Saturday, 14 July 2007

Why Christians deserve hell

Earlier in the week I had a conversation with a man who thought that Christians were supremely arrogant and actually quite evil in saying that others were going to hell. He was quite surprised when I told him I thought that all Christians deserve hell too. Below is a talk I gave earlier in the year addressing this very subject. All quotes are taken from the New Living Translation of the Bible.

People today do not often talk about, or think about, hell. Most commonly, when they are speaking about hell, they are speaking about trashy ITV1 television programmes. We have neighbours from hell, holidays from hell and even, recently, weddings from hell.

If you type in ‘Are you going to hell?’ to Google, you get some interesting results, including ‘The Hell Test’, which asks you questions including ‘Ever laughed at someone else’s misfortune?’, ‘Ever used narcotics?’ and ‘Ever ignored a homeless person in the street?’ According to that survey, I’m personally not going to hell.

You can also read comments such as these. One says, ‘I don’t think I’ll go to hell when I die … I have tried to live a life filled with love and respect, and I’ve tried to live by the Ten Commandments.’ Or this one: ‘If the question is, on a scale between one and ten, do you think you are going to heaven or hell, then I guess I’m about a five. I don’t know, but I’d like to believe that my Maker wouldn’t torture me for eternity.’

Or statements like this are also common: ‘I'd like to say that I do not believe in hell. There are too many great people that meet all the prerequisites to qualify for eternal damnation for me to accept that God would be able to send them or anybody else to hell. Hell is such a, for lack of a better word, hellish place that nobody, regardless of their sins, deserves to spend eternity at. God is supposedly forgiving and loves us all more than rest of us can love him back. So how can he send people to hell?’ And we hear this commonly, don’t we? The idea that we don’t believe in all this stuff about hell, but in a God of love. In fact the recent ‘Soul of Britain’ survey found that nearly 75% of Britons believe in heaven, but only 28% believe in hell. So it seems we would prefer to believe in heaven without hell. Of course, whether or not something is true does not depend on what we prefer.

But today, if a Christian talks about hell, it’s automatically assumed that they are speaking in a really graceless and insensitive manner, and that the Christian God is primitive and barbaric, old fashioned and immoral. When we hear of this talk of punishment, it’s common to hear people say things like, “I wouldn't do that to anyone, and if God is good, he wouldn't do that to me. Your God is morally inferior to me.”

Well, this isn’t an easy subject to talk about, but for the remainder of my time, I’m going to unpack more of what the Bible has to say about hell, and then think about why Christians deserve hell too. And I hope that against the blackness of this background, you’ll begin to see how incredible the Christian message about Jesus really is.

People sometimes say that the Old Testament God was a God of wrath and judgment, but Jesus proclaimed a message of love. But this is not true at all: most of what Christians teach about hell came straight from the mouth of Jesus, who claimed to be God in human form. In fact, read through Jesus’ teaching and apart from teaching about his own identity, Jesus spoke about judgement and hell more than anything else. More than half of his parables were about these subjects.

Jesus uses a lot of picture language when he speaks about hell, and it’s sometimes difficult to know whether he’s using these words as a literal description of hell, or whether it’s metaphorical. Either way, hell is a horrific place. Jesus spoke of hell as a place of outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth. He spoke of hell as the consequence of God’s holy wrath upon the ungodly – a place of torment and agony, where Jesus says the fire is never put out.

One of Jesus’ most common ways of describing existence after death was by the name of Gehenna. This comes from the name of a place: the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. In Israel’s history, this was the place where the Israelite kings Ahaz and Manasseh had sacrificed their children to pagan gods, by burning them in the fire. It was an infamous place. The nearest equivalent today would be somewhere like Auschwitz, a horrific reputation. By Jesus’ time, Gehenna had become the city’s rubbish tip, thereby explaining several of Jesus’ metaphors: it was a place of decay, where the maggots and worms never stopped feasting; it was a place of burning, where the fires never went out. And so Gehenna is the place that came to be used as a symbol for the place of final judgment on the evil.

I hope you’re beginning to see that some of the medieval depictions of hell fall well short of the Biblical description. Too often these were made by people who had forgotten that, as we’ll see, all of deserve hell, and it is a sobering thing, not something to celebrate.

But what I’d still want to say is that Jesus' descriptions are nonetheless horrific. Much of the description of hell in the Bible is symbolic, but only because the reality of hell is unimaginable; it is greater than what symbols could convey. What happens after death to those who do not turn to God through faith in Jesus is everlasting conscious suffering - rejection, regret, decay and pain. Either we accept that Jesus knew what he was talking about, and meant what he said, or we decide that we know better than he does.

