Long before I knew about God’s grace I knew about Gods’ wrath. Long before I had encountered a loving God I knew about the fires of hell.
Some of those images came from culture and some came from art. All in all I think I prefer Larson to Hieronymus Bosch, but I’m that kind of guy.
Some of the images that I had of hell were from Jack Chick tracts, anybody remember the chick tracks with their images of hell fire and demons laughing at those sentenced to an eternity of torment.
It just dawned on me awhile back, who was leaving those tracks at our place? They weren’t something that my parents would have been bringing home, so my only conclusion was that well intentioned relatives were leaving them behind in the hopes of scaring the hell out of the Guptill kids.
The year I graduated from High School there were a couple of different things that happened that had a profound influence on me and my eventual decision to become a Christ follower. The first of course was my best friend’s decision to follow Christ and his commitment to sharing that decision with me. But I often tell people the other two things were watching live performances of Jesus Christ Super Star and Godspell. Whatever your feelings might be about the Rock Opera and Musical they presented the story of Jesus a way that a nineteen-year-old could relate. And it was in a live production of Godspell that I first heard the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Which was the story that Helen read for us earlier.
And it made sense to me, the good guy went to the good place and the bad guy went to the bad place.
By the way, it was the love that my best friend had for me that brought me to the decision to accept the forgiveness and grace of God and not the fear of hell. I was loved into heaven, not scared out of hell.
This is week one of our new series “Asking for a Friend” and over the next couple of months the staff is going to try and answer questions that were submitted online.
The question for this week is: How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?
How many of us have every been asked or have ever asked the question: What kind of God could or would send people to hell?
And some, because they can’t accept the concept of eternal punishment simply reject it. If in their minds a loving god would be incapable of sending people to hell, then he doesn’t. And this belief that everyone will be saved is called Universalism, and it was first promoted about 200 years after the death of Christ by an early church leader by the name of Origen, whose beliefs and teachings were later declared as heretical. And for the next 1600 years very few major theologians argued that everyone would be saved, but that began to change in the 1800’s with the New Thought movement, which eventually spawned the Universalist Church and movement.
And we have seen it in the past number of years with preachers like Rob Bell, who wrote “Love Wins”, who have stayed clear of the term universalism but lean very strongly toward the belief that eventually everybody, either in this life or the next will come to a saving knowledge of Christ.
So, their belief is that there is a hell, and it is a place of torment but it’s not forever, you only stay there until you accept the grace of God that continues to be extended to you. Almost spiritual waterboarding. They are almost suggesting that eventually God will be able to either nag or torture you into heaven. But how do we reconcile that with our belief in free will?
Preacher A.W. Tozer wrote “The vague and tenuous hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions.”
But the reality is, very few people who believe in the hereafter actually believe that everybody should go to heaven and nobody should go to hell. But they want to be the one who picks.
And not many folks would try to argue Hitler or Stalin or litterbugs out of hell, but what about the really nice family down the street that do a lot of volunteer work and keep their lawn up and recycle their trash but just don’t have time for God or church? Or the nice Jewish or Hindu teacher that was so special to you in grade 7, or the billions of people through the years who never had a chance to hear the gospel?
How could God send people like that to hell, especially if hell is everything that we understand it to be?
And so, we end up being like Mark Twain who said, “I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell – you see, I have friends in both places.”
In our tradition, as in many other traditions when we talk about the alternative to heaven, we call it hell. Which is one of several different names used in the Bible to describe the final destination of the unrighteous. The term Sheol in the Old Testament or Hades in the New Testament are used interchangeably and literally mean the place of Departed Souls.
In some instances, the term is used to simply mean the grave or death, and in other instances it refers to an actual place, what we call hell.
In the New Testament there is a word that is used by Jesus almost exclusively for hell and that is the Greek word Gehenna which is a form of the Hebrew phrase that means “The Valley of Hinnom” which was a valley Southwest of Jerusalem. Now I know that’s not very nice to refer to a specific area as Hell, but sometimes that is the reality.
