What the Hell?

January 31, 2016

Long before I knew about God’s grace I knew
about Gods’ wrath.  Long before I had
encountered a loving God I knew about the fires of hell.

Some of those images came from culture and some
came from art.  All in all I think I
prefer Larson to Michelangelo, but I’m that kind of guy.

Some of the images that I had of hell were
from Jack Chick tracts, anybody remember the chick tracks with their images of
hell fire and demons laughing at those sentenced to an eternity of
torment. 

It just dawned on me the other day, who was
leaving those tracks at our place?  They
weren’t something that my parents would have been bringing home, so my only
conclusion was that well intentioned relatives were leaving them behind in the
hopes of scaring the hell out of the Guptill kids. 

The year I graduated from High School there
were a couple of different things that happened that had a profound influence
on me and my eventual decision to become a Christ follower.  The first of course was my best friend’s
decision to follow Christ and his commitment to sharing that decision with
me.  But I often tell people the other
two things were watching live performances of Jesus Christ Super Star and
Godspell.  Whatever your feelings might
be about the Rock Opera and Musical they presented the story of Jesus a way
that a nineteen-year-old could relate. 
And it was in a live production of Godspell that I first heard the story
of Lazarus and the rich man.  (Show clip
from Godspell).  And it made sense to me,
the good guy went to the good place and the bad guy went to the bad place. 

By the way, it was the love that my best
friend had for me that brought me to the decision to accept the forgiveness and
grace of God and not the fear of hell.  I
was loved into heaven, not scared out of hell.

But how many of us have every been asked,
or have ever asked: What kind of God could or would send people to hell. 

And some, because they can’t accept the
concept of eternal punishment simply reject it. 
If in their minds a loving god would be incapable of sending people to
hell, then he doesn’t.  And this belief
that everyone will be saved is called Universalism, and it was first promoted
about 200 years after the death of Christ by an early church leader by the name
of Origen, whose beliefs and teachings were later declared as heretical.  And for the next 1600 years very few major
theologians argued that everyone would be saved, but that began to change in
the 1800’s with the New Thought movement, which eventually spawned the
Universalist Church and movement.

And we have seen it in the past number of
years with preachers like Rob Bell, who wrote “Love Wins”,  who have stayed clear of the term
universalism but lean very strongly toward the belief that eventually
everybody, either in this life or the next will come to a saving knowledge of
Christ.

So their belief is that there is a hell,
and it is a place of torment but it’s not forever, you only stay there until
you accept the grace of God that continues to be extended to you.  Almost spiritual waterboarding.  They are almost suggesting that eventually
God will be able to either nag or torture you into heaven.  But how do we reconcile that with our belief
in free will?

Preacher A.W.
Tozer wrote “The vague and tenuous hope that
God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the
consciences of millions.”

But the reality is, very few people who
believe in the hereafter actually believe that everybody should go to heaven
and nobody should go to hell, but they want to be the one who picks. 

And not many folks would try to argue
Hitler or Stalin or litterbugs out of hell, but what about the really nice
family down the street that do a lot of volunteer work and keep their lawn up
and recycle their trash but just don’t have time for God or church?  Or the nice Jewish or Hindu teacher that was
so special to you in grade 7, or the billions of people through the years who never
had a chance to hear the gospel?

How could God send people like that to hell,
especially if hell is everything that we understand it to be?

And so we end up being like Mark
Twain who said “I don’t like to commit
myself about heaven and hell – you see, I have friends in both places.”

This
is week 4 of our “Skeletons in God’s Closet” series. 

The term “A Skeleton in your Closet”, means
that there is something in your life that you have hidden away that could
damage your reputation.  And it could be
something immoral or illegal or maybe just something that you did in your
misspent youth that you would find embarrassing if it came out today.

And that isn’t always fair, as anyone who
has ever experienced something coming back to haunt them could testify to.  I am certainly not the person now that I was
in when I was a teenager.  And there are
certainly things I said and did back then that I wouldn’t necessarily want made
public today.   In retrospect I’m not
even sure that my brain was functioning in any meaningful way during those
years, so I’m not sure that to judge the today Denn based on the behaviour of
the 1977 Denn would be fair or accurate.

But I would suspect that I’m alone in that
respect and that none of you have any bones in your closest and that each of
your pasts is spotless and honourable.

And so as we root around in God’s closet
for some of the more troublesome stories in the bible there are those who think
we should just leave the door to the closet closed.  But we really can’t do that because just
because we don’t open it doesn’t mean it won’t get opened.

And so in week one I spoke about why we
need to open the closet door.  And we
need to do it so we can better understand the story.  Unless you read all the story, you can’t
understand all the story.  We can’t just
choose our favourite parts of the bible and declare that we are people of the
book.  Doesn’t work that way, because
when we do that we end up with our story not Gods.

And it’s only when we truly know God’s
story that we can truly know God.  And
until we know God we won’t know who and what we are supposed to be as
people. 

And so we left that message embracing the
words of  George
Bernard Shaw who said. “If you can’t get rid
of the skeleton in your closet, you’d best teach it to dance.”

