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God honors our choice for Heaven or for Hell
All the passages below are taken from Max Lucado’s book “When Christ Comes,” published in 1999 by Word Publishing.
I did something different recently; I listened to the airline attendant as she gave her warnings. Typically, my nose is buried in a book or project, but a commercial plane had crashed the day before. Watching the newscasts of the event convinced me to pay attention. I realized that if this plane had trouble, I wouldn’t know what to do.
So I listened. As she held up the seat belt, I buckled mine. As she described the oxygen mask, I looked up to see where it was stored. When she pointed toward the exit doors, I turned to find them. That’s when I noticed what she notices on every flight. No one was listening! No one was paying attention. I was shocked. I seriously considered standing up and shouting, “You folks better listen up. One mishap and this plane becomes a flaming mausoleum. What this woman is telling you might save your life!”
I wondered what would happen if she used more drastic means. What if she took a gasoline-drenched doll and set it on fire? What if the in-flight screen projected images of passengers racing to exit a blazing plane? What if she marched up and down the aisle, yanking away newspapers and snatching up magazines, demanding that the passengers listen if they want to survive this flaming inferno?
She would lose her job. But she’d make her point. And she’d also be doing the passengers a favor. Our Savior has done the same for us. He was motivated by more than duty, however. He was motivated by love. And love cautions the loved.
Christ’s caution is clear: “In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving their children to be married, until the day Noah entered the boat. They knew nothing about what was happening until the flood came and destroyed them. It will be the same when the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 24:38—39 NCV).
As we pointed out in the last chapter, the parallels between the flood of Noah and the return of Christ come easily. People refused to listen then. Many refuse to listen still. God sent a safe place for the faithful then: an ark. God sends a safe place for the faithful today: his Son. A flood came then. A flood will come. The first was a flood of water. The next is a flood of vengeance. The first flood was irreversible. So is the second. Once the door is shut, it is shut forever. There was screaming on the day of the flood. There will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” on the day of judgment (Matthew 25:30 NIV). Regarding the lost, the Bible says, “The smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night” (Revelations 14:11 RSV).
This is serious business. Hell is a serious topic. A topic we’d rather avoid. We agree with C. S. Lewis: “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than [hell], if it lay in my power. . . . I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully: ‘All will be saved.’”1
Wouldn’t we all? But dare we? Let’s work with this for a moment.
Does hell serve a purpose?
As much as we resist the idea, isn’t the absence of hell even worse? Remove it from the Bible and, at the same time, remove any notion of a just God and a trustworthy Scripture. Let me explain.
If there is no hell, God is not just. If there is no punishment of sin, heaven is apathetic toward the rapists and pillagers and mass murderers of society. If there is no hell, God is blind toward the victims and has turned his back on those who pray for relief. If there is no wrath toward evil, then God is not love, for love hates that which is evil.
To say there is no hell is also to say God is a liar and his Scripture untrue. The Bible repeatedly and stoutly affirms the dualistic outcome of history. Some will be saved. Some will be lost. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2 RSV). Paul agreed: “To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:7—8 RSV).
People object to this point by gravitating to the teachings of Jesus. The idea of hell, they say, is an Old Testament idea. Curiously, the Old Testament is comparatively silent on the topic. The New Testament is the primary storehouse of thoughts on hell. And Jesus is the primary teacher. No one spoke of eternal punishment more often or more clearly than Christ himself.
Think about these facts: Thirteen percent of the teachings of Christ are about judgment and hell. More than half of his parables relate to God’s eternal judgment of sinners. Of the twelve times that the word gehenna---the strongest biblical word for hell---appears in Scripture, there is only one time in which Jesus was not the speaker.2 No one spoke of hell more than Christ did. “Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved, but anyone who does not believe will be punished” (Mark 16:16 NCV).
Are we to ignore these statements? Can we scissor them out of our Bibles? Only at the expense of a just God and a reliable Bible. Hell is a very real part of the economy of heaven.
