Craig Smith - The Problem of God and Hell
Well, welcome to Mission Hills at all of our locations including those of you are joining us Church Online. I’m really glad you’re here. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that some of you came in and you saw the worship card and the title for this message and you thought, “Oh, no,” this would have been a really good day to miss church, right? Because we’re in our “Problem of God” series where we’re taking a look at some of the biggest objections that people have, things that are obstacles to them moving forward in faith. And today we’re gonna take a look at one of those that I think is an obstacle for people whether they’re followers of Jesus or not followers of Jesus, actually, and that is the problem of God and hell. And all of God’s people went, “Yay.” That’s exactly why I came to church, right?
But here’s the thing, I think that the concept, the idea of hell is a huge stumbling block for a lot of people. And that’s true, obviously, I think it’s true for a lot of non-believers, but I think it’s true for a lot of believers as well. It’s…but it’s an obstacle for a lot of people because there’s something in the doctrine of hell that makes us suspicious that you know, maybe God’s not as good as we thought he was.
In fact, we have a text-in question line I told you about it last week where you can text the word “Question” to 888111 and you can ask whatever question you want, we promise we get you answers. Can I share one of the questions, the comments that came in on that text-in line this past week. There’s a guy who said this he said, “Honestly, I believe in God, just not in hell. And as a result, not in Jesus as God’s son.” Catch that – because of the doctrine of hell I don’t believe that Jesus is God’s son.
Now, he says, “I believe He, Jesus, existed,” and he was a… I’m gonna go with the word dang. That’s not the word that he used I actually really like the word he used. I thought it was awesome it’s really kind of grabbed you by the throat, it’s like, yeah, they told me I couldn’t say that in church so we’re gonna edit that. “He said he was a dang cool dude, but – pay attention to this – for him to be the Son of God fits into the narrative of God being evil.”
That’s the kind of problem we’re talking about, the problem that the doctrine of hell presents for a lot of people. And it’s not just non-believers. A few years ago a very influential pastor by the name of Rob Bell became kind of world famous because he wrote a book where he basically said, “Hey, the doctrine of God’s love and the doctrine of hell are fundamentally incompatible, you just cannot have both.” And so he rejects not only the doctrine of hell but a large portion of Scripture that speaks to that issue.
And so it’s not just a problem for non-Christians, it’s a problem for Christians, it’s not just for people who’d say, “I’m not a follower of Jesus.” Even though I think for followers of Jesus this can become a huge obstacle to moving forward in faith. And really whether we’re Christians or non-Christians as we deal with the doctrine of hell we’re all asking kind of the same question which is this, “Why would a loving God create an endless hell, right?” That’s the big question. Why would a loving God create an endless hell? And a lot of people say he wouldn’t, but people say he couldn’t, it’s just not possible. And so it becomes a big obstacle to faith for all kinds of people. And I get that, I feel that like I feel this idea that the doctrine of hell is not just difficult, it’s disgusting on some levels. And that can present a huge issue when we’re talking about a loving God.
I do find it difficult, I’ve really struggled with it over the years, but I believe it. And what I wanna do today is I kind of wanna explain why I believe it. You might be surprised by a few of the answers, a few of the reasons why I believe in it, because I don’t believe in it just because I was taught it as a kid. I grew up in Southern Baptist churches, you better believe I was taught it as a kid some of you have had that kind of experience. But I don’t believe it just because I was taught it I actually have come to believe that it’s some, not all, but some of what I was taught as a kid isn’t true, it’s not accurate, it’s not biblical, it’s not what Jesus himself taught.
So, I don’t believe it just because it was taught to me and then I don’t need it. I don’t need the doctrine of hell to keep people in line. I mean, some of the people argue that well, the doctrine of hell was developed just so that you know they could force people to come to church or to give or those kinds of things. We don’t operate that way. And, in fact, honestly if you know, the internet has made this possible you can go back, and you can basically find every message I’ve ever taught for the last 25 years. And I don’t think I’ve ever taught a message on the doctrine of hell. So, congratulations, you guys, aren’t you the lucky ones, right?
