Sermon for 09-04-11: “Heaven and Hell, Part 1: Why Hell?”

September 7, 2011

One difficult subject we Christians often avoid talking about is final judgment and hell. In this sermon, Rev. White talks about our understandable apprehension regarding hell. At the same time, however, he says that if we avoid the doctrine altogether, we’re not being faithful to the gospel.

Is hell compatible with the perfectly good and loving God revealed to us in Jesus? Why would a God whose very nature is love send people there? 

Sermon Text: Mark 9:38-50

The following is my original manuscript.

This week, as I was preparing for my sermon, I posted the following message on Facebook: “Sorry, iPhone, in my line of work H-E-L-L can sometimes mean “hell,” not “he’ll.” Even if I am United Methodist! ;-)”

Hell has not been a topic that most Christians in our culture have been talking about recently, at least until Rob Bell published a very controversial book earlier this year called Love Wins. Maybe some of you have read it? I read it, and I mostly think that the book wasn’t written for me and probably most of us Methodists. What I mean is: Bell is writing first for an audience of skeptics who may reject Christianity because they can’t reconcile believing in a loving God with a God who also sends people to hell for all eternity.

But there’s another audience that Bell has in mind. Bell is writing for Christians who are far less squeamish on the topic of hell than most of us Methodists tend to be—Christians who already believe in and fear the prospect of hell, if not for themselves then at least for people they know who aren’t Christians. For these Christians, Bell asks many questions that challenge some popular misconceptions about hell.

What many of us Methodists need, however, is a book written from the opposite perspective: a book for Christians who are already so deeply bothered by hell that they seriously question whether it exists at all. They don’t talk about it. They don’t think about it. We pastors don’t preach about it… This is where I’m coming from. I think our avoidance of the subject is nothing less than a crisis. If, when we tell other people about the gospel of Jesus Christ, we don’t also tell them about final judgment and hell, we’re not telling them the whole truth. If we abandon hell altogether, I fear that we risk abandoning Christianity while we’re at it.

Christianity is primarily about salvation. Every church, every Christian agrees with that. And hell has been understood throughout the history of the church to be the main alternative to salvation. Jerry Walls, a Methodist theologian from Asbury seminary, has written extensively about the topic. He says that if we no longer perceive hell as a serious threat, then salvation becomes “less and less conceived as a matter of eternal life and more and more as a matter of personal fulfillment in this life.”1

In other words, Christianity becomes Oprah-fied, competing for shelf space alongside hundreds of easier and cheaper options for self-help and personal fulfillment.

I can’t help but think that if we don’t perceive hell as a serious threat, then we will approach our task of evangelism and witnessing more lightly… less urgently. One of you was talking to me about some neighbors who are unbelievers. And you told me what good and loving people they are—and I’m sure they are. And you’ve invited them to church. But you told me that when it comes to the possibility that they will live the rest of their lives and die without having a saving relationship with God, your gut-level feeling is that God will take care of them somehow… They’ll be O.K. in eternity, no matter what they do or don’t do in this life. How many of us, deep down, feel that way? If you feel this way, I want to challenge you. That’s not what Jesus himself teaches.

It’s funny: When Christians debate the issue of homosexuality, one really bad argument on the pro-gay side is that Jesus doesn’t talk about it in the gospels. It’s implied in that argument that we ought to pay extra special attention to the red-letter words of Jesus and less attention to what the rest of the New Testament says. I don’t agree, but that’s the assumption. But what about hell?

Many Christians doubt that hell exists because they feel like it goes against what they know about Jesus, who reveals to us a perfectly loving and forgiving God. Yet most of what we know about hell comes from this same Jesus who reveals to us this loving and forgiving God. Whatever else Jesus is saying in today’s scripture, isn’t he taking for granted that hell, as a place of eternal punishment, exists? Jesus wants to wake us up to the seriousness of the crisis that we humans face. Jesus tells us that the stakes of being faithful to Jesus or not couldn’t be higher.

