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"And Now, the Sequel...Is Hell for Real?"

Dec.28, 2014  2Thess.1:3-10


One of the big films in 2014 was Heaven is for Real, the story of a young boy's near-death experience in which he glimpsed things that reflect more or less what the Bible teaches about a life after this one. Produced on a budget of $12M, it brought in $23M its opening weekend, and to date has grossed some $91M; impressive! It's listed in the "Top 500" on IMDB.com. One would have to admit by all accounts it's been a "successful" movie; it draws an audience, people WANT to know what's beyond this life.

But what about the flip side of the coin: that movie was about HEAVEN being real; is HELL for real, too? Fewer people want to think about that! But for many, that may be the more pertinent question - Jesus cautioned in Mt 7:13, "Enter through the narrow gate.For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it."

Another reason for considering this sermon topic: there's concern the church may be going "soft" on hell. People would rather hear an upbeat sermon on a self-help topic. Hell might even be considered politically incorrect - depending on your criteria. "Why do you have to be so judgmental?" someone might way.

In 2011 Rob Bell published a book titled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In it, the producer of the popular Nooma video series came close to teaching "universalism" - that everybody eventually gets saved. Reviewer Mark Galli in Christianity Today notes Bell "points out the many New Testament passages that point in this direction, like "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (2 Cor. 5:19), and Jesus' statement, "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32).He adds to that verses about God's omnipotence and God's desire that all should be saved. And then he asks the arresting question, "Will God get what he wants?"...Bell doesn't wrestle with counter-arguments, other than to suggest that to believe in eternal judgment is to believe that history is tragic and that God doesn't get his way."

But to NOT believe in eternal judgment diminishes the distinction between good and evil. Hitlers and Stalins that ordered deaths of millions of people don't belong in heaven, based on their actions. To rebel against and offend an infinite holy God does merit infinite punishment. The Bible doesn't hold out any hope of a "second chance" after death for those who reject Christ during life: Heb 9:27 "Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment..."

Recently in one of our small groups we were talking about how preachers trying to be overly pastoral at funerals can actually do listeners a disservice by making it sound like everyone gets to go to heaven. We might like to think that Granny or Uncle Ted automatically made it to heaven and are happily reunited with their loved ones who have gone on before. But really, we preachers really have no authority or ability to make that call! To assume everybody automatically "makes it" to heaven downgrades an infinite holy and just God to the level of a benevolent Santa who smiles kindly at whoever happens to be on his lap, pats them on the head, and winks at sin. "So, you've been 85% naughty - that doesn't really matter, you'll get your present anyway."

But God doesn't wink at sin - far from it! Acts 17:30 in the King James Version says "And the times of this ignorance God winked at..." Or, "overlooked" as in the NIV. But read the rest of vv30-31: "...but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."" You just can't do away with Hell if you want to allow for (as the Bible does) judgment, justice, and life after death. These are at the core of our Christian faith - and practically essential for any ultimate meaning and purpose in life.

Before we proceed further: this is NOT a funeral service today, so we ARE going to talk about hell! I'm able to talk in general, not pointing at someone in a casket.

Also, if you're expecting me to give you GPS co-ordinates for Hell, you're going to be disappointed! Hell is not a "place" in that sense currently, as if you could strap yourself inside a rocket and hit that point in space in our present space-time co-ordinates. (Though I wouldn't rule out paradise already existing now in another set of dimensions that actually overlaps ours.) Yet Scripture warns us hell IS very real and IS a place we definitely want to avoid!

And before you think this message is going to be really negative and a "downer", I promise I will tie this in to the hope and peace Jesus brings us as part of His Advent. Hell, for the Christian, is NOT something you have to lie awake being tormented about at night: trusting in Christ changes all that!


I'm also not going to go off the deep end into some weird fringe doctrine about hell. One way to guard against that is to ask, "How have Christians historically understood the Biblical teaching about hell? What did they point to as key concepts, key verses?" In the past, believers created useful summaries called "confessions" or "creeds". The Missionary Church is not very liturgically oriented, but the SCRIPTURE passages referenced in the creeds point us to key sections in the Bible that should inform our understanding on such things.

Let's start with the Apostles' Creed. I believe...in Jesus Christ...born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven...from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.I believe in...the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting." So right there embedded in the Christian church's earliest formal creed you find mention of hell, judgement, resurrection, and everlasting life. These things must be pretty important!

