Saturday, December 30, 2006

Just thinking about hell

Anyone who spends significant time with me will soon see proof that I grew up with old people. Some of my opinions, attitudes and habits give me away. For instance, there is a practice that I learned from my great-grandmother that I continue today: I daily check the obituary section of our area newspaper.

My experience was that old people checked the obituaries mainly to see if any of their peers had died. My great-grandmother would cut out the obituaries of people she knew and keep the clippings in a box. I still have her box of obituaries. I also have her sister’s collection of obituary clippings. And, yes, I have my own collection of obituary clippings.

Although I occasionally run across the obituary of one of my peers (a phenomenon that, unavoidably, becomes less rare, the older I get), mostly, I check the obituaries to see if anyone I’ve known has died, regardless of their age. You see, I hate to be totally out-of-the-loop, when it comes to the death of someone I’ve known. This is how it usually happens: I’ll be talking to a friend or acquaintance and, somehow, the death of a mutual acquaintance comes up. When I express surprise upon hearing the news, the other person will start off with, “Oh, didn’t you know?” It’s almost like everybody in the county knew, attended the funeral, the burial, and the dinner at the church afterwards, but somehow forgot to let me know. “Oh, didn’t you know?” Well, no! How could I if someone doesn’t tell me?!

So…I read the obituaries.

Well, I was reading the obituaries today and, lo and behold, there was an obituary for an older gentleman I’d known all my life. This gentleman had retired some years ago and moved to another state, so the obituary was mainly to inform people in this area, who had known him, of his death. I was reminiscing about this gentleman to my wife, and mentioned that I thought his late mother had been a member of our former denomination because I can remember her visiting our church when I was a boy, whenever she would be in town visiting her son. My wife asked me, “So, what church did he go to?” I told her I didn’t think he was affiliated with any church. At least I don’t remember ever hearing about him being a part of any church.

I was thinking about that later, and it occurred to me that if, indeed, this gentleman was not a Christian, he’s in hell right now. I had to pause and let that thought sink in. Then, I wondered, “How many of the people, whose obituary I read today, died in a lost condition and are, therefore, in hell today?” That’s a very sobering thought. But, that thought led to yet another one: How many people do I know who are in hell today?

Have you ever thought about that? Do you know anyone in hell? You knew them in this life. Perhaps, they were good, decent people: An older person from the neighborhood when you were a child growing up; a friend who died tragically in an accident or as the result of a lingering illness; or, maybe, a beloved relative or family member. You know this person never professed faith in Christ. They never even pretended to be a Christian. They’re dead now. Where are they? If they died outside of Christ, they must be in hell. You knew them in life, but now they’re in hell.

This makes me think about people I know who are still in “the land of the living”. They don’t profess to know Christ Jesus. They’re not associated with anything Christian. Some of them are good, decent, honest people—upstanding citizens, a credit to their communities. But, by the standard of Scripture, they are lost—they, like you and me, “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Good people, but traveling on the wide and easy way that leads to hell (Matthew 7:13). Some of them are coworkers, neighbors and relatives. If they died, I would never see them again, because they would be in hell.

Do you ever think about the reality of hell? Do you ever consider that every person—every soul—who is outside of Christ Jesus, will spend a conscious eternity in hell, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48, quoting Isaiah 66:24)? Are you aware that hell is not a myth? Jesus said, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), and, praise God, that is true. But, do you also see that it is equally true that whoever does not believe in the only Son of God shall perish, and that eternally?

I used to think of hell as a place of literal “fire and sulfur” (Revelation 14:10; 20:10; 21:8; Psalm 11:6), a “lake of fire” (Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15), where the lost burned forever without being consumed. I now see that hell is infinitely worse than that. I am of the opinion that “fire and sulfur” and the “lake of fire” are symbolic expressions. We all know that symbols are less that the things they symbolize. The reality is always greater than the symbol. As horrible as eternal burning in literal “fire and sulfur” or a “lake of fire” would be, hell is infinitely worse. I am of the opinion that “fire and sulfur” and “lake of fire” are symbolic of nothing less than the terrible fire of God’s wrath.