Even now, before Christ comes, the presence of hell serves a powerful purpose. It functions somewhat like my dad’s workshop. That is where he disciplined my brother and me. When my mom was angry, we got spankings. When my dad was angry, we got whippings. You can guess which one we preferred. All Dad had to say was, “Go to the workshop,” and my bottom would begin to tingle. I don’t know how you feel about corporal punishment. I don’t mention the topic to discuss it. I mention it to explain the impact that the workshop had on my behavior.
You see, my father loved me. I knew he loved me. And most of the time, his love was enough. There were many bad things I didn’t do because I knew he loved me. But there were a few times when love was not enough. The temptation was so strong, or the rebellion so fierce, that the thought of his love didn’t slow me down. But the thought of his anger did. When love didn’t compel me, fear corrected me. The thought of the workshop---and the weeping and gnashing of teeth therein---was just enough to straighten me out.
The application might be obvious. If not, let me make it so. Our heavenly Father loves his children. He really does. Most of the time, that love will be enough to make us follow him. But there will be times when it won’t. The lure of lust will be so mighty, the magnet of greed so strong, the promise of power so seductive, that people will reject the love of God. In those moments, the Holy Spirit may mention “the workshop.” He may remind us that “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7 RSV). And the reminder that there is a place of punishment may be just what we need to correct our behavior.
Jesus provides such a reminder in Luke 16.
What is hell like?
Jesus is the only eyewitness of hell who has walked on earth. And his description stands as the most reliable and graphic ever written. Every single word in this story is significant. Every single word is sobering.
There was a rich man who always dressed in the finest clothes and lived in luxury every day. And a very poor man named Lazarus, whose body was covered with sores, was laid at the rich man’s gate. He wanted to eat only the small pieces of food that fell from the rich man’s table. And the dogs would come and lick his sores. (Luke 16:19—21 NCV)
The story begins at a posh house in an exclusive neighborhood.
The man who owns the house is extravagant. He wears the finest clothes. The Greek suggests he uses fabric that is literally worth its weight in gold. He eats sumptuously every day. In an era when most can afford meat once a week, his daily diet is exotic.
Botanical gardens sprawl within his gates. Gold and china sparkle upon his table. Ripe fruit from groomed orchards are a part of each meal. He lives, Jesus says, in luxury every day.
But outside his gate sits a beggar by the name of Lazarus. His body is covered with sores. Skin drapes from his bones. He’s been laid at the gate. Someone too kind to ignore him, yet too powerless to help him, loaded the man in a wagon and deposited him in front of the house of the rich man. In those days the wealthy didn’t use napkins after a meal; they would wipe their hands on chunks of bread. Lazarus asks only for the crumbs from this bread.
Heed the contrast. A nameless baron basking in leisure. A named beggar lying in misery. Between them a gate; a tall, spiked door. Inside a person feasts. Outside a person starves. And from above, a just God renders a verdict. The curtain of death falls. Both die. And as the stage lights are turned up on scene two, we gasp at the reversal of destiny.
“Later, Lazarus died, and the angels carried him to the arms of Abraham. The rich man died, too, and was buried. In the place of the dead, he was in much pain” (vv. 22—2 3).
The beggar, who had nothing but God, now has everything. The wealthy man, who had everything but God, now has nothing. The beggar, whose body probably had been cast into a garbage dump called Gehenna, is now honored with a seat near Abraham. The rich man, who’d been buried in a hewn tomb and anointed with priceless myrrh, is destined for the Gehenna of eternity. The pain of Lazarus has ended. The pain of the rich man has just begun.
If the story ceased here, we would be stunned. But the story goes on. Jesus now escorts us to the edge of hell and reveals its horrors. The rich man is in relentless torment. Five verses make four references to his pain.
“In the place of the dead he was in much pain” (v. 23).
“I am suffering in this fire!” (v. 24).
“Now he [Lazarus] is comforted here, and you are suffering” (v. 25).
