How can an all loving God send or even allow people to suffer for an eternality in hell?
This is probably the most important question in regards to why Christianity is hard to swallow. Many people will say, “I can believe in a God of love but I can not believe in a God who would send billions to burn in hell for an eternity.” Hell is a very difficult subject. In fact, it is easier to just ignore it. That is what many are doing today. Even pastors. In 2009, USA today ran a piece about reluctant pastors. One pastor commented that:
“The soft sell on hell reflects an increasingly market-conscious approach. When you’re trying to market Jesus, sometimes there’s a tendency to mute traditional Christian symbols. Difficult doctrines are left by the wayside. Hell is a morally repugnant doctrine. People wonder why God would send people to eternal punishment.”
Have you ever been to funeral where the pastor talked a great deal about hell? I have done many funerals. People tend to stay away from the idea altogether. We say things like, “She’s in a better place.” or “He was a good man.” And we sort of skip over the fact that they had little to no relationship with God or Jesus. So — we just sort of skip it. I mean what else can you do really. Recent statistics reveal that only 58% of Americans believe Hell is real. In a Barna study, 64% of Americans expect to go to Heaven while less than 1% believe they will go to Hell. In similar Gallop Poll, 77% of Americans rated their “chances” of going to Heaven as “good” or “excellent.” While only 6% think there is a high “chance” they will go to Hell. So, as you can see, we all tend to ignore it. I mean – what about you? I don’t think I’m going to hell. Though I have had people tell me I should go there. So, it is clear that we are dealing with a very repugnant subject. Listen to these questions from normal people like you and me.
“I doubt the existence of a judgmental God who requires blood to pacify his wrath. Someone had to die before the Christian God would pardon us. But why can’t he just forgive? ” (From “The Reason for God.”)
“The only God that is believable to me is a God of love. The Bible’s God is no more than a primitive deity who must be appeased with pain and suffering.” (From “The Reason for God.”)
“I find it hard to believe that a 50-70 yr life of sin warrants an eternity of punishment.”
“How could anyone experience joy in heaven while their loved ones burn for eternity?”
“I am debating not having children because I am afraid they might end up in hell. It seems more compassionate to not even bring them into being?”
I feel crushed by the weight of each of these questions. These are $50,000 questions and if you have wrestled with any one of these questions, then you know that a .50¢ answer simply will not do. So, how would you answer the question? How about just the basic question.
How do you handle the seeming contradiction that God is a god of love and mercy, yet will allow eternal suffering. How could a loving God send people to an eternality in hell?
Before MISSIODEI was launch as a new church, our launch team met for several months putting together our core values. I want you to know that ‘hell’ made it in a list of 9 of our core values. It actually made it in at the top of the list. Why? Well, It is because we are called MISSIODEI church and MISSIODEI means ‘the mission of God’. It means that God is a missionary. He is on a mission. And what is he on a mission to do? Well, he is on a mission to save. Jesus said,
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
This begs the question, What is our missionary God saving us from? What is our missionary God sending us to save others from? Here is how we phrased that first core value:
Hell No; Jesus Yes!
It’s all about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have a sense of urgency to seek those who are far from God. We want everything that we do to reflect the character of Christ and direct people to his love and grace.
We spent a great deal of time word smithing this because we wanted to be clear. We do believe in a hell. And that belief gives us a sense of urgency to get on mission. So how do we deal with this repugnant subject in a relevant, meaning $50,000 way? Well, first I want lay some ground work. First we will look at some common categories and views on hell. There are many. I want to lay them each out in from of us. Then I want to look at a few verses from the bible. I’ll tell you, there are many but we will only highlight a few tonight. And, I think that will be a great place to stop, field some questions, have some discussion, then go home and think about it. We’ll then come back in a few weeks to deal with cultural shifts and world views on hell, look at some more scripture, and hopefully tie some sort of bow, or arrive at least a better understanding than we had before. So lets go.
THEOLOGICAL CAMPS ON HELL
Which one of these views do think seem most appealing to our culture? Which seems most appealing to you? Which one would your select as you view?
I think that first thing we should notice when looking a these categories is that there are a lot of different views out there. And, as I hope we will see next week, none of these views solve all of the problems. Each camp has its own problems and each view creates a new difficulty. For instance, Universalism may fix the unpalatableness of the Classical view, but it raises even more dangerous questions about who God is, about justice and the need to be on mission. Even Time Magazine made the same observation in an article written in 2011 about Rob Bell and his book Love Wins.
“From a traditionalist perspective, though, to take away hell is to leave the church without its most powerful sanction. If heaven is everyone’s ultimate destination in any event, then what’s the incentive to confess Jesus as Lord in this life? If, in other words, Gandhi is in heaven, then why bother with accepting Christ? If you say the Bible doesn’t really say what a lot of people have said it says, then where does that stop? If the verses about hell and judgment aren’t literal, what about the ones on adultery, say, or homosexuality? Taken to their logical conclusions, such questions could undermine much of conservative Christianity.” (Time Magazine, 4/14/2011)
There is an ecological balance to scriptural truth that must not be disturbed. If an area is rid of its predatory or undesirable animals, the balance of that environment may be so upset that the desirable plants and animals are lost—through overbreeding with a limited food supply. The nasty predator that was eliminated actually kept in balance the number of other animals and plants necessary to that particular ecosystem. In the same way, if we play down “bad” or harsh doctrines within the historic Christian faith, we will find, to our shock, that we have gutted all our pleasant and comfortable beliefs, too. To preach the good news, we must preach the bad. (Keller, Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age)
Lets look at some verses and then we will close. It is often noted by scholars that Jesus talked more about hell than any other prophet, and Jesus talked more about hell then any other subject. Most of the parables end in judgment and with what sounds like hell (i.e. outer-darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth…)
“And 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.” (Matthew 10:28 ESV)
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29 ESV)
“You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:33 ESV)
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41 ESV)
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8 ESV)
“And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” (Revelation 14:11 ESV)
“And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (Revelation 20:10 ESV)
In the end – I don’t think we will ever be able to make the doctrine of judgment and hell more palatable. It seems impossible. And maybe that is the way it is supposed to be. Isn’t it supposed to be hard to swallow? Which is why I want to conclude tonight by saying that I truly believe it was hard for Jesus to swallow as well. And he refused to swallow. Instead, he did something about it. Now, over the next few weeks I will encourage you to study, and discuss, and try to determine whether he did enough. I mean, hell is repulsive. Does Jesus, the cross, and the Gospel make it less repulsive? Nevertheless I do believe that Jesus finds it repulsive too and this story reveals that in very intimate detail.
Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out…” (John 11:17-44 ESV)
I do believe the doctrine of hell and judgment to be repulsive. I don’t want to be judged. No one wants to be judge. The ancient prophets said it like this:
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. (Malachi 3:2 ESV)
Because… we will all be found guilty. That is the plain truth. And it is bad news. But the the Good-news is that Jesus hates death, he hates sin, and he came do something about it. He bore our sin and died our death so that we would be set free from sin and death and hell. Now I’ll be honest. I don’t know what heaven or hell will look like. I can not make grandiose statement about something I know so little about. But I do know this. And I will be grandiose. I know that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the solution to this problem. I agree with the Apostles Creed when it says:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth.
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary.
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
He was crucified, dead and buried:
He descended into hell
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand
of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic* church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.