Playing with Fire: Can We Still Believe in Hell?
It’s easy to go to extremes whenever the topic of hell comes up. Either we focus on lurid descriptions of the damned burning in eternal torment or we avoid the topic altogether. Earlier generations tended to stress the former. In his classic sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Jonathan Edwards offered this description of hell waiting to receive impenitent sinners: “The devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash around them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up.” Edwards goes so far as to describe the sinner as being held over the pit of hell as one holds a spider over an open flame. Needless to say, such preaching isn’t very popular today. As a matter of fact, the whole topic of hell isn’t mentioned in church very often. Even in conservative evangelical churches we prefer to hear about God’s love and the possibilities of the abundant life God wants to give us.
Hell has been rightly called the “forgotten doctrine” of the Christian church. In one sense that’s not altogether bad. I wouldn’t care to go to a church where the pastor made hell his favorite sermon topic. As I consider my own heart, I find that preaching on hell has become more difficult. In my earlier years it did not seem to be such a burden but now that I have reached the middle years of life, sermons like this one take an emotional toll. I am not alone in feeling this way, which is why even in conservative churches we don’t talk about hell very often. I think my own reticence stems from the fact that death has become more real to me. Hell is hard to talk about because I know some people who have probably gone there.
My goal is not to convince you of anything. If you do not believe in hell, I doubt if anything I say will change your mind. My only goal is to declare what God has said on this topic. What you do with the truth is between you and the Lord. And I’m not trying to scare anyone from hell to heaven, though if I could do that, I would. Fear can be a powerful motivation to do right. In the end my words can’t change anyone’s heart. That is a work reserved for the Holy Spirit.
It is sometimes said that the doctrine of hell is a stumbling block to the work of evangelism. We are told that hell is indefensible, obsolete, and out of touch with modern thinking. That last point is certainly true. In a world where the very concept of truth is up for grabs, the notion of eternal hell seems fearfully outdated. And I do agree that we must be sensitive to our culture and that we must find ways to say things so that people will hear the truth. But that presupposes we will be true to God’s Word even when it isn’t popular. It’s easy to say, “Let’s not talk about hell.” But Jesus felt free to raise the topic and so should we.
Most People Believe in Hell
A 2005 Fox News Poll revealed that 87% of Americans say they believe in heaven while 74% say they believe in hell. While most Americans believe in life after death, few believe they will end up in hell. When George Barna surveyed Americans on this topic, he discovered that 64% of those surveyed expect to go to heaven while less than one-half of 1% expect to go to hell. But there is widespread confusion on this topic:
Even though most Americans believe in life after death and the existence of the soul, not everyone is clear about their own ultimate destination. One in every four adults (24%) admitted that they have “no idea” what will happen after they die.
On one hand, if only one-half of 1% of Americans are going to hell, perhaps this sermon isn’t necessary. But Jesus told us that broad is the way that leads to destruction and narrow is the gate that leads to eternal life (Matthew 7:13-14). Many are on the road to hell and do not know it.
Many are on the road to hell and do not know it.
There are only two possibilities regarding hell: Either it is real or it isn’t. If it is real, then Larry Dixon’s comments are apropos: “Man is not spiritually neutral; he is on his way to a most horrific place and needs to be rescued.” And if hell isn’t real? Years ago I asked an atheist friend what happens when we die. “Nothing,” he replied. Our bodies are buried and our soul dissolves into nothingness. But the question lingers in the mind, What if he’s wrong?
With that as background, let’s look briefly at three important questions regarding hell.
Question #1: Is Hell for Real?
There are only two ways to answer a question like this. Either we look to human opinion or we consider what God has said. The most obvious biblical fact is that Jesus believed in hell. You don’t have to take my word for it. Read the four gospels and you will discover that he spoke more about hell than about heaven. Most of what we know about hell comes from the words of our Lord. Add to that the fact that the apostles all believed in hell. The Christian church has always believed in hell. This is one of those rare points on which Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, and evangelicals are in general agreement. For 2000 years Christians have united in saying that those who die having rejected Christ will spend eternity in hell.
