There are many objections to the Christian faith. There are questions about science and creation. There are questions about the historicity of the Bible, of the Gospels, of the story of Jesus. There are questions about the problem of suffering and evil. But where I come from in South Africa, one of the great questions and objections that people have to the Christian faith is: ‘How can a loving God send people to hell?’ Where I come from that’s a very real objection that I encounter from time to time among young people and among older people who reject the Christian faith. I want to deal with that issue this evening and I want to have a look at what the Bible has to say about this question, ‘How can a loving God send people to hell?’
We’ll pick up from God’s Word because that’s our final authority - to see what the word of God has to say concerning these things. Here the Lord Jesus is speaking, he says
31When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Matthew 25:31-33)
Hell seems to have fallen on hard times. A poll in the USA in 1978 revealed that 70% of those interviewed believed in hell. Only 11 years later, in 1989, in a Newsweek survey only 58% of people believed in hell. And in a survey done in 1990 by the Sunday Telegraph here in the UK only 24% of those questioned believed in hell. Those are pretty poor ratings, but according to some people they’re still grossly exaggerated.
The author David Lodge put it like this:
"At some point in the 1960s hell disappeared. No-one could say for certain when this happened. First it was there, then it wasn’t. Different people became aware of the disappearance of hell at different times. Some realised that they’d been living for years as though hell did not exist without consciously having registered its disappearance. Others realised that they had been behaving out of habit as though hell was still there though in fact they had ceased to believe in its existence long ago."
Gordon Kaufman, a divinity professor at Harvard University, said that hell has been in decline for 400 years and it is now so much diminished that the process is irreversible. “I don’t think there can be any future for hell,” he says.
The rich irony of all of that is if hell no longer exists, it certainly is part of the common language and vocabulary of almost everybody in our culture. It’s used for all kinds of things. It’s often used to convey images of extreme violence, so just a week or two back a CNN reporter in Jerusalem said of one of the suicide bombings, “all hell has broken loose”. Sometimes it can be used to mean a great deal of effort or power, so in a golfing book the author Tommy Ahmer advises his readers to (I quote) ‘whack the hell out of the ball with the right hand.’ It can also mean something good or exciting in our cultural usage of the word. When the extravagant multi-millionaire Malcolm Forbes died in March 1990, at the funeral his son Robert addressed his dead father with these words, “It’s been a hell of a party, dad. Thanks for the trip.” But the word is used in all kinds of ways, isn’t it? People talk about being ‘as hot as hell’, about moving like ‘a bat out of hell’, ‘a snowball’s chance in hell’, ‘it’s hell to pay’ and so on and so on. What has happened is that no-one believes in the objective reality of hell and it’s come to mean virtually anything you like.
Having said all that, I think that the predominant view of our culture when it comes to hell was stated by John Lennon in his song ‘Imagine - do you remember those words?: “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try, no hell below us, above us only sky.” Was Lennon right? Is hell fact or fiction? Is it just a metaphor or a myth or is it true? And if it is true, how can a loving God send people to hell?
Now I’m well aware that it’s a large topic that we’re dealing with and I can’t deal with it in just a couple of minutes. But I want to answer 4 questions as we deal with the topic of hell and judgement.
Just two very quick side roads:
Side road number 1 - My presupposition (which is the presupposition of everyone who preaches from this pulpit) is that what we have in front of us is the word of God. God speaks to us through his word. Not only is it reliable and trustworthy, but if we want to know about life, about heaven, about hell, about death, if we want to know about the purpose of life and the reason of life - we will find it in God’s word. We believe this is the word of God - this is what I stand upon. This is where we get our knowledge about God. We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, God in the flesh, which means that everything he said must be true, must be right. So when I speak about hell, when we’re talking about all kinds of things, the question is: what is your authority? For some people their authority is their reason or their logic; for others it may be their experience; for others it may be culture. What we are saying is that our final source of truth isn’t reason or intellect or culture or experience - not that those things are unimportant, they have their place - but we are saying our final source of truth is the Word of God, the words of Jesus.
