v.1 We are somewhat handicapped in our interpretation of this parable by the fact that we know comparatively little about wedding customs in Judea in that day. In fact, most of what we know we know is from the Bible, but there is no complete account of those customs in the New Testament. Apparently, the ceremony was in several parts: a procession from the house of the groom to that of the bride or to some other place where the wedding occurred; then a procession, perhaps usually to the groom’s home; then a great feast that could last for days. These young women were bridesmaids; they belonged to the bride’s party, but not in our modern sense. Their part, apparently, was to greet the bridegroom along his route and escort him to the feast. In this particular case, it was a torch-lit procession. The word the ESV translates “lamps,” should be rendered “torches.” [Morris, 620] Clearly enough, Christ is the bridegroom, a comparison drawn earlier in the Gospel, and the procession is the Second Coming.
v.3 The foolish virgins had lit torches but no oil with which to refill their torches should they go out. Even a well-soaked rag would only burn for some 15 minutes. The wise virgins took steps to be sure they could keep their lamps lit. They took flasks of oil with their lamps.
v.5 A delay in the Lord’s return was predicted in the previous chapter (24:48) and will appear again in 25:19. No doubt, when Matthew wrote his Gospel, there were already Christians wondering why the Lord had not already returned. In any case, life goes on. All the virgins fall asleep. One can’t always remain awake. In the parable no fault is attached to anyone for falling asleep. Both the wise and the foolish virgins fell asleep. The fault is in not having taken precautions to be ready whenever the bridegroom returned.
v.6 Is there any significance to the fact that the call came at midnight? Augustine thought so. He thought the reason why in the parable the bridegroom arrives at midnight is precisely because midnight is the moment of least awareness. [ACC, ad loc.] All through this section of the Gospel the Lord’s emphasis has fallen on the fact that the Lord will come when he not expected and that we must keep watch because we do not know when the Lord will return. So the bridegroom’s arrival at midnight underscores that exhortation. In the parable the bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, at a time he is least expected, at the time when Christian people are not thinking about the return of Christ.
v.9 The response of the wise virgins can sound like selfish unconcern for others, but, in the parable, it reminds us that we cannot count on another’s readiness. In any case, the bridegroom had to be welcomed. It would be a disaster if, by dividing the available oil, the result would be that all the torches went out and no one could greet the bridegroom. In any case, the purpose of the parable is to teach a lesson about spiritual readiness, not a lesson about compassion for the foolish.
v.12 The “knowledge” referred to here is, of course, not the knowledge of factual information. The Lord knows these virgins in that sense – that’s why he doesn’t let them in – he knows them all too well. As so often in the Bible, here “to know” means to love, to have a relationship with, not simply to have information about. This statement harkens back to the one near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, shockingly spoken similarly to a group sure of their welcome on the Great Day: “Away from me you evil doers. I never knew you.”
The first cause of Christian doubt that I have considered in this series of sermons on that subject is the existence of hell – the most difficult doctrine in the Bible, the one most often spoken against. And so far we have said that eternal punishment is the Bible’s teaching, it cannot, in faithfulness to the Word of God, be replaced by the prospect of annihilation as some evangelicals have wanted to do, but that it is a biblical teaching much misunderstood. When people say, as too many professing Christians have said, “I can’t believe in a God who would send people to hell,” almost certainly the doctrine they are rejecting is a caricature of the actual teaching of Holy Scripture.
