Hell as a Kindness
September 13, 2009
Main Point(s) of sermon:
· The ultimate choice we make is “Thy will” or “My will,” to love God and Jesus, or hate them (15:23)
· Biblical descriptions of Hell are symbols to help us understand its undesirability, and it is best understood as the place where God is not.
· Since God is the source of all that is good, Hell is the absence of all that is good. That, compounded by eternity and unrestrained by God, is Hell.
· Hell is God ultimate tribute to free will – if anyone refuse to be with God, God will honor that choice.
· Even though we may not understand how, some day we will see that judgment and Hell demonstrates God’s love and justice.
Objectives of sermon:
· To demonstrate that “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made” (Psalm 145:17), even in his judgment.
· Myths of Hell, Transpositions
· BW: Hell to pay
Scripture reading: revelation 20:11-15
Hell! That’s not swearing; it is today’s topic. As I studied last week passage, I was struck by John 15:22-24:
John 15:22, 24 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin....If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father.
It seems to indicate ignorance could be an excuse, if Jesus hadn’t spoken to them, they’d have avoided judgment. This got me thinking about Hell (Doesn’t it you?), and led to this sermon.
Hell is in the top five biggest difficulties I have with Christianity, personally and as a pastor: How can God be loving and just in light of the eternal judgment of Hell?
· Yet in the overwhelming light of the evidence, the incarnation being the biggest, I am convinced of God’s love and justice.
My hope is to provide enough of an answer to the problem of Hell that you will be able to say, with the psalmist:
NIV Psalm 145:17 The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made.
Our perspective is so limited, help us to acknowledge that and put our trust in you and your goodness, even in our questions.
Sufficient, not comprehensive
We first need to understand that the Bible is sufficient, but not comprehensive. The Bible does not tell us everything we want to know about Hell, but it gives everything we need.
· We come to the Bible in humility; we can’t understand it all.
Psalm 131:1, 3 My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me....O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore.
On certain subjects the Bible is exceedingly clear, and on others it is vaguer. It’s like looking at a “connect the dots.” There are some solid lines, and lots of dots, but no numbers.
We may be confident in the solid lines and the dots. Now, systematic theology requires us to connect the dots, but be cautious in the lines we draw to connect them all together.
· There are dots that we just can’t figure out how they work with the larger picture, so we typically ignore them.
· Because we are taught “systematics,” we don’t realize how lines have been drawn for us.
The fact of the matter is that we simply lack the ability to understand the full picture; we are far out of our league. In his essay “Transpositions” CS Lewis gives two illustrations:
1. A conductor might transpose a symphony piece to be played by a piano; the piece would fall short of the original.
2. A child raised in a dungeon and his mother draws for him sketches of the outside world.
In both, the lower version is a necessary means of communicating the higher, but it is very limited and easily misunderstood.
All of this is to reinforce trust, even if we can’t see the big picture of how God is good in the light of Hell, that doesn’t mean it can’t be true.
1 Corinthians 13:12 12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
So we’ll humbly and cautiously study Hell, first by looking at the lines and dots that are clear. From there I will attempt to fill in some lines by answering some of the troubling questions:
1. How can a good God eternally torture his children?
2. Who is sent to Hell?
3. What about people who have never heard about Jesus?
4. Does Hell have literal flames?
As we go, I’ll do my best to distinguish between clear “lines and dots” of Scripture, strong inferences (conclusions that are very likely), and speculation (how these things may connect).
· This is speculative theology, and the purpose is not to say “must be” but “how much more so must God’s way be good.”
Lines and dots
1. God is loving, kind, and just.
(There will be a lot of Scripture, so don’t feel obligated to keep up (I’ll be reading my notes), but note the references.)
1 John 4:16 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love.
Exodus 34:6-7 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Psalm 145:17 The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made.
A firm, solid line is drawn: God is good and loving and just in all that he does.
Less clear, but still a strong inference: God is good and loving and just in his acts not just towards the whole to each individual of his creation (Ps. 145:17). This then would mean that somehow Hell is an act of love.