Side road number 2 - Just very quickly: I’m well aware that for many, many people the subject of hell is one of the primary reasons for rejecting the Christian faith. I’m sure that’s true here in your country: it’s certainly true in my country. CS Lewis, who believed in hell, once said that the doctrine of hell is one of the chief grounds on which Christianity is attacked as barbarous, and the goodness of God maligned. Bertrand Russell, who didn’t believe in hell, said there was “one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character and that is that he believed in hell. I do not myself believe that any person who is profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.”
Now, that may be precisely how you feel this evening - you don’t believe in hell, you can’t understand how the Bible can teach that there’s a hell, you certainly can’t believe that a loving God can send people to hell. Can I ask you to bear with me? Let me explain what the Bible teaches and why it is such an important doctrine. Four questions ….
Question number 1: What is the final judgment?
We’re going to have a look here at Matthew chapter 25. The first thing that the Bible teaches quite clearly is that there will be a final Day of Judgement, a final day when we will be held accountable. Here we have a description of the final judgement: it’s after the return of Christ. Christ has returned, he’s come back to end human history as we know it. He’s come back to draw things to a close. Here we have Christ - notice he’s seated on his throne, now he’s bringing not salvation or forgiveness or comfort, no, he’s bringing judgement. So we read in v31:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. (Matthew 25:31)
Notice in v32 it is Christ himself who separates, not the church, not the minister, not the bishop, no, it is Christ himself who separates the sheep from the goats. He is the one who makes a division among people.
Then at the end of the chapter:
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:46)
The Bible is very clear that there will be a Day of Judgement, a day of accountability, a day when all the books will be opened, a day when all the wrongs will be righted, a day when justice will be done.
Now let’s have a look at Romans chapter 2 where Paul talks about what will be the basis of our final judgement. Here we get to a critical issue - how will God judge us? What will be the basis of that judgement? Will it be fair? Will it be just? Once again Paul tells us the same ideas which Christ has talked about. He tells us there will be a Day of Judgement, which Paul calls the day of God’s wrath.
But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgement will be revealed. (Romans 2:5)
In v6 Paul tells us that the final judgement will be absolutely just, it will be fair. God will judge us according to what we have done. Notice there he says that God “will give to each person according to what he has done”. In verse 7 he tells us that those who sought after God, God’s glory, God’s honour, they will have eternal life..
To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Romans 2:7)
Verse 8 says those who are self-seeking, who reject the truth, who have been stubborn, who have had unrepentant hearts, they will by their own free choice face God’s wrath and judgement.
The frightening thing, v16, is that we’ll not only be judged for our deeds and actions but for our thoughts.
This will take place when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. (Romans 2:16)
How embarrassing - your thoughts, my thoughts, our motives, our most secret desires, all those unspoken jealousies, animosities, those things we don’t say, the bitterness, all of these things, will be under God’s judgement. Now you would have noticed that God will not judge men and women on what they don’t know; he will judge them on what they do know.
Someone said, “How can God send someone to hell for not believing in Jesus when they’ve never heard about Jesus? That’s unfair, that’s unjust.” Well of course it is. But God won’t be unfair - no, the basis of God’s judgement is they will not be judged for their ignorance, (v5) - they’ll be judged for their stubbornness, not their ignorance. They’ll be judged for their unrepentant hearts. Notice v8 - they’ll be judged for their selfishness, their evil ways. People will not be judged for their ignorance, no we will be judged for what we know.
Have a look at v14-15 - very helpful these two verses. Maybe well known to many of you. (When Paul uses the word ‘gentiles’ here, he’s speaking of those who do not have the word of God, do not have the law of God, so he’s speaking here of people who’ve never heard of Jesus, who’ve never had the gospel, never had the word of God in their hand.)
14Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them. (Romans 2:14-15)
What he’s saying here in v14 is that here are people who don’t have the written law but what they do have (v15) is their consciences. They have the law of God in some measure written on their hearts, and what Paul is saying here is that everyone will be judged according to the light they have received. God’s judgement will be fair; it will be just; they will be judged by the light they have received, either the written word of God or the word, the law of God written on their hearts, on their consciences.
Now, you say to me, “How does that work? How do we understand that?” Let me give you an example.
