Our Biggest Fear

Title: Our Biggest Fear

Text: Matthew 25:41, 46, Matthew 10:28, Revelations 14:9-11, 20:10

Time: August 27th, 2010

I recently had a lengthy conversation with a member of the cult group Jehovah’s Witnesses on my doorstep. He tried to convince me that there was no hell, no everlasting punishment for sin, only death in the grave. Today, lots of people have a problem with the doctrine of hell. I think I already mentioned a few months back my encounter with a group of fellow-evangelical pastors here in town, many of whom I know from various fellowships including a weekly pastor’s prayer meeting that I’ve attended from time-to-time. They had just written and jointly-signed an op-ed article in the local paper criticizing a local church group for picketing the nearby spiritualist séance community Lily Dale and for displaying signs saying, “God sends false prophets to the everlasting punishment of hell.” The pastors wrote to protest the protesters by apologizing in their article to the citizens of Lily Dale and arguing that God doesn’t ever send a soul to hell. Bothered by these pastors and their objections to the classic, historic Christian doctrine of hell, I wrote my own op-ed article for the newspaper to protest the protestors of the protestors! My point was that as objectionable as the fundamentalist group picketing Lily Dale acted, they at least did have their theology correct, and ironically, it was the evangelical pastors who were in error, actually theological heresy, for objecting to the Christian doctrine of hell. Another example of how unpopular the doctrine of everlasting punishment is today. In still another case, I just finished reading a book on spiritual unbelief in Western civilization, by British evangelical theologian Alister McGrath who claims that one of the main causes for atheism is the doctrine of eternal damnation taught by churches. And while he doesn’t come out and deny the doctrine himself, it’s obvious that he thinks Christianity needs to be careful in teaching about the doctrine of hell because it’s so repulsive to modern thinking. According to McGrath, the American evangelist of the late nineteenth century Dwight L. Moody experienced success in his evangelistic campaigns in Britain because he avoided the doctrine of hell altogether in his preaching. I hope this account of Moody isn’t true, but if it is, I don’t think it’s something positive to say about his ministry, but instead something negative. My point in bringing all this up is to say that today there is a strong dislike for any kind of teaching about eternal spiritual punishment. People will listen and approve of a message about the love of God, but they will react negatively against any talk of God’s wrath or punishment of sinners, especially eternal damnation. But here’s the problem – God’s Word teaches about both the love of God and the wrath of God. Jesus taught of heaven and hell. We can’t simply close our eyes to reality because it’s unpleasant to think about. If hell is a place such as the Bible describes it, we must teach and warn people about it in order to save them from it. We can’t simply stop talking about it because it isn’t popular or because it bothers people. We’ve got to trust that there’s a good reason that God’s Word contains warnings about hell. God knew what he was doing when he inspired the holy prophets, the authors of the biblical books, to warn of everlasting punishment. It’s not up to us to omit what God includes in his special revelation to us. We must hear it and heed the warning. So with that bit of an introduction, let me explain a little about hell.