Yeah because I don’t feel like I need the doctrine of hell to accomplish anything in particular and yeah, I do believe in the doctrine of hell. What I wanna explain to you is why? What I wanna do today is I wanna give you five reasons why I basically believe in the doctrine of hell. And my goal is not to convince you to believe in it and it’s certainly not to scare you into a relationship with Jesus or anything like that. But I think that sometimes the obstacle that hell has become to people and it’s keeping them from moving forward it’s based on misunderstandings. And it’s based on a misperception. Or in some cases a misrepresentation by well-meaning people over the years. But I wanna share five things that I think you need to wrestle with as far as how you deal with the doctrine of hell.
And maybe this will be useful to you, maybe you’re somebody who…maybe you’re a follower of Jesus but you can’t take any steps deeper, you can’t go further in your faith because you’re kind of hung up on this issue. Or maybe you’re not a follower of Jesus and this is the issue that’s really keeping you from faith. Or maybe you just have somebody in your life, somebody you care deeply about, that that is the issue for them and so maybe this is useful for you being on mission with them. But I wanna share five things and the first one is just this, very simple. Jesus didn’t see a contradiction between God’s love and hell. Jesus didn’t see a contradiction between God’s love and hell.
See we often have this idea though, “Yeah, you can’t have a loving God and an endless hell.” But interestingly enough Jesus didn’t see it that way. And here’s the reason I know that. First off I know that because Jesus is the one who taught us the most about God’s love. Anybody surprised by that? No, because, of course, Jesus taught us the most about a lot of God’s love. Jesus is the one who gave us you know, that the basis of that very famous verse “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,” right?
Jesus taught us about God’s love and for a lot of people Jesus isn’t just the expert on God’s love, he’s the embodiment of God’s love, right? He’s the love of God made flesh and come among us to save us. Jesus isn’t just the expert he’s the embodiment. Everybody agrees Jesus taught us so much that we need to know, in fact, he taught us most of what we know about God’s love. Nobody’s surprised by that. But what a lot of people are surprised by, you might be surprised by. The same one who taught us most of what we know about God’s love also taught us most of what we know about hell. Is that surprising?
Depending on how you define some of the words in which category you put some of the verses in, the reality is that Jesus taught us about up to 85% of what we know about hell, 85% of it comes from Jesus. So the same man who taught us most of what we know about God’s love also taught us most of what we know about hell.
So and apparently what he saw when he looked at God’s love and hell it’s not a contradiction, he didn’t see that as a conflict. And, in fact, one of the things that I began to ask myself and it’s probably 15 or so years before I really kind of came to the place of struggling through this and coming out the other side with some answers to these questions I think a lot of people ask is I began to say, “Well, if Jesus didn’t see a contradiction between God’s love and hell is it possible that Jesus saw hell is a consequence of God’s love rather than a contradiction?” Is it possible that there’s something in the love of God that actually requires hell for him to be truly loving and good?
And I realized that sounds shocking, I realized that sounds upside down and backwards because it’s not the way we think about it. But I would encourage you to just sort of sit with the question for a moment because the undeniable fact is this, Jesus didn’t see a contradiction between God’s love and hell. And even the people who reject the notion of hell still wanna say, “But Jesus is a great teacher, Jesus is a wise man, Jesus is a good man.” Well, then if he didn’t see a contradiction and he’s such a great teacher is it possible that he understood something about one or both of those concepts that we’re misunderstanding when we think that they have to be in conflict? In fact, is it possible that Jesus saw hell as a consequence of the love of God rather than a contradiction with it? Let’s just sit with that question for a moment.
Second, big idea is just this and this has the potential to be offensive, let me just acknowledge that. It has the potential to hurt you or to make it sound to you like I am minimizing your suffering. Or I’m minimizing the experience that you have had with evil in this world and that’s not my intention at all. Some of you have had deep wounds that come from facing evil in this world, you’ve experienced a lot of suffering and I acknowledge that, I’m not trying to diminish that in any way.
