4. The Place No One Needs to GoRelated Media
By now you know the story of the three cheaters and the Hindu priest being cheated of his precious goat. And the moral of the story? A lie when repeated several times does not turn into a truth, but it does become convincing.
One of the lies we hear today is that all religions are the same. Follow your own path and you will find peace and fulfillment. In our first lesson we saw the drastic differences between Christianity and other religions.
Then in the second lesson we covered little bit of theology; God is so exalted and high that no one can reach Him, except that He Himself comes down and makes it possible for us to have access to Him.
Then we talked about the valley too deep to cross. The holiness of God and sinfulness of man creates a vast and deep chasm between man and God that can only be crossed through the Cross. Today our topic is the place no one needs to go.
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. (NIV)
In a public school elementary class a teacher was having a class on biology and the lesson was on whale. Along with other things about the whale she mentioned that whale is a large mammal, but it has very narrow throat so it cannot swallow a large object, for example, it cannot swallow a grown up human being.
There was one girl from a Christian family who had learned the story of Jonah in her Sunday school class. So she raised her hand and said, “But, teacher, it swallowed Jonah!” To which the teacher said, “Well, as I told you, whale is a large mammal, but it has narrow throat so it cannot swallow a grown up person.
But the girl insisted, “But it did swallow Jonah”. The teacher by now was on the edge. She responded, “Young lady, I told you several times that the whale is large, but it has narrow throat so cannot swallow a grown up person.” The girl responded, “Okay, when I go to heaven, I will ask Jonah”.
But the teacher did not want to give up. Of course she did not believe in heaven or hell. But she responded, “How do you know Jonah went to heaven and not to hell? What if he went to hell?”
“Then YOU ask him” was the girl’s final response.
This is a joke. However, the teacher was right; whale is a large mammal but it has narrow throat and so cannot swallow a grown up human being. But that does not mean the Bible is wrong. The Bible does not mention that it was a whale or what kind of fish it was that swallowed Jonah, it just says a great fish. Also, if you remember, in our second lesson we learned that even in the twenty first century we know only five percent of marine biology. So the science does not and cannot prove the Bible wrong.
Hope you have liked the three messages we talked so far. I certainly do not like the message today. Nobody likes to be a bearer of bad news. And if there is one thing I or we all would like to be taken out from the Bible, it is the topic we are going to talk about today.
Hell? Who in his right mind would want to think of hell? We hear this word as a curse word. We use it for an extremely painful or difficult situation. But we rarely, if ever, think of it as a final and eternal destination.
When you think of hell, if ever, what comes to your mind? Fire and brimstone? Weeping and gnashing of teeth? No rest day or night? Their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched? Lake of burning sulfur? Everlasting destruction? People tormented day and night forever and ever? If you think of hell in any of these terms, you are right! Actually, that is how the Bible describes it.
Nobody wants to go there! When we think of life after death, we always have wishful thinking; we always think of heaven and never of hell. Hell is puzzling to many people. God is love; God is the epitome of love. How can a loving God send people to such a gruesome and horrible punishment and torment them forever? God sending people to a place of eternal torment has been repulsive to many.
S. Radhakrishnan, a well-known Indian philosopher of yesteryears (1888-1975) said, “God’s love would not allow even the worst sinner to slip away from Him completely… If God destroys His delinquent children, then we are attributing to God a very primitive instinct which even civilized men have sublimated. If Jesus took little children on His knees and told His hearers that the only way of pleasing God was to become themselves like little children, it is atrocious for us to thrust these citizens of the kingdom of heaven into the fire of hell” (Indian Religions (Orient Paperbacks, 1990), P. 149).
Similarly, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) rejected Christianity mainly because of its concept of hell, “There is one serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment” (Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion (Touchstone, 1967), P. 17).
Can you think of the audacity of this “lover of wisdom” that he would find serious defect in Christ’s moral character and less humane than any human being! But Russell was right in one thing. Russell rightly understood that Christ believed in hell. Christ referred to hell far more than to heaven. If Christ was a moral teacher, as accepted by most people, He taught only what is true and so we have no choice but to accept the reality of hell. The word Gahanna, which is translated as hell in most of the versions, is used thirteen times in the New Testament, twelve of it by Christ Himself.
Now this raises a serious question. The Bible on the one hand does speak of the love of God and on the other hand does mention eternal punishment. How can we reconcile the love of God and the eternal punishment of hell? Fire and brimstone? Weeping and gnashing of teeth? No rest day or night? Their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched? Lake of burning sulfur? Everlasting destruction? People tormented day and night forever and ever?