First, it’s not just the grave. Matthew 10:28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Jesus is encouraging his disciples to continue on teaching the gospel message even in the face of opposition. Believers shouldn’t give up the faith in order to save themselves because the worse that can happen is they lose their life, but their soul will live on in eternal life with God. People shouldn’t fear dying because it’s only the body that dies, but what they should fear is the destruction of the soul in hell. Now it’s pretty clear from the context that hell here means what the traditional Christian understanding of it teaches – eternal, conscious punishment. But the Jehovah’s Witness and a growing number of people today refuse to accept the classic biblical teaching, and so change it to mean simply death in the grave. That’s what the JW at my doorstep was teaching, that is, when you die in sin or unbelief from God your punishment is that you stay dead in the grave, you never wake up but forever remain unconscious after your physical death. They even make the argument that the Greek word for hell in this instance is gehenna, which in Hebrew literally means “The Valley of Hinnom” which was a burning garbage pit outside of Jerusalem in which some criminals were thrown after their execution. So from this JW’s and others argue that hell in this instance is only the grave. The lost die and their soul perishes along with their body in the grave; they are not resurrected to eternal life. Well, that teaching certainly is more comforting than the classical, historic Christian doctrine of hell as eternal, conscious punishment, but it doesn’t actually fit the context of this and other verses. For example, the word “destroy” in this verse doesn’t merely mean a one-time act of annihilation, but rather a continuous action of punishment. There are other verses that are used to attempt to prove that the soul dies in the grave and only those who are saved will awaken to eternal life, but they don’t fit when we examine all the verses that deal with the subject of death and hell — as I’ll talk about in just a minute. In a way, it would be better if this new, alternative teaching were true because I have to admit, I’m not real comfortable with doctrine of hell and damnation. Even as a saved person, someone whose sins have been forgiven by the atoning work of Christ on the cross, someone who doesn’t fear eternal punishment, still, I feel awful that there is a terrible place called hell and that anybody could or would go there. I don’t feel too bad about the Devil and demons going there, but ordinary sinners going there, the unsaved, I feel bad about that. You can see why there is pressure to modify or even do away with the doctrine of hell completely, it’s so awful. But we mustn’t live in denial. Hell is real; the Bible teaches it. Let me explain further.

Second, it’s eternal, conscious punishment. Matthew 25:41, 46, “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. . . . Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’” This passage pretty much clears up any confusion about heaven and hell, because in the last phrase it says, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Jesus is contrasting the destines of two kinds of people. One kind of person, the damned, will go away to eternal punishment. The Greek word here actually means “eternal,” in both instances. If we say we believe in the teaching of everlasting life in heaven, then we must also acknowledge there is everlasting punishment in hell. The same Greek word for “eternal” is used to describe the destiny of the righteous in everlasting life, and to describe everlasting punishment in hell. It’s really hard to get around the fact that “eternal” is used to describe two destinies in this passage. Notice that hell or eternal punishment was originally created for the Devil and his angels. We see that same truth in Revelations 20:10, “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” The same Greek word for “eternal” is used here as in Matthew 25:46 only it’s translated “forever” in Revelation, but it’s the same meaning. The basic message Jesus is teaching is that unrepentant sinners will die and their souls will go to everlasting punishment in hell, while forgiven sinners who’ve trusted in Christ for their salvation will go to everlasting life in heaven. That’s the classic, historic, biblical teaching of Christianity. Now why is this basic and fundamental truth being ignored or even dismissed today? It certainly isn’t because the Bible has changed or that some new archaeological or historical discovery has surfaced concerning the original biblical manuscripts that would alter the established teaching. No. The only reason for the departure today from the traditional Christian teaching is that our modern psychological sensibilities have changed. We are more and more unwilling to believe or follow any teaching that doesn’t meet with the approval of our own thoughts and feelings. How arrogant of us! Something isn’t nice to think about so we not only not think about it – we also disbelieve it! But we shouldn’t think that reality is obligated to cater to our feelings so easily. There are lots of things that aren’t pleasant but real. If we carried out the project of denying all unpleasant realities we might just go all the way and become a member of the Mind Science or Christian Science Church. They deny the reality of death! Unfortunately, modern Americans today can afford the luxury of living in denial because we’ve got life pretty good right now for the time being, but I don’t think we have to worry about the problem of denial long-term, because reality has a way of crashing in on us soon enough. When it does, our futile project of denying those things that are unpleasant – such as the doctrine of hell – will correct itself. In the meantime, we need to continue to teach the Bible in all matters, whether popular or not.

