Advent and a Difficult Doctrine

The Four Last Things

Advent is the season when Christians are to think about the Four Last Things – death, judgment, heaven and hell.

Most would rather go straight to the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. But in the same way as it is wise to have a physical health check from time to time, it is good to have a spiritual health check and be asked the awkward questions – about death, judgment, heaven and hell. Death is real. It is in our papers and on our Radios and TV screens every day. But after death comes judgment according to the Bible (Heb 9.27). And judgment makes us think about heaven and hell. Few have a problem with heaven. But many have a problem with hell. In America a study conducted this year showed that 59 percent of people believed in hell. That was down from 71 percent in 2001. With regard to the UK, in Scotland 3 years ago it was discovered that out of 750 clergy from all denominations only 37 percent believed in hell. This is not good news. Jim Packer writes:

“The sentimental secularism of modern Western culture, with its exalted optimism about human nature, its shrunken idea of God, and its scepticism as to whether personal morality really matters – in other words, its decay of conscience – makes it hard for Christians to take the reality of hell seriously … However, the doctrine of hell appears in the New Testament as a Christian essential, and we are called to try to understand it as Jesus and his apostles did.”

The economy and hell

There appear to be economic consequences in a decline in a belief in hell which should challenge us today. Two years ago a US Federal Bank study found that there was a relationship between economic health and the percentage of a country’s population believing in hell. One Harvard study similarly found that non-economic factors, such as religion and religious beliefs in heaven and hell, explained some economic growth. The Federal Bank study showed as well some evidence that countries with higher levels of per capita gross domestic product had lower levels of corruption:

“Countries that tend to have higher percentages of their population that believe in hell also tend to be less corrupt.”

Of course, these are simply correlations, but they fit in with the idea that religious beliefs can influence economic outcomes, because religious beliefs do affect morality. Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous 19th century political scientist and early sociologist, had been clear on this. He held that

“a religious country lessened its dependence on the public sector, which not only left a larger amount or resources for the private sector but enhanced the country’s moral fibre.”

Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Chairman, said in 2004,

“rules cannot substitute for character. In virtually all transactions, whether with customers or with colleagues, we rely on the word of those with whom we do business. Even when followed to the letter, rules guide only a few of the day-to-day decisions required of business and financial managers. The rest are governed by whatever personal code of values managers bring to the table.”

The New Testament teaching on hell

In the New Testament hell is seen as self-chosen (John 3.18-21). It for those who love darkness rather than light and who choose not to have their Creator as their Lord. They choose sin rather than righteousness and, if they have heard the gospel, they choose to reject rather than to accept Jesus Christ. Hell is described symbolically by terms like “fire” and “darkness” (obviously symbolic, as they would be mutually exclusive if literal). But the terms are meant to stand for something dreadful. And the purpose of this teaching is to make us thankful to God for providing a way of escape through Christ and then to encourage us to follow the escape route as fast as we would from a house on fire. People should thank God for being so clear about hell in the Bible!

While many Christian at first would like to believe, if they could, that all will be saved, many can then see why Christ was so insistent on teaching about hell. The reality of hell makes sense of so much. It explains Jesus’ mission. The Bible in Hebrews 1.3 summarizes that mission as providing “purification for sins” (Hebrews 1.3). The Cross was so fundamental to Jesus’ coming that first Christmas. Christ came to die for human sin and to experience on the cross in our place the hell we deserve for ignoring and disobeying God. So those who believe and trust in him as Saviour and Lord, can be free. Paul could say to some early converts:

“you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus who rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Thess 1.9-10).

Then there is the relationship of hell to our understanding and respect for human freedom. We live in a “victim” culture where often no one is seen as responsible. All are victims! But Christ’s teaching gives the lie to such a view. The doctrine of hell underlines and so safeguards the reality of human freedom and individual responsibility. For if God allows us to go away from him and from his light and love to darkness and hell, in spite of all his inducements to stop us doing so, we too should respect the freedoms of others. So the Christian should never seek to “impose” the gospel on anyone. Rather they should “propose” it for consideration, while praying for its free and willing acceptance.

But what of the unevangelized and other religions?

A student once asked the great Victorian preacher C.H.Spurgeon if he thought people of other religions who had never heard the gospel would be saved. His reply was:

“it is more a question with me whether we who have the gospel and fail to give it to those who have not, can be saved.”

And Jesus taught that we should be practically obedient rather than waste time on certain theological questions concerned with heaven and hell (Luke 13.23). We should, therefore, be motivated to evangelize, one, from a concern where thankfulness and obedience are being denied to the Sovereign Lord of the universe; two, from compassion for people who are spiritually lost, and, if Jesus is right, going literally to hell; and, three, from simple obedience to his clear command to tell others that he saves from sin and judgment and for a life that can be lived now creatively in the power of the Holy Spirit.

With Abraham we can know that the

“judge of all the earth will do right” (Gen 18.25).

And we can know that as in the case of the Gentile Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter’s conclusion was that

“in every nation any one who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10.34).

But we know that Cornelius himself admitted that full “salvation” needed more than his prayers. He needed the preaching and the message of Peter about Jesus Christ (Acts 11.13). The clear duty, therefore, is for every Christian to remember and then act on Peter’s teaching in Acts 4.12:

“Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

That is why the Church at large and Christians individually need to tell others, in appropriate ways, the message about Jesus Christ. So Article XVIII of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England says it is wrong to say that

“every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth … for holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.”

Yes, missionaries tell us of people who are like Cornelius and just waiting to hear about Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus seems to be able to judge how people would have believed had they a chance to respond to the gospel and that some would have repented (Matt 11.21). And there are other things that can be said. But as Professor F.F.Bruce wrote:

“what if some will not repent? … If men choose irrevocably to follow their own way instead of [God’s] – if they say with Milton’s Satan, ‘Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven’ – they may do so but God has warned them of the consequences of their wretched choice. ‘In the long run, the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins, and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what he does’ (C.S.Lewis).”The secret things belong to the Lord our God”

How do you reconcile all these things together? The Bible does not tell us all we want to know.

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us” (Deut 29.29).

We do not know all we would like to about the Last Things. So we have to keep the balance of the Bible in respect to what has been revealed. Yes, there is a narrow door, through which we have to enter God’s kingdom and many seem to fail to do that. But we must be cautious of then saying that the number in heaven will be small. John tells us in heaven of

“a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev 7.9).

And Paul says,

“if the many died by the trespass of the one man [Adam], how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”(Rom 5.15).

And those “many” are not a minority. The 16th century Reformer, John Calvin, wrote:

“if Adam’s fall had the effect of producing the ruin of many, the grace of God is more efficacious in benefiting many, since admittedly Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam was to ruin.”

Apparently C.H.Spurgeon ( a great Calvinist) not only refused to speculate about the unevangelized, he also used to pray:

“Lord, hasten to bring in all your elect, and then elect some more.”

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