But I wanna make a historical observation, I’ve done the search, I’ve done the research and what I’ve discovered is this fact. The people that are most opposed to the idea of hell are often, not always but often, those least impacted by evil here on earth. Let me say that again because I think it’s really important. The people who are most opposed to the idea of hell, people who most seem to think that hell is evil and you cannot have a good God and a hell, the people who are most opposed to the idea of hell are often the people who are least impacted by evil here on earth.
And what we need to recognize is that we respond to the doctrine of hell not intellectually, not theologically, not even philosophically, we respond to it primarily emotionally. Which is natural and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we do need to recognize that how we feel about things is deeply conditioned by the experiences that we’ve had. Okay? How we feel about something’s deeply conditioned by the experiences that we’ve had or in some cases the experiences we haven’t had.
I mean, I see this on a regular basis when we sing worship songs like one of my favorite songs is “Good Good Father.” I love singing about God as my Good Good Father, I love that, it resonates deeply with me. But the reason for that is because I had a good father. I had a father who loved me, who sacrificed for me. And so the idea that God is a Heavenly Father that’s an easy connection but that’s not true for all of you. And I know that a lot of you listening on all of our campuses and joining us online some of you had the exact opposite experience with a father than I did. Your father was not good, he was not a good man, he was hard, he was harsh, he might have been abusive to you.
And so when you come to church and you sing “God is a good good Father,” there’s a part of you that goes because I know that’s supposed to be true but I don’t even like the words. But that’s because of your experience, you see, how we feel about something is deeply conditioned by our experiences. And here’s the reality and again I’ve done the research on this and here’s the reality. The people who publish the books arguing against the doctrine of hell. The people who go on speaking circuits and show up on national news saying you can’t have a loving God and hell, almost without exception, there are a couple of exceptions, but the vast majority of the people who do that are white upper-class males. And the reality is that being a white upper-class male means that we sit in a position of cultural privilege from which we are shielded from a lot of the horrors of this world. I mean, I say that as one of those white upper-class males. And yes, they’re suffering my life, yes, I have experienced pain in my life but it’s nothing compared to what so many people have faced, who are in a position of less cultural privilege.
And then the question that I wanna ask is, is our position of cultural privilege the best position from which to be making pronouncements about what is just and what is unjust? Is my position in culture, my protected position, is it the best place to say that hell is a damnable doctrine? And that’s a phrase, by the way, that somebody ones called, he said, “Hell is a damnable doctrine.” And you know who said that? His name was Charles Darwin, the advancer if not the kind of inventor of the naturalistic evolution. And you know, what Charles Darwin was he was? He was a white upper-class male.
And what I wanna ask you to do for a moment is try to step out of whatever position of privilege you might be in. And try to put yourself in the position of some other people who haven’t had that same privilege and ask if that might change the way you think about. If you can put yourself and I know you can’t but if you could or maybe if you came just to the tiniest bit. Can you put yourself in the position of the child who saw their parents, their grandparents and their older sister thrown into the crematoriums at Auschwitz? And do you think that that child might have the same or a different reaction to the concept of hell for those that perpetrated that evil against them?
Put yourself in the shoes of the man who saw his wife and his children taken from him at gunpoint and sold into trafficking. Do you think they might have as a hard a trouble, hard a time as we do, believing in hell? Or as we heard from Saji, the girl that had been thrust into that life, into that hell on earth, do you think she struggles as much with the idea of hell as others do? The people who lost their husbands, their wives, and their children, when the twin towers fell, do you think they have the same struggle? You understand what I’m asking.
And I would actually go a step further and again about 15 years ago as I really began to wrestle through this, I found myself asking a surprising question. It had never occurred to me, but as I began to wrestle through this you know, that we think about things through this lens of emotion or emotions or conditioned by what we’ve experienced, I actually found myself asking the question, I’d love for you to wrestle with it. Here’s the question I said, “Can those who have experienced hell on earth can they believe that God is good if there is no justice for the evil that has so scarred them?” You know, we go, “How could God be good if he does this thing or if he allows this thing?” But if you flip it around and you find yourself having experienced hell on earth can you believe that God is good if there isn’t a final eternal justice for that evil that’s been done to you?