A few years ago, Eric and Lisa Slauenwhite and their family visited hell, and posted pictures on Facebook. Here is the sign welcoming them to hell, here is a warning sign about what not to do while in hell and here is a photo of their youngest child in hell.
Of course, in this case Hell was in the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean and bears no actual resemblance to the hell that we are talking about today.
But you have to understand the history of Gehenna. It was in this valley that the Canaanites worshiped Baal and the god Molech, they did this by sacrificing their children in a fire that burned continuously. In the book of 2 Kings 23:10 we discover that King Josiah put an end to this worship and “defiled” the valley so it would be unfit for even pagan worship.
There are some who would tell us that by the time of Jesus this area was used as the garbage dump for Jerusalem, into it was thrown all of the filth and garbage of the city, including the dead bodies of animals and executed criminals. To consume all of this, fires burned constantly. Everybody knew what it was like and when the wind blew from that direction, everybody in the city understood its awfulness.
To the people Jesus spoke to there could be no worse fate then spending eternity in Gehenna. And so, Jesus said “do you want to know what hell is like? All you have to do is look at Gehenna. The garbage, dead bodies the fire and the smell, now multiply that by eternity and that’s what the unrighteous have to look forward to” And so hell could be described as God’s “Cosmic garbage dump.” Everything that is unfit for heaven is thrown there.
Others will tell you that there is no historic evidence for Gehenna being a dump, but even if it wasn’t, we do know from the 2 Kings account that the history of child sacrifice had permanent tainted the reputation of “The Valley of Hinnom”
Sometimes because of the symbolic nature of the description of hell people question whether it will consist of actual fire.
But the bible remains consistent with it’s descriptions of hell, speaking of darkness while at the same time using fire as a description. Even Jesus referred to hell as a place of torment we read in Matthew 13:49-50 Jesus said “That is the way it will be at the end of the world. The angels will come and separate the wicked people from the righteous, throwing the wicked into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And that is only one of the numerous instances where Jesus warns people of the dangers of hell.
Don’t deceive yourself, the reality will be worse than any description that a person could conjure up, and it will last forever, and ever and ever. It’s worse than can be described and longer then can be imagined.
And sometimes it’s easy to just say “Ok, I believe in hell” but not actually understand the why of hell. As Aristotle said, “Knowledge of the fact differs from knowledge of the reason for the fact.”
So, this morning we are not going to try and prove the existence of hell, the bible speaks for itself on that issue, and nobody who accepts the bible can deny that it warns of a place of eternal damnation for those who reject God. So, we aren’t looking for the facts as much as the reason for the fact.
And so, we have this story that Jesus told of Lazarus and the Rich Man, which some would claim is a parable while others would say was the story of actual people. And to be truthful no other parable actually uses a person’s name. And in it we see two destinations. One apparently for the righteous and one for the unrighteous.
Often, we think of Hell as a punishment for a life misspent. You do bad things and you go to hell; you do good things you go to heaven. But we know that you can’t earn your way into heaven. The bible is very clear on that point, Ephesians 2:8-9 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.
So, if heaven isn’t a reward for the good things we’ve done, how can hell be a punishment for the bad things we’ve done? After all it would appear that we are all destined for hell and the only thing that stands in our way is the grace of God.
And while the scriptures do speak of hell in terms of punishment it really isn’t a punishment the sense of “You did this and as a result you will go to hell”. It is more in the sense that you behaved that way because of a choice you made and as a result of that choice you won’t be with God when you die, instead you will go to hell.
When Jesus was beginning his ministry John the Baptist introduced him with these words John 3:34-36 For he is sent by God. He speaks God’s words, for God gives him the Spirit without limit. The Father loves his Son and has put everything into his hands. And anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment.”
The thing we need to get our head around it the fact that Hell Is Not a Punishment for Our Actions it is a Consequence of Our Choice
When we choose to not to make room in our life for God we are saying “I don’t want to be counted as one of God’s children.” And God simply honours that request in the next life as well as this life.