In James Joyce’s autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he describes his hero’s hearing of a Jesuit priest’s sermon on the horrors of hell. The damned were imprisoned within walls four thousand miles thick, their bodies heaped together in such a tangle that one cannot move an arm in order to remove from the eye the worm that gnaws at it. The horror of the prison is increased by the stench, as all the world’s filth runs into it as into a sewer. Add to this the choking fumes of the fire that is consuming the decomposed carcasses and of the yet unburied rotting bodies and, well, you get the picture. Whether or not Joyce actually ever heard a sermon like that, from a Jesuit or from anyone else, he is obviously turning the biblical picture of hell into something no reasonable or morally sensitive human being could stomach. But, then, as we said last time, that is hardly the Bible’s picture of hell. [Blamires, Knowing the Truth About Heaven and Hell, 69-70]
However easy it may be to scorn a grotesque caricature of eternal punishment, it is much harder for anyone to say, for example, “I can’t believe in a God who would punish people with absolute fairness, suiting their judgment to the nature and the extent of their wrong-doing, careful always never to punish a man or woman any more severely than he or she actually deserved.” It is still harder to say “I can’t believe that God would send anyone to hell, though I don’t, though no one knows what the punishments of hell actually are, the powerful images of hell employed in the Bible, such as the lake of fire, and unending torment, and wailing and gnashing of teeth, being typical Semitisms, evocative forms of description that no intelligent reader of the Bible would think were meant to be taken literally; and even though hell’s punishments, whatever they are, will be suffered in very different measure by the damned because the justice of God is exact and because we can always trust the God of love and goodness to do nothing but what is right and proper.” That sounds both reasonable and just, given any acceptance of the Bible’s teaching about the holiness and justice of God and given any honest assessment of human sin and guilt.
But, so far as hell is an occasion for doubt, we have not yet fully grasped the nettle of the problem. It is easy enough for people – especially in our comfortable, effete, and self-congratulatory culture – to think the very idea of eternal punishment preposterous. Of course, we all know very well how much, how much everyone craves the just punishment of evil doers. So there is a measure of hypocrisy in doubts about hell. But honest doubt also requires facing the alternative. The evangelical advocates of annihilationism or conditional immortality – you only live forever if you go to heaven – do expect the unsaved to be punished, for a time, to receive a punishment commensurate with their crimes. But they represent a tiny portion of public opinion and, as we said, the Bible does not seem to teach their position. For most people the issue is simply whether divine punishment exists at all in the world to come. So the real question to be faced is this: if you will not believe in hell, what will you say about the future destiny of mankind? There are several alternatives, of course.
- One that has always had its advocates among some intellectuals and common folk alike is that this life is all that there is. When a person dies he ceases to exist in any form. Death is the end; there is no future personal existence for anyone. This position is, of course, equivalent to atheism in most cases and, in the nature of the case, no matter the protests to the contrary it eviscerates human life of any transcendent meaning. In the final analysis the life of Adolf Hitler and the life of Mother Theresa amount to the same thing: higher animals seeking their own ends for a short while and then disappearing into the void.
The immense problem with this view, and the reason why even its advocates are unwilling to face its implications, is that it eviscerates human life of moral seriousness and makes it impossible to justify any distinction between right and wrong. You are left with something as lame as Albert Einstein’s suggestion that, although there is no actual moral difference between the murderer and his victim, a society needs to act as if there were a difference. Acting as if right and wrong actually exist is a pathetic foundation for morality and will never be an adequate answer to the pain, the heartbreak, the devastation, the misery caused throughout the world by what every human being knows is genuinely evil behavior. What is more, perhaps harder still to swallow, it makes love and loyalty and sacrifice and kindness and sympathy – those things we most admire in human life, those things every society celebrates because we all know how much we need those things in our common life – to be of no moral significance either. No one has ever been able to fashion or justify a moral theory for a world that lacks a lawgiver, a judge, and a judgment. Nor is it possible to distinguish between competing moral visions. The jihadist, who blows up a bus full of children, has precisely the same freedom to construct his ethical theory as the American progressive. Plenty of people have developed moral theories, to be sure, but when the one theory conflicts with someone else’s moral theory, there is no way to justify one over against another. What mankind is left with is a welter of personal opinions and no way of explaining why anyone should care one way or another, even though, in fact, for some reason we all care and care deeply about right and wrong.
