STUDIES IN ESCHATOLOGY No. 19
Hell, No. 4
November 23, 2003
Tonight we conclude our studies on the destiny of the lost as part of our larger series on the Bible’s doctrine of the future, or eschatology. We begin tonight by listening once more to some of our Lord’s remarks on this solemn subject.
“I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the
day of judgment than for that town.” Matt. 10:15
“They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and
gnashing of teeth.” Matt. 13:42, 50
“It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or
two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.” Matt. 18:18-19
“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.’” Matt. 25:41
“Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if
he had not been born.” Matt. 26:24
“In hell, where he was in torment…he called…‘I am in agony in this fire.’ ” Luke
“…their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” Mark 9:48
With our Savior’s consistent, emphatic, fearful warning, with the voice of the Son of God, the Judge himself, ringing in our ears, let me ask you what ought to be our response to these things?
I. Well, first, it ought to be a seriousness, a sobriety, a solemnity about life.
Christians ought to be serious people, knowing what they know about how life ends for people, what awaits, how impossibly high the stakes. One of the things that has always marked the best periods of Christian living in the world and the life of the deepest and most devout of believers has been this holy seriousness.
Here is the famous English Puritan Richard Baxter:
“Seriousness is the very thing wherein consists our sincerity. If thou are not
serious, thou are not a Christian. It is not only a high degree in Christianity,
but the very life and essence of it. As fencers on a stage differ from soldiers
fighting for their lives, so hypocrites differ from serious Christians. [Saints
Rest, in the one vol. Practical Works, 46]
What often strikes the thoughtful Christian when he reads the literature of Christianity’s past is how serious it all is; so much more so than much of what Christians write today.
In one of the last sermons that Robert Murray McCheyne preached to his congregation at St. Peter’s in Dundee, before he suddenly took sick and died at 29 years of age, though so young, by all accounts one of the godliest men of his day or any day, was from the text, Mark 9:44: “Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” In that sermon he made the memorable point that the reason he had to preach so clearly about eternal punishment was that only in that way could he discharge the duty laid upon him by his own conscience.
“Jesus did not want your blood laid at his door, therefore he spoke of the furnace of fire and of the worm that dieth not…. So it is with ministers – we must acquit our conscience; and if you go to the judgment seat unpardoned, unsaved, your blood will be one your own hands. As I was walking in the fields yesterday, that thought came with overwhelming power into my mind, that every one I preached to would soon stand before the judgment seat and be sent either to heaven or hell. Therefore, brethren, I must warn you, I must tell you about hell.”
Baxter put it more simply. He preached, he once said as never sure to preach again, as a dying man to dying men.
Contemplating the issue of life and the inevitability of death ought to make anyone serious. It is this logic that lies behind Pascal’s famous “wager.” Pascal’s point was that no one can prove, by the power of reason alone, in the sense of a mathematical proof, that the existence of human beings ends at death; no one can prove in a laboratory that God will not be a righteous judge and call men to account for their lives; no one can prove that it is a matter of indifference what view they have toward God and Christ while they live in this world. You may have your opinion about these matters (and, of course, Pascal had no doubts himself), but you cannot prove by reason the one outcome or the other. But, you must die, you must face the future, you cannot prevent that from happening. In that sense you must wager. You must risk your future.
Why, then, Pascal says to the unbeliever, would you risk all on the worst possible outcome, viz. that there is a God, there is a judgment, there is a hell and you made no effort to avoid the wrath of God? If you are correct that there is no God and no hell, you have gained nothing. If you are wrong, you have lost everything.
Well, it is precisely that fact, the utter seriousness of what is at stake, that ought to leave its mark on the Christian who knows what is to come, who knows what awaits the unbeliever. And not the unbeliever only, but the church member who takes far too much for granted.
Listen, if there was ever a man who could have taken his salvation for granted it was the Apostle Paul. Converted by the personal appearance of Jesus Christ to him on the Damascus road, the great champion of Gentile evangelism, founder of many churches, writer of a large portion of the NT, faithful servant of the Lord throughout his Christian life, suffering all manner of trial and indignity for the gospel’s sake, surely this man could concentrate on other things than his own salvation. But hear him in the 9th chapter of 1 Corinthians:
“I beat my body and make it my slave lest having preached to others, I myself
would be disqualified for the prize.”