And the reality is that the people who are most opposed to the idea of hell are often, not always, but so often the people who are least impacted by it here on earth. And I think we have to recognize that, we have to wrestle with it. And maybe you go, “Okay, that’s fine, but the real problem for me is I can see a hell for Hitler, right? Like I can see a hell for Osama bin Laden those kinds of people, like yeah, they’ve perpetrated true evil. And I can see that there might be an eternal consequence for that, I can see that. But the problem is I mean, everyone who doesn’t trust in Jesus, everyone who sins aren’t forgiven by the blood of Jesus on the cross, everyone goes. And that just doesn’t seem fair they would all get the same response because there is a difference, right? There is a difference between Hitler and… I mean, let’s put it in real-world terms, shall we?
I studied for my doctorate in Bristol, England. And Bristol has a zoo and Bristol Zoo has a parking lot. And for 25 years the fees for that parking lot were collected by a pretty nice man, everybody liked him a lot, he wore a simple uniform and he always had a smile when he collected their fees. And they went into the zoo, they enjoyed themselves, they came back out, he showed everyone their car and they drove away. 25 years he did that, every day he showed up for 25 years. And then one day he just stopped showing up and eventually that the zoo called the City Council they said, “Hey, what’s the deal? Like we need you to send somebody to collect the fees.” And they went, “Why are you calling us?” He said because the guy works for you,” and they went, “No, he doesn’t we thought he worked for you.” And they went, “Wait a minute he’s being coming for 25…he’s collected millions of dollars’ worth of fees well, what did you do with all the money?” We didn’t get any money, we thought you were using, we didn’t get the money.” And what they realized was that the very nice man was a con man.
Now, can…regardless of what you think it was wrong, okay? Some of you are like, “He’s brilliant,” okay and I get that, but it was wrong, okay? He impersonated a government official, he lied about who he was, he stole money from the zoo in the City Council, he stole money from millions of people over the years and he’s sitting in an Italian villa somewhere laughing about it. He was wrong, it was wrong, we can all agree I think it was wrong, but like really Hitler and the Bristol bandit they get the same punishment, how is that just? And I would agree that’s a really hard question, the idea that that would be just as they both get the same attorney, I would struggle with that.
But what I wanna tell you as a New Testament scholar who knows a lot of other New Testament scholars, I don’t actually know another New Testament scholar who believes that’s what Jesus taught. In fact, Jesus taught in my opinion that there is a difference. In fact, let’s just hear it from Jesus himself you wanna grab a Bible and join me in Matthew or we’ll pop it up on the screens, we are gonna be jumping around a little bit today.
But Matthew 11, Jesus speaking in verse 23 and he says this, he says, “And you Capernaum,” now, Capernaum was a Jewish city. Jesus had preached there he had performed miracles there, but they had rejected him, and they’d gone back to their sin. He said, “And you Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.” which I think in this context probably is the place of judgment, its hell. So, he says, “For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom,” and if you don’t know that word Sodom. Sodom is the name of an Old Testament city or a city in the Old Testament that was known for its wickedness. He says, “If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
It will be more bearable which suggests at the moment of judgment and I think after that judgment’s been passed there are some for whom it will be more bearable than for others. Now, don’t misunderstand, nobody’s saying that for anybody it’s gonna be pleasant, nobody’s saying that for anybody it’s gonna be good. But it clearly seems to say there that there will be more bearability for some than for others. Or if we’re gonna flip over to the Book of Luke. In Luke, he said this, 12:47: “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.
Now, don’t get hung up on the blows, okay? This is not saying God’s gonna be punching people, okay? It’s not what he’s saying. He’s using just an everyday experience to talk about an eternal reality when it comes to justice. And he says some things deserve many blows and some things deserve few blows. But he’s talking again about eternal judgment here and he seems to say here and in a number of other places we could talk about that hell isn’t the same for everyone. Jesus taught that hell isn’t the same for everyone. In fact, one of the things that makes a big difference is knowledge. Knowing what’s right and refusing it is different than not knowing it, but he does say even here the one deserving of punishment. Okay, sin is sin it requires a consequence, it’s just the way that it works out, but Jesus taught that hell isn’t the same for everyone. It’s an important idea and maybe you’d go, “Okay.”