· We will speculate on that later.
2. Hell exists as a place of eternal judgment for wickedness
We don’t need too many Scriptures to make this point.
Matthew 25:41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Revelation 20:12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.
Hell seems to have been created for the Devil and his followers as the first rebels. It now is also a place for the wicked.
3. God doesn’t want people to go to hell
Ezekiel 33:11 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?
1 Timothy 2:3-4 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
4. People are in Hell.
The clear testimony of Scripture is there are people in Hell.
Ä At this point, these things (especially #3 and 4) seem contradictory, but I hope to find harmony.
5. People have free wills
While many Christians disagree with this, emphasizing God’s sovereignty over creation, I find Scripture clear on this point. Every imperative and command gives evidence.
· I have great respect for Calvinists, but feel they connect too many dots the Bible doesn’t connect, while ignoring others.
6. Hell is the absence of God
· I clearly admit this is the most speculative of my “dots,” some Christians say that God is present in Hell.
Orthodox: God is present in Hell, but that the sin of those inside makes his presence unbearable.
Reformed: God only there in his wrath
Catholic and most evangelicals: Hell is the absence of God.
I couldn’t find any Scriptures in support of any view – it’s not addressed. Here is my reasoning:
Sin is separates us from God – from the Garden to Isaiah 6 to Jesus on the cross. It seems likely that Hell is only sin, beyond redemption, therefore completely separated.
Hell is described as separation: Cast out into outer darkness, alone, away from life and light.
I disagree that God could be in a place and only show part of his character, it seems more likely that he is simply not there, and that is Hell enough (more on that later).
Ä Now with these “dots and lines” and a speculation, we can answer our questions.
Answering some common questions
1. Why does Hell exist? How can a good God eternally torture his children?
So if God is loving, and doesn’t want any of his children to suffer in Hell, why did he create it? Why doesn’t he just let everyone into Heaven?
I say, along with CS Lewis, that there is no doctrine that I would rather remove from Christianity. I wish I could say “all will be saved.”
· But Scripture clearly illuminates that people, in their free will, choose Hell.
John 3:19 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
· The strong inference from the “lines and dot” is that people chose Hell over Heaven because they hate God.
This quote from CS Lewis (who better understood and explained Hell as an act of love better than anyone I have read) is more speculative, but fits the evidence well:
[“Beyond the Shadowlands” p. 150] “I believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of Hell are locked from the inside...”
Q Have you ever known someone who was preferred the pain of sin to the freedom of obedience?
The limits of Hell
Furthermore Hell, probably exists to confine and limit evil. In “The Great Divorce” many of the visiting damned only come to try to bring Hell into heaven. Mercy doesn’t mean making yourself miserable for the sake of those who will not be happy.
· This is the best book to describe Hell as mercy – if this is possible, I have complete confidence reality will be better.
2. Who is sent to Hell?
On one hand, Hell is described as a place for the wicked, on the other hand, we are all wicked and the only way to be righteous and acceptable is through Christ.
John 14:6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Acts 4:12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
Q But why is this all about Jesus?
Q Couldn’t someone love God without following Jesus?
John 15:23 He who hates me hates my Father as well.
The central issue goes back to loving or hating the Father and Jesus is the perfect manifestation of God. Jesus is saying that if you won’t love or obey me, you won’t love or obey God.
· All of humanity has one basic decision to make to love and obey God or to hate him and his authority.
That’s why Lewis said, “In the end there will be only two types of people, those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’”
· I have my own more graphic version: “...those who ‘Thy will be done,’ and those who tell God to kiss off.”
Does that seem a bit harsh? Some people just don’t know or care if he exists. But ultimately it amounts to the same thing. Think in terms of a “Desire God/Don’t desire God” continuum:
You are heading one direction or the other. At the beginning of “Don’t desire” you may simply be disinterested, more interested in self, but given an eternity heading in that direction, you will soon begin to loath the very thought of God
3. What about people who have never heard about Jesus?
· Of course, if you can hear this, it’s an irrelevant question.