“I [the rich man] have five brothers, and Lazarus could warn them so that they will not come to this place of pain” (v. 28).
Perhaps the last phrase is the most telling. The rich man defines his new home as a “place of pain.” Every fiber of his being is tortured. And what’s worse (yes, there is something worse), he can see the place of comfort which he will never know. He lifts up his eyes and sees the beggar who once lived at his gate. Now the rich man is the one begging.
“The rich man saw Abraham far away with Lazarus at his side. He called, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am suffering in this fire!’” (vv. 23—24).
Hell might be tolerable if its citizens were lobotomized. But such is not the case. The citizens are awake. They ask questions. They speak. They plead. Of all the horrors of hell, the worst must be the knowledge that the suffering will never cease. “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46 NASB).
The same adjective used to describe the length of heavenly life is used to describe the duration of punishment: eternal. Good people live “forever.” Evil people are punished “forever.”3
Revelation 14:11 is equally disturbing: “The smoke from their burning pain will rise forever and ever. There will be no rest, day or night, for those who worship the beast and his idol or who get the mark of his name.”
We would love to believe that sinners will be given a second chance, that a few months or millenniums of purgatory will purify their souls, and ultimately all will be saved. But as attractive as this sounds, Scripture simply doesn’t teach it. Abraham’s response to the lost man’s request affirms that the patience of God stops at the gate of hell. “Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us” (Luke 16:26 NIV).
The term fixed originates in a Greek word which means “to set forth, to make fast,” It literally means “to cement, to permanently establish.” Paul uses the same word in Romans 16:25 when he boasts about Jesus, “who is able to establish you” (NIV).
Fascinating. The same power which establishes the saved in the kingdom, seals the fate of the lost. There will be no missionary journeys to hell and no holiday excursions to heaven. This is a hard teaching, and it gives rise to a hard question.
How could a loving God send people to hell?
That’s a commonly asked question. The question itself reveals a couple of misconceptions.
First, God does not send people to hell. He simply honors their choice. Hell is the ultimate expression of God’s high regard for the dignity of man. He has never forced us to choose him, even when that means we would choose hell. As C. S. Lewis stated: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it?”4 In another book Lewis said it this way: “I willingly believe the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.’”5
No, God does not “send” people to hell. Nor does he send “people” to hell. That is the second misconception.
The word people is neutral, implying innocence. Nowhere does Scripture teach that innocent people are condemned. People do not
go to hell. Sinners do. The rebellious do. The self-centered do. So how could a loving God send people to hell? He doesn’t. He simply honors the choice of sinners.
Jesus’ story concludes with a surprising twist. We hear the rich man plead: “Please send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers, and Lazarus could warn them so that they will not come to this place of pain” (Luke 16:27—28 NCV).
What is this? The rich man suddenly possessed with evangelistic fervor? The one who never knew God now prays for missionaries? Remarkable what one step into hell can do to your priorities. Those who know the horrors of hell will do whatever it takes to warn their friends.
Jesus, who understands the final flood of wrath, pleads with us to make any sacrifice to avoid it. “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8—9 RSV).
This story is, without a doubt, the most disturbing story Jesus ever told. It’s packed with words such as torment, pain, and suffering. It teaches concepts that are tough to swallow, concepts such as “conscious punishment” and “permanent banishment.” But it also teaches a vital truth which is easily overlooked. This story teaches the unimaginable love of God.
“What? The love of God? Max, you and I read two different stories. The one I read spoke of punishment, hell, and eternal misery. How does that teach the love of God?”
Because God went there, for you. God spanned the chasm. God crossed the gulf. Why? So you won’t have to.
Never forget that while on the cross, Jesus became sin. “Christ had no sin, but God made him become sin so that in Christ we could become right with God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NCV). Jesus became sin, the very object which God hates, the very object God punishes.