But the real problem for me is that it’s eternal. The real problem for me is that its eternal consequences, its eternal punishment, whatever we want to call it, it’s eternity for a few short years of sin, right? In fact, that’s how Rob Bell, that pastor I mentioned that’s how he argued it, he said, “If you think that a loving God is gonna punish for eternity the hell…the sins committed in a few short years here on earth then that just doesn’t work, that’s not just, it’s not good there’s no way that that’s a loving God.” But you know, what’s interesting is that underneath that there’s an assumption underneath that. And I struggled with that idea for years and then one day I read this, and it began to show me that assumption. Here’s what I read, it’s in Matthew, again Jesus speaking here, right to hear from him.
He said this 11:41 he said, “The Son of Man… I’m sorry 13:41 “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And two things here I wanna point out, the first is that he says he’s gonna weed out of his kingdom and that would be heaven, weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and everyone who does evil. But it’s that causes sin that really caught my attention because I begin to ask the question, “Well, what exactly is it that causes sin?”
I mean, the Bible is pretty clear about what sin is. Sin is missing the mark of God’s nature and character. So, God is loving and when we’re not loving we’re missing the mark. Sin is also crossing the line. God draws the boundaries and he says, “Don’t cross over this,” and we’re like, “Cross over what right? That’s sin, it’s when we miss the mark, we cross the line, but what causes it? What is it that leads us to miss the mark or to cross the line? And really what we find when we read the whole of Scripture is that the root cause of all sin is an insistence in self-determination. And I know that sounds a little academic but let me walk you through what it means. The root cause of all sin is the insistence in self-determination.
And if we go all the way back to the beginning of the Bible, to the story of Genesis, we have this amazing story where God made Adam and Eve. He made the first man and woman, He made human beings as his image and he said, “You’re gonna have delegated authority, you’re gonna rule and reign in creation with my authority, you’re gonna be on mission with me.” He said you know, he created everything, and he made a garden and he took the man and he put him in the garden, and he said, “You see what I did here? You’re gonna do that out there, you’re gonna extend my influence on all creation, we’re gonna have a lot of fun together, it’s gonna be fantastic. But there’s one rule. In the middle of the garden, there’s a tree and it’s the tree of the knowledge of?” Does anybody know? It’s the knowledge of good and evil. And the question becomes what exactly does that mean? And I think the best way to understand it is the way that we see that same phrase used a number of times in the Old Testament and in ancient literature. That the knowledge of good and evil was kind of a stand-in for saying deciding for yourself, deciding right and wrong, making decisions for yourself.
Somebody would do something wrong and if they would come back again, so the parents they’d go, “Did you see what your kid did?” They would go, “Hey, don’t talk, just talk to him, he’s old enough to know good from evil.” That would be the phrase. The point is he’s old enough to make his own decisions and to take the consequence of them, it’s not our choice anymore, he’s deciding for himself. And I think that’s the best way to understand it because that’s how we see it used frequently. And so, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is really the tree of deciding for yourself, deciding what’s right and wrong for you. It’s deciding your own path, it’s choosing your own destiny, it’s being in charge. And God said, “Don’t eat from that.” And he said, “If you eat from that you will surely? You may know? “You’ll surely die,” why? Because God’s a harsh God and he’ll punish anybody…no, no, no because God is life and he’s light and if you walk away from light you end up in the? If you walk away from life, you end up in death.
See God is the ultimate determiner of right and wrong, we’re supposed to listen to him. He’s God, we’re not we’re supposed to live in submission to that. But he says, “If you eat from the tree of deciding for yourself, you’re choosing to be your own God, you’re choosing to walk away, you’re choosing to do life without me. And if you walk away from life, you’re gonna end up in death. So, don’t do it. And then Satan came to Eve and he said, “What’s God’s deal?” It’s a rough translation of the Hebrew. “Did he really…I can’t believe it, did he really tell you that you’re not allowed to eat from any of the trees in the garden? What a jerk.”