You can be a nice person, a good person, a moral person and still choose to not align yourself with God and not accept the grace that he offers. We all know people like that, they either have no time for God or feel that they have no need for God. But they can still be nice people, they have just chosen for whatever reason to have nothing to do with God.
Hell, in its simplest definition is a place without God, and being without God is being without light or love or goodness.
If we see hell only as a punishment, then we view salvation simply as an escape from punishment a fire escape from hell so to speak. Anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote “It is an open question whether any behavior based on fear of eternal punishment can be regarded as ethical or should be regarded as merely cowardly.”
Jesus tell us in Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. But the statement isn’t only about money, it is about our priorities in life and when we choice to serve other things before God we are making a decision that will echo for eternity.
Which leads us to the next point, the question that people ask is “How can a loving God send people to hell?” But we have to realize that Hell Is Not A Place You Are Sent It Is A Place You Choose To Go
When we choose to not accept the grace that is extended by Christ then we have chosen to reject Christ and his righteousness.
Presbyterian preacher J Vernon McGee wrote “Don’t say that a loving God sends people to hell. Say that there is a holy God, and when you do not meet His standard you cannot go into His heaven where He is.”
The bible is very clear about two things 1) we will never be good enough to get to heaven on our own. 2) All we have to do is ask.
That is grace, the unmerited favour of God. But you have to choose to accept it.
Some folks feel like they have no choice, author Heywood Broun writes, “Hell is paved with great granite blocks hewn from the hearts of those who said, ‘I can do no other.’”
Actually, my favourite Auntie always told me that the road to hell was paved with good intentions, but that’s a sermon for another day.
But regardless of what Broun felt, the reality is that there is always a choice. In dealing with temptation we are promised in 1 Corinthians 10:13 The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.
God isn’t up there rubbing his hands with glee over the fact that people are going to hell, instead he is heartbroken. Peter reminds us in 2 Peter 3:9 The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. God’s desire is that everyone will make the right choice, but that doesn’t mean they will. My desire is for each of you to make the right choice, that doesn’t mean you will.
The big question that is asked about Hell is What About the People Who Have Never Heard the Gospel? I truly believe that no one will go to hell without the opportunity to not go to hell.
But I find it inconceivable, and the word does mean what I think it means, that the same God who would willing sacrifice his Son for the world, remember John 3:16 “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Would allow that same world to go to hell simply based on geography.
It doesn’t say for God loved the tiny strip of the Middle East where Jesus was born so much, and it doesn’t say for God loved the area where the gospel was spread so much, or God loved Europe and the America’s so much, but only after they were evangelized.
And no, I don’t know how that works, out, I don’t know how the grace of Christ is presented even to those who have never heard, but I have to believe it is.
We often hear of the God shaped void in each of us, that is yearning to be filled, and stories of missionaries who meet obscure tribes that already have an innate understanding of the gospel, of Muslim who testify of dreaming of Jesus.
Let’s go back to the scripture from Peter’s letter again, but let’s pick it up in verse 8 2 Peter 3:8-9 But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day. The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.
Have you ever had to wait for something? Maybe waiting for a house to sell, or a report from the Doctor, or a tea kettle to boil? And it seems to take forever? Sometimes when we are looking at verse eight, we focus on the second part, how a thousand years is like a day. But I wonder if we need to see God’s heart as he waits for people to accept his grace and realize that while he waits every day seems like a thousand years.
Einstein is said to have summed up his theory of relativity by saying “Sitting with a pretty girl for an hour seems but a minute; sitting on a hot stove for a minute seems an hour.”
We may never know How God whispers into the soul of those who have never heard the story of Jesus.
But knowing the love that God has for all the world we have to assume that he’s not going to allow people to go to hell without giving them an opportunity, somehow to experience his grace.
And that is no way relieves us of our responsibility to evangelize. Because evangelism is about our obedience. We have been commanded to go into all the world, and we believe that Jesus doesn’t just provides an escape from hell tomorrow but also makes this world a better place today.