“The wages of sin is death,” Paul stated in Romans 6:23 (NIV). The rich man is testimony to the verse. Lead a life of sin and earn an eternity of suffering. God punishes sin. Even when the sin is laid on his own son. That is exactly what occurred on the cross. “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6 NIV).
And because he did, Jesus “took our suffering on him and felt our pain for us” (Isaiah 53:4 NCV). What the rich man felt, Jesus felt. What you saw as you stared into the pit of hell, Jesus experienced. . . the pain, the anguish, the isolation, the loneliness. No wonder he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you rejected me?” (Mark 15:34 NCV).
Like the rich man, Jesus knew hell. But unlike the rich man, Jesus didn’t stay there: “He [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death---that is, the devil---and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrew 2:14—15 NIV).
Yes, hell’s misery is deep, but not as deep as God’s love.
So how do we apply this message? If you are saved, it should cause you to rejoice. You’ve been rescued. A glance into hell leads the believer to rejoice. But it also leads the believer to redouble his efforts to reach the lost. To understand hell is to pray more earnestly and to serve more diligently. Ours is a high-stakes mission.
And the lost? What is the meaning of this message for the unprepared? Heed the warnings and get ready. This plane won’t fly forever. “Death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2 N1V). (115-125)
1. C. S. Lewis, as quoted in Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News (Wheaton, Ill. Victor Books, 1992), 45.
2. For two contrasting views on the duration of hell, consider Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? and Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes (Carlisle, UK: The Paternoster Press, 1994).
3. Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? 130.
4. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 66—67. As quoted in Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? 151.
5. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 127. As quoted in Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? 152.
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I am a little troubled by the above abrupt comments that Jesus takes our sins.
If Jesus takes our sins, He becomes literally a person full of our sins. And once He takes our sins, He literally, to me, becomes a sinful person. But a sinful person will be separated from God permanently when he dies. He will be in hell, eternally.
On the cross when Jesus took our sins, He was, for a moment in time, separated from God and He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34 NKJV) If Jesus Christ is a mere human being, He will be separated from God eternally. That has to be the case and I don’t doubt that.
But Jesus shows that He is who He claimed He is, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30 TEV) “Whoever sees Me sees also Him who sent Me” (John 12:45 TEV) by rising from the dead on the third day of His death. His resurrection demonstrated that He is God, for “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 NKJV).
All Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If there is no resurrection there would have been no Christianity, as St Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is a delusion and you are still lost in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17 TEV).
How do we know that Jesus has resurrected? Was Jesus’ resurrection a hoax? Could the resurrection be a hallucination of the disciples? Or was Jesus’ resurrection real?
The Bible tells us that, after His death on the cross, Jesus appeared:
3. to Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13—32)
5. to ten apostles and others, with Thomas absent (John 20:19—23)
9. to the apostles at the Mount of Olives before his ascension (Luke 24:50—52) and (Acts 1:4—9)
10. The Acts of the Apostles reports many instances of Jesus appearing to various people after His resurrection:
i) Acts 1:3-4---Luke reports, “to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” (NKJV)
ii) Acts 2:32 ---Peter says, "This Jesus God hass raised up, of which we are all witnesses.”
iii) Acts 3:14-15---Peter repeats, "But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses.”
iv) Acts 7:55-56---“But he (Steven), being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’"
v) Acts 9:3-5---Jesus appears to Saul: “As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ Then the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’"
vi) Acts 10:40-41---Peter says, "Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead.”
vii) Acts 13:31---Paul says, "He was seen for many days by those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are His witnesses to the people.”
11. 1 Corinthians 15:6---Paul reports that Jesus, “was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.”
So far is the Bible the only source that tells us about Jesus’ resurrection? Are there evidences in other historical books to support Jesus’ resurrection? If not, can a convincing case for Jesus’ resurrection be put forward? What are the evidences for Jesus’ resurrection?
For a more comprehensive treatment on the resurrection, please see my web site, http://www.geocities.com/lauho08 under the heading “Resurrection of Jesus Christ” on the following topics:
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