If you were to go to any tribesman or person living in the jungles of Africa or Asia or somewhere where they haven’t heard the word of God at all and you were to ask someone, “Is it right for your children to treat you like one of their friends?” Well, I would think that in almost all cases he would say no. “Is it right for someone to come into your hut or your home and just sleep with your wife?” Well, I have no doubt he would say (he might have 2 wives or 5 wives) but I have no doubt he would say no. “Is it right for your brother or your wife to not tell you the truth?” Well, I would think 9 times out of 10 he would say no.
What do we have there? We have half of the 10 commandments written on the hearts and the consciences of everybody, everybody made in the image of God. That’s what Genesis 1 tells us - we are made in the image of God. God has left his imprint upon us. Everybody has some measure of a knowledge of God, of right and wrong. It’s quite true that over time we’ve suppressed that truth by our wickedness and our evil-doing, but everyone has been born with an innate knowledge, some knowledge, not a perfect knowledge, not the full picture as we have it in the Bible, but some knowledge of who God is and what right and wrong is.
What Paul is telling us here in Romans chapter 2 is that all men will be judged and God’s judgement will be fair, it will be just. When you and I stand before God on Judgement Day he will ask us, “You have been given great privileges, you have heard the gospel, you have the Bible - have you trusted in Christ?” When someone who’s never heard of Christ, God will ask them, “Have you been true to your conscience? Have you lived up to the light you have received?” They will have to respond to that, but God’s judgement (there will be a Day of Judgement) will be fair and it will be just.
Question number 2 - once again, the first question is the longest, so do take heart. (I think preachers should always give their people hope.)
Question number 2: What is the reason for hell?
Let me give you 2 reasons for the necessity of hell and of judgement.
Reason 1: it’s a clear demonstration of the justice of God
In Colossians 3:25, Paul says:
Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong and there is no partiality.
If there was no doctrine of judgement … it’s really one of the most important doctrines in the Bible ...because if there’s no doctrine of judgement, of final accountability, it would make life a sick joke. We live in a broken, distorted world, which is fundamentally unfair and unjust. That is what Genesis 3 tells us. We live in a broken world. There is no fairness. There is no justice. People literally get away with murder. There’s corruption, there’s crime, there’s abuse. Perhaps you’ve been overlooked for promotion, perhaps you’ve been abused by a family member. For the most part, my dear friends, there’s no justice in this world, there’s no fairness. If there was no doctrine of judgement, of heaven and hell, it would mean that we live in an unfair universe. It would make life a sick joke.
You might like to know that I do not find the doctrine of eternal punishment an easy one to stomach emotionally. I think emotionally we all struggle with it. I also have loved ones who to my knowledge have died outside of Christ. So when I teach on hell and judgement, I do so with a great deal of sadness.
But, my dear friends, if you have problems with the doctrine of hell, you will have 1000 times more problems with a doctrine of no hell. Because if there’s no judgement and if there’s no justice, it means that the Lenins and the Stalins and the Hitlers and the Mugabes (you can name all kinds of people on that list) it means that all of them will be unjudged. There will be no justice. There will be no fairness. There will be no accountability. When you reject the doctrine of final justice, my dear friend, the consequences are profound, because in the end life is a sick joke. Wayne Gruden said the fact that their will be final judgement assures us that ultimately God’s universe is fair. God is in control and he keeps accurate records and renders just judgement.
The second reason for hell is that it gives a clear demonstration not only of the justice of God, but of the dignity of men and women.
Heaven and hell are clear demonstrations that God takes us human beings seriously. If someone has said to God, “I don’t want you. I don’t need you. I will live my life without you.” - what you need to know is that God takes you seriously. Apart from anything else, hell is a complete separation from God. That’s what you wanted and that’s what God has given you. You wanted to be your own god, to live separate from God, so that’s what you have. It’s a great compliment, a clear demonstration of the dignity of human choice. God takes our choices, our decisions, seriously. GK Chesterton once said, “Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice.”
Question number 3: What will hell be like?
The Bible doesn’t tell us what the furniture of heaven will be like, nor the temperature of hell. But it does give us some principles and parameters. Let me make two comments:
Comment 1: There will be degrees of punishment in hell
In Matthew 11:22 Jesus speaks about certain towns that rejected him and he says, “But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the Day of Judgement than for you.” What that tells us is that there will be degrees of punishment in hell, just as there are degrees of reward in heaven, so there will be degrees of punishment in hell. God will be fair. God will be just. It’s not a one-size-fits-all destination. No, the God of the Bible is just. He will do what is right.