It says, "He [Jesus] descended into hell..." Here we get into the actual terminology. This would be "Hades" in the Greek: the interim world of the dead, much like "Sheol" in Hebrew, sort of a shadowy holding-bin where souls await judgment. In Luke 16:19-31 Jesus gives us the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus: the rich man finds himself "in hell" [Hades] "in torment / in agony in this fire", while Lazarus enjoys comfort at Abraham's bosom. While there is awareness of each other, a great chasm divides their experience. In Luke 23(42f) Jesus promises the penitent thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise." Obviously a more positive area of the holding bin! Then in Rev 20:14 Death and Hades (the holding bin) are "thrown into the lake of fire" following the final judgment. So Hades is distinct from hell as place of final punishment. Thus when the Creed says Jesus "descended into [Hades]", it means Jesus really and truly died, sharing the experience of all humans.

A quick diversion to examine other terms: Hebrew "Sheol" (used in the Old Testament) designates in general the place of the dead; Pictorial Bible Dictionary - "a shadowy existence beyond the grave". And in the NT we have the word "Gehenna", lit."valley of Hinnom" (a person's name) - a valley runningaturday night to the east side of Jerusalem that was used as a garbage dump. Now, what do you associate with the dump? Often there were fires burning in that valley, Gehenna. Usually dumps don't smell the nicest either, there's an unpleasant odour - decay, destruction, decomposition. Can dumps be dangerous? Sometimes in smaller northern Ontario communities a Saturday night diversion is to drive out to the dump and watch - what? The bears! Yes, dumps can be a place of danger, destructive agents stronger than ourselves. Dr Clarence Bass in a Pictorial Bible Dictionary article describes Gehenna as "the place of retributive suffering...a pit into which refuse was dumped.A site which had long been contemptuously regarded in the Hebrew mind, as when Josiah dumped the filth of Jerusalem (2Kings 23:10) to be burned, and in which the bodies of executed criminals were tossed, it had become a technical term for unending torment..." So this isn't just your friendly township dump, there's a moral stigma attached to it, a place of filth and shame and corruption to be avoided.

Following the Reformation, in 1643 the Westminster Confession was developed in England with Scottish input, and this became the basic faith summary statement for Reformed and Nonconformist groups (including Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists). Chapter 32 states, in part: "The bodies of men after death return to dust and see corruption but their souls (which neither die nor sleep), having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous being then made perfect in holiness are received into the highest heavens where they behold the face of God in light and glory waiting for the full redemption of their bodies; and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell where they remain in torments and utter darkness reserved to the judgement of the great day...The bodies of the unjust shall by the power of Christ be raised to dishonour; the bodies of the just by his Spirit, unto honour, and be made conformable to his own glorious body."

Chapter 33(2), "Of the Last Judgment", speaks of "...his [God's] justice in the damnation of the reprobate who are wicked and disobedient.For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life and receive that fullness of joy and refreshing which shall come from the presence of the Lord, but the wicked who know not God and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ shall be cast into eternal torments and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power."

Now, lest you be alarmed we're wandering too far into Reformed theology, let's occupy ourselves with the Scripture references (which the House of Commons helpfully required to be included) - does the church folks' summary line up with the Bible? One text is Romans 2:5: "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 judgment will be revealed." Also 2Thess.1:7-9 (which we heard earlier in our Scripture reading for this morning): "This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power." You can hear how the 1643 confession echoes Paul's phrases exhorting the church in Thessalonica: blazing fire, punished, everlasting destruction, shut out from the Lord's presence.

Bring it up to present day. On the EMCC.ca website you'll find a statement of "What We Believe". It says, "We believe in the bodily resurrection of all humanity to stand before God for final judgment.Those who have not accepted His life-giving grace will be raised to experience eternal punishment being separated from God and all that is good. Those who have trusted in Christ will be raised to live eternally in God's presence and receive the promised reward."

Again, scripture references are included to back up the summary statement. Matthew 25:46, Jesus' teaching about the judgment involving the sheep and the goats - the "goats" will "go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." Another reference is Rev.20:12-15 "The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books...Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." Now, earlier on the devil, the beast, and the false prophet had also been thrown into the lake of burning sulfur (Rev 20:10) - remember the bears at the dump?! And in case there's any doubt, 21:8 recaps: "But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars-- their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur.This is the second death."