Because Jesus is the Son of God, he speaks with divine authority.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 offers our best and clearest picture into the nature of hell. Because these words come from Jesus, we must treat them with utmost respect. Because he is the Son of God, he speaks with divine authority. What he says can be trusted. I realize that some people refer to this as a parable. I have no objection to that as long as calling it a parable doesn’t become an excuse for ignoring what it says. I’m not sure it really is a parable. Jesus doesn’t call it a parable. If it is, it’s the only parable in which an actual name of a person is used (Lazarus). It reads like a genuine report of life after death, which is how I think we should treat it.
The story goes like this. A beggar named Lazarus sat at the gate of a rich man, hoping for scraps from his table. He was so poor that the dogs licked his sores. When he died the angels carried him to “Abraham’s bosom,” a Jewish expression for paradise or heaven. The rich man died and went to hell (Greek: hades). Even though his body was buried, the rich man’s soul still existed and somehow maintained sensory perception. In the flames of hell he saw Abraham and Lazarus faraway and made a request: “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” (Luke 16:24). It is a kind of prayer from hell to heaven, from the damned to the redeemed. Abraham replies that it can’t be done. “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” (Luke 16:26). No one in heaven can cross over to hell; no one in hell can cross over to heaven. Eternal destinies are fixed at the moment of death and cannot be changed nor can the situation in hell be alleviated. The rich man then thinks of his five brothers still living and asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn them not to follow him to hell. Abraham refuses that request, saying that they should read Moses and the prophets. Deeply concerned for his brothers, the rich man declares that they will believe if someone comes to them from the dead. Still the answer is no. If they won’t believe what the prophets have written, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. End of story.
Once in heaven, always in heaven; once in hell, always in hell.
What do we learn in this passage about life after death and the situation of those who are in hell?
1. The dead are still alive. Both Lazarus and the rich man survived their own funerals.
2. The dead retain their personalities and their essential character. Lazarus is still Lazarus and the rich man is still the rich man. Even in hell the rich man could see, hear, feel, recognize, remember, speak, reflect, plead, suffer, and think ahead. There was only one thing he couldn’t do. He couldn’t get out of hell.
3. Death marks the final separation between the saved and the lost. Once in heaven, always in heaven; once in hell, always in hell. No one can pass from heaven to hell or from hell to heaven.
4. Hell is a place of personal suffering. Three times Jesus mentions the torment, suffering, and agony of the rich man.
5. The damned cry for help that does not come. None of the rich man’s “prayers” were answered nor could they be.
Is hell for real? If the words of Jesus are taken at face value, the answer must be yes.
I think you could preach a useful sermon from this text on the topic: What People in Hell Know. Consider what the rich man knew: 1) He knew there was no way out for him, 2) He knew his brothers could avoid hell if they repented, and 3) He knew that someone needed to warn them about the danger they were in. Here is a case where a man in hell has more evangelistic fervor than most Christians on earth.
Is hell for real? If the words of Jesus are taken at face value, the answer must be yes.
Question #2: Is Hell Eternal?
In recent years there has been a growing debate on this topic in evangelical circles. Some well-respected scholars have argued in favor of “annihilationism,” the view that at some point after death, the unsaved are incinerated by God and simply cease to exist. It is argued that annihilation is far preferable to the traditional view that hell is a place of eternal torment. Some say that the doctrine of eternal hell is immoral and makes God vindictive.
Once again our only source of information is the Word of God. Here are some of the biblical words and phrases associated with hell: smoke, fire, burning, torment, bottomless pit, everlasting prison, wrath, weeping, wailing, gnashing teeth, unquenchable fire, eternal fire, the second death, damnation, furnace of fire, blackness and darkness, and burning sulfur. Those images and symbols do not sound like annihilation to me.