In week 2 Rob McDowell did a wonderful job
tackling a difficult subject.  He looked
at the Israelite conquest of Canaan, and what some folks would consider a
genocide, and you can find that message along with all of our messages on our
website.   

Last week I dug into the New Testament and
spent some time with the story of Ananias and Sapphira who were a couple in the
early church.   The highlights of their
story was that they had sold a piece of property and then gave the money to the
church.  And that is all well and good,
the problem was they said they were giving it all when in reality they only
gave a portion.  When confronted with the
fact that they had lied to God they dropped dead.  Bizarre, so we played around in that
particular closet last week.

Today we are going to crack a closet door
that opens in both the Old and New Testament, and that is the doctrine of
hell.  

In our tradition, as in many other
traditions when we talk about the alternative to heaven we call it hell.  Which is one of several different names used
in the Bible to describe the final destination of the unrighteous.  The term Sheol in the Old Testament or Hades
in the New Testament are used interchangeably and literally mean the place of
Departed Souls. 

In some instances, the term is used to
simply mean the grave or death, and in other instances it refers to an actual
place, what we call hell.

In the New Testament there is a word that
is used by Jesus almost exclusively for hell and that is the Greek word Gehenna
which is a form of the Hebrew phrase that means “The Valley of Hinnom” which
was a valley Southwest of Jerusalem.  Now
I know that’s not very nice to refer to a specific area as Hell, but sometimes
that is the reality.

Earlier this year Eric and Lisa Slauenwhite
and their family visited hell, and posted pictures on Facebook.  Here is the sign welcoming them to hell, here
is a warning sign about what not to do while in hell and here is a photo of
their youngest child in hell.

Of course in this case Hell was in the
Cayman Islands in the Caribbean and bears no actual resemblance to the hell
that we are talking about today.

But you have to understand the history of
Gehenna.  It was in this valley that the
Canaanites worshiped Baal and the god Molech, they did this by sacrificing
their children in a fire that burned continuously.  In the book of 2 Kings 23:10 we discover that
King Josiah put an end to this worship and “defiled” the valley so it would be
unfit for even pagan worship.

There are some who would tell us that by
the time of Jesus this area was used as the garbage dump for Jerusalem, into it
was thrown all of the filth and garbage of the city, including the dead bodies
of animals and executed criminals. To consume all of this, fires burned
constantly.  Everybody knew what it was
like and when the wind blew from that direction, everybody in the city
understood its awfulness.  To the people
Jesus spoke to there could be no worse fate then spending eternity in
Gehenna.  And so Jesus said “do you want
to know what hell is like?  All you have
to do is look at Gehenna. The garbage, dead bodies the fire and the smell, now
multiply that by eternity and that’s what the unrighteous have to look forward
to” And so hell could be described as God’s “Cosmic garbage dump.”  Everything that is unfit for heaven is thrown
there. 

Sometimes because of the symbolic nature of
the description of hell people question whether it will consist of actual
fire. 

But the bible remains consistent with it
descriptions of hell, speaking of darkness while at the same time using fire as
a description.  Even Jesus referred to
hell as a place of torment we read in Matthew
13:49-50
 Jesus said “That is the way it will be at the
end of the world. The angels will come and separate the wicked people from the
righteous,  throwing the wicked into the
fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  And that is only one of the
numerous instances where Jesus warns people of the dangers of hell. 

Don’t deceive yourself, the reality will be
worse then any description that a person could conjure up, and it will last
forever, and ever and ever.  It’s worse
then can be described and longer then can be imagined.

And sometimes it’s easy to just say “Ok, I
believe in hell” but not actually understand the why of hell.  As Aristotle said
“Knowledge of the fact differs from knowledge of the reason for the fact.”

So this morning we are not going to try and
prove the existence of hell, the bible speaks for itself on that issue, and
nobody who accepts the bible can deny that it warns of a place of eternal
damnation for those who reject God.  So
we aren’t looking for the facts as much as the reason for the fact.

And so we have this story that Jesus told
of Lazarus and the Rich Man, which some would claim is a parable while others
would say was the story of actual people. 
And to be truthful no other parable actually uses a person’s name.  And in it we see two destinations.  One apparently for the righteous and one for
the unrighteous. 

Often we think of Hell as a punishment for
a life misspent.  You do bad things and
you go to hell, you do good things you go to heaven.  But we know that you can’t earn your way into
heaven.  The bible is very clear on that
point, Ephesians 2:8-9  God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you
can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.  Salvation is not a
reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 

So if heaven isn’t a reward for the good
things we’ve done, how can hell be a punishment for the bad things we’ve done?  After all it would appear that we are all
destined for hell and the only thing that stands in our way is the grace of
God. 

And while the scriptures do speak of hell
in terms of punishment it really isn’t a punishment the sense of “You did this
and as a result you will go to hell”.  It
is more in the sense that you behaved that way because of a choice you made and
as a result of that choice you won’t be with God when you die, instead you will
go to hell.