And that’s because the problem we face as a human beings is so much more serious than we often think. It’s not simply that we’re unhappy and unfulfilled apart from God—although by all means we are made to be in a relationship with God, and apart from God we can’t find fulfillment. Apart from God, people in this life can experience a small measure of hell. But the inability to find lasting happiness or the lack of personal fulfillment in this life isn’t mostly our problem. Mostly our problem is that we have sinned. And our sin has separated us from a holy and perfect God who cannot abide sin and evil—a God who will see to it that sin and evil are punished.

You might feel some resistance at that statement, but think about it: We all agree in some cases at least that evil and sin deserve punishment and hell. We want justice to be done, at least in some cases. A week from today, after all, we’ll observe in all our services the tenth anniversary of 9/11. If you’re old enough, do you remember how it felt on that day—the sense in which something unspeakably evil has just occurred and needs to be punished? The sense in which we’ve been violated? We should not have to live in a world where evil like this will stand. A truly loving God would not let us live in a world where this kind of injustice could stand. We can try our best to carry out justice in this world, but it is a very imperfect justice. Bringing justice to Osama Bin Laden doesn’t balance the scales of justice. One man’s death doesn’t make up for the 3,000-plus who died on that day, and the hundreds of thousands who’ve died in the wake of the war that it started. If evil will be punished and justice will be done, God’s going to have to be the one to do it. This is why hell exists.

The problem of course is that you and I are also sinners. And there’s no sense in comparing our sinfulness to Bin Laden or Hitler or Stalin, and thinking, “We’re not so bad!” A little bit of soul-searching and self-reflection ought to convince us that we’re deceiving ourselves. Our sins are bad enough. Since we’re sinners, our sins—yours and mine—have not only hurt other people in ways we can’t imagine, but have also offended God and deserve punishment and hell. So it’s not just the Bin Ladens of the world who are in trouble because of their sins. You and I are also in trouble. We need to be saved. We need to be rescued!

This is where Jesus comes in. God has seen to it that justice has been done and the scales are balanced by coming to us himself and taking care of our sin and evil on the cross. God did this out of love and grace and mercy and forgiveness. God could have left us in our sins and enabled us to suffer the consequences instead of suffering them in our place. But he didn’t do that! Praise God! “Amazing grace/ How sweet the sound/ That saved a wretch like me…” One critic of Rob Bell’s book said that the book “is so anxious to show that love wins, it fails to appreciate how important it is that justice also wins.”2

And I think that’s exactly right. The cross of Christ satisfies the demands of both justice and love. The cross doesn’t mean, “I could punish sin and evil or I could just forgive people for their sin and evil.” The cross means both that love wins and  that justice wins. Love is the reason God did what he did on the cross, so that we wouldn’t get justice—which is the hell that we deserve.

On my blog last week, I asked, “Do we have a problem with hell because we underestimate our problem with sin?” I wonder. If we properly appreciate our sin, and God’s completely generous, gracious, undeserved act of saving us, we won’t need to wonder why hell exists. We’ll be so overwhelmed with gratitude to God for providing a way for us to avoid it.

What I’m about to say I mean in an almost literal way: We may not like hell, but we sure as hell have it coming to us!

And, make no mistake, God does want all of us to be saved—and he’s provided a way for all to be saved through Jesus Christ! As Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:4, God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” And the question should be asked, and Rob Bell asks this question in his book: “If this is what God wants, why doesn’t God get what he wants? Why doesn’t he save everyone? Why do some people go to hell?”

And my response is “Yes, God wants everyone to be saved, but not at any price!” Not at the price of freedom. Most Christian thinkers believe that the only way that God could make it possible for everyone to be saved is for God to simply override their free will and say, “I don’t care what you want. I don’t care whether or not you freely choose to enter into a relationship with me through my Son Jesus, I’m going to force this good news on you whether you like it or not.” The main problem with that is that God doesn’t force us to love him. He wouldn’t. Once you coerce love, love no longer exists. It can’t be forced.

And other Christians say, “O.K., but if God gave everyone a choice—and they really knew what it was that they were choosing—who wouldn’t choose God?” That’s a good question. For those of us who are on the other side of Christian faith, and who have already experienced the good news of the gospel in a personal way, that’s an easy thing to wonder. Who wouldn’t want this? And yet… even in places like ours—in the buckle of the Bible belt, where it seems like at least a little bit of Christianity is in the air we breathe and most people have a base-level understanding of the gospel—the fact remains that people do say no to God. Don’t they? Isn’t it possible that some people really do understand what it is that they’re choosing, and they still say no? And no amount of convincing them on our part—or even on God’s part—is going to persuade them.