Consider Matthew 25:46, “Then they (the unrighteous) will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." In the Greek the same word for “eternal” is used in both clauses. If eternal life is truly unending, it stands to reason that eternal punishment must be the same. In Mark 9:47-48 Jesus offers a very graphic description of hell: “And 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.’” The concept of the worm comes from the burning trash dump called Gehenna in the Hinnom Valley outside Jerusalem. While the fire burned round the clock, the worms crawled through the decaying refuse and seemed never to die. The “worm” speaks of the internal torment of a guilt-ridden conscience and of evil desires that can never be satisfied while the “fire” speaks of eternal torment.
Revelation 14:9-11 should also be considered in this regard:
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."
Those who follow the beast (the Antichrist) will be tormented for all eternity. These verses seem incompatible with the idea of annihilation. Finally we should note Revelation 20:15, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." This verse describes the final destination of the unsaved dead. At the Great White Throne Judgment they are resurrected and given their final sentence of damnation. Then they are cast into the lake of fire.
Those who have rejected Christ would not be happy in heaven.
When all is said and done, there seems to be no reason to abandon the traditional view that hell is a place of eternal torment. I take no joy in saying that because it means that some people will suffer for all eternity. Even if we don’t completely understand it (and no one on earth can fully grasp the concept of eternal hell), we must be true to what the Bible actually teaches.
Question #3: Is Hell Necessary?
With this question we come to the bottom line. Of what use is the doctrine of hell? Some Christians shy away from it because they think it detracts from the message of the gospel. This is unfortunate because hell serves many purposes.
1. It provides for final justice. We need hell in order to right the wrongs of this life. What about the pornographers who ruin so many lives? What about the drug pushers who corrupt our young people? What about the husbands who walk out on their wives for other women? What about the politicians who abuse their power and get rich off the misery of others? So many crimes go unpunished while the perpetrators are left free to hurt others. Hell must exist, if for no other reason than to balance the scales of justice.
Whatever hell is, it is so terrible that the people there would pray for literal fire and brimstone instead.
2. It is the only place sinners can go. Those who have rejected Christ would not be happy in heaven. What would drug-pushers do? How could greedy slumlords be at home in an atmosphere of unending praise and worship? Unforgiven sinners would be miserable in heaven. It would be like “Hell in Paradise."
3. It helps the saints on earth. The doctrine of hell reminds believers of the great salvation they have received. When we remember that we too were on our way to hell, we must stop and marvel at God’s free grace. And the awesome reality of hell ought to motivate us to win our friends and loved ones to Christ.
4. It protects the saints in heaven. Imagine heaven with saints and unregenerate sinners intermingled. The sinners would be angry and the saints frustrated. Where is the reward for serving the Lord if the unredeemed are allowed to go to heaven? And what kind of heaven would it be if you had a bank robber living on one side and a serial killer on the other? Heaven would be like earth but much worse because you expected so much more.
5. It demonstrates the greatness of God. In ways we don’t fully see right now, the reality of hell will make manifest God’s glory in the ages to come. Hell proves that God is both holy and just and that he truly does keep his Word. I believe the saints will one day praise the Lord that he judges sinners and that all his ways are right and true.
Literal or Symbolic?
Occasionally someone asks if the fire of hell is real or symbolic. The answer of course is yes. Yes, it’s real in the sense that there is something that corresponds to fire and brimstone in hell, and yes, it’s symbolic in that it’s a non-consuming fire that burns in total darkness. R. C. Sproul says that the images of fire and brimstone are symbolic in the sense that they point to something else. However, in this case the reality must be greater than the symbol–not less. He suggests that whatever hell is, it is so terrible that the people there would pray for literal fire and brimstone instead. I think that puts the matter in proper perspective.
To do away with hell is to repudiate Christ and his teachings.