What if someone just isn’t one of the few in history that aren’t born in the right time or place to hear about Jesus? Here we look again at some dots:
John 15:22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin.
· Jesus seems to say ignorance could be an excuse, especially for someone who hasn’t heard of Jesus and loves the Father.
Q But doesn’t the Bible say that no man has excuse?
Romans 1:20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature –have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
But what are they unable to excuse? Knowing Jesus? No, not recognizing a supreme God who has rights over his creation.
They also have no excuse for wickedness:
Romans 2:14-15 Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.
These demonstrate that everyone has the ability to choose (at some level) to do right or wrong, and are responsible to do so.
Furthermore, seeking God will be rewarded:
Matthew 7:7-11 7 ¶ “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. 9 “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
· Notice God’s compassion as a father for his children.
Taking all of these “dots” I think we can draw a reasonable conclusion: Those who haven’t known Jesus, yet seek God as they best understand, will not be turned away by him.
· Yet we can’t forget that “Jesus is the only way to the Father.
Here is my speculation: God will provide some way for those who have sought God as they best understood to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
I am not saying that everyone will have a genuine second chance after death, but rather that they will be given proper words to the choice they have already made: “Thy will” or “My will.”
As I have said, that choice is everyone’s basic choice in life. By itself, it’s wholly insufficient, for we still lack the ability to do it completely. Our holiness is filthy rags.
· Once the choice is made, it’s entirely in God’s hands – Jesus’ sacrifice and the Spirit’s work,
· This is why “no one comes...,” no one is capable.
But if a person chooses God’s rule without knowing Jesus, I am speculating that they be given a chance to call Jesus “Lord and Savior.” If they have already made the basic choice, then they will naturally choose Jesus (cf. John 15:23).
Searching very hard, I found only three argument against this (aside from those built on Calvinism):
1. Hebrews 9:27
Hebrews 9:27-28 Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
The point of this passage is that there will be one sacrifice for sin, just as people only die once and there will be one judgment event. It doesn’t comment on “when.”
· Furthermore, “after” is inconclusive.
2. Parable of Lazarus
The use of the parable of Lazarus to use strong assertions about the afterlife is hermeneutically unsound – parables are about one primary topic and we must be very careful not to take incidentally elements of the story as doctrinal proofs.
3. Won’t this perspective keep us from evangelizing?
No more than Calvinism stops evangelism. We know that hearing the truth and power of the Gospel has power to draw people to God, so we preach to the world.
4. Does Hell have literal flames?
This is a common argument among Christians, but I think that a clearheaded reading of Scripture demonstrates that the description of Hell is symbolic.
1. Contradictory images are used: Fire, darkness, worms.
This is troublesome if they are literal, but perfectly acceptable if you are being figurative. So long as we are dealing with “transpositions,” language must be figurative.
2. Hell is a spiritual reality, how can physical flames have any meaning?
This is not to say that Hell won’t be horrible, but helps us better understand its nature.
The metaphors of hell
Q So what are the metaphors meant to convey?
Now I am being completely speculative: If you understand that everything good flows from God, then you will understand that the absence of God, which is Hell, would be the highest of horrors, devoid of any joy, happiness, and filled with misery.
But how do you express that to people who have no understanding of the glory of God as the highest joy? If you say Hell is the absence of God and self-as-center, they will say that is Heaven!
· We know it will be horrible, but they can’t imagine it.
You must speak to them in terms which they understand – describe it as fire, darkness, torture, pain, and misery. Which in fact it is misery, but a misery they prefer to the rule of God.
“He has his wish – to live wholly in the self and make the best of what he finds there. And what he finds there is Hell.” Lewis
· Hell is God’s ultimate (in both senses of the word) monument to free choice.
I hope that I have helped you, through firm Scripture, reasonable conclusions, and helpful speculations, to understand how Hell is a further evidence of God’s kindness.
“The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made.” (Psalm 145:17 NIV).
Q & A
1. Mediate on God’s love and goodness.
2. Are you saying “Thy will” or “My will.”