When Jesus was beginning his ministry John
the Baptist introduced him with this words John
3:34-36
 For he is sent by God. He
speaks God’s words, for God gives him the Spirit without limit.  The
Father loves his Son and has put everything into his hands.  And anyone
who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son
will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment.”

The thing we need to get our head around it
the fact that Hell Is Not a Punishment For Our
Actions it is a Consequence Of Our Choice

When we choose to not to make room in our
life for God we are saying “I don’t want to be counted as one of God’s
children.”  And God simply honours that request
in the next life as well as this life. 

You can be a nice person, a good person, a
moral person and still choose to not align yourself with God and not accept the
grace that he offers.  We all know people
like that, they either have no time for God or feel that they have no need for
God.  But they can still be nice people,
they have just chosen for whatever reason to have nothing to do with God.

Hell in it’s simplest definition is a place without
God, and being without God is being without light or love or goodness. 

If we see hell only
as a punishment, then we view salvation simply as an escape from punishment a
fire escape from hell so to speak.  Anthropologist
Margaret Mead wrote “It is an open question whether
any behavior based on fear of eternal punishment can be regarded as ethical or
should be regarded as merely cowardly.”


Jesus tell us in Matthew 6:24  “No
one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will
be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.  But the statement
isn’t only about money, it is about our priorities in life and when we choice
to serve other things before God we are making a decision that will echo for
eternity.    

Which leads us to the next point, the question that
people ask is “How can a loving God send people to hell?”  But we have to realize that  Hell Is Not A Place You Are Sent It Is
A Place You Choose To Go

When we choose to not accept the grace that is
extended by Christ then we have chosen to reject Christ and his
righteousness. 

Presbyterian preacher J Vernon McGee wrote “Don’t
say that a loving God sends people to hell. Say that there is a holy God, and
when you do not meet His standard you cannot go into His heaven where He is.”
  The bible is very clear about two
things 1) we will never be good enough to get to heaven on our own.  2) All we have to do is ask, that is the
grace that we talked about back in the fall, the unmerited favour of God.  But you have to choose to accept it.

Some folks feel like they have no choice,
author Heywood Broun writes, “Hell is paved with great granite blocks hewn from the hearts
of those who said, ‘I can do no other.’”


But the reality is that there is always a choice.  In dealing with temptation we are promised in
1 Corinthians 10:13  The temptations in
your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He
will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are
tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.

God isn’t up there rubbing his hands with
glee over the fact that people are going to hell, instead he is heart
broken.  Peter reminds us in 2 Peter 3:9  The Lord
isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is
being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants
everyone to repent.  God’s desire
is that everyone will make the right choice, but that doesn’t mean they
will.  My desire is for each of you to
make the right choice, that doesn’t mean you will. 

The big question that is asked about Hell
is What About the People Who Have Never
Heard the Gospel? 
I truly believe that
no one will go to hell without the opportunity to not go to hell.

But I find it inconceivable, and the word does mean what I
think it means, that the same God who would willing sacrifice his Son for the
world, remember John 3:16  “For God loved the
world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes
in him will not perish but have eternal life.  Would allow that same
world to go to hell simply based on geography.

It doesn’t say for God loved the tiny strip
of the Middle East where Jesus was born so much, and it doesn’t say for God
loved the area where the gospel was spread so much, or God loved Europe and the
America’s so much, but only after they were evangelized. 

And no I don’t know
how that works, out, I don’t know how the grace of Christ is presented even to
those who have never heard, but I have to believe it is. 

We often hear of the
God shaped void in each of us, that is yearning to be filled, and stories of
missionaries who meet obscure tribes that all ready have an innate
understanding of the gospel, of Muslim who testify of dreaming of Jesus. 

Let’s go back to the
scripture from Peter’s letter again, but let’s pick it up in verse 8 2 Peter 3:8-9  But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A
day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day.
 The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think.
No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed,
but wants everyone to repent.

Have you ever had to
wait for something?  Maybe news about a
job, or a report from the Doctor, or a tea kettle to boil?  And it seems to take forever?  Sometimes when we are looking at verse eight
we focus on the second part, how a thousand years is like a day.  But I wonder if we need to see God’s heart as
he waits for people to accept his grace and realize that while he waits every
day seems like a thousand years. 

Einstein is said to have summed up his theory
of relativity by saying Sitting with a pretty
girl for an hour seems but a minute; sitting on a hot stove for a minute seems
an hour.

How God whispers into
the soul of those who have never heard we may never know, but knowing the love
that God has for all the world we have to assume that he’s not going to allow
people to go to hell without giving them an opportunity, somehow to experience
his grace.

And that is no way
relieves us of our responsibility to evangelize.  Because evangelism is about our obedience.  We have been commanded to go into all the
world, and we believe that Jesus doesn’t just provides an escape from hell
tomorrow but also makes this world a better place today.    

Penn Jillette is a
comedian, a magician and an atheist. 
Penn is in no way a friend of God. 
A few years ago after a show a fan presented Penn with a New Testament
and this was the reaction of the atheist to hearing the good news.  (Video Clip)