I guess our instant reaction is to think: well, surely it’s unjust that people should face eternal suffering. But the Bible’s answer is this: No. Instead, hell is a place of dreadful justice. In other ways, when the question, “Why do good people go to hell?” is asked, the Bible’s clear and loving answer is this: they don’t. The problem is that none of us is good.

Our problem is that we think that only really, really evil people deserve hell. So we can nod along with the Sun’s headline ‘ROT IN HELL’ following the death of the moors murderer, Myra Hindley, or ‘GO TO HELL’, which was the headline regarding Ian Huntley, who committed the Soham murderers. When it comes to people that we perceive as really evil, we want justice to be done. We think of someone like Harold Shipman, who committed murder after murder, served a prison sentence for a couple of years before committing suicide and think, “He never received justice.” And for the Myra Hindleys and Ian Huntleys and Harold Shipmans of this world, and whoever murdered Stephen Lawrence, we’re only too happy for them to face God’s wrath. We want justice.

And because God is a God of love, because he cares about me and you, he is a God of justice. God cares about the murdered Soham schoolgirls. He cares about Stephen Lawrence. He cares about six million Jews. But here’s the thing. Because he’s a God of perfect justice, he also cares about the injustices and evils in our lives. He cares for those who are damaged because of our lies. He cares about broken homes. He cares about marginalised women. God cares about lies and lust and adultery. And so, because God is loving, he is completely just. And that means he is completely just in his treatment of us too.

See the truth is that each of us has ruled God out. We’ve rebelled against him. We have crossed him out, having taken his good gifts – including our every breath, on which we depend from God. We’ve taken all of the good things that God has given us in his word, but then snapped our fingers in his face and told him we don’t want him to be God. In our world, we want to be in the box seat. And in doing so, we’ve ruined ourselves, ruined other people and ruined the world. So when I say you are sinful, I’m saying you’ve ruled God out.

In Romans 1, Paul uses some words to describe those with whom God is angry: 'Their lives are full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarrelling, deception, malicious behaviour, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.' [Romans 1:29-32].

The point is this: if you have ruled God out, then many of these words will describe you – maybe not all of them, but if any of them describe you, then they are proof you have ruled God out. I know that many describe me – my life is full of deception, often gossip. I’ve backstabbed people, I’m often proud and boastful. And because God is just, I deserve his judgement.

And the point is this: God will not allow us to carry on going our own way. That would mean no end to human injustice and wickedness. God will not let the evil go on blackmailing others for all eternity. There will come a day when he will give them what they want. This is hell. CS Lewis put it like this: ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Your will be done' and those to whom God says in the end, 'Your will be done.' All that are in hell choose it.’

The theologian Jim Packer expressed the same point slightly differently when he said: ‘Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God's action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less.’

And that is why hell is a place of justice. It is where we shall get what we deserve. We are very keen, these days, on getting our rights. In hell, we shall get our rights. But we shall not like what we get.

I hope you can see, then, that it’s not only those people that we perceive as being really evil that deserve hell, but that each of us deserves hell. I deserve hell, you deserve hell. The Bible is very clear on this point. It’s not that Christians have somehow wowed God through their good behaviour or religiosity. All of us deserve hell. Paul, one of the Bible writers, wrote to the church in Ephesus with these words: 'Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.' [Ephesians 2:1-3]

It doesn’t come much clearer than that, does it? Christians deserve hell too. I deserve hell, I’ve ruled God out. As the last sentence of our passage put it, ‘by our very nature’ – because of our sinfulness – ‘we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.’ Christians are as guilty as anyone else. And when we are judged, there will be nowhere to go. There will be no place left to hide. The French atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said this: ‘The last thing I want is to be subject to the unremitting gaze of a holy God.’ But he will face God, just like all other people, including Christians.

So we see that hell is not about God being cruel to innocent people. Ultimately hell is the result of the way the universe is - that we are selfish and sinful people living in a universe made by a holy, just and fair God. Hell is as much the expression of God's goodness as heaven is. It is the expression of God's justice for those who will not accept His mercy.

If we have a problem with this, it is because we do not take our own evil seriously enough. We convince ourselves that we are innocent, we’re fine, and that we do not deserve to be judged. But there are no innocent people in hell - only the evil go there, and there is no second chance. The idea of purgatory is not a Scriptural idea. But it’s not rejecting a second chance that would make us guilty, we are already guilty.