- Another alternative, one favored by a fringe of Christian thinkers through the ages, is that everyone is saved. The problem of hell is thus dissolved. Some are willing to say that there may be a hell, but it is either empty or perhaps occupied by a tiny number of the sort whose dignity no one would be inclined to defend and whose suffering would create no moral unease (the Devil, and the Adolf Hitlers and the serial killers of the world). This view of the future of mankind comes in a variety of forms, but in a nutshell, it removes the opprobrium, the offense of hell by emptying it. It is easy enough to see why this view would be popular. Relief, being let off the hook is always popular. The problem with this view is that it likewise eviscerates human life of any defensible moral seriousness. We are well aware of what becomes of human beings who genuinely believe that their choices are without consequence. The criminal and his victim are the same, so far as any moral judgment is concerned, and so far as it makes any difference in the long run. People have attempted to rescue this doctrine, usually known as universalism, from these devastating implications, but no one has done so successfully any more than atheists have managed to convince people that morality can be successfully based on a life without a lawgiver and without judgment.
Of course, for Christians, the problems with universalism are more pressing still. Not only can it not be squared with the actual teaching of the Bible – very few have seriously argued that the Bible can be faithfully read as an argument for universalism – it renders null and void all the motivations the Bible is so careful to provide us. Why proclaim salvation in Christ if everyone is going to be saved no matter their faith and life? Why remain faithful to the Lord when loyalty to him requires in some cases great sacrifice, that is, if those who are unfaithful receive the same reward? But, more devastating still, universalism completely breaks the connection between Christ’s life and death – his atonement – and the Christian life. So far as the outcome of human life is concerned, Christ will have done as much for those who cared not a fig for him during their lifetimes as for those who trusted and obeyed him as their savior and Lord. The moral and spiritual seriousness of the Christian faith, which has been the source of its great power in human history, is eviscerated in all forms of universalism. Of course people would like universalism to be true. It frees us from an obligation to do virtually any really difficult thing in human life. It allows us to indulge our passions without regard to their consequences. That fact alone ought to raise doubts about universalism it the mind of any serious person.
This evening, I want to consider with you another reason why we ought to understand ourselves not only stuck with hell as the reality that it is, but needing hell as the reality that it is.
I have, through the years, read a great many sentences or paragraphs that immediately struck me, as I read them, as terribly profound. They explained something or crystallized an argument for something, or commended some truth or another in a particularly powerful or beautiful way. I have literally hundreds of such statements written in the margins or on the extra pages of my Bibles, the NIV I used for some twenty-four years and the ESV I’ve used for the last six. One such statement that was entered into my Bible upon my first reading it, is from Harry Blamires’ valuable book, Knowing the Truth about Heaven and Hell. Blamires was first the student and then a colleague and friend of C.S. Lewis and Blamires book on heaven and hell is a C.S. Lewis kind of book, full of suggestive argument and memorable statements. In speaking about heaven, he makes the point that the biblical depiction of heaven is hard to translate into a literal vision. It is difficult to know from what we are told about heaven just what the place is like. We know it is beautiful and wonderful because the Bible uses the most beautiful and wonderful images to describe it, images we are familiar with from our experience of life in this world: the most magnificent gems, the loveliness of a clear, cool river flowing within a glade of beautiful trees, a sumptuous feast enjoyed at a wedding, and so on.
In Paradise Lost Milton has the angel Raphael explain to Adam, this before the fall, how it is in the world of spirits. But Raphael says to Adam that he will have to use earthly analogies because Adam will have had no experience of what he is about to tell him. But then the angel adds this afterthought:
“Though what if Earth
Be but a shadow of heaven, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?” [5:574]
In other words, earth is a kind of reflection of heaven. Suppose things on earth more resemble things in heaven than human beings realize? [Blamires, 114] And then comes this, the magnificent passage that so fired my imagination when I first read it years ago.
“It is in fragmentary glimpses that the joys of the kingdom are flashed before our faces on our earthly pilgrimage. We all have our stores of memories that keep their power to blind us with the dazzle of the wonder and beauty they revealed. When you first took a hand that is now cold in the grave – when you first looked into eyes that imprinted their gaze forever on your mind – when you first caught sight of that remote village nestling in the elbow of a valley, all white and green in the sun – when you first saw your wife with your baby in her arms – when a lyric of Byron’s first throbbed through your brain in school days – when Toscanini revitalized the fabric of a Beethoven symphony – when Maria Callas released flooding waves of emotion upon a few syllables, ‘Alfin son tua,’ in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor: we all have our store of such particular memories. If we wanted a single adjective to characterize what was common to them all, we should say quite naturally, quite unaffectedly, ‘It was heavenly.’”