That’s what Satan does, he takes a little piece of truth and he takes it and expands it in a way that it’s no longer true because it’s outside of the context for it. And Eve got it right, she said, “No, no, no that’s not what he said, he said we can eat fruit from the trees of all the trees, right? We just can’t eat the fruit from that one tree, the tree of deciding for ourselves and if we eat from it, we’ll die.” And he goes, “No, you won’t, that big old liar. No, no he just knows that if you eat from it you’ll be like him. You’ll be your own god, you’ll call your own shots, you call your own destiny he doesn’t want that.”
And so, Eve ate from it, she decided for herself and Adam ate from it, he decided for himself. They said, “God, thanks, like I appreciate the life and all that, but you know, I think I’ll take it from here.” I think from now on, I’ll call the shots. I think from now on, I’ll decide my own destiny. I think from now on I will plan out my own path. And they walked away, they separated from him and they began to experience that separation. You see in the ancient world, this is so important, death wasn’t thought about in terms of biology. They didn’t think about death being the stopping of the heartbeat or you know, the stopping of the brain activity. No, death was separation, it was separation for community and from relationship. And once they said, “Thanks, God, but we’ll take it from here, we’ll be our own, little g, gods.” They broke that relationship and they walked from light into dark, they walked from life into death. And they began to experience it and we know how that all worked out, right?
And so now Jesus says, “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin.” And at its root what is it that causes sin? It’s this insistence in self-determination. And he says this, “And they will throw them into the furnace the angels throw them into the furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
And that gnashing is an interesting word, it’s the second thing I wanna point out here. I grew up hearing a fair amount about gnashing. Southern Baptists like to talk about gnashing. And I remember a Sunday School class where the teacher said, “Hey, gnashing it’s what happens when you…when people are grinding their teeth together, so hard that the teeth begin to break. He said that’s how painful hell is, that’s how painful the fires are. They’re grinding their teeth together so much that the pieces of the enamel are beginning to chip off. And you’re actually cracking those big thick molars, that’s how hard you’re grinding, that’s how painful it is.
Now, who wants to say yes to Jesus? We all wanted to say yes to Jesus. But the thing is I’ve actually come to understand that he wasn’t really right, it’s not what gnashing means. I mean, it is the sound of teeth grinding together, but in the ancient world what’s being described there and the way this word was used it was talking about sort of a physical expression of anger and animosity and resentment. Gnashing equals animosity and rebellion, basically, it’s when you look at somebody that just makes you so mad that you’re clucking your teeth together, you’re grinding your teeth. But it’s used as an expression, it’s used as a figurative way of talking about animosity and rebellion. And so, I think it’s so interesting.
He says, “Those that are thrown outside the kingdom are different than those who are still inside the kingdom. Inside the kingdom, everything that causes sin is taken out, it’s weeded out, this insistence in self-determination is weeded out. But for those outside the kingdom, they still have it, they’re still living in it, they’re still in rebellion against God. And he says the final proof of that is there’s continual gnashing of teeth, this expression of animosity and rebellion.
So it’s so interesting to me you know, this idea that you know, hell is infinite punishment for finite sin it’s built on the assumption, whether we’ve recognized it or not, it’s built on the assumption that we stop sinning the moment we stop breathing. That we stop living in rebellion like the moment that we die, everybody looks at God and goes, “Oh, your God? I had no idea.” That’s not what happens, what Jesus taught is that no one stops rebelling just because they’ve stopped breathing.
That’s what he’s talking about here, no one stops rebelling just because they’ve stopped breathing. In other words, hell is not infinite punishment for finite sin, hell is the ongoing experience of rebellion against God. And you might go, “Well, how you know, if they really see God for who he is, how could they possibly rebel against him?” Because we do it all the time. Because the Bible is filled with stories of people who saw the truth and went, “Yeah, the problem is accepting God as God means that I’m not God and I don’t get to decide and I don’t get to chart the course and I’m not willing to do that.” And so yes, they look at God and they go, “Yeah, you’re God and I’m not but if you think for a moment that I’m gonna bow down to you now, you’re crazy.”