It's been suggested that maybe souls are eventually extinguished or annihilated rather than having to suffer forever, but that would be to let sinners against an infinite God off the hook too easily. PBD notes about hell's duration: "As the everlasting life of the believer is to be endless, just so the retributive aspect of hell refers to the future infinite age...[aionios] indisputably denotes endless duration."

Walter Hooper was CS Lewis' personal secretary. He laughed when he read the following inscription on a grave: "Here lies an atheist, all dressed up with no place to go." Lewis, however, did not completely share in Hooper's laughter. He responded soberly, "I'm sure he wishes now that were true." Hell is a sobering reality, even for those who don't believe.


The Bible doesn't spell out a lot of things about hell, like how hot it is, but it does supply other insight into the place you definitely don't want to go! Some descriptors are "everlasting punishment" - Mt 25:46; everlasting fire - Mt 18:8; everlasting chains - 2Thess 1:8; the eternal fire - Jude 7; eternal destruction - 2Thess 1:9; and outer darkness - Mt 8:12 - that one captures so well the sense of isolation from God and all that is good!

CS Lewis in The Problem of Pain described divine retribution this way: "The lost enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved." And in The Great Divorce he wrote that hell is made up of people who live at an infinite distance from each other. A very lonely, outcast place.

In presenting the Good News of the Kingdom, Christ Jesus Himself didn't pull back from saying some fairly harsh things about Hell. Mt 10:28 "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." No "Santa-Claus god" there! And Jesus turns up the heat in Mark 9:43ff warning people if their hand or foot or eye causes them to sin, to cut it off or pluck it out (probably exaggerating for emphasis); "It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'"

Sound a bit harsh? Maybe, but if it's true, then NOT to warn us would be cruel. JC Ryle noted, "The watchman who keeps silent when he sees a fire is guilty of gross neglect.The doctor who tells us we are getting well when we are dying is a false friend, and the minister who keeps back hell from his people in his sermons is neither a faithful nor a charitable man."


We've just concluded Advent. What's the point of Advent? Not just that Jesus came to a manger, amazing as that is, the infinite / all-powerful God wrapped up as a tiny vulnerable bawling infant. The point of Advent is that Jesus also came to the CROSS to make peace between sinners who deserved Hell, and a purely holy and just God. At His birth the angels announced in Luke 2:14, "on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." How many people DESERVED God's favour? NONE! Romans 3:23 - "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." 5:10 "we were God's enemies..." Or as he wrote in Ephesians 2: "You were DEAD in your transgressions and sins..." Gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature, we were "by nature objects of wrath." That would sum up hell well - the place where God's wrath is justly being poured out, forever.

BUT because Advent happened - because Jesus came and obediently died on the cross - we can now enjoy peace with God, rather than wrath. We can have Heaven instead of Hell, because when we trust in Jesus we are reconciled to God through the death of His Son (Rom 5:10). Eph 2:14-17 "For he himself is our peace, who has made the two [Gentile & Jew] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit."

We have ACCESS: not shut out, not cast away in outer darkness - Jesus brings us near to the Father's presence, the essence of heaven.


Hell is real: but once we know Jesus, it's no longer a threat or concern for us - we enjoy peace because He already bore the punishment we deserved.

Eric Barker was a missionary from Great Britain who had spent over fifty years in Portugal preaching the gospel, often under adverse conditions. During World War II, the situation became so critical that he took the advice to send his wife and 8 children to England for safety. His sister and her 3 children were also evacuated on the same ship. Barker remained behind to conclude some mission matters. The Sunday after Barker's loved ones had left, he stood before the congregation and said, "I've just received word that all my family have arrived safely home." He then proceeded with the service as usual. Later, the full meaning of his words became known to his people. He had been handed a wire just before the meeting, informing him that a submarine had torpedoed the ship, and everyone on board had drowned. (Wife & 8 children; sister & her 3) Barker knew that all his relatives on board were believers, and the knowledge that his family was enjoying the bliss of heaven enabled him to live above his circumstances in spite of his overwhelming grief.

Such is the assurance, hope, and peace that knowing Jesus brings: come what may - Heaven awaits! "Hell today is vanquished, heaven is won today!" Let's pray.