“The Four Last Things: Hell (2)” September 25, 2011
We are in the middle of s sermon series called
The Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven.
I’ve told you that the phase—The Four Last Things—
is a very old way of summarizing that branch of theology called eschatology—
the doctrine of last things.
What is going to happen at the end of my life as an individual?
What is going to happen at the end of the world? Of human history?
Those are not hypothetical questions. Very practical.
The way you answer them will determine the way you live every day.
Bible says that if there is nothing after this life—
then might was well eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.
But since, in fact, we do have souls that live forever,
and since there is eternity and a judgment—lives here matter greatly.
INTRO: I want to read you a comment about hell made a famous atheist.
This is from the English philosopher Bertrand Russell.
In his book Why I Am Not A Christian he says:
“There is one very 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. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment . . . I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world . . . I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty.”
I read that comment to make a simple point—even atheists know Bible teaches hell.
Even atheists know the Bible teaches God’s judgment and eternal punishment.
Even atheists know Jesus Christ himself believed in hell and taught it.
You don’t find atheists saying:
The Bible really teaches that everyone will be forgiven when die.
God’s love is so big, that he won’t send anybody to hell
You have to turn to church to get those kinds of teachings.
It’s from inside the church that attempts are often made
to twist the plain teaching of Scripture and the words of Christ.
As I told you three weeks ago, that’s what motivated me to preach sermon series.
A conversation with a young church member this summer about a popular book
by a well-known Christian minister arguing against the existence of hell.
Arguing that the church has gotten it wrong for thousands of years.
My primary point in this study is not to answer those arguments.
Universalism and other attempts to get rid of hell have already been answered.
They’ve been answered by able Bible scholars over and over again.
And they pop up now and again and make a splash, but they fail to gain
any traction because of the overwhelming clarity of the Bible.
But I don’t want to focus on atheists or even theological liberals—but on us.
My point in this study of last things is not primarily to defend the biblical view.
Instead, I’ve pointed the Scripture at us and asked:
If we believe in death, judgment, hell, and heaven—
why don’t we talk about them more often and think about them more deeply?
If we believe the orthodox position that the church has held for 2000 years,
why have we taken these doctrines and put them on a back shelf?
How do we get them out and use them so that they make a difference
in our lives as Christians in the world?
That brings us to Luke 16. Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
This is, without a doubt, one of the most thought-provoking passages in the Bible.
A man in hell talking to Abraham who is in heaven.
What’s the Lord teaching us in this strange story?
He’s teaching us to believe in hell and to take it seriously.
And more specifically, the Lord is teaching us that believing in hell
is essential for understanding your own heart.
Hell reveals the motivations of the sinful heart
and the consequences of a life directed by those motivations.
And believing in hell is also essential for knowing the love of God.
As counter-intuitive as it sound to many people,
only a biblical understand of hell enables you to know the depth of God’s love.
Let me put it negatively.
If you don’t believe in hell, or if you ignore it, then like the rich man,
you will never understand your true spiritual condition,
and you will never know the love of God in Christ.
Before we go any farther, I want to give credit where credit is due:
Listened to a powerful sermon on this passage by Dr. Timothy Keller,
and from him I got many insights I want to pass on to you.
Hell is essential for understanding your heart and for knowing God’s love.
MP#1 Hell is essential for understanding your own heart
There are two characters in this story, a rich man and a poor man.
All the commentaries point out that this is the only parable of Christ in which
one the of characters has a proper name. Poor man is named Lazarus.
Lazarus means “God is my help.”
You would think that if Jesus gave one character a name, he would name other.
But he doesn’t.
There is a named character and a nameless character and the contrast is deliberate.
Why? What’s the Lord’s point in naming one and not the other?
Let’s consider this rich man.
He was an Israelite. He knew who Abraham was. Abraham calls him son.
He had Jewish blood. He had been circumcised.
He went to the Temple. He read the Scriptures. He believed in God.
But he ends up in hell.
And in verse 25, Abraham tells him why he’s in hell.
“Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things.”
In other words, you received in your lifetime your highest good.
You have already received the things you longed for with all your heart.
What were those things? What did this man love and treasure most?
His status and pleasure. His purple cloth and fine linen and feasting.
He loved his wealth, but even more, what his wealth gave him.
The reason he’s not given a name is because his wealth was his identity.
We could say his name was rich man. It was riches that he lived for.
Instead of God being his help—his wealth, status and pleasure were his help.
Those were the things he loved most in life. Those were his good things.
So when he died, he not only lost his wealth, he lost is identity.
Lost everything he had built his life on and served and loved.
What Jesus is doing in this parable
is showing us the fundamental connection between hell and idolatry.
We’ve talked about idolatry many times over the years, but it’s so important.
Idolatry is one of the primary ways the Bible describes what’s wrong with us.
Idolatry is building your identity on something besides God.
Finding your supreme worth, your highest good in some created thing.
This is the thing that will give me ultimate happiness and sense of self-worth.