What difference does it make whether or not we believe in hell? In our day many evangelicals seem embarrassed by this doctrine. I have already confessed that it is difficult for me to preach on this topic because it is not likely to be well received even inside the church. But are we then free to ignore what the Bible says about hell? Consider these words by Dorothy Sayers (A Matter of Eternity, p. 86):
The doctrine of hell is not “mediaeval”: it is Christ’s. It is not a device of “mediaeval priestcraft” for frightening people into giving money to the church: it is Christ’s deliberate judgment on sin. The imagery of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire derives, not from “mediaeval superstition,” but originally from the Prophet Isaiah, and it was Christ who emphatically used it. . . . It confronts us in the oldest and least “edited” of the gospels: it is explicit in many of the most familiar parables and implicit in many more: it bulks far larger in the teaching than one realizes, until one reads the Evangelists [gospels] through instead of picking out the most comfortable texts: one cannot get rid of it without tearing the New Testament to tatters. We cannot repudiate hell without altogether repudiating Christ.
That last sentence is very strong indeed, but it seems altogether right to me. To do away with hell is to repudiate Christ and his teachings. When Wayne Grudem wrote about hell in his Systematic Theology (pp. 1148-1153), he pointed out how emotionally difficult this doctrine is accept. I agree. The only thing that stands between us and giving up the idea of hell is the Bible itself. He also noted (p. 1151) that because this doctrine is difficult to affirm, it is one of the first doctrines given up by people moving away from a commitment to the Bible as absolutely truthful.
Grudem points out that it ought to be hard for us to think about hell. If we can ponder hell without our hearts being profoundly moved by the fate of the lost, then something is seriously wrong with us. A few days ago David Platt produced a four-minute video (shot in India) that asks the poignant question, Do We Really Believe What We’re Saying? I wish every person reading this sermon would take four minutes to watch the video and consider that question.
Two Things I Know
Each person who reads these words must make an intelligent and informed decision about heaven and hell. If what I have said is true, then you must do whatever it takes to make sure you go to heaven and you must make sure at all costs that you do not go to hell.
Let’s go back one more time to the words of Jesus Christ in John 14. When Thomas asked him the way to heaven, Jesus gave this answer: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (v. 6). The way to heaven is as narrow as the cross. Only those who trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord will enter the gates of heaven.
God has done everything necessary for you go to heaven.
There are two truths I know about myself with complete certainty: First, I ought to go to hell because that is where I belong. In ten thousand ways over ten thousand days, I have sinned against God in word and deed. I deserve his punishment because my sins are great. But the second truth is greater than the first: I am going to heaven because Jesus Christ went to hell on a cross for me. He paid the price; he took my punishment so that I could go free.
God has done everything necessary for you go to heaven. It will be your own fault if you end up in hell. God has posted an enormous stop sign on the road to hell and the sign is in the shape of a cross. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to heaven is paved with the blood of Christ.
Let me say it clearly. You don’t have to go to hell. God has provided a way of escape for you. But even God’s way of escape will do you no good unless you reach out and take it. If you ignore Jesus, there is no hope for you. God doesn’t have a Plan B for those who reject his Son.
The application of this sermon is very clear. We should be quick to believe all that the Bible says. And we should not be ashamed to declare the hard truth even when the world does not want to hear it. If we believe that hell is real, should that not motivate us to earnestly seek the salvation of those around us? How selfish to have the Good News and keep it to yourself!
What must I do to go to hell? Here is the shocking answer: Nothing, nothing at all.
And to those who do not know Jesus, I pose this simple question: Why should you die in your sins? Why go to hell when Jesus has opened the door to heaven? It does not require a decision to go to hell and even God can’t take you to heaven if you have hell in your heart.
What must I do to go to heaven? The answer comes back: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). What must I do to go to hell? Here is the shocking answer: Nothing, nothing at all. If you do nothing about your soul, hell is where you will go. Do nothing and be lost. Trust Christ and be saved. May all who read these words be rescued from hell and one day arrive safely in heaven through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
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Playing With Fire
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