The Seriousness of Life


Mark 9:38-50

It is not at all inappropriate or unfortunate that we come to this text during Advent. Advent is that time of year when we consider the “comings” of the Lord Jesus, his first coming and his second. He came first to save his people from their sins; he will come a second time to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. Salvation? What is that? Salvation from what? What if Jesus had not come into the world; what if he had not died on the cross? What then? Well, the Lord tells us here. And what of those who have not believed in him when he comes again? The King of Love, who gave himself for our salvation, explains what will happen to those who do not have it.

Text Comment

v.38

John does not seem to have got the lesson of the previous conversation about discipleship being a call to humble service. Being in the Lord’s inner circle has given him the idea that he has certain privileges that others do not. Notice his way of putting it: “he was not one of us,” literally, “he was not following us,”not, as we might have hoped, “he was not following you.” Mark often uses the verb “follow” as a term for discipleship, but in every other instance it is in reference to following Jesus; never Jesus and his disciples. There is something quite presumptuous in John’s remark. As one commentator puts it, “Never was the “royal we” less appropriate.” [Myers in France, 377] There is also a delicious, if depressing, irony, in that the disciples were telling a man to stop driving out demons, the very thing they themselves had failed to do on the previous occasion. He was apparently doing in Jesus’ name what they themselves had failed to do, as we saw above precisely because they were not relying on Jesus’ name. One commentator entitles this short section: ‘A Warning against Cliquishness.” [France, 375] The Lord is fostering a welcoming openness among his disciples as opposed to that protective exclusiveness so often a feature of religious groups, including Christian groups.

v.39

The logic is clear: anyone who has such power has it from the Lord himself and is not likely, therefore, to be an enemy!

v.40

You are aware, perhaps, that in Matt. 12:30 Jesus says a very different thing: “Whoever is not with me is against me…” The contexts of the two statements are very different – here the remark concerns an unaffiliated sympathizer; there it concerns declared enemies. We won’t take time to discuss all that. But, at this point, the disciples are in no position to be judging the credibility of someone else’s profession of faith!

v.41

True acts of discipleship, which are likely to be acts of humble service, the Lord takes as done to and for him and he will not fail to reward them. Here, for the first time, Jesus refers to himself as the Christ. That is now possible because the disciples have themselves reached the conclusion that he is and have confessed him to be the Christ. The connection between v. 40 and v. 41 is not obvious and neither are the connections between the several sayings that follow. They concern discipleship but may be simply a group of sayings on the general theme. Some of them, as you will immediately recognize, occur in other settings in the other synoptic Gospels, including the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.

v.42

As before in vv. 36-37, “little” is being used in reference not to children per se but to the Lord’s followers, his disciples, who are little in the ways the world counts greatness. The verb the NIV translates “cause to sin” means “cause to stumble” or “cause to offend.” The idea is not the commission of a single sin, but the destroying of someone’s faith, causing the spiritual shipwreck of one of the Lord’s followers.

v.43

Now we shift from spiritual danger posed to others to the danger posed to oneself.

v.48

The point is clear. Nothing – even those things we value most, such as our sight or a whole, healthy body – is worth losing eternal life for. People have done this, of course, as you know. As recently as last June the newspapers carried the story of a man who amputated his own leg after being trapped for hours under a fallen tree. A few years ago a hiker in Canyonlands National Park in eastern Utah amputated his right arm below the elbow with his pocketknife after it was pinned under boulder that fell on him. He did it because he had run out of water and knew he would not survive unless he was able to move. These men valued life more than limb and that is precisely the point of the Lord’s grotesque figure of speech. Eternal life is more important than anything. Far more important.

v.50

The final two sayings are difficult, their connection with what precedes is not entirely clear, and a great many interpretations have been offered in explanation. In general it is safe to say that they express the total commitment of the disciple to Jesus, the seriousness of that commitment, the possibility of it coming unstuck and the need to ensure that it does not. [France, 385]

When I was in high school it was required that we take a Driver’s Education Course. Most of that course was occupied with learning the rules of the road and practicing driving with the use of simulators that, while nowadays would seem hopelessly unsophisticated, were state of the art in 1967. But during one class period, I vividly remember, we were required to watch for the entire class hour films of horrifying traffic accidents. I recall that the title of one of those films was “Signal 30,” which was, at least at that time, the Ohio State Patrol’s radio code for a traffic fatality. One grisly accident scene after another was shown, forcing several students to leave the room to avoid fainting or throwing up. The purpose of the film was self-evident. It was designed to strike fear into the heart of every young driver; to scare him or her into driving cautiously, warily, and so safely. The message of those bloody accident scenes was simply that this same thing will happen to you if you aren’t careful.