Third, it’s the worst possible nightmare. Revelation 14:9-11, A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he too will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of the his name.”  I was recently reading one of the writings of a member of the so-called new atheists who recently published a book about God. In it he claims that for Christianity to teach children about the doctrine of hell is child abuse. He also claims that for pastors to teach people in church about everlasting spiritual punishment in hell is a form of psychological abuse. Now if you are going to sue me for teaching about hell today, if you are going to charge me with psychological abuse, please see my lawyer on your way out, he’s the one wearing the brown suit in the back! (laugh) No, seriously, can you believe that there are intelligent people seriously proposing that it’s abuse to teach what Jesus teaches about eternal destinies, heaven and hell? This is the kind of social intimidation we’ll be seeing in the years to come. If secular people, if atheists and others can bully Christians and especially Christian pastors into silence about important Christian teachings, then they can pretty much end all evangelism, because after all how can you present the good news of Jesus Christ if you can’t also talk about the bad news of sin, judgment and damnation. Without the bad news, what good is the good news? The whole reason Jesus went to the cross to die a terrible death is for our sins. And why die in our place for our sins? Because if he didn’t die for us, we’d have to die for our own sins. And why can’t we all die for our own sins? Because in order to atone for our own sins, we’d have to pay in eternal damnation because that’s the penalty for sins. Now that’s what the Devil and demons will do – we just read the verse about the Devil in hell forever paying the price for his sins. But in order to save us from that fate, the Bible warns us and frightens us and scares us and maybe even terrorizes us by the imagery of everlasting punishment – and that’s a good thing! We need to be warned of such an awful place. It’s an act of mercy that God reveals as much as he does about hell. Now we’ve got to trust that he has revealed just enough, not too much and not too little. But we certainly can’t take it upon ourselves to decide that we won’t tell people about it because it might upset them. It’s supposed to upset them! That’s what’s supposed to motivate them and all of us to avoid such a place. If you don’t tell people about such an awful place, they might not be properly afraid of it. If they aren’t afraid enough they might not take it seriously enough and be casual about it. That’s where our society is today. We need hell-fire preaching – not the red-faced kind, not the angry kind, but the kind that gets the point across sufficiently that people understand the stakes.

I don’t consider myself as a hell-fire-damnation preacher in the sense of some of the preachers of the past have been caricatured. I don’t get all hot, sweaty, loud, and abusive when I talk about hell from the pulpit because that isn’t necessary. Jesus and the apostles didn’t do that either. But they did teach and preach about hell, warning people to avoid it by repenting of their sins and following God. But doesn’t talking about hell upset people? Yes! And talking about radical Islamic terrorism upsets people, but we need to do it so that we are prepared to face it if and when it comes our way. Talking about some killer epidemic that might sweep our country in a moment’s notice may also make people afraid too, but again, we need to be prepared for that also and talk about it and deal with that possibility. Talking about unpleasant things isn’t bad; it can be good, in fact, it is good if it motivates us to be prepared. That’s all the Bible does in respect to the doctrine of hell – it gets us prepared so that we might avoid ever experiencing hell itself. I’d rather upset people here and now on earth, rather than have lost people in hell crying out towards me as a pastor saying, “Why didn’t you warn me of this place? Why didn’t you tell me about such an awful place? You just talked about everything else and did nothing to prepare me for this terrible reality. How could you?” No. I would rather risk offending people today if it could save them tomorrow when they face the reality of Judgment Day and beyond. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t intend to spend all my time teaching and preaching about everlasting damnation; you don’t have to worry about that. The Bible doesn’t spend all its time teaching about it, so why should I? No. The Bible talks about heaven and hell in just the perfect proportions, and so we should follow the Bible’s lead. Will people in a healthy, Bible-believing, Christ-following church hear about hell? Definitely! But it won’t be the preoccupation of the pastor or teacher. Should Christians think and talk about hell? Absolutely, but it shouldn’t be their preoccupation. When you are explaining the gospel, it should be mentioned, absolutely. How can we fully appreciate being saved if we aren’t sure what we are being saved from? We’ve got to explain the wages of sin is death (both physical and spiritual). We’ve got to tell people that Christ’s death paid the penalty for sin we owed God the Father. We need to let people know that without the payment of Christ we’ll all face Judgment and be found guilty and be sentenced to damnation. And then quote John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus came so that we need not “perish” – that is, lose our soul to damnation. That’s part of the good news!

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