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Monday, September 30, 2013

Are We Going to Hell?

“Are We Going to Hell?” (Jude 20-23)

          It was about 14 years ago.  A 22 year old man, the son of one our deacons, was living with his girlfriend.  I was an unmarried, pastor fresh out of seminary, and this couple was not much younger than me.  They came to church often and made no attempt to hide their living arrangement.  Why should they?  Cohabitation was celebrated on shows like Friends and Seinfeld.  There was nothing wrong with a man and woman living together except sex outside of marriage is a complete violation of God’s way for humans, and they knew that.  Instead of enjoying the blessings God gives and waiting, they jumped the gun thinking they knew better than God.
They decided they needed to talk the pastor, so they came in.  Sitting in my office, she asked in giggle, “Are we going to Hell?” 
The issue is not an unmarried couple shacking up.  That is an example, but the issue itself is deeper.  It is a matter of sin.  They knew their choice was against God’s vision for humanity, but they did what they wanted.
Are we going to Hell?  Giggle – he can’t seriously say, “Yes.”  Nervous giggle – in our choice to live together before marriage, we know that we actively choose to reject God. 
What is Hell? 
Last week we looked briefly at universalism, the notion that all people are eventually saved and with God for eternity.  Many Christian universalists believe in Hell.  They believe the fires of Hell exist to purify those who have reject God’s grace. 
In the New Testament all people are confronted with a choice.  We have to choose to follow Jesus.  We have to decide to worship God.  We can opt to reject God’s ways but this means we separate ourselves from God.  If we die separated from God, the separation is forever.  That is what we call Hell.
In Matthew 10, Jesus is teaching his disciples.  He says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (10:28).
In a parable in Matthew 24, Jesus compares people to slaves.   God is the master, one who is absent.  The absence refers to the time between Jesus’ crucifixion and his second coming at the end of time.  The slave who is “at work” when the master unexpectedly returns will receive the master’s blessing.  From context we know that “at work” means announcing the Kingdom of God as we love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.
However, not all slaves do this work in the master’s absence.  Some violate the master’s commands.  Sin – every sin you can think of – is how the master’s way is rejected.  When we sin, we reject God.  Jesus says the master will come and will “cut the [wicked slaves] to pieces and put [them] with the hypocrites where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (24:45-51).
In the next parable, at the beginning of Matthew 25, people are represented as bridesmaids and Jesus is the bridegroom.  The bridesmaids are to wait outside in the dark.  Thus, they need their lamps lit.  The oil for the lamps is the symbol for faith in Jesus.  The foolish bridesmaids have no oil.  The master comes and those who have oil, those who have put their faith in Christ, are invited into the wedding banquet.  The foolish ones then try to enter, but the master says, “I do not know you.”
Thus from Jesus we can say the following:
-         Hell is worse than having one’s body killed (Matthew 10:28)
-         Judgment is like being cut to pieces and put among Hypocrites where teeth are gnashed (Matthew 24:51).
-         Hell is like seeing into the Heavenly banquet, but having Jesus reject you, by saying I don’t know you (Matthew 25:12).
Additionally, in other parables, Jesus indicates the following:
-         Hell is outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth Matthew 25:30).
-         Hell is eternal fire (Matthew 25:41; also implied in Luke 16:24).
-         Hell is eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46).

We could cite many other Bible verses, but I will for the sake of time just read the following, Jude 5-7.  Jude is the short letter right before Revelation.  It is only divided by verses, not chapters.  Jude 5-7 says:
Don’t forget what happened to those people that the Lord rescued from Egypt. Some of them did not have faith, and he later destroyed them. You also know about the angels[a] who didn’t do their work and left their proper places. God chained them with everlasting chains and is now keeping them in dark pits until the great Day of Judgment. We should also be warned by what happened to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah[b] and the nearby towns. Their people became immoral and did all sorts of sexual sins. Then God made an example of them and punished them with eternal fire.