Well, in a manner of speaking, that is what Jesus is doing here. He is telling you what will happen if you are not careful, if you do not take his summons seriously, and if you treat lightly the issue of eternal life. He uses terms – hell, the fire that never goes out, the worm that doesn’t die – that were familiar to the church of that day. He cites some of them from Isaiah 66:4. He is giving a warning, a terribly solemn warning about the seriousness of sin and unbelief. There are consequences, terrible consequences in the next life, consequences so terrible that they must be avoided at all costs.

We are halfway through the Gospel and this is the first instance of an explicit mention of hell or of divine judgment in the world to come. But, it is perfectly obvious here and elsewhere – in the Gospels and in the rest of the Bible – that this prospect of hell in the world to come for the unsaved is the explicit teaching of the Bible and the presupposition of everything it says about salvation. It is precisely because of this coming judgment and punishment that sinners must repent, of which repentance we read at the very outset of the Gospel of Mark. It is to save his people from this judgment that Jesus came into the world. Hell is not always the subject of the Lord’s teaching, to be sure; it is not even usually the subject of the Lord’s teaching; but it is explicitly and solemnly his teaching, it is often enough his teaching, and it is the assumption that underlies the rest of his teaching. Life is so terribly serious; the question of faith in Christ is so momentous precisely because so much is at stake. We may say of the biblical doctrine of hell, what a wise man once said of the biblical doctrine of divine election. This doctrine

“…is to all other doctrines what the granite formation is to the other strata of the earth. It underlies and sustains them, but it crops out only here and there.” [Hodge, Princeton Sermons, 6]

The Bible isn’t always talking about hell, but when it is not it is everywhere assuming its existence. We do not flinch from saying that the Christian faith stands or falls with its doctrine of hell, of divine justice to be meted out in the world to come. Its claims upon the commitments of men and women utterly depend upon this reality. If there is no hell, no punishment for the sinful and unbelieving, then the Bible, that clearly teaches such a place and such a punishment is proved in error at a critical point. If there is no hell then the Bible’s entire message of Jesus Christ as the savior of sinners loses all of its urgency. It was precisely this logic that led the famous revivalist, Billy Sunday, to quip: “If there is no hell, a lot of ministers are collecting money under false pretenses.”

But of course in our day, as you well know, there are many who are simply unimpressed by and uninterested in Jesus’ teaching of judgment in the next world for the unbelieving and unforgiven. Whatever they think about it – whether they believe in hell (as many people do) or are unsure (as many other people say they are) or positively doubt or deny its existence (as some people say they do) – they don’t take it seriously and they certainly aren’t ready to cut off a hand or pluck out an eye to be sure that they don’t go there. They do not even seriously and carefully study the question to be sure that they have an informed opinion and can defend their judgment.

There is something very odd about this widespread indifference. One might think that the very possibility of hell would cause concern, if not alarm. After all, there are certainly reasons to take seriously the possibility of punishment in the world to come.

It is interesting that the vast majority of people still have some belief in blessing and happiness in the next world. Belief in immortality is well nigh universal in the world and even in our secular Western world. That belief has been largely impervious to the attacks made upon it by unbelievers, materialists who believe that human existence is nothing but biology and ends at death. That is because this conviction that human life goes on beyond the grave is not the result of argument or study or reflection. It is rather a conviction deeply rooted in the human heart, a conviction self-evident and natural, and philosophical doubts usually do not reach it. It is a feature of our self-consciousness. It is “a mighty, ineradicable witness that arises from human nature itself and maintains itself in the face of all contrary argumentation and opposition.” [H. Bavinck, The Last Things, 26] The arguments that can be offered for this belief, powerful as they are, therefore, are not really the reasons for it, but witnesses to something that was there before the arguments were even thought of. Virtually everything that human beings are deeply convinced of, every longing of their heart, every sense of higher purpose and goodness that they find within themselves, loses its meaning immediately and utterly if there is no world to come and if this life is all that there is and ever shall be for human beings. No matter the strength or the seriousness or the sophistication of their belief in life after death, vast multitudes of people live as if man survives the grave.