Hell? Certainly Not! Three Wrong Answers
To avoid the Biblical concept of hell, people have come up with basically three explanations. None of these is new.
One of the most prevalent arguments against hell is the concept of universal salvation. All of the non Christian philosophers, as we saw Radhakrishnan and Russell, and most of the liberal theologians accept the concept of universal salvation.
“I believe that all people are included in the grace of God. I believe that all the theologies that have made a large place for damnation and hell are unfaithful to a theology of grace. … A theology of grace implies universal salvation. What could grace mean if it were granted only to some sinners and not to others according to an arbitrary decree that is totally contrary to the nature of our God? If grace is granted according to the greater or lesser number of sins, it is no longer grace-it is just the opposite because of this accountancy. Paul is the very one who reminds us that the enormity of the sin is no obstacle to grace: Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:20). This is the key statement. The greater the sin, the more God’s love reveals itself to be far beyond any judgment or evaluation of ours. This grace covers all things. It is thus effectively universal… nothing in his creation is excluded or lost.” (Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), What I Believe (Eerdmans 1989), pp. 188-192).
Another erroneous theological concept trying to avoid the concept of hell is a concept of Conditional Immortality (CI). CI says that not all human beings are immortal, only those who receive Jesus by faith will live forever in heaven with God; the rest of humanity, all unbelievers, will be resurrected at the final judgment, thrown into fire and instantly destroyed physically.
CI believes that all humanity lost their immortality at the Fall. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were kicked out of the Garden of Eden “Lest they eat the fruit of the Tree of Life and live forever (Genesis 3:22–23). In Revelation 22:2 access to the tree of life is restored—but only for the inhabitants of New Jerusalem. The unbelievers are already destroyed physically before the New Heaven and New Earth come into being (Revelation 20:11-15).
Thus, immortality and eternal life are conditioned upon salvation. The lost will not live forever, in the end they will be annihilated, and will not sufferer eternally, according to those argue for conditional immortality.
Many passages in the Bible are interpreted accordingly. John 3:16 “will perish” means they would die physically forever, and not enter into heaven, or hell. Paul says, “The wages of sin is death”—not living forever in torment (Romans 6:23). Jesus tells us in Matthew 10:28 to fear God who “can destroy both soul and body in hell.” He says in Matthew 7:13—14 that the narrow and difficult path leads to “life,” while the wide and easy path leads to “destruction.”
In Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares, the weeds are “burned up” or “consumed” (Matthew 13:30) by fire, which Jesus interprets as meaning that the unrighteous will be thrown into a fiery furnace (verses 40–42) and permanently destroyed. Peter says that, in condemning Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by burning them to ashes, He “made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6). The residents of Sodom and Gomorrah were incinerated. Therefore, the ungodly will not live forever in ruin; they will be utterly destroyed.
However, one of the major differences between other living beings and the man is that, because the man is created in God’s image man is immortal. Man is separate, different from all other created living beings. Every other living being is created “according to its own kind”, a phrase used nine times in the first chapter of Genesis. But when it came to man, man was not created according to his own kind, but according to God’s own kind, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26).
Because man is created in the image of God his soul is eternal. The Bible says, God has set the concept of eternity in his heart (3:11b). Every culture, no matter how primitive or developed, has a concept of eternity, of something that will last forever. Because of this sense of eternity in his heart, man is looking for something that will last forever; most of all, something that will make him last forever.
So you cannot separate mankind in two groups, one in the Christ who will live forever and the other without Christ who will be annihilated and dead forever. If the one is going to live forever, the other too will live forever.
This is part of the doctrinal statement of our church: “The spirits and souls of the unbelieving remain after death conscious and in misery until the final judgment of the great white throne at the close of the millennium, when soul and body alike shall be reunited and ultimately cast into the lake of fire not to be annihilated, but to be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power” (Stonebrair Church Membership Class Handbook, P. 17)
Third wrong concept of hell is making it temporal, a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to heaven. People in hell suffer punishment for their sins they committed during their life on earth. The punishment in hell will purge them, make them pure, acceptable and make them eligible to enter heaven. This way hell is temporary. Love Wins by Rob Bell seems to argue for this, hell is a “temporary period of pruning” and “intense experience of correction” (P. 91). Although Catholics believe in eternal hell, their doctrine of Purgatory speaks about temporary hell.