Comment 2: Hell is a place of eternal, conscious punishment.
There are many passages that teach that truth. In Matthew 25:30 Jesus speaks of weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s the idea of torment, of frustration, of pain. In Mark 9:43 Jesus speaks of hell as the unquenchable fire. Whether that’s an actual fire or not, whether it’s a metaphor or not, isn’t the issue. The issue is that it’s the idea of eternal conscious punishment. So the Bible clearly denies there will be a 2nd chance - it clearly denies the idea of reincarnation, the idea of purgatory; it clearly denies the idea that we will be merely annihilated. The hell taught by Jesus is a place of eternal conscious punishment.
Then someone said, “Yes, but I don’t mind going because all my mates will be there and we’ll be together.” But, you see, the Bible talks about complete and utter desolation and loneliness. All the blessings of God will be absent. There’ll be no communication, no relationships, there’ll be no love, no friendship, there’ll be no care, there’ll be no kindness. Why? Because God is not there. The presence of God isn’t there; the blessings of God aren’t there. The idea that it will be a fun place because my mates will be there is certainly not talking scripture. It’s the absence of God and the presence of God and the blessings of God.
Richard Millen tried to portray hell in contemporary terms. I quote from a book that Chappo wrote - it goes like this:
"He’d never felt such aloneness before. “Where’s my wife?” he choked. Only that awful echo. “Your wife is not here.” He tried to piece it all together, but the darkness was too thick. Once in a while he thought he could see a blurred person or hear an anguished moan. He remembered the pain, those last moments of terror, but it was nothing compared to the feelings that were creeping into his awareness now. Again he cried, “Where is my wife?” “Your wife is not here.” “Where are my children?” “Your children are not here.” He started to grope about in the darkness but all was blindness. “My God,” he howled again, “let me fell the presence of one single human being.” ‘My God’ - he hadn’t said those words in such a long time. Now they seemed so hollow. Terror was welling up in him. He felt like a small child being threatened by deep darkness. No candles anywhere; no love anywhere; no voice anywhere. “Where is my wife?” he screamed. “Your wife is not here.” “Where are my children?” he pleaded. “Your children are not here.” Then the greatest fear of all came to his mind. He was terrified to ask, but he knew he would have to. His whole body trembled and he pursed his lips and whirled into the nebulous night, “Where … where is God?” As the deepest of all darkness closed in on his soul for all eternity, he heard that hideous echo whispering, that most horrifying of all judgements, “God is not here.”"
Let me close and ask the question: How do we escape hell?
There’s only one way. We won’t escape hell by coming to church or being religious or being nice or good. Those may be good things but you won’t escape hell by doing those things. There’s only one way to escape hell and that’s to cling to Christ, to call on Christ to rescue you. That’s why he came. Many people think that Christ is only there when there’s a birth or a wedding or a death. He’s only there when I’m in need. They don’t realise that Christ has come to rescue us, he’s come to rescue us from our own sinfulness, from our own selfishness. He’s come to rescue us from the wrath of God. He’s come to rescue us from hell itself. If you want to escape hell you need to turn to Christ. There’s no other way.
“How do you do that?” you say. You do that in prayer. I’m going to pray a prayer right now and help you to call upon him that he may rescue you. Let’s bow in prayer. I’m going to pray a prayer. Let me tell you what it is, so that you can think as to whether you want to pray that prayer. The prayer is like this:
Lord Jesus, I don’t understand it all, but I know that I need you. I know that I’ve sinned and I deserve your judgement. I know that Christ died on the cross for me, in my place, so that I can escape the judgement of God. Lord, will you save me? Will you make me a Christian?
Now that’s the prayer. If you want to pray that prayer, you pray that prayer in your head.
Father we thank you that we can call on you as our heavenly Father and we thank you that when we turn to you in our brokenness, our sinfulness and our need, when we call upon you for mercy, you hear and you answer. Work amongst us even tonight, we pray. For Christ’s sake, Amen.