And if I have this thing, I feel great—If I don’t, then I am nothing.
It could be something superficial like money, career, talents, looks, family.
Could be something deeper like power, approval, control, or pleasure.
But if the highest good in your life is not the love and knowledge of God—
then though you may believe in God, and pray to God, and go to church,
and though you may have Christian parents, and a Christian heritage—
Your true faith, roots of your identity, what you really worship, is something else.
And that idolatry kindles in your heart a destructive fire.
It starts to destroy you now, in this life. Hell-fire starts in this life.
And if idolatry is not dealt with, it will continue to burn you in hell forever.
What are the hellish effects of idolatry on a person in this life? A number of things. Disintegration. Idolatry erodes your character and your conscience.
Some idolatry even causes your body to disintegrate.
Isolation. Idolatry isolates you from people. It almost always causes you to use
people or mistreat them or ignore them in some way in pursuit of your idol.
Denial. Idolatry ultimately causes you to live in denial.
You justify yourself. You refuse to admit that you have a problem.
You believe that what you are doing is right and you have it under control.
We had a neighbor who was a drug addict. I mentioned him a few weeks ago.
I’m not sure why he took drugs. I asked him several times.
I think it was just for pleasure.
People worship the pleasure idol in a variety of ways. He did it with drugs.
As we watched his life over the years we knew him, we saw effects of idolatry.
Disintegration—of his character, of his conscience (he stole from his parents),
of his body. We saw how skinny and wasted he became.
Isolation—he became more and more estranged from people who loved him.
He used them. He refused to listen to their pleas.
Denial—He lied. He accused them of misunderstanding him.
He always had justifications and excuses and I think he believed them.
Drug addiction is a powerful example because so visible.
But all idolatry will have these negative effects on your soul.
You can see every one of these things in the rich man.
It’s ok to love your work and career, but when it becomes your idol, your identity—
then it turns destructive. Instead of serving God and people through it,
turns you away from them. And if it is threatened or lost, you are devastated.
Sex is good when enjoyed as God has intended. But when it becomes and idol
that you serve to for power or approval, it’s a destructive fire.
Money is good when used as God has intended. But when it becomes and idol
that you hope will give you control over all contingencies and self-worth—
it becomes a fire that burns you and people around you.
And what happens when you die? Does the idolatry go away?
No, because your soul does not die. That is what hell is.
A person’s freely chosen idolatry going on forever and ever.
The person who has written the most thoughtfully on hell in modern times is
CS Lewis. Listen to the way he explains this.
“Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever . . . Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever. Perhaps my bad temper or my jealousy are gradually getting worse—so gradually that the increase in seventy years will not be very noticeable. But it might be absolute hell in a million years: in fact, . . . Hell is the precisely correct technical term for what it would be . . . It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will be hell unless it is nipped in the bud.”
Do we see any confirmation of this in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
Yes. Look again at the rich man in hell. Has he changed?
Is he sorry that he devoted his life to wealth and status and not to God?
Is he saying: O God, forgive me for loving money more than you and others?
No. In fact, he’s worse than he was. He’s still obsessed with his status.
He’s still ordering Lazarus around. He tells Abraham:
Send Lazarus to hell to serve me. To cool my tongue.
And then when he says this thing about his brothers, he’s strongly insinuating
that he’s in hell because he didn’t have enough information. Not his fault.
Once again, he wants Abraham to send the poor man to do his bidding.
And not once does he ask to be let out of hell. He’s in agony.
Everything he had devoted his life to has been stripped away.
His identity is gone. There is nothing before him but black hopelessness.
The fire and thirst of his cravings. But he doesn’t even ask for heaven.
CS Lewis again: “The doors of hell are locked from the inside.”
How does this apply to the Christian life?
Believing in hell, seeing that it is the logical consequence of idolatry
is absolutely essential for understanding your own heart.
Who are you? Do you have a core identity? Do you have a name?
Is your name Lazarus? Is God truly your help? Is Jesus your help?
What is the good thing that you are pursuing in your heart? Is it the Lord?
Or, is your identity something else? Are you just a rich man?
When you take hell seriously, you want to find yourself in Christ
You read this parable and know that you would rather be a poor man
with the Lord than to be a rich man without him.
And when you do have problem emotions—when you are worried, when you are
bitter, when you are despondent and self-hating, when you are bored—
trace those flames back to the source and you’ll find an idol.
Something in your life that you are worshipping.
Something besides the Lord that you are looking to for your identity and
happiness. Deal with them with the Gospel and with grace.
That’s what much of the Christian life is. Putting out the flames.
But you do it because know that you are going to live forever.
MP#2 Hell is essential for knowing the love of God.
Many people think judgment and hell is opposed to the love of God, but it’s not.
Look again at the rich man’s last request for his five brothers.
He says: I want a miracle. Send Lazarus back to warn them.
If Lazarus suddenly comes out of the ground and says: There is a hell.
