Monday, 20 February 2017

Hell: Paved with the Red Letters?

“I had far rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children’s game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end.” (T.S. Eliot)


Are people too optimistic in their belief that one day, they will be going to Heaven? I wonder sometimes. As a Christian, it may be easy for me to think that about a non-Christian, but what about people who might call themselves Christians? Are some of them equally optimistic about their eternal destiny, and specifically, a one-way trip to Heaven? Could it be that some may hear instead on that fateful day, "I never knew you" (Luke 13: 24-28; paraphrased)?

In “Next Stop, the Pearly Gates ... or Hell? (Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2003), K. Connie Kang reported that out of every one American who believes that he or she is bound for Hell, there are 120 Americans who believe they’re Heaven-bound.

On the surface that sounds great, doesn’t it? But when I read the Gospels, and specifically Matthew 7:13-14, I cannot help but come away with the feeling that there will be more people not making it into Heaven than those who actually do make it there. I know, I know; Ouch!

Furthermore, contrary to what seems to have become a common mantra in today’s world, even among Christians, there are many who either outright deny the existence of Hell, or who at the very least, question its existence. I wonder why. They argue that, if God is a God of love, how could He ever send anyone to Hell? Many, it seems to me, even in the church, have embraced a form of Universalism, believing that all mankind will eventually be saved. But will they really? Personally I can’t go there. In fact, as I already alluded to, I think that when we look at Jesus’ own words (for example, the narrow and the wide gates), the reverse of Universalism may actually be more closely aligned with the truth.

Does Jesus speak about Hell? Yes he does. In fact, he speaks about it more than any other biblical writer. If Heaven is paved with streets of gold, as it's sometimes euphemized, then perhaps Hell is paved with the "Red Letters," and to some of those letters we now turn.

JESUS ON HELL

“Enter through the narrow gate. For 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.” (Matthew 7: 13-14)

“But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8: 12)

“Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

“Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn. ... As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. … This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13: 30, 40-43, 49-50)

“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.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22: 13-14)

“The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 24:50-51)

“And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. … 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. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. … I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’” (Matthew 25: 30, 41-43, 45)

“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8: 36-37)

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into 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.’” (Mark 9: 43-48)

“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers! There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.” (Luke 13: 24-28)

“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.’” (Luke 16: 23-24)

“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” (John 5: 28-29)

DO NOT BE DECEIVED

What is Jesus talking about in the preceding verses, if not Hell? Some might suggest that it is somehow unloving to speak of Hell. Is Jesus unloving? Of course not! As hard a subject as it is, however, I’d rather think that it would be more unloving of Christians not to speak of it. Why would you not warn someone you love or care for about the awful consequences they face if they do not accept Jesus? Not doing so would actually be quite cruel, if you asked me. Jesus also once said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:7). So long as our friends and loved ones choose another way, other than Jesus, well, you fill in the blanks. Yes, to not speak of Hell is actually quite unloving.

Is Hell a real place, and will real people one day be sent there? As much as many would perhaps like to say “No,” and contrary to many Christian books out there that present arguments against Hell, it seems pretty obvious to me that if we believe in a Heaven, then by default we must also believe in a Hell. Conversely, if we were to disbelieve in the one, then by default we must disbelieve in the other. That’s not to say that Heaven and Hell are equal opposites; they are not equal opposites any more than Satan is God’s opposite. Yet the one is just as real and eternal as the other and are both created by God.

But more important than just my humble opinion, there are the very words of Jesus recorded for us in the gospels; the "Red Letters." I’ve only highlighted the twelve texts above in which Jesus alludes to an eternity apart from God, an eternity filled with weeping and gnashing of teeth, an eternity of fire that just won’t quit. It will be an eternity in which people sent there, still will be able to see the good enjoyed by those in Heaven, but they themselves unable to join in the festivities, which no doubt only intensifies their misery of solitude and apartness from God.

The point is, the same Jesus who loves you and me intensely enough to die for us, wanting and yearning to spend eternity with us, also throughout the gospels describes a very unpleasant eternity for those who reject him and choose their own self-righteous path through this life. But God, as much as He’s about grace and love, is also Holy, and cannot and will not be in the presence of evil and sin. Still, he won’t force himself on anyone. As such, whether we end up in Heaven or Hell, is ultimately our own choosing. Yes, it is a hard word, but I didn’t say it; Jesus did. I’m just the messenger.

THERE IS STILL HOPE

But we cannot just end this discussion on Hell here; there is still hope. Thank God there is hope! The Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17 – 6:2)

As my dear friend and brother in the Lord, Bruce Hubbard, says in his excellent book The Way of Grace, “It is only when we are in subjection and yielded to God’s grace that we are enamoured by the Almighty drawing near to us. Recognition of our need for grace is the only way for us to realize the benefit and working of grace. To declare that you do not need God’s grace is to declare Jesus a loser – that his grace is in vain” (p.163).

Is Jesus a “loser?” No, of course not! God forbid! But we sure will be losers if we continue to refuse to accept God’s grace and mercy! The price for our redemption has been paid. Forgiveness for our many sins has been offered. Grace and mercy have been laid out before us like the blessed gift that it is. But like anything else in life that may be offered us, we don’t possess it until we receive it. We still need to make a choice, a very important choice; a choice with eternal consequences. The choice will be either incredibly wonderful or incredibly awful.

Choose wisely. Be reconciled to God.

First Photo Credit: Marco Verch, Flickr Creative Commons
Second Photo Credit: Bruce Hubbard, used by permission
All Scripture Quotations: New International Version (NIV), 1984 Edition
Why Red Letters? See here for Wikipedia link

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