The point is this. We are guilty and we cannot help ourselves. We deserve hell. And the answer, incredibly, comes from God, the very one who we have rebelled against and crossed out. And so we read two famous verses from the Bible, which make no sense if hell is not a reality: 'For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.' [John 3:16] 'The Lord isn’t being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.' [2 Peter 3:9]

Do you see what these verses are saying? God does not want to condemn people to hell, and so he’s made a way possible of forgiving us. He’s done so through sending his Son. Jesus, God in human form, went to the cross on our behalf and took the punishment that we deserved in order that we might be forgiven. Jesus took hell for us. God, the one against whom we have rebelled in our sin, took the punishment of our rebellion on the cross so that we might be forgiven. And through this, and this alone, God is able to fairly forgive guilty people like us. And why did he do so? Because he loves us! What incredible love, that God is prepared to take the consequences of our rebellion upon himself, so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to him!

If you think about it, given what we have seen, it’s incredible that we have been given this opportunity! All we really deserve is hell. And the really amazing thing is not that there is a hell, but that God has given us an opportunity to repent, to turn back to him and to place our trust in Jesus’ sacrifice. That’s what the second of those verses picks up on. Right now, we all deserve to be in hell, all of mankind, Christians included. And the amazing thing is not that there is a hell, but that we are not all there today! The amazing thing is that heaven will be populated by humans at all – it’s only through God’s intervention. Because heaven is not made up of good people – none of us is good, but it will be made up of forgiven people. People who can stand before God because they have placed their trust in Jesus’ sacrifice for them. I can only say with absolute confidence that I know my place in heaven is secure as a Christian for one reason. It’s not that I’m great, or I’m nice, or because I go to church, but because I can say with confidence that Jesus has paid the price for my rebellion against God. And because it is paid, it does not need to be paid again.

I’m close to finishing. I hope you see that when Jesus speaks about hell, he is not doing it vindictively. Rather, he speaks like a doctor, who explains what the problem is so that we’ll respond rightly to treatment. And the treatment for sin, the only treatment that works, is to trust Jesus’ sacrifice for you. Let me put it like this: if we are really in danger of hell, and Jesus was loving enough to warn us about the consequences of rebelling against God, what can be more important than to get right with God now, while we have the opportunity?

You sometimes hear people say, 'There's no urgency. I can turn to God whenever I want to.' But the reality is that the situation is urgent and pressing. No-one knows what will happen to them tomorrow. Think of the thousands of people who went to work in the World Trade Center on September 11th. They expected to have a normal day just like any other - and yet in a matter of seconds they were swept into eternity. You do not know where you will be this time tomorrow. Neither do I. The Bible says 'Today is the day of salvation.' It also says 'Today you must listen to his voice. Do not harden your hearts against him.’ Today would be a great day to repent – to recognise your rebellion against God – and to place your trust in Jesus and to know his forgiveness.


Matthew McMurray said...

I was trying to explain this idea to a work colleague of mine today. I must admit that, at times like this, the doctrine of penal substitution makes a lot of sense. [I still lean more towards Christus Victor though.] Who knows how God will work in my heart?

I was trying to explain how a person like Myra Hindley, if she had genuinely repented, would be forgiven by God. He said, "But she still did evil things that needs to be punished!" It was quite thought-provoking, espeially coming from an atheist.

peterdray said...

It's true. All of us long for justice. The great news is that justice will one day be done. The greater news is that, despite this, we can be reconciled with our God and Father!

On another note, I don't deny that Jesus' death does achieve victory over Satan, but that this is only true because Jesus was a wrath bearing sacrifice in our place. Did you read this entry? What did you make of it?

Matthew McMurray said...

I did read it but I didn't have time to comment at the time and then forgot to later! :)

I agree completely that somehow we have to hold all these ideas together as they are all scriptural (apart from maybe the kind of view that says, "But did he REALLY die on the cross?", which I don't subscribe to!!).

Because of the mix of Church tradition that I have been exposed to and and have worshipped in, I have a great sense of the importance of tying it all together. Although, I have settled into a spirituality that is much more typially Catholic, I still hold to some evangelical and even charismatic principles and I love wrestling with all sorts of different views on things like the atonement.

As far as CV or PS go, I agree that one is not possible without the other. My concern would be chiefly in how I expound these different ideas.