Summary: Two-thirds of Americans believe there is no hell. Let's imagine for a moment there is no hell. Lest you take me literally, I DO believe in the existence of heaven and hell. But what would you do if you wanted to eliminate the distasteful idea of hell?
There are many theories about the afterlife. Some people believe in reincarnation. Three men died and stood before God, who asked them how they wanted to spend their next life on earth. The first man said, “I want to come back as myself, but I want to be 10 times smarter.” “Poof,” God made him 10 times smarter. The second guy said, “That’s a good idea. Send me back, but this time I want to be 100 times smarter.” And “Poof” God send him back 100 times smarter. The third guy said, “We’ve got a good thing going, so send me back 1,000 times smarter.” And “Poof” God made him a woman.
I don’t think people are reincarnated. In this passage today, Jesus talks about a place called hell. Nobody likes to talk about hell, and it’s probably been a long time since you heard a message about hell. I borrowed the title of this message from John Lennon’s 1971 song “Imagine.” It’s the ultimate existentialism theme song. A couple of the verses say, “Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people living for today. Imagine there’s no countries (we’ll excuse the grammatical mistake). It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for; and no religion too. Imagine all the people living life in peace.” Yes, he was a dreamer. But his dream ended in 1980 when he was shot in New York City. I wonder if John Lennon could stand here today, if his opinion about the afterlife would be different than his song.
I would much rather preach on heaven than hell. Two years ago I preached an entire series called, “Heaven: An Insider’s Guidem” which you can find on our website.
But one of the values of teaching through the Bible verse-by-verse is that I can’t practice what I call “kangaroo exegesis,” where you just hop over and ignore the unpleasant passages of the Bible.
The context of this passage is important. The disciples of Jesus had been arguing about who was the greatest? To prove a point, Jesus took a little child in His arms and said, “If you want to be great, you must humble yourself as a child. Then He continued,
Mark 9:42-49. “And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. 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.’ Everyone will be salted with fire.”
No pun intended, but unless you’ve been under a rock somewhere, you probably have heard the true story of Aron Ralston. In 2003 he was hiking alone when a huge boulder came dislodged and trapped him in a narrow canyon. After 127 hours of trying to get out, he had to make a decision about life and death. In an act of incredible determination, he used his pocketknife to cut off his right arm. He wrote a book entitled Between a Rock and a Hard Place and is now a motivational speaker.
In this passage, Jesus wasn’t speaking about literally cutting off your hands or feet or gouging out your eye. He was employing extreme hyperbole to talk about the difference between enjoying what He called “entering life” and experiencing the agonies of hell. He said it would be better to go through life maimed than to be thrown into hell.
The source of your sin problem isn’t your hands, your feet, or your eyes. In Mark 7 Jesus made it clear the source of sin is our wicked heart. The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. This passage isn’t about amputation; it’s about the extreme agony of hell. Cutting off your hand is pretty agonizing, but it is a cakewalk compared to the horrors of hell.
Let’s talk about hell. I know you don’t want to, because it is an unpleasant subject. So is cancer. But a loving doctor will be honest to his or her patients about cancer.
When it comes to belief in heaven and hell, Americans are fickle. According to the Barna Research group, 71% of Americans believe in heaven. But less than half of that number, 32% believe that hell is a literal place of torment. And when asked, only 2% of Americans say they expect to end up in hell.