Gnashing of teeth is a demonstration of an attitude that goes on here where people look at God go, “Who do you think you are? What makes you think you’re God? What makes you think you get to decide? No, no, I will be what I’ve always been.” And God says, “Okay.” No one stops rebelling just because we stopped breathing. We go, “Okay, yeah, but still isn’t it torture?” I mean, and the idea that God’s torturing people, isn’t that the real problem? And I would argue that yeah, I mean, if God is truly torturing people, that’s hard to reconcile with being a loving God but is that what Jesus taught?
I think we get the idea that he’s torturing people from two things. Number one can we just be honest with each other about this. We get it from Hollywood. A lot of people reject the idea of hell based on the pictures they’ve seen in movies or on TV or Far Side cartoons or wherever you got it. And we have this image of you know, like people being roasted over the fires of hell by the devil on a spit and we go, “That’s torture.” And there’s a biblical basis for some of that and I think it’s just the idea that we get this language of fire. And certainly, this idea that if God is putting people in fire then that’s torture, how could it not be? And I see that, and I would struggle with that too if it weren’t for this that Jesus said. It says Matthew 8. “But they will be thrown outside, into the,” what’s that word? Darkness. “But they will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
And notice it’s almost exactly the same phrase, weeping and gnashing of teeth in one verse its fire and in this one it’s darkness. And you know, and careful readers would go, “Well, wait a minute, hang on a second, is it fire or is it darkness? Because you can’t really have both, can you?” I mean, if you got fire then it’s not dark and if it’s dark you don’t have…so what’s going on here, what’s happening?
And honestly, I think the only way to explain how you can get these two different images is either that one or both of them are figurative. One or both of them are trying to come up with some language to convey the horror of hell and the necessity of avoiding it at all costs. And how do we convey this? And there’s what we might…we could talk about it as fire or we could talk about it as darkness but one or both of those has to be figurative. And then which one is it? I mean, if only one of them is figurative than which one is it? And if I had to pick one of those two and say they’re figurative, I would put my money on the fire, for a very simple reason, two reasons, actually.
Number one, the Book of Revelation is very clear that the fire of hell was created for the devil and his demons. And I don’t wanna get overly technical and maybe I’m pushing a little too far, but I don’t think so. Here’s the thing, the devil and his demons are spirits. They don’t have physical bodies; physical flame would mean nothing to them. I know that because Jesus dealt with a boy who was possessed by a demonic spirit and one of the things the demonic spirit kept trying to do was trying to throw him into the fire because he knew that the fire would hurt the boy, but it wouldn’t hurt the demon in the slightest because he’s not physical, he’s a spirit. And so, fires of hell for spiritual beings that’s almost got to be figurative language.
I would also argue that the fire is figurative in part because when Jesus and I don’t know if you realize this. But if you actually look it all up what you’re gonna find is that Jesus talked about darkness more when he was talking about sin and its ultimate consequence than he did about fire. We fixate on the fire language, but he actually talked more about darkness. And the interesting thing about darkness is this, how do you end up in the dark? You walk away from the? Light. And the Bible consistently presents God as the source of all light and love and peace. And if you walk away from light and love and peace where you end up? You end up in the dark, unexperiencing love, disconnected from love and unsettled and hurting because you’ve lost peace.
See the Bible, Jesus I should say, honestly, Jesus taught that hell is complete self-imposed isolation from the God of all light and love, not torture but self-imposed isolation. And I say complete, for a very important reason and that is I don’t believe that in this life anybody is completely isolated from God’s love or his light or his peace. I think even the worst person in this life still experiences something of the calling grace of God. Something of the beckoning love of God that’s trying to draw them back from the inevitable self-imposed consequences of their refusal to say you’re God and I’m not. He’s calling them back to that.
But there’s a day coming where he says, “I’m gonna give them the ultimate dignity of their choices,” you can go on into darkness. And please understand I’m not minimizing the doctrine of hell. I’m not saying that it’s gonna be in any way pleasant. I mean, it’s clear that both of these images both fire and darkness are intended to convey the horribleness and the incredible necessity of avoiding it at all costs. But this idea that it’s torture for endless years, for finite sin and that everybody has sinned. All those are misunderstandings, it’s not what Jesus actually taught. Five things he’s taught us, right? Five things we have to deal with.