When I first read that, I replaced all the particular memories that Blamires used with memories of my own and realized what a captivating picture of heavenly life I could create out of my own experience. And so it goes and so it has always gone. Like it or not we see something greater, still more wonderful lying behind our glorious experiences of life. When Wordsworth wanted to express how overwhelmingly grand was the onset of the French Revolution – before it was overcome by violence and cruelty – he wrote:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven! [The Prelude]
And when Milton wanted to express how magnificent was the music of the organ and the choir, he likewise turned his eyes upward.
There let the pealing organ blow
To the full voiced Choir below,
In Service high and Anthems clear,
As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all Heav’n before mine eyes. [Il Penseroso, 161-166]
You get the point. We very naturally – even people who aren’t Christians and have no real doctrine of heaven – find in the beauty and wonder of the world and in the bliss of human experience a pointer to something greater, something transcendent and eternal. Much of what whets our appetite for heaven, much of what people imagine heaven to be is simply a magnification and perfection and continuation of what has been the very best and very happiest of our experience in this world, of God, of others, and of nature. And to think in such ways is absolutely faithful to the Bible which itself employs what is most beautiful here to help us grasp the wonder it will be to be there.
Well, then, why would we not draw the same connection between what is the most heartbreaking, the most appalling, and the most hopeless of our experiences on earth and the existence of hell. If what is beautiful here is a pointer to an eternal reality, why would we suppose it not the same for what is most tragic here? If this world rings with anticipations of heaven, surely it equally rings with anticipations of hell!
Think about what human beings everywhere experience here in this world. Life so frequently fails to reach its potential. Illness, calamity, crime, war, famine, and the daily, almost inexhaustible pettiness of human beings darken our days and nights and fill us with a sense of dread, or fear, or sadness, or frustration, or anger. And not once or twice, but repeatedly. Human life becomes so much less than we know it ought to be; human beings so much less than we know they ought to be. That is the stuff of everyone’s daily life. We all know it is. It is precisely this feature of human life, its injustice, its failure to be what it ought to be, that stokes our craving for justice, for a better world, for happier outcomes.
Blamires begins his book with this.
“When I was a very young child in the 1920s the shadows of the recent Great War hung over British life. ‘The War’ seemed to be what adults blamed for most of the great miseries that many people plainly had to endure. Throughout the school days of my generation we were surrounded by contemporaries who had lost their fathers and were being brought up by widowed mothers, often living with grandmothers or spinster aunts. Spinster aunts were certainly thick on the ground. There was a husbandless generation as well as a fatherless one. … Many of the children I knew lived on a local housing estate which had been hurriedly built to fulfill Prime Minster Lloyd George’s promise to provide ‘homes for heroes.’ When I got inside one of these little semi-detached dwellings, I found that having a hero for a father might be even more dismal and tragic than having no father at all. Here was a friend, Albert, whose father sat propped up – frail, pale, shapeless, and gasping for breath. Gassed and wounded at the front, he now occupied himself with an iron contraption sprouting wheels, levers, and pedals, which I was told was a sock-making machine.
“[Ex-servicemen would] ply their trade standing in the gutter in busy shopping streets in the city center. A man would hang a piece of cardboard around his neck, reading ‘Wounded on the Somme,” and stand there holding a tray laden with boxes of matches or, at Christmas, with balloons and paper streamers. Sympathetic shoppers would throw coins on to the tray, but it was more or less understood that you did not bother to pick up the wares you had supposedly purchased. … [where] a leg, or an arm, or an eye, or a section of face was missing, the claim to sympathy could scarcely be disputed.