          Two schools of thought take many of the verses related to Hell or judgment and punishment, verse found in Matthew, Luke, Jude, Revelation, and throughout the New Testament, in very different directions.  The most common reading among scholars is that the Bible teaches that the punishment for sin is everlasting torment, a punishment God imposes out of holy hatred of sin.  The great American theologian of the 18th century, Jonathan Edwards, has written extensively on how awful Hell is and how much each one of us deserves it.  His sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and his essay “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” are examples of his writing on this topic.     
          An alternative view, one held by a minority of scholars, is the annihilationist view.  The most prominent among recent theologians to lean in this direction is English evangelical scholar John Stott.  A leader in global movements to spread the Gospel, Stott shocked many of his evangelical colleagues when he expressed that he could not tolerate the idea of eternal conscious suffering.  He found annihilation more appealing.  Annihilation is simply the idea that we suffer in Hell for a time, and then we are forever wiped out of existence.  There is no suffering because we are no more. 
          Proponents of both views refer to the same scriptures, but debate how the passages are to be understood.  For example, in Matthew 25:41 Jesus says, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  Traditionalists triumphantly say, see, Jesus says eternal fire.  Eternal punishment.
          No!  The annihilationist responds.  Fire burns something and then it burns up.  What is eternal is the effect.  It is eternal punishment because once it has happened, there is no undoing it or going beyond it.  And they go back and forth
The debate is worth following, but I have a confession.  I do not know which is accurate.  I feel comfortable rejecting universalism based on my reading of the New Testament.  I don’t know whether proponents of eternal conscious torment or those arguing for annihilation are right.  I am sure, from my own reading of scripture, that there are eternal negative consequences for dying in sin. 
          It matters.  This conversation is important for every one of us.  In “the Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” Jonathan Edwards writes
But God is a being infinitely lovely, because he hath infinite excellency and beauty. To have infinite excellency and beauty, is the same thing as to have infinite loveliness. He is a being of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory; and therefore he is infinitely honourable. He is infinitely exalted above the greatest potentates of the earth, and highest angels in heaven; and therefore he is infinitely more honourable than they. His authority over us is infinite; and the ground of his right to our obedience is infinitely strong; for he is infinitely worthy to be obeyed himself, and we have an absolute, universal, and infinite dependence upon him.
So that sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and so deserving of infinite punishment.[i]

          He is obviously a traditionalist, but what I appreciate most about Edwards is the recognition of how grave sin is.  And this takes me back to the encounter I had at the beginning of my journey as a pastor. 
“Are we going to Hell?”  The young woman asked me through an uncertain giggle.  We giggle at sin.  We laugh out loud.  We pay to see it. 
Of the top grossing films in 2012, none were rated G.  Six were rated PG.  Thirteen were rated PG-13.  And six were rated R.[ii]  The G rating, of course, is for all audiences and is typically the rating for harmless children’s movies.  What they call “adult” content is added for PG movies, and then more is added for PG-13.  You can be sure in a PG-13 movie you’ll hear some foul language and see some content that suggests either sex or violence.  And it escalates with R-rated movies and those rates NC-17.  Why is it called “adult” content, instead of morally damaging content?  Why is alcohol an “adult” beverage instead of an addictive drug that kills brain cells? 
I do not suggest that drinking a beer or seeing an R-rated movie is cause for going to Hell.  However, the New Testament condemns drunkenness. We snicker and ignore someone who questions it, especially a preacher.  Do we snicker at the New Testament? 
The New Testament demands sexual purity in word and in behavior.  We laugh at dirty jokes.
We don’t take sin seriously enough.  We love God’s grace and forgiveness and we should. Jesus went to the cross for the sins of the world.  Sin is so awful that the one who never sinned was betrayed, abandoned, humiliated in a mockery of a trial, and then beaten and crucified.  In the process, he experienced abandonment.  That’s how harsh sin is.  That’s what Jesus went through.  We treat it is as a joke. 
As Paul writes in Romans 6, “Sin pays off with death.”  To die having never repented and never called on Jesus as Lord and never received forgiveness in His name is to die in sin.  It is to die apart from God – forever.  There is no recovery once we enter forever. 
On the other hand, to repent is to turn from sin.  It is to call on Jesus as Lord and to receive His forgiveness and receive life in His name.  When we do that, He is in our lives permanently.  From that point forward, everything we do, we do in the Holy Spirit’s presence. 
          A crude joke is told.  Would I laugh if Jesus were present?  He is in Holy Spirit form. 
Would Jesus be aligned with my heart attitude if he knew my heart’s attitude?  He knows.  He lives in my heart. 
Whether my sin is murder or the nastiest language I can muster or silent affirmation of sins around me, it is sin that God abhors sin and punishes.  Sin always results in pain and loss and alienation from God.
          I have not settled the debate – Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment or Hell as a place of punishment that is followed by annihilation.  But, I know what Hell is. Hell is living with all the pain sin brings forever, with no hope of rescue from God.
          Today, we have that hope of rescue.  Today, we can turn from our sins and receive Jesus.  If you do that, it does not mean going forward you must strive to avoid sin.  Sin avoidance always fails.  We won’t stop sinning because we try hard to stop sinning.  We aren’t that strong.  We need help and we have it.  Receiving Jesus means He takes up residence in us and we live in grace, joy, and love.  We sin less and our lives are oriented away from sin when we spend our lives seeking Him.
          My prayer is that a talk about Hell will lead to us seeking rescue from sin by turning to Jesus.  We constantly seek Jesus and seek to love hurting people and introduce to Him to those who don’t know Him.  As to Hell, we do well to read Jude read verse 20-23.
20 Dear friends, keep building on the foundation of your most holy faith, as the Holy Spirit helps you to pray. 21 And keep in step with God’s love, as you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to show how kind he is by giving you eternal life. 22 Be helpful to[g] all who may have doubts. 23 Rescue any who need to be saved, as you would rescue someone from a fire. Then with fear in your own hearts, have mercy on everyone who needs it. But hate even the clothes of those who have been made dirty by their filthy deeds.

            Hate sin, love people, and share the Gospel.  Heaven or Hell is riding on it.

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