A sermon delivered by Howard Batson, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Amarillo, Tx., on August 7, 2011.
He is a master communicator, and I have no doubt teaches and writes with the best of intentions. I sense within him a great love for all humankind and a passion to reach people with the story of Jesus. The problem is, when you teach false doctrine, it doesn’t matter how noble your intentions, or how eloquent your words. If your teaching is not based on the writings of the Apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ and his clear teachings found in the gospels, it is dangerous theology.
What’s so disappointing is that this young preacher had been so influential with younger generations. In fact, the New York Times called him a “central figure for his generation.” His book has stirred controversy in every main media source including ABC News, Time magazine, and even – this week – the Baptist Standard. I’ve admired him before, so it is with great disappointment that I have to say that Rob Bell, in his latest book, the New York Times bestseller entitled, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, strays much too far from the teachings of the early church, the apostles, and the clear word of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, I would go so far as to join Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, and say that this is nothing less than heresy.
Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where thousands go to hear him teach each week. I’m never against open and candid discussion, but Bell is especially influential with students who may not have a sound grounding in the teachings of the apostles, those who can’t tell the difference between the apostle’s theology and “Bell’s world of make believe.”
If you are not really familiar with scripture, Bell’s hermeneutical gymnastics will quickly mislead you. Under the guise of simply asking questions, Bell is clearly trying to convince his reader that all you learned about hell might not really be true after all. The book is a sustained attack on the theological idea that those who fail to believe in Jesus Christ in this life will suffer for eternity for their sins. Bell, in fact, ridicules churches that maintain theological integrity with the teachings of the early church in regard to eternal punishment (page 96). Bell implies that all people will eventually be saved, even if they reject Jesus Christ’s plan of salvation in this life, because God always gets what God wants – God will not fail in the end (page 98). And yet, Bell contradicts himself from one page to the next because, it seems, he is not even certain what he now believes about hell. He refuses to believe for a moment that billions of people end up spending eternity in a conscious punishment of torment and suffering for sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth.
Bell is certainly not writing a piece that will be heralded by scholars; he doesn’t even bother to do research or use footnotes. The reader gets the sense tht the work was either rushed or prematurely birthed before Bell could substantiate his claims or systematize his thoughts. He simply rambles, trying to make sense of the evangelical faith in which he was raised and the cultural diversity in which he finds himself living. While he claims that there have always been those within the umbrella of the Christian faith that have taught an inclusive faith, he fails to provide any convincing documentation. The reader is simply offered little more than a quote from Martin Luther taken completely out of context. I went back to read Luther for myself. In reality, Luther disagrees with Bell at the very point Bell claims his support.
What happens with Bell is certainly nothing new. Sound biblical teaching comes in conflict with the values of the fallen culture and thus new teachers step up, false teachers, to adjust the teachings of the apostles to reflect popular culture. In reality, the church has rejected Bell’s argument for the last twenty centuries because it’s never really been compelling. If Bell wants to ask questions, here’s some questions he needs to ask: 1) If there really is no eternal judgement in the end, why does scripture present it so? (Hebrews 9:27 – “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.”) 2) Why is Jesus’ teaching characterized by relentless focus on the last judgment? 3) Why is it that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ spends more time speaking on eternal judgment than any other New Testament source? 4) Why does the Bible teach that the decisions we make in this life, i.e. the acceptance or rejection of Jesus Christ as Lord, have permanent and eternal consequences? I don’t really think his book is about asking questions at all. I think it’s about avoiding them.
Bell really wants to rescue God from God’s self. He wants to recreate the image of God to be more acceptable. In reality, Bell’s attempts are nothing more than classic liberalism repackaged in a young preacher about which H. Richard Niebuhr once said, “It teaches a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” In fact, Bell himself admits he doesn’t have any new ideas.
Like classic liberalism, Bell has sought to sever the awful offense of the gospel. He has denied lostness of human kind, and the severity of eternal separation from God.
Can we just pretend that hell doesn’t exist? Time magazine put a similar question on a front cover feature article after Bell’s book was published.
What does the Bible really teach about hell?
Is hell a culturally conditioned doctrine of days gone by that no longer serves the modern church? Has orthodox theology? Have all the church fathers, reformers, and evangelical scholars been wrong for 2,000 years – only to be finally set straight by Bell? Hardly. Though clearly Bell feels he can run rough shod over 2,000 years of theology – theology espoused by the greatest Christian thinkers.