Of course, the Bible describes hell as eternal punishment. As we see from the story of the rich man and Lazarus, there is no opportunity to cross from one place to another after death. That choice is here during the life on earth. Either person has believed in this life and so suffers no condemnation and at death goes directly in the presence of God, or has not believed and goes directly in hell; there is no third option.
The Bible clearly describes hell as eternal punishment. And if heaven is eternal, hell is eternal. If you make hell temporary, heaven becomes temporary. Because the words Ages and ages, or forever and ever are used both for hell and heaven.
The Practical Result Of The Wrong Answers
The consequences of all these wrong ideas, no fear of hell or the ultimate judgment, are obvious. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. And then it is over. No one to answer to. No accountability. No responsibility. One of the main reasons for the decline in morality and ethics in our culture is no fear of God, no fear of judgment.
“Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11). And so the overall lesson Solomon draws at the end of the book is, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). The Bible says, “It is dreadful things to fall into the hand of the living God”. And, “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 10:31; 12:29).
We believers do not need that fear. We do not fear judgment; we have no fear of hell. “Now therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ”. We want to live life pleasing to God not because of fear of hell or of judgment, but because of love for God and for the gratitude we feel for what He has done for us, as Paul says in Romans.
Hell? Certainly Yes! Three Right Answers
Behind all these wrong concepts is human thinking. How can loving God throw His children in such a horrible place forever and ever? That punishment is far exceeding to the sin and way out of proportion!
Holiness Of God Requires It
The first right answer against all the wrong answers above is the holiness of God. That was our topic in our previous lesson. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty! Without holiness no one can see God. And God’s standard of holiness is “Be holy as I am holy”. And no human being can ever meet that standard. The holiness of God requires just punishment of sin. As it was mentioned last week, the holiness of God overrules all His other attributes. Love of God is controlled by His holiness. Holy God cannot tolerate or overlook sin no matter how much He loves or would like to do so. We being sinful people have no concept of how repulsive sin is to God.
Last Sunday I used an extreme example describing a scene from the movie Slumdog Millionaire. I am afraid that may be too repulsive to talk about. But my point there was that is exactly how repulsive sin is to holy God.
Our Sense Of Justice Demands It
The prophet Habakkuk in the Old Testament cried out to God asking for justice, “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted” (Habakkuk 1:3-4).
That is all common human cry for justice. As we see the evil rampant all around us, we cry out to God for justice. God is God of justice. And since we are made in the image of God, one of our human traits, no matter how sinful we are, is to shout out, “That’s not fair!” And you can use many examples from your own life when you suffered injustice and cried out that’s not fair!
Graham Stains was a missionary in India. He, his wife, two sons and daughter ran a leprosarium and served the poorest of the poor in Bihar, northeast part of India. He was conducting regular weekly Bible studies in a nearby village. On January 22nd, 1999, after a Bible study, he was driving home late evening with his two sons, Philip (age 10) and Timothy (age 6). On the way a mob surrounded them, tied them in their jeep, doused them with gasoline and burned them alive.
Or, think of this. James Byrd Jr, a black man, was walking home one evening on June 7, 1998 when three white men picked him up, tied him behind their pickup truck and dragged him for three miles. He remained conscious throughout most of the ordeal, but was killed when his body hit the edge of a culvert, severing his right arm and head. The murderers drove on for another mile before dumping his torso in front of an African-American cemetery in Jasper, Texas.
Both these horrible incidents happened only six months apart. The culprits in both these cases were brought to trial and found guilty. The ring leader and his accomplices in Stains case are serving life sentence. One of the culprits in the Jasper case was executed on September 21, 2011. The ring leader, John William King, was just recently executed on April 24, 2019; twenty one years after the actual incident took place. A third accomplice is serving life sentence.
Now imagine, in each of these cases at the end of the trial and conviction, the judge tells them, “Fellows, you have done a horrible thing. But I am a loving and kind judge. So, I just warn you do not ever do such a thing again” and sets them free. What kind of uproar would it create?
Our justice system is flawed and many innocent people are convicted and guilty people go scot free. Just during the year of 2018 151 inmates were exonerated who were falsely “proven” guilty. They spent a total of 1,639 combined years in jail. The unwritten rule of justice is, let hundred guilty go unpunished, but not let one single innocent suffer unjust punishment.
But even in our flawed human justice system it would be unimaginable to let such atrocities go unpunished. Why do we keep all the murderers and rapists and those who commit horrible crimes locked up? If we follow only the principle of love, we should have no jails! No, justice demands just punishment. Our own sense of justice demands ultimate judgment. But that is exactly what we expect the holy God do at the end. How can we expect holy God, a perfect standard of justice and righteousness, let sin go unpunished?