From the viewpoint of this world alone no satisfying explanation of human life can be given. Meaning, justice, goodness, even love all disappear as real things if our existence in this world is the entire story of human life. They become nothing but ideas, feelings, akin to the feeling of a full stomach or a stomach ache. Good and evil are the same if there is no heaven or hell. In the battle between God and the Devil, the Devil wins. All the great longings of the human heart for what is higher and better are nothing but the cruel mocking of a pitiless and meaningless universe if there is no hereafter. Human beings know this. That is why they believe in life after death and why they believe in heaven. They cannot deny their nature as morally significant beings. But if they believe in heaven, why do they not take as seriously the possibility of hell? What is it that makes heaven more real to them than hell? Is it simply the age-old tendency of human beings to believe what they wish to be true? They don’t believe in hell because they don’t want there to be one?

The very notion of immortality, of the continued moral existence of mankind after death, is sustained by the actual experience of mankind in this life. People think they know something about heaven because they have had wonderful experiences of life in this world. They can quite easily imagine life that is full of those sorts of experiences: love and joy, satisfaction and fulfillment, fun and fellowship, peace and harmony, beauty and awe. Heaven is meaningful to them because it offers more of what they have so much enjoyed in this life and more of what they realize human beings have been created to experience and to enjoy.

But why then not hell for the same reasons? For there is surely a great deal in this world that in a similar way invites our imagination of hell. We know that the biblical ways of describing hell are imaginative and metaphorical. Fire, darkness, and worms are figures of speech. Taken literally they cancel one another out. But we know very well what they mean. We know about gnashing teeth, about the bitter recollection of wasted opportunities, about the frustration of unfulfillment; we know about the worm, about the gnawing of a guilty conscience; and we know about fire, about the pain and shame and waste of punishments imposed upon those who sin. We see terrible wickedness all around us in this world, the misery and agony of whole nations and peoples and of individual families and private lives. We see terrible penalties meted out upon evil doers, even in our unjust world, and we see so many other evil doers escape any real penalty. Some have said that Auschwitz made belief in God impossible; is it not perfectly obvious that Auschwitz rather made belief in hell all the more plausible. This world rings with punishment and with punishment not yet imposed. We see sin every where that has not yet been punished. Human beings know and cannot deny – try as they might – that good and evil, justice and injustice are not merely ideas; they are real things. And that means hell exists, because there is so much justice to come.

We want to go to heaven because we want more of the good we have tasted here. But does not that very longing require us to believe that all that is wrong here in this world must likewise be dealt with in the next? We are admitting in the one case that human life is an anticipation of the next world. We have been made for such enjoyment, such fulfillment. But is there not just as much, if not more in human life that is an anticipation of hell? Our sense of justice is often offended when those who do wrong are not punished. We have a passion to see justice done in many cases in which it is not done. One of the worst features of this world for us is its injustice: the harm done by some to others and with seeming impunity. Is this not an argument for judgment in the world to come? There is so much punishment in this world as it is. So many pay for their crimes or, at least, suffer some consequences for what they do or fail to do. Is this not an argument that men and women will have to answer for their lives in the next world? And would not a God of perfect justice see to the punishment of those who have done wrong? And is it not also true – do we not know it is true – that some sins that are committed in life have consequences that last a lifetime. No one can say who lives in this world that a lifetime of sin would not bring punishment that went on and on!

As has often been pointed out, there is no stronger proof of the existence of hell than the existence of this world from whose miseries all the features of the biblical picture of hell are derived. As the German playwright, August Strindberg put it, “Don’t you believe in hell – you who are living in one?” [Bavinck, 152; 202n19] The fact and reality of hell is with us already, as surely as is the fact and reality of heaven. We see it and we see the reasons for it everywhere we look.

Why then do people ignore this reality; why do they push it to the furthest recesses of their mind? Why do they domesticate hell, as they do by making light of it, using it as a mild oath? “What the hell…” “The hell of it is…” “Go to hell…”?

Well, there are many reasons. 1) A person’s self-love prevents him from facing the truth about his sin and guilt. To think seriously about hell he would have to think seriously about sin and that he does not want to do because he would have to implicate himself. 2) A person’s rebellion against God – that refusal to bow the knee that is the first result of the fall – means that hell must not be taken seriously. To take it seriously would be to take God seriously and that, by nature, human beings do not intend to do. 3) And, then, hell must fundamentally change a person’s outlook on life. Jesus says here that it must and will. Things you enjoyed doing before you will no longer do because such are the things that take people to hell. Things you never wanted to do before you now must do because such are the things that people do who have no intention of going to hell. These and other reasons explain people’s indifference to what one would have thought everyone would be most concerned about: even the bare possibility of going to hell.