As a kindhearted humanitarian, Bell decided to make Christianity “lite,” to improve upon the gospel of the apostles, the teaching of Jesus, by hanging a “closed” sign on the broad gates of hell. He decided we should just shut it down.
The question is a fair one. Why would anyone continue to believe in hell in these days of modern enlightenment? Why? Because Jesus said it was thus. Quite frankly, as readers of the New Testament you are aware of the fact that Jesus actually spoke more often about hell than he did heaven. If we are serious in our understanding of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, we must reckon with the fact that He said plainly that some people will spend eternity in hell. It would not have been kind for Jesus to leave his hearers in the dark about eternal truths.
I. IS HELL A PLACE?
In the New Testament, the word for hell is Gehenna. Sometimes, as in Luke 16, Hades is also used. Gehenna comes from the name of a valley south of Jerusalem. In ancient times, it was a place linked with sacrificing children to the god Molech. This was a place of sin and shame. Eventually it was used up as a garbage dump.
Jeremiah 7:32. As we see in the prophet, the term Gehenna – the valley of Gehenna was an awful place of child sacrifice. By the time of the New Testament, the word Gehenna, in all of its awfulness, came to be used as the name of the place of final punishment. In fact, Mark 9:43 says, “If your hand makes you offend, cut it off; it is good for you to go into life maimed rather than having two hands to go off into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire.”
At all costs, this awful, dreadful place – Gehenna – is to be avoided, even if it meant the losing of a limb.
Jesus’ insistence on the reality of hell does not mean that his message was fundamentally negative or that he was trying to scare people into believing. No one who has read the Gospels can doubt that Jesus approached people positively, offering love, compassion, and healing, and forgiveness. He called on people to turn from their sin and their hypocrisy and to live lives of service to God, service that would inevitably mean that they would engage in service to other people. There is nothing negative in all of this as there would have been had he simply told people to avoid evil lest terrible things happen to them. But, while Jesus did not use the possibility of hell as a stick to beat people into salvation, he made it clear that, in the end, sin does reap a dreadful harvest. (Leon Morris, “The Dreadful Harvest,” Christianity Today, May 27, 1991)
II. WHAT IS THE NATURE OF HELL?
The fact of hell is certain; the nature of hell is more complex. However varied the descriptions, the essence is the same. Hell is a horrible place.
A. “The hell of fire” is found in Matthew 5:22
B. “Outer darkness” – Matthew 8:12
C. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” – Matthew 8:12
D. “Where the worm does not die” – Mark 9:48
E. “Fire is not quenched” – Mark 9:48
It is not always easy to connect the realities of fire, darkness, and the place where the worm does not die. And this is but the beginning.
We learned in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 it is the “eternal destruction, away from the presence of God and from the glory of His power.”
And finally, in Revelation 21:8, “the lake of fire called the second death.”
No stereotyped way of viewing the fate of those going to hell is found in these passages. But they are all unpleasant, underscoring the truth that sin will not go unpunished.
The descriptive language of the New Testament puts together a package of the most horrendous sort. The images of the New Testament make a collage of horror, pain, isolation, and the absence of God. Fire, darkness, weeping, gnashing of teeth, worms – and no God.
The New Testament gives a consistently varied, but negative description of the place of hell.
III. CAN WE EXPLAIN HELL AWAY?
The Rev. Mary Kraus, pastor of a mainline denominational church, says that her congregation would be stunned to hear a sermon on hell. The parishioners are “upper-middle-class, well-educated critical thinkers who view God as only compassionate and loving, not someone who might cast them into eternal destruction.”
To many modern scholars, a literal hell is part of an understanding of the cosmos that just doesn’t exist anymore. Biblical references to hell are often viewed metaphorically as referring to the isolation, pain and suffering that result from evil in the hear and now. John Dominic Crossan of DePaul University in Chicago, says, “Once we discovered we could create hell on earth, it became silly to talk about it in a literal sense.”
Do we believe that Jesus was God’s Son?
Do we believe that His teaching was truthful and accurate?
If so, there is no getting around the existence of hell.
Let us walk quickly through a Gospel and hear the words of Jesus about the matter.
Turn to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5, verses 21-22 and 27-29. Here Jesus, in His greatest sermon ever – the Sermon on the Mount – makes a clear indication that hell is a reality. He expounds upon two commandments of the ten: that one concerning murder and that one concerning adultery. Jesus says that we don’t have to commit murder to be guilty. Rather, even with the hate in our heart, angrily calling our brother a fool, can put us in danger of – notice verse 22 – the fiery hell.