When hell awaits, when damnation looms as a reality over human existence, those who know it and treat that reality as it deserves to be treated will be serious people. We will not live our lives utterly forgetful of the terrible destiny that awaits those who do not obey the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We will be careful and thoughtful and serious about our lives and about the lives of others. We will take the truth to heart and keep it alive and working there in our hearts. We will be people who look to others as if we think life is an altogether serious business with impossibly immense consequences.
In The Holy War John Bunyan has a character called Mr. Meditation. He had a weekly agenda for his thoughts, for the secret thoughts of his heart. It ran like this: “Monday: death; Tuesday: judgment; Wednesday: heaven; Thursday: hell; Friday: my past life back to my youth; Saturday: the passion of my Savior; The Lord’s Day: creation, salvation, and my own.” What kind of life must come of a man who thinks that way. I will tell you: among other things, it will be a serious life. It will be the kind of life that communicates to others a sense of the immensity of the issues of human life and the absolute importance of taking those issues seriously.
II. In the second place, it will be a sympathetic, kindly life.
Listen to Harry Blamires, the one-time student and then colleague of C.S. Lewis who has written a perceptive book on heaven and hell. [Knowing the Truth About Heaven and Hell, 1-2]
“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. It was largely due to the slaughter on the Western front and at Gallipoli. Many of the children I knew lived on a local housing estate which had been hurriedly built to fulfill Prime Minister 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.
What happened to the socks? Perhaps they found their way into those battered suitcases which ex-servicemen used to carry around from house to house. They would knock on the door and, when it was opened, lay the case down on the step to prevent the door being closed in their faces. They lifted the lid to display for sale a collection of dusters, scrub brushes, dishcloths, bootlaces, reels of cotton, shoe polish, buttons, elastic, and other miscellany. My mother always bought something, explaining to her children that the man’s dismal need to earn a living in this way was due to the War.
These hawkers did at least, generally speaking, have the usual number of arms and legs, eyes and ears. Their less fortunate fellows tended to 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.
It was said by adults that not all such claimants to public sympathy were genuine ex-servicemen. But where a leg, or an arm, or an eye, or a section of face was missing, the claim to sympathy could scarcely be disputed.
You can feel the sympathy rising in your hearts toward people like that who had to live like that. I know you do feel compassion for such people. But, you see, everyone without Christ is to become such a person! With the eyes of faith, we can see people already – no matter their circumstances in this world – disfigured and despairing for what has overtaken them and for the existence that stretches before them. I have said often enough in speaking about the Bible’s teaching regarding hell that intimations of it are all around us all the time. And when we see such intimations, such foreshadowings, such anticipations of hell, surely it should not only cause us to fear, it should awaken a great compassion and sympathy in our hearts for those who are going there! We should find the sight of unbelievers a constant source of tenderness in our hearts. It is as if we should be able to see hell itself in the background when we look at them. It was so in the Lord’s case.
“Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how many times would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not.”
Many of you have heard or read this famous passage from Lewis’ immortal essay The Weight of Glory. [14-15]
“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of those destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
Now, ordinarily, one applies that thought to the Christian brother or sister who is soon to become a person so wonderful that, could we see him or her now, we might be very tempted to fall down in worship. That is a very healthy thing to remember about fellow Christians – what they will someday become and about their failings and their sins. We should remember what they will someday become. It changes the way we think about them. But, don’t you see, it is the same with regard to the unbeliever. We should also think about him or her now, today, at present with a view to what he or she will some day become – “a horror and a corruption such as you now met, if at all, only in a nightmare.”
I tell you there is not a person you dislike enough – not a single person in the world who is so disgusting to you and so hateful and so unworthy and so evil – that, if you have Christian blood in your veins, you would not pity and mourn and weep for if only you could see them as they will be someday in hell. Should that fact not animate us in our view of others, especially those who are our enemies as Christians in the world. Should not our knowledge of the future of those who do not obey the gospel of Jesus Christ, our knowledge of what awaits them – so wholly unaware of this as they are – I say, should not our knowledge of their future move us to sympathy and compassion even in the case of those who make our life difficult. “Father forgive them, pity them, show kindness to them, for they know not what is to come.”
So it will be both a serious life and a sympathetic life, and that in spades, that is produced when one takes to heart the truth of divine judgment and eternal punishment.
