and urge everybody around you to head for it as well. If there are other ways to get to heaven aside from turning to Christ in repentance and faith, we haven't been told about them. The only sensible thing for each of us to do in the face of eternity is to call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and urge others to do the same. Ultimately, only God knows who will go to heaven and why, and we can trust his love, mercy, and justice to do what's right.
The Bible has a lot more to say about another destinationheaven. Again Jesus and the writers of Scripture use metaphors to help us understand what such a place could be like. Heaven is like a great city whose streets are paved with gold and whose inhabitants live and work in peace. Heaven is like a great banquet with food and laughter for everyone who wants a seat. Heaven is like a garden with trees that bear fruit all year long and a river of life running through its center. Heaven is like a home, a place of love and activity, with a room for everyone who wants in. Of course, these are only metaphors, word pictures of a reality we can't fully understand.
C. S. Lewis said:
All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it; or else, that it was within your grasp and you have lost it forever.
The thing about heaven and hell is that we have to choose now, in this life, where we want to spend eternity: with God or without him. Heaven is within your grasp right now.