In verses 27-29 of Chapter 5, He expands upon the commandment against adultery. It’s not just the one who actually acts upon his lust, but the one who has lust burning in his heart. One should, and Jesus describes in the language of hyperbole, pluck out his right eye and throw it from him, because it is better that one part of the body should perish than for the whole body to be thrown into – notice the word, no mistake – hell.
In verse 30, if the right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you, for it is better that one part of your body should perish than for the whole body to go to what? Notice the word – hell.
Again, in this same sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, turn over to Chapter 7, verses 13-14. Here we have the discussion of a narrow gate compared to that of a broad gate. The gate that is narrow leads to life, but the gate that is broad leads to what? Destruction.
We learn that we are judged by our fruits in 7:19, and we learn that everyone who doesn’t bear good fruit will be what? Be cut down and thrown into the – notice the description – fire.
Even still again, in the next chapter, Matthew 8, verses 10-12, Jesus heals the centurion’s servant who is paralyzed. Jesus indicates He will go to the home of the centurion. The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy for you to come under my roof. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus was overcome by his faith, for he alone had realized the authority of the word of God, spoken from the lips of Jesus. “I’ve never seen any faith like this in Israel,” said Jesus. “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at the table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, the kingdom of heaven is not just for the Jew alone. But from among those of Israel notice – some shall be cast into what? Notice the description in verse 12: outer darkness, and a place where there shall be – notice the description – weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Jesus is telling the Jews, and Jesus is telling us, we certainly can’t count on our ancestry, our parents or our grandparents, to secure ourselves a place at God’s table. Rather, it is based upon our own faith.
Turn just two chapters over to Chapter 10, verse 28. It’s amazing how many times Jesus actually speaks about hell – more often than he does heaven itself. Surely you’ve noticed it before. “And do not fear those who kill their body but are unable to kill the soul. But rather, fear him who is able to destroy both the soul and the body in hell.” Jesus is instructing his disciples concerning the meaning of discipleship. Don’t worry what happens to your physical body, because the soul is eternal. But you’d better watch out for the one who is able to destroy both your soul and your body in hell.
Again, just the next chapter – Chapter 11, verse 23: we have the unrepentant cities, cities in which He had done many miracles, but cities which would not repent of their sin. Notice his word to Capernaum: “And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall descend to [not Gehenna, this time, but] Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.”
Turn over just two chapters, to Chapter 13, verse 36. Jesus begins to explain the parable of the wheat and tares which He had told earlier, in verses 24-30. Jesus sows the good seed, the field is the world, and the good seed are the sons of the kingdom. But the evil one comes, Satan, and he sows tares amongst the good seed. And the enemy who sows them is the devil. But notice the emphasis on the harvest at the end of the age, and the reapers being angels. Notice the description of the reaping. The tares are gathered up and what? In verse 40 – burned with fire. So it shall be when? At the end of the age. Notice, “The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, – [notice] – and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Don’t even have to leave the chapter for the next one. Skip down to verses 47-50 of Chapter 13. It is the parable of the dragnet. It’s the net that is cast into the sea and catches all kinds of fish. It is drawn to the beach and the fish are selected from among the catch. At the end of the age, angels will come and they will take the wicked from among the righteous, as a fisherman takes the bad fish from amongst the good. Notice verse 50: and will cast them into the furnace of fire, and again the description, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Have you understood all these things? And they said to Him, yes.
Just three chapters over, again we find it in Matthew 16. It is at Peter’s great confession at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asks the question, “Who are people saying that the Son of Man is?”
“Oh, some say you’re Elijah, some say you’re John the Baptist, others say you’re Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
But He said to them, “Who do you say that I am?”
Simon turns and says, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church…” – and remember that last clause, do you remember it? And the gates, in verse 18, of Hades – notice there is an enemy whose abode is Hades – “And the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
The church is going to be victorious. Satan and hell are not going to win. But notice Jesus’ reference, again, to Hades.
In Matthew 18, verses 7-9, is the word about stumbling blocks. “Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!” Then this language of cutting off your hand and your feet if they might make you stumble, because “it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into [something called] the eternal fire.”
Again the reference to the eye. “If your eye causes you to stumble pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than having two eyes, [and notice in verse 9] to be cast into the ‘fiery hell.’”
Then there is a word about not being a part of the stumbling of little ones.