III. In the third place, it will be a joyful life.
Perhaps you don’t think so. Perhaps you think that a life dominated by the prospect of real doom for many people would be instead a dismal life, a depressing life, a life constantly born down by the sorrow all around you. But while it is and should be a serious and sympathetic life, it is also a joyful life. How does Paul describe the Christian in 2 Cor. 6? “Sorrowful, but always rejoicing.” And the reason of course is that hell has been vanquished for those who are in Christ.
If you have ever read histories of the two World Wars you will know that the end of those wars were greeted with a strange and powerful combination of ecstasy and grief. People poured into the streets to celebrate, unable to contain the joy of victory finally won. And yet for many, even many who were giving vent to their great joy, tears of sorrow were, at the same time, streaming down their faces, for the loved ones lost, for the desolation of so many they knew and loved, for the terrible price that had been paid for the victory they were celebrating.
One of the most famous photographs taken in the 20th century was that of the sailor kissing a white uniformed nurse amongst the crowds on a New York City street in celebration of VE day in 1945, the end of the war in Europe. It was a picture of pure joy and rightly so! But the joy did not mean that there was not great grief to remember and to feel keenly on that same happy day for all the loss, all the death that had led up to that happy day. For every sailor kissing a nurse there was some father or mother sitting on a stoop weeping for the son who would never return.
Well, it is something like that. Salvation is grand beyond the power of words to describe and no one and nothing can detract from its grandeur, its glory, its pure, unmitigated joy. But it is a joy so true and so pure and so authentic, a joy that has such perfect human integrity that it can exist alongside sorrow, sympathy, compassion, and grieving for those who have missed this joy.
It is very interesting to me that while we are told that in heaven God shall wipe every tear from our eyes, it is nevertheless said, earlier in Revelation (6:10) that there are even in the heavenly country the true human emotions of sorrow and of wishing for another outcome than had to be. If God himself wishes for what he, in his perfect wisdom, chooses not to bring to pass – and he does, for the Bible says that at one level he wishes the salvation of every human being – then, why should we think that it will not be so for perfect human beings. I don’t know precisely what that means, but I am glad to ponder the fact that our joy, even in heaven, will not be any less a gospel joy, a joy that has integrity, a joy that is not unmindful of those who are not with us in the City of God.
And what will deepen and purify that joy beyond all our present comprehension? The full knowledge we will have of what should have been our own lot in the world to come, what we deserved, instead of what we received by the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. No one knows what it is like, what it truly means to be healthy better than the person who has been very sick. No one knows the pleasure of wealth so much as the one who has been very poor. And know one will know the true joy of eternal life, basking in the glory of God, feeling LIFE itself coursing through our bodies, realizing in an instant that we are here, and safe on heaven’s shore, feeling within ourselves a perfectly pure heart filled to every corner with love, except that person who has also looked into hell and seen what so easily might have been! No one will be able to keep that joy from rising in the heart and overtaking the life. Think for a moment what you are going to think and feel when, in that moment, you open your eyes and find yourself in heaven when it might not have been so!
Tell me then: is this not the life that the reality of eternal punishment should produce in Christians? A serious, sympathetic, joyful life. Is that not the life you wish to live and know you ought to live?
It is the life that they will live who believe and obey the Bible’s teaching regarding the destiny of the lost, of those who do not truly follow the Lord Jesus Christ. So if I have invited you tonight to live that worthy life of seriousness, of sympathy, and of joy that is the inheritance of those who know the truth about hell and that they have been saved from it by Jesus Christ, let me once more warn you to be sure to find yourself among that number. Let me remind you that it is very easy to think – that large numbers of people who have spent their lives in Christian churches have thought – that one is a Christian and one is saved when one is not. Hell is the reason to be sure that we are actually following Christ and not merely pretending to do so.
There is an old inscription in the cathedral in Lűbeck, Germany that reads:
You call me Maker, and obey me not.
You call me Light, and see me not.
You call me Way, and take me not.
You call me Life, and desire me not.
You call me Wise, and follow me not.
You call me Fair, and love me not.
You call me Rich, and ask me not.
You call me Eternal, and seek me not.
You call me Gracious, and trust me not.
You call me Noble, and serve me not.
You call me Mighty, and honor me not.
If I condemn you, blame me not.
Not for you brothers and sisters. For you, the full and grateful embrace of Christ’s salvation, all that it is now and all that it shall some day be, and living all your days in the light and power of that glorious deliverance from the second death.