“As for the cause of it all, the wicked Germans were responsible. And savage as the years of slaughter had been, the one great consolation was that the Germans had been thoroughly beaten. Justice had been done.
“But had justice really been done? … If wickedness ought to be paid for, there was little evidence here that justice was being done. [1-3]
The Kaiser, who started the war, was living comfortably in exile in Holland. The victors were almost as miserable as the vanquished. The carnage of war is seldom paid for by those who were its cause. At the end of the Second World War Hitler shot himself and never had to answer for any of his crimes. Goering, Himmler, and Goebbels swallowed cyanide and escaped the punishment that would have been inflicted on them. Was justice done? The world was cleansed of their presence, but one can only die once. Did their suicides somehow atone for the millions they killed and the untold amount of suffering they visited upon the world?
But we hardly need to use only illustrations from long-forgotten wars. What of the husband who beats his wife and imprisons her in a life of desolation? What of the father who beats his child or sexually abuses him or her until that precious little person is permanently disabled mentally and spiritually? What of the boss who mistreats those who work for him and grinds them to dust? The world is full of this, every day, all day, as we all know. And, of course, I could go on and on.
But it isn’t the sin, the selfishness, the cruelty that is my point here. It is rather the misery, the sadness, the confusion, the heartbreak, the sense of utter loss that comes from such evil. The world is full of it. And it isn’t only from the evil that men do. Think for example of birth defects that blight a human life that could have been so different than it was or is. Or think of mental illness, the torment that men and women in enormous numbers around the world carry about with them in their own heads and hearts.
What is all of this, the injustice of life, the misery it visits upon human beings, and the many ways in which human life is blighted that have nothing to do with man’s inhumanity to man, I say, what is all this but an anticipation of hell. We use the term in the very same way we use – without thinking – the term heaven. There is something hellish, we say, about this person’s condition or that. “Go to hell,” people say to those whom they feel deserve contempt for their unworthy behavior.
Remember, we are talking about the witness of this world to another world. Christians and non-Christians alike suffer all of these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Christian babies die and leave parents desolate; Christian spouses sometimes die early on in their marriage; Christians too can be unfaithful to one another in heartless ways; Christians too lose their jobs and struggle to replace them; Christians likewise suffer the ravages of war, famine, disease, and tempest.
Is it not very likely, given what we know, that one of, if not the principal reason there is so much suffering in this world is to serve as a warning for what is still to come in the next? Is this not, in some way, as Lewis put it, God’s megaphone to get our attention and force us to consider our ways? All the anticipations of heaven are designed to whet our appetite and to make us eager to get there and so to find out how to get there. But, in the same way, how can we deny that all the anticipations of hell of which this world is chock full have a similar purpose: to serve as sign-posts to hell, as mileage markers on the road to perdition? The anticipations, in themselves, do not tell us how to get to heaven or how to avoid hell, they simply tell us that there are such places and such conditions of existence in the world to come. But that is the immensely important first step: to know there is a heaven of surpassing wonder – we’ve been made for such a place – and to know there is a hell where life fails, utterly fails and permanently fails, to reach its goal, where all our deep longings for happiness, wholeness, satisfaction, and fulfillment are blasted. There is a place where love reigns forever and so happiness as well; but there is likewise a place where there is no love, only the blasted hopes for it and the ache of knowing that it has been lost and lost forever. We must know what such places would be like, what such existences would be if life here is to have its true meaning.