Go, again, just a few chapters over to Chapter 22, verses 9-14. It is the parable of the marriage feast. Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom of God is like a king who plans to have a wedding feast for his son. He sends his slaves to call those who had received invitations to the wedding. But they are not willing to come. He sends out other slaves and says: “Go and get those who are invited. Behold, I have prepared dinner and my fattened livestock are all butchered. Everything is ready. Come on to the feast.” They pay no attention again. They go their own way. One goes to the farm; another goes to his business. But the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. You have here the image of God going to Israel, calling her to come to the feast of God that He had prepared. But as Israel killed the prophets, even so those invited to the wedding had killed the servants bringing the invitation. Notice in verse 7, the king becomes outraged and he destroys the murderers and sets their city on fire. Then he sends slaves out to invite all to come to the wedding. Anyone who is found is to be invited. They go out into the streets and they begin to gather everybody, both evil and good, and the wedding is filled with guests. But notice, verse 11, the king comes. The fact that the king inspects his guests indicates God’s intention to pass judgment on professing disciples. One was not wearing wedding clothes. He is addressed by the king as friend, a term used in Matthew always for those whose actions run counter to what the term normally implies. The wedding garments are, perhaps, the new life of good works which are to follow the preaching of the gospel. Notice, the verse warns believers that without a changed life they will be rejected at the last judgment.
A very strong parable, indeed. The king commands his servants to bind the man hand and foot and throw him into the darkness – the farthest out.
We have to go just one chapter over….are you beginning to see the magnitude and the frequency of Jesus’ warning about eternal punishment? It seems as if it’s almost on every page of the one gospel that we’re examining.
Matthew 23:15. In this section, we have a deep concern from Jesus about religious hypocrisy as expressed in the series of woes. The second woe has to do with the effect of Pharisaic activity on the converts to Judiasm. Jesus said they scoured the land and sea to make a single convert. And when the succeeded they made him “twice as ripe for destruction as they themselves.” The scribes and Pharisees turned a convert into – notice the language – “a child of hell” who was twice as worthy of suffering the punishment of Gehenna as they. The reference is to the typical zeal found in a new convert.
This time, you don’t even have to leave the chapter. Just go down to verse 33 of Chapter 23. “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of – [what’s the word] – hell?” The epithet recalls the deceit of Satan, who appeared in the garden as a serpent. How can they hope to escape the judgment of hell? Prophets and wise men and teachers will be sent to them, but they, like their forefathers, will persecute and kill the messengers of God.
Now just the very next chapter, Chapter 24, verses 44-51. It’s the call to be ready for His coming. It is a word about the slave who needs to be watching for the return of his master. The evil slave, verse 48, says in his heart, My master is not coming for a long time. He uses the delay of his master as a time for carousing and drunkenness. It’s the danger of arrogance. When the master does return unexpectedly, the wicked servant will be cut in pieces and assigned his fate with the hypocrites. And there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Notice, even in verse 51, the awful reference to dismemberment, a severe punishment not unknown in the ancient world – followed again by the now familiar phrase, the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.
We must go – again, not traveling far – to Chapter 25 of Matthew, verse 30. It’s the parable of the talents, with which you are greatly familiar. Remember what happens to the servant who doesn’t multiply his talents, but rather simply hides his talent in the ground. Look at verse 30: “And cast out the worthless slave into the outer darkness.” Again, this reference to awful darkness. “And in that place there shall be – [and that familiar phrase] – weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
That’s a parable about Christians who rest upon their religious profession without any apparent desire to live out its implications. Watch out. It’s a strong parable. The point of the parable is crystal clear. The servants of Christ, as they wait for His parousia – His second coming – have been entrusted with the responsibility of utilizing the gifts they have been given by the Master. To fail in this critical obligation is to be excluded from the Kingdom when Christ returns, because it indicates the disciple was never really a true follower of Christ.
Again, you don’t even have to change the chapter. Look down at verses 41-46 of Matthew 25. It is the judgment of the nations, it is the apocalyptic event known as the separation of sheep and goats. On the basis of our ability to meet the needs of those around us. Notice in the message there is a clear-sounding call that final judgment allows no shades of gray; each person will enter either eternal life or eternal punishment. Notice verse 46: And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
There are only two ways. There are only two destinations. No second chances.
The Son of Man is on his royal throne, surrounded by an angelic court. And before Him are gathered all the nations of the world. And the shepherd of the evening separates the sheep from the goats. The king will place the righteous people at his right hand and the others on his left.
Verse 41. He will say to those on his left, the goats, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”
I think the message is clear. Anyone who want to get out the scissors and remove the references to eternal punishment and hell, must be ready to cut away a great deal of Matthew’s gospel, as well as a great deal of the rest of the New Testament.