Number one, Jesus didn’t see a contradiction between God’s love and hell. Number two, the people most opposed to the idea of hell are often those least impacted by evil here on earth. Least in need of eternal justice for the damage that’s been done to them. Number three, Jesus taught that hell isn’t the same for everyone. Number four, Jesus taught that no one stops rebelling just because they’ve stopped breathing. And then number five hell is complete self-imposed isolation from the God of all light and love. And this would be a terrible place to stop. Amen.
Romans 6:23. For the wages of sin is death. Pay attention, the wages, not the punishment, not the torture, the wages the self-earned natural consequences. Wages we earned it. And I would argue from Jesus teaching the more of it you do the more of it you earn. The wages of sin is death again not biology but separation from the God of all life, note its self-imposed isolation from the God of all light and love.
The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. The gift of God, the gift. We don’t earn it, we can’t possibly get to the point that we’re receiving from him something that we deserve, no, the gift of God is eternal life. God loves us so much that in spite of the fact that he has allowed us the dignity of our choices to walk away from him, God said, “I can’t bear that.” And so, he came after us, knowing what it would cost him, and the cost was high. His own Son had to pay his own wages, somebody had to pay him. So, his own Son, Jesus himself, lived the perfect life, he had no sin to atone for, no sin to pay for. He went to the cross in your place. He went to the cross in my place.
And now he says, “If you just stop insisting on being little "G" gods, if you just stop insisting on self-determination. If you just say to me, you’re God and I’m not and what a God you are, a God of love who would do that for me, what a God.” Why would I not trust that God? See we know what Adam and Eve didn’t. God knew what he was talking about when he said that road of self-determination it’s no good. And we also know this, we know that we have a God who loves us so much that he was willing to bear the cost for what we did. And so, he says, “If you just put your trust in Jesus you will not face an eternity of self-imposed isolation but an eternity of love, of meaning, of significance, of hope, of joy, of peace.”
And so, if you’re here today, please hear me, this is not a “turn or burn” message. This is a turn and be loved message because the road that you’re on it will not lead to love. But there’s a God chasing after you who says, “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, it doesn’t matter how much of it, how bad it is, it doesn’t matter, I’ve paid it, come home.”
Would you pray with me? I think as followers of Jesus we need to say thank you right now. And so, if you’re a follower of Jesus on all of our campuses at all of our locations, Church Online as well, can we just say from our hearts, “God, thank you.” We sinned, we turned, we fled, we refused to say that you’re God and we made ourselves out to be little gods. And we should have suffered the eternal consequences of that self-imposed isolation, but you loved us so much that you paid the price. You bore our sin and our shame, and our guilt and you paid it off. Thank you so much.
But if you’re listening to this right now and you don’t have a relationship with God through faith in Jesus, please understand, he’s not holding some huge threat over you, he’s simply speaking the truth. Apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ, apart from trusting in what he’s done for you, you are on a path of self-imposed isolation. And God will not force you into a relationship but understand a truly good and loving God can neither deprive his creation of justice nor force us into a relationship.
And if that’s you and if you’re on that path and you’re able to admit that then you are able also to receive forgiveness today, to receive salvation today. To receive new life with Christ, not in isolation ever again, but in relationship with your Creator. And if you don’t have that relationship but you’d like to have it right here right now, you can. And if you want to have that relationship, you’re want to put your faith in Jesus today you just slip your hand up. That’s awesome. Thank you. If you’re watching online just click the button right below me. And wherever you are you just have this conversation with God in your heart say:
Jesus, I’ve done wrong, I’ve sinned and I’m sorry. I understand that I made the decision, I walked away from you, started down this path of isolation from you. I did it but I’m done with it. Jesus, thank you for dying in my place to pay the wages of my sin. I believe you rose from the dead and so you’re able to offer me forgiveness, a new life and love, and peace, and light. So, Jesus, right here right now I’m saying yes to you. I’m putting my faith in you. Jesus, come into my life, I’m yours for now and forever. Amen.