So, let us be clear about this. If we lose hell, we must, in the nature of the case, lose heaven too, at least as a world and a condition of existence of which we can know something from our experience in this world. It is pure sentiment – wishful thinking –, certainly not reason, certainly not revelation, that would justify our drawing a line from this world to the next in the case of heaven, but not in the case of hell. This world has as much of hell in it as heaven, if not more! The Bible is very clear about this: heaven is the continuation of a kind of life that has already begun in this world for a Christian – eternal life it is called and John says Christians already have it – a life of goodness, love, and joy. The seed of heaven is planted in this world. The growth of that seed is highly imperfect here, of course, but it is nevertheless real, and will flourish in the world to come. But then hell begins here as well, its seed likewise is planted here, and we see its fruit around us and sometimes within us as we live in this dying world. Sometimes we can actually feel its flames licking about our feet, in our own conscience and in our observation of life. What we lose, if we lose hell, is the meaning of life in this world and any connection between this world and the next. As one wise man put it:
“The kind-hearted humanitarians decided to improve on Christianity. The thought of hell offended their sensibilities. They closed it and to their surprise the gate of heaven closed also with a melancholy bang.” [H. McNeile Dixon in V. Grounds, “The Final State of the Wicked,” JETS 24/3 (1981) 215]
This was precisely the argument that Samuel Rutherford framed so memorably in his masterpiece, The Trial and Triumph of Faith. In replying to those who complain that God shouldn’t be able to hold us to account for a hell we cannot see, for punishments we cannot conceive, because if only we were shown such things we would certainly believe, Rutherford said,
“…but the truth is, if we believe not Moses and the prophets, neither should we believe for this; because we see with our eyes and hear with our ears, even while we are in this life, daily, pieces and little parcels of hell, for we see and hear daily, some tumbling in their blood, thousands cut down of our brethren, children, fathers,; malefactors hanged and quartered, death in every house. These be little hells, and like coals and sparkles of the great fire hell, and certain documents to us, that there is a hell…” [64-65]
Let me conclude by enumerating a few more things we lose if we lose hell.
- We lose the authority of the Bible and so, any firm knowledge of any truth concerning God, salvation, and the world to come. If we can jettison the Bible’s teaching about hell because it is unwelcome to us, or offends our sensibilities, then we are left having to admit that we will only believe what the Bible says if we happen to agree with it. If we don’t accept its harder teaching then it clearly has ceased to become a divine word to us. Your worldview becomes, in the nature of the case, simply a set of your own opinions and prejudices. As such it may comfort you for a time, but no one should pretend that it is the truth, truth with a capital T, the truth that will find us all out at the end of days.
- We lose, as I have already intimated, any foundation for the moral seriousness of life. The human will becomes an irrelevance. It is no accident that Eastern religions, which deny that there is a hell, likewise deny that there is free will and that men and women are responsible for the decisions that they make. Again, even the most ardent devotee of one of the eastern faiths never takes this seriously or works it out consistently in his or her own life – even if they have no free will, they certainly speak and act as if they do! – but take the point, hell is essential to free will and human accountability.
- It is worth saying again, what I’ve already said, that the eastern religions that teach there is no hell also deny absolute morality, as they should. There can be no objective distinction between good and evil if there is no judgment and no punishment for what every human being believes to be evil behavior, evil at least when committed by someone else.
- It is, strange to say, also essential to believe in hell if we wish to believe in the love of God. The existence of a God of perfect love cannot be confirmed by science or by the observation of nature – nature red in tooth and claw is as much evidence against that love than for it – or by history, more a record of selfishness than love, or by the human conscience, which condemns and approves but has no access to or power to achieve real objective forgiveness and reconciliation. We know God is love in one way only: from the revelation of God’s character in history – at the cross supremely – and in his Word. If we can’t believe that the Bible is right about hell, why should we believe it is right about the love of God?
So, let me conclude. We have been talking about doubts created by the Bible’s teaching of eternal punishment. First and foremost, we must form in our minds an intelligent and biblically sophisticated understanding of hell, at least in its generality, since no one can know much of anything specific about it or about its punishments. It is justice, perfect justice, administered by a God of perfect goodness. Second, we need to realize how sentimental and how unreasonable so often is the thinking of those who imagine that they can do away with hell and somehow retain everything they like in life or in the Christian faith. In a moral universe, hell is an essential foundation, without which nothing solid, lasting, and truly worthy can be built. So, while our doubts may trouble us from time to time, they should be answered and can be answered by the cold hard facts of divine revelation, of reason, and of the observation of life.
“We can understand hell in its aspect of privation. 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 reach and you have lost it forever.” [Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 148]
What you will not be able to say is that you had no idea this was coming.