The fourth question I want us to examine is:
IV. WHO GOES TO HELL?
We don’t have to guess. The Bible is clear. Unbelievers belong in hell (Luke 12:46). And in John 3:16-18 and verse 36 it is clear. Those who accept the story of Christ abide in heaven, and those who refuse the story of Christ, His forgiveness and His love, find themselves in eternal punishment. Paul speaks of those whose “end is destruction” as those that have set their “minds on earthly things.” He also speaks of them as “the enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18), that they “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:8). They see the preaching of the cross as foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18).
I think the line and the words of Jesus and Paul are clear. Those who accept the story of Jesus, those who accept His preaching, those who accept the proclamation of the church are those who become part of the Kingdom of God. And those who refuse find themselves in the place of outer darkness.
Throughout all such passages runs the thought of alienation from God. Those who will be in hell will be there because, in one way or another, they have chosen it. They have rejected the love of God for them. They have opted to live for themselves. They have made self, not God, the center of their being. Such passages make it plain that unbelief is catastrophic. All evil merits hell, but God sent His Son to make a way of salvation. Christ’s death puts away our sins and those who trust Him are delivered from the condemnation they would otherwise have faced. But those who refuse to believe are left with the consequences of the evil things they have done. That appears to be the basic position of the New Testament. The failure to believe, to trust Christ, results in hell as an ultimate destination.
The fifth question I want us to ask is:
V. IS HELL NECESSARY?
In his Gifford Lectures, entitled The Human Situation, W. MacNeile Dixon looks at the consequences of such a belief by considering those he calls, “The kind-hearted humanitarians of the nineteenth century.” These people, he says, “decided to improve upon Christianity. They thought of hell [as offensive] . They closed it, and, to their surprise, the gates of heaven closed also with a melancholy clang. The malignant countenance of Satan distressed them. They dispensed with him, and at the same time God took his departure.” He sees this as “a vexatiousresult,” but warns, “you cannot play fast and loose with logic.”
It is important to be clear where the arguments commonly used to get rid of hell logically take us. If logically there is no place for hell, then where is the logic of looking for heaven? I am not, of course, basing my understanding of hell on human logic. It is part of the revelation in Scripture and accordingly belongs among the doctrines that all who see Scripture as their final authority accept. But I am saying that those who reject Scripture and take what seems to those who live in a modern community to be a logical position must be careful lest their logic take them much further than they want to go. (Leon Morris, “The Dreadful Harvest,” Christianity Today, May 27, 1991) There is no light without darkness. There is no cold with no hot. There is no Savior without Satan. There is no heaven without hell. Even logic, itself, demands the conclusion.
Finally, I want us to ask the question:
VI. WHEN DO WE DECIDE TO GO TO HEAVEN OR HELL?
Look back at our text for today, in Luke’s Gospel, the 16th chapter. I want you to notice something. Even as the rich man begins to cry out – by the way, this is certainly no parable that says all the rich will end in hell – it is the way in which the riches were used.
Notice the great chasm of verse 26. The chasm is fixed. It is fixed in the life of the living on earth. Once one has died, there is no change, there is no movement. The chasm is fixed. Those who wish tocome over from here to you cannot. One cannot travel from heaven to comfort those in hell. None may cross over from there to us. There is no escaping the terror of hell.
And then he said to Abraham, “I beg you, that you send him to my father’s house for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, lest they also come to this
place of torment. But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”
We decide now. We cannot wait for an angelic messenger to come from the other world to declare to us that, indeed, we need to take seriously the gospel of God. No, says Abraham. The time is now.
On page 110 of his book, Rob Bell confesses that he doesn’t like the orthodox story of the gospel. The gospel about eternal choices and eternal consequences. And so he writes a better story so as not to offend his modern sensibilities. And I have a real problem with that. My call is to be a preacher of the gospel of orthodox theology. I don’t get to rewrite the stories. I just get to tell them. I tell them when I like them; I tell them when I don’t like them. I do not stand in judgment of God’s word. It stands in judgment of me. One of my preacher friends has long said that if he were to replace the label on a bottle of strychnine with “essence of peppermint,” it wouldn’t make the contents any less deadly or harmful. Just because Rob Bell has claimed there are no eternal decisions here on earth and no forever-punishment in hell, doesn’t make it so. Rob Bell doesn’t have the authority to hang a closed sign on the gates of hell. Like it or not, Jesus clearly teaches of devastating consequences when we refuse to follow him.