Keep in mind, that Christian faith isn’t just believing in God—or even believing certain facts about God and Jesus and the gospel. As James says in James 2:19, even demons believe that certain facts about God are true; but facts aren’t sufficient for faith. Throughout the gospels, when Jesus is driving demons out of people, the demons are always identifying and recognizing who Jesus is. It doesn’t seem to affect their behavior. Is it possible that humans, just like these fallen angelic beings we call demons, can reject God in this way—even if they knew all the facts. In other words, it isn’t just ignorance of the facts.

If people persist in a state of unbelief—if God has graciously given them one opportunity after another to respond in this life to his gift —what’s God going to do? In one of his sermons, John Wesley warns that if we continually fail to respond to God’s grace, our ability to respond is like a muscle that atrophies from lack of use: we will eventually be unable to respond. When Jesus talks about the unforgivable sin of “blaspheming the Holy Spirit,” I believe this is what he means.

Do we believe that it’s possible for people to decisively reject the gospel of Jesus Christ? If it is, then that’s one reason why hell exists.

But let’s get back to our question: “If people really knew what God was offering in his gift of eternal life through Christ, who wouldn’t want God?” Despite what my head tells me—that people can decisively reject the gospel—my heart tells me otherwise! I’m not saying my heart is right, it’s just what I feel. I simply can’t imagine anyone saying no to this beautiful, amazing gift of life and love if they understood it! By all means, who wouldn’t want this?

But this raises a larger question. What are we going to do about it? If we have people in our lives right now who don’t know what they’re missing, who don’t know this precious gift of eternal life that God is offering them, what are we doing to show them what they’re missing? What are we telling them? What are we doing to invite them to experience it for themselves? It seems to me that this should be our main motivation for witnessing, right? Maybe one reason for doubting hell is to make us feel better about shirking our responsibility to be a witness! So that we don’t have to imagine that our actions and words play some role in whether someone is saved or damned!

When it comes to hell, we will never have all the answers, but we know two things: First, that Jesus Christ is the judge, and we can leave all of our difficult questions in his hands and trust that whatever his verdict toward people in final judgment will be fair and right and loving. Christ the judge at the end of history isn’t different from the Jesus in the gospels. We can trust Christ to judge fairly. Second, we know for sure that everyone alive right now is eligible for salvation. And we know for sure that they have time right now to say yes to God’s gift. And we know for sure that God wants to use us, his church, to bring that message to people. That is a heavy responsibility, I know. Will we be faithful in living up to it?

Footnotes:

1. Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), 7.

2. Mark Galli, God Wins (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2011), 57.

2 Responses to “Sermon for 09-04-11: “Heaven and Hell, Part 1: Why Hell?””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Good sermon, Brent. Without Hell, Jesus’ sacrifice makes little sense. And he did “harp on” Hell and how terrible and everlasting it is more than anybody else.

    As to our witnessing, Ezekiel 33 is pretty sobering–if we see the enemy coming, and we don’t sound the alarm, and the person dies in this sin, God will require his blood at our hands. I am not sure exacty what having someone’s blood required at my hands entails, but I know it is not something I would like to have happen!

    My only “cautionary” thought about witnessing (which in fact may be litle more than a salve to my own conscience) is, how do we go about it? I think specifically of Paul making plans to go to two cities, but the Holy Spirit saying no, but then giving him a vision to go somewhere else. This suggests there may be a “time, place, and manner” for witnessing (as the Supreme Court says for excercising freedom of speech). But I am not really too sure what that “looks like” as a type of “game plan.” I guess my primary point is that we don’t always “throw caution to the wind” when we feel some “caution” in ourselves about some “time, place, and manner” for a particular witness.

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Thanks, Tom! By all means, we should try to be responsive to the Holy Spirit. What that might look like varies from situation to situation. But we the church need to be deliberate about it, that’s for sure! I think it’s O.K. for the prospect of hell to instill within us a sense of urgency.


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