But I think there are even more immediate reasons why people do not think about or take seriously the existence of hell and of divine judgment in the world to come. They cannot see God and so it is easy to live as if he were not real. They cannot see God in his holiness and so they don’t fear his holiness, they hardly think about it if they ever do. They cannot see his displeasure with their sin or the offense he takes at it and so they don’t fear that displeasure and that offense.

I read a very interesting article on pornography the other day in First Things, the valuable journal dedicated to issues of religion and culture and written from a broadly Christian viewpoint. The entire article was valuable, but I was particularly arrested by the opening two paragraphs.

“Back in college, before he was a successful lawyer and practicing Catholic, a friend of mine was at his fraternity house one night, partying with his friends while they waited for a stripper to arrive. And arrive she did, beginning her performance – only to catch my friend’s eye. She froze. So did he. They had been in high school together. She gathered up her things and fled.

There’s something quaint about this story. It could have taken place in the 1990s or the 1890s. It involved a live sex performance with real flesh-and-blood human beings. And when their gazes met, she and he suddenly knew the same thing: This was a woman with parents, and siblings, and maybe children, and certainly friends, and a history, which presumably once included dreams that had gone horribly wrong. She even had enough shame – more shame than he did, at the time – that she would not dance for someone who knew her real name.” [Jason Byassee, “Not Your Father’s Pornography,” First Things 179 (January 2008) 15]

She was fine with what she was doing so long as no one knew who she was, so long as no one knew who it was who was doing what she was doing. As soon as she was discovered; as soon as she was seen by someone who knew her, she felt powerfully the nature of what she was doing, the shameful and dehumanizing nature of what she was doing. In other words, it makes all the difference in the world whether we are and remain anonymous in our sinful behavior – or virtually anonymous – or our sin is on display to people who know us, who matter to us, people whose judgment matters to us, people who are in a position to pass a meaningful judgment on who we are and what we are doing.

Sin was not sin to her and shame was not shame until the right person caught her at it! So long as God remains remote, never in the room, never a witness to our thoughts, words, and deeds, it is easy for us to live as if he did not know; as if he did not even exist. We may acknowledge that he does, but in our daily life people hardly ever think about him and they do not relate their lives and living to him. It is as if he were not there. If God is not there, if he is not real to us; sin will not be real and hell will certainly not be real either.

This is why it is always so shattering for people to come face to face with God. In a moment of stunning realization they know that this God, this person of infinite holiness, has always been there. He knows everything about them. They have kept no secrets from him. And they have lived their lives before him in open rebellion against his will. They have flaunted his law and his commandments. He made them; but they have not considered his holiness or his character at all! And in that moment they see the gates of hell thrown open. Then they understand, just as the man with a fallen tree across his leg or a boulder pinning his arm beneath it, that any measure, however extreme, is justified if by that means one can avoid going to hell.

As one wise man said,

“Hell is scorched through and through by the holiness of God; it is there as all pervasive and inescapable as in heaven.” [R.A. Finlayson, God’s Light on Man’s Destiny]

Hell is what it is because God is who he is; even the God of infinite love and sovereign mercy; who is always as well the God of holiness and justice.

And one thing more. People don’t think seriously about hell because they aren’t really sure about heaven. It has often been pointed out that no one who denies the existence of hell has a really robust hope of and living confidence in heaven. The two belong together. Zion and Gehenna, the places that embodied heaven and hell, remember, were very close together: the temple mount in the city and the valley right outside the city walls where Jerusalem’s refuse was burned. They must be close together as well in the hearts and minds of anyone who is to understand either place. You cannot see hell except with heaven in the background and vice versa.

It is very often when people come to see heaven as a reality, a destiny as certain as their own existence, that they come to see hell in the same way. But men cannot reckon with heaven, not really, until they know that they can go there. They cannot think seriously about heaven until their uneasy conscience and their fear of God has been assuaged. People cannot bear to face the facts about their sin and guilt before a holy God unless and until they know there is some solution to that terrible problem. Which is why the people who take hell seriously are the very ones who take heaven seriously and why those who care the most about evading hell are the ones who are sure that Christ has opened for them the gates of heaven.

Well, you and I, brothers and sisters, are such people. We know of God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. We know that he has opened the way for us to everlasting life. We know heaven and so we know hell. So let us heed our Savior’s solemn warning – we of all people – and live our lives taking care at every turn not to take the way to hell but only the way to heaven. As the great Chrysostom put it in one of his sermons:

“To remember hell prevents our falling into hell.”