Love Of God Provides The Way Of Escape
Hell? Yes! The holiness of God requires it, our sense of justice demands it, and three, love of God provides the way of escape.
The major argument of universalism against the existence of hell is the love of God. The question is how can a loving God send people to such a gruesome and horrible punishment and torment them forever? That is what Radhakrishnan said, “God’s love would not allow even the worst sinner to slip away from Him completely”. Bertrand Russell thought Jesus was more inhumane than any of us because He talked about hell.
The answer is, God does not send anyone to hell. He desires that no one go to that place. Hell is a place where no one needs to go. God clearly says in the Bible, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23). God is patiently waiting for people to turn to Him so no one will go to that place (2 Peter 3:9). When one sinner repents, there is great rejoicing in heaven (Luke 15:7, 10)!
Because of His love for mankind and desire that no one goes to that place, God has provided the way of escape. God loved people so much that He gave His Son Jesus Christ who took the punishment of sin on Himself for all mankind. Now the only thing a person has to do to escape from that eternal punishment is trust Jesus and accept God’s forgiveness.
In the cross the holiness of God and love of God are reconciled. Judgment of sin is taken care of and the way for the sinner’s salvation provided. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:17-18).
I repeat, hell is a place where no one needs to go! God does not send anyone there and does not desire that anyone go there. But because of His holiness He cannot give blanket amnesty to all mankind. God has left the choice to each person. As C. S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’, and those to whom God ultimately says, ‘Thy will be done’” (The Great Divorce).
Three Appropriate Responses
One, Hell is a reality. We cannot fool with it. We cannot ignore it. We cannot believe all the lies of its non existence. But it is a place no one needs to go. We certainly can avoid it. The love of God has already provided the way to avoid it. That is what “salvation” basically means; saved from the wrath of God as the eternal punishment of hell.
But the justice of God does not and cannot give blanket amnesty to everyone. Every person has to choose it, make a conscious choice of it. By not making that choice of avoiding hell, everyone automatically makes the choice of hell. Every person born on the earth is destined to hell, unless he/she makes the choice of avoiding it through coming into relationship with Jesus. There is no other way.
Two, we warn people about it. Imagine you are working in a high rise building. You go to a restroom and see heavy smoke and flames coming out of all the vents. You realize the building is on fire. So you quietly and quickly, without telling anybody, slip out of the building and go home. In the evening news you see with horror that that whole building was destroyed by fire and most of the people working in there did not survive because they did not get early warning. How would you be able to live rest of your life with that guilt feeling of not warning people?
Three, it is only by the grace of God that we can escape from it. We realize that, as we saw in our previous lesson, nothing we have done or can do that saves us from the hell. We like the rest of the mankind deserved hell. It is only by the grace of God, we, through Jesus, are spared from that eternal destination. And so, the rest of our life we spend serving Him with heartfelt gratitude.
Most of us know that the Old Testament book of Isaiah divides in two major divisions. The first thirty nine chapters speak about God’s judgment on Israel because of their sin. The second division, twenty seven chapters speak about God’s coming salvation. The Chapter forty begins with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God”.
But along with the message of comfort and salvation in the second division, there is also a message of condemnation. Twenty seven chapters of the second division divide in three equal parts of nine chapters each. And each part ends with condemnation of the wicked.
At the end of the first nine chapter part it is noted, “There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.” (48:22). Then at the end of second nine chapter it says with little more detail, “But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘For the wicked’” (57:20-21). Then at the end of the third nine chapter division, which is the end of the book, it says in far more detail, “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm does not die, their fire is not quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” (66:24)
Who are “they” that will go out and see the dead bodies whose worm does not die and whose fire is not quenched? We can imagine, like the story of the rich man and Lazarus; the rich man looking Lazarus resting in Abraham’s bosom. Here the picture is the other way around. These are the people who are described in the previous verses. These are the inhabitants of heaven.
Now imagine, you are in heaven. And God allows you to crack open the door and lets you see a scene of hell. Living dead bodies. Whose worm would never die and fire will never be quenched. Can you smell the stench? Can you hear the agonizing blood curdling cries? Can you see the dead living bodies flailing their hands in the air crying for help? This is Gahanna.
When you see that, what would you think? Thank God! But by the grace of God I would have been there. Now it is the warning I receive with all seriousness. Now it is my responsibility to warn others of the place no one needs to go. Now it is my joy and privilege to serve Him and live life pleasing to Him.
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Isaac Watts, 1707