What are they going to say? Are they going to argue with him? Say he’s wrong?
Of course not. They will say. O my goodness, I better live a good life.
I don’t want to go to hell.
But Abraham says: No, it won’t work. They will never be convinced.
Of course, they might be convinced of the existence of hell.
But the mere knowledge of hell, and the mere fear of hell and damnation,
will never change their hearts. It won’t cure their idolatry.
The fear of hell alone won’t keep you out of hell.
Why not? Because of the fundamental idolatry of the human heart.
Because when people are scared of hell and decide they are going to
be good so they won’t go to hell, why have they decided to be good?
For God? No, for themselves.
It’s still selfishness. Still idolatry.
It’s just using morality and religion as idol.
If I live a good enough life, God will have to give me the things I want.
He’ll have to give me success or family or the man or woman of my dreams
and he’ll have to take me to heaven.
God is just a means to an end. You’re just re-arranging your idolatry.
What will really change the fundamental structure of your heart?
Fear won’t do it, only love will.
Love the only thing that will cast down your idols and set on road to heaven.
Jesus tells us in this parable where that love is found. But tells indirectly.
The rich man says: If only a person would come back from the dead.
And, of course, that immediately makes you think—
Well, someone did come back from the dead. Jesus did.
But even Jesus rising from the dead is not enough.
Even if he had chosen to rise in a spectacular way, so that all Jerusalem saw him.
Even then his enemies would not have been changed in their hearts.
They would have been afraid. They would have gotten in line.
No, Jesus says, you have to know why I died.
And where do you find that? In Moses and the Prophets.
And what do Moses and the Prophets say? They say it was love.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
It was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
You do not know how much Jesus loves you until you know how much he suffered.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great Welsh preacher, said:
Suppose you arrive at your home, and find a friend waiting for you.
He says, while I was waiting, a bill came and I paid it.
Lloyd-Jones says: How do I respond to this?
I have no idea how to properly respond until I know how big the bill was.
Was it just postage due for a letter, a few cents?
Then just a simple “Thanks” is enough.
But suppose it was the tax collector. Suppose it was ten years of back taxes.
Suppose it was a great debt I could never pay that would land me in
debtors prison for the rest of my life. What if that was the debt my friend paid.
Until I know how much he paid—
I don’t know whether to shake his hand or fall down and kiss his feet.
What did Jesus actually experience on the cross?
Unless you believe in hell, will never know how much he loves you.
You will never know how much he values you.
Why did Jesus speak more about hell than any other person in the Bible.
In fact, almost everything we know about hell is from the lips of Christ.
Because on the cross he took it.
The fire fell down into his heart.
As the Apostles Creed says: He descended into hell.
How did he descend? When did he descend?
In the hours of darkness. In that terrible cry:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is a great mystery—but somehow on the cross, Jesus lost his good thing.
He lost that which was his whole identity, which he had built his life upon—
the love and fellowship and approval of his Father in heaven.
Remember how often he spoke of his Father?
“I and the Father are one.”
“If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”
“I can do nothing except what the Father tells me.”
God truly was his help. He did nothing without consulting his Father.
His name could have been Lazarus.
But what did Jesus get as he died? Disintegration. Isolation.
Infinitely greater than we would suffer even in an eternity in hell.
He took that all upon himself willingly because he loves you.
If you don’t believe in hell, and if you don’t consider thoughtfully and soberly
the awfulness of it—then you will never know how much he loves you.
Christians who really believe in hell rightly, are overwhelmed by Christ’s love.
The irony is that by getting rid of hell in an attempt to make God seem
more loving, you actually end up with a God who is less loving.
Tim Keller said in his sermon on this passage
that in his years in New York City people have often said to him:
I believe in a God of love. I don’t believe in a God of judgment.
He said, I always respond to them the same way—Let me ask you a question.
How much did it cost your God to love you?
Well, they say, I don’t know if it cost him anything. He just loves everybody.
Keller responds: If God just loves everybody and his love cost him nothing at all,
then I can honor a God like that, I might have good feelings about a God like that,
but it doesn’t transform me.
It doesn’t fill me with wonder, love, and praise.
If I want boldness and humility. If I want to put aside my idols and love people.
If want to sing: Love so amazing, so divine, demands my heart, my soul my all—
The I have to believe in hell.
And in a God who loved me so much
that it cost him dearly to send his Son there for me.
Obviously the biblical doctrine of hell can be twisted and misused.
But when you really see how all the threads of redemption—
sin and justice, heaven and hell, come together on Jesus Christ—
it fills you with wonder.
Jesus Christ who is the Judge of all the earth
came the first time not to bring judgment but to bear judgment for us
while we were still his enemies.
Heidelberg Catechism asks:
Why does the creed add, “He descended into hell”?
To assure me in times of personal crisis and temptation that Christ my Lord,
by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul,
has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.
Do you believe that? Is your name Lazarus?
Is Jesus Christ your help and Savior?
Then let’s come to the Table and eat with him.