For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, quoting Deuteronomy 4:24).

The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: ‘Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?’” (Isaiah 33:14).

The eternal and unquenchable fire of God’s wrath against sinners will make burning in a literal fire, as we know fire, seem tolerable by comparison. What “fire and sulfur” and “lake of fire” symbolize is infinitely worse than anything we can possibly imagine.

Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Revelation 6:15-17).

In contradiction to those who would pit a loving Jesus against an angry Old Testament God, please notice that in that day people will be trying to hide themselves “from the wrath of the Lamb” as well as the wrath of the Father “who is seated on the throne”. The “great day of their wrath”—the Father and the Son—is included in the wrath of God that I’m talking about.

I also used to think of hell consisting of separation from the presence of God. But, that can’t be right because it isn't possible to be totally separated from the presence of a God who is omnipresent.

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139:7-8)

If we read Scripture carefully, I think we will see that the lost are not separated from God’s presence.

And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, ‘If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb’” (Revelation 14:9-10).

Here, I not only see an association of “God’s wrath” with the “fire and sulfur”, but I also see, instead of being separated from God, the wicked are “tormented…in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” Where the “holy angels” are, isn’t the Father there, also? I’m speculating here, but could it be that the same light of God’s holy presence that will bring eternal pleasure to the redeemed will be experienced by those in hell as tormenting fire?

There are some, even among Bible-believing evangelicals, who would shrink from facing the reality of God’s wrath. But, face it we must. Yes, the wrath of God is frightening and horrible, but it is a reality clearly taught in Scripture. Some, trying to avoid the full force of God’s wrath, flee for refuge in an unbiblical doctrine of annihilationism. Well, if the wicked simply cease to exist, that isn’t so bad, is it? Might as well live it up in sin now, because in hell you will just cease to exist. Nonsense! God will not be mocked like that. Hell is never-ending:

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).

Eternal, conscious torment under the wrath of our God who “is a consuming fire”. This is a reality for everyone “whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain” (Revelation 13:8):

And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).

I think I know some people who are now in heaven. Based on their profession of faith and what I knew of their life and doctrine when they were living, I trust that these people are now in heaven and that one day I shall see them again as we rejoice in the presence of our Lord and Savior. But, there are others, based on what I knew of their life and doctrine when they were living, I am not hopeful about. Sadly, I think I know some people who are now in hell.

But, what troubles me the most is that I know some people yet living who will also end up in hell, unless they turn to Jesus Christ. Do you know people like that? I’ve often thought that if it were possible to coerce a soul into salvation, I’d be willing to force my unsaved relatives and family members into the Kingdom under the point of a gun—anything, just to get them to flee to Christ. Sometimes, it’s so frustrating trying to talk about Christ with people whose hearts and minds are hardened against Christ and against the gospel. Yet, to be unconcerned, when millions upon millions are on their way to an eternal hell, is most unloving and totally unacceptable for those of us who, but for the grace of God, would also be hell-bound.

So, what is the Christian to do about those we know who are in eternal danger?

Go…and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19).

Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15).

Preach the word…always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:2, 5).

And, there is something else believers can do: pray! Only God can save. Only God can open spiritually-blind eyes. Only God can bring the spiritually dead to life. Therefore, pray for unbelievers, that God would cause them to see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Pray that God would shine in their “hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Pray that the Spirit of God would bring to the unbeliever conviction “concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8)—their sin of unbelief, Christ’s righteousness, and the judgment of the wrath to come.

You and I can pray. We must not stop praying for the lost. We can’t save anyone, but listen to the words of Jesus: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). I feel like I’m speaking mostly to myself (because I need to hear this), but I also say to believers who are reading this: “Trust God!” “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14). Is anyone too difficult for God to save?

If you need some motivation, just think about hell.

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