The Burning Question
Is There Really a Hell?
March 2, 2008
I have heard many recovered alcoholics and addicts describe their lives before recovery as a “living hell.” Their lives were filled with suffering, agony, and anguish for themselves and those around them. The conclusion is that the throes of addiction are a taste of what hell is like and you don’t want to go there.
Today’s Burning Question: Is there really a hell? The answer from the Bible is: Yes. Ok, then, let’s pray… no not really. This question wasn’t actually written down but I have heard this asked or something similar. I have a difficulty with this one. You rarely hear sermons or teachings about hell and you rarely find books about it. Maybe we overdid hell and the wrath of God so we need to take a breather.
Anybody remember Charles Kuralt? He was a journalist that I remember seeing on TV (CBS, I think) on Sunday mornings. At one point in his career he got hung up on poking fun at middle Americans showing how we often mangle pronunciation. Dubois is now DOO-boys.
He stopped in Paris, Tennessee, with some other reporters and they stopped to eat. Kuralt brought the topic up and then said that he wanted to prove what he was talking about. He went up to the counter.
“Waddya havin’?” asked the girl.
“Before we order,” Kuralt said, “would you tell us the name of the place we’re in?”
The girl looked at him with the “yeah, right” look.
“Just pronounce,” Kuralt said, “slow and precise as you normally would, the name of the place we’re in.”
The girl hesitated obviously wondering what was going to happen. And then with a big, sassy Southern drawl, she said, “Dare-ee Qween.”
Here is the struggle with the idea of hell that I have (and maybe you too). We talk about loving God. We talk about how Jesus wants us to love and love others. We see in the scriptures that God is love. Love is the highest thing. So how can we understand a loving God that sends people to eternal torment in a place called hell?
I can almost picture this ridiculous image of God going, “Ha ha. Who has the last laugh now? Burn suckers! Reject me will you?” It is almost as if this god takes delight in the suffering of people to even allow a place of eternal torment.
I know this is a caricature. I know this is not what God is like. But somewhere in the back of my mind is this image. I know it is not true but somehow it still informs me and makes me question whether God could allow a place like that to exist.
Or perhaps God really is so uncaring that God would let this occur. But this is unfair to God and not an accurate picture of the Bible. So let’s begin.
Is There Really a Hell?
• According to Jesus, there is. (See the Sermon on the Mount)
I am not going to spend a lot of time here. Jesus said it is better for you to cut off your hand or gouge out your eye than for your entire body to go into hell. When we examined the Sermon on the Mount, we noted that this passage was actually radical exaggeration about God’s ultimate desire is for us to be whole people who live in His Kingdom and do His will.. It is better for you to be barely human but it is best for you to come into the Kingdom as a whole person. A whole person that lives wholly for God as a holy (set apart) person.
A whole person that lives wholly for God as a holy person.
There are numerous others scriptures that tell us that hell exists. The real issue is its nature (very much like the question of the last three weeks – What is heaven like).
• It is the result of God’s wrath. (Romans 1:18-20)
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
It is sometimes hard to imagine the wrath of God because most (if not all) of our experience with wrath and anger has been selfish anger. The two hundred pound man who flings the hundred pound woman across the room in a drunken rage. The mother of the four-year-old boy that flies off the handle when he spills his cup beating him until his back is a relief map of bruises. Some of us have experienced it firsthand. Some of us have seen it firsthand. I think all of us have seen these and many other examples in movies and shows. We are very familiar with selfish wrath and anger.
The Bible depicts God as slow to anger not never angry. Sometimes we don’t want to believe God could actually be angry and then we really don’t have any idea what righteous anger might look like. If your idea of God, is a God that never gets angry then is your god truly worthy of worship? Is such a God worthy of all honor and praise?
When the pedophile rapes the eight-year-old boy or girl and shows no remorse or regret except the regret that he got caught, does your God, “Boys will be boys.” When police kill six-year-old children for money in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, does your God say, “Oh well.” When ten-year-old girls are sold into prostitution in Bangkok, does your God say, “That’s not right but it’s okay.” Is it any wonder Jesus was so harsh describing those that hinder children from entering the kingdom saying that it would be to have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea than face God’s wrath?
Is a god that doesn’t get angry over these situations really worthy of worship? Would you really want to serve a god like that? I wouldn’t.
When I was a kid, my mother heard about the Nestle corporation’s decision to sell their baby formula in Third World countries. It was a formula that wasn’t allowed to be sold in the US but since these countries did not have governmental agencies protecting them and they had product to move, they sold it anyway. The formula wasn’t safe. It was supposed to provide vitamins and nourishment but instead caused the bodies of these babies to expel the nutrients. The babies died by the thousands of starvation and malnourishment.
My mom joined the boycott and I had to suffer. No more Nestle chocolate chips. I was too little to understand. I was way to self-centered. Yet eventually the grass-roots boycott grew and Nestle was forced to stop this practice.
Thousands of babies died in order to make money. Never will they live again. They had no chance. Shouldn’t God be outraged with this? The Old Testament prophets seem to think so.
Hell is a place that is the result of God’s wrath. It becomes the focal point. The Bible talks about Gehenna as the place that we call hell. It is the trash heap of Jerusalem. It is the place where the good-for-nothings are tossed to be trampled by men.
There were a couple of other questions tied to this. One person wanted to know about cremation. Cremation traditionally has been denounced or just pushed aside because the fires of cremation were too closely associated with the fires of hell. There have been some strange burial practices in the church over the century. Some believed that you had to be buried with head point toward a certain direction like east or toward Jerusalem. I even read about a group that wanted to be buried feet down in a standing position so that the body was ready for the resurrection. I had a seminary professor who stated that he wanted to be cremated and the ashes divided up and taken back to the different parts of the world where he was a missionary. When the resurrection came, he wanted his ashes to be gathered up from the four corners of the earth.
Officially, the Church of God has no position. Our bodies will be transformed into something gloriously different so I really don’t think it matters. What would the difference be between reconstructing a new body from ashes and a body that is filled with embalming fluid. If you are squeamish about cremation, don’t do it. If you are considering it, then it is your choice. I don’t think Jesus is too worried about it. Anything is possible with God, right? If God is all-powerful, then it really doesn’t matter if you body slowly decomposes or is instantly turned to ash. What matters is whether or not you are following Christ by living out his Shema.
Personally I have considered cremation for the practical purposes: it is cheaper. I just can’t see spending so much money on a funeral with some many people dying because they don’t have enough food or clean drinking water. But Kendra has said in the past that she had a hard time with the idea. If I go first, I’m not going to care. So this brings up another consideration: would cremation make it more difficult for your surviving loved one?
Another question… who were the Nephilim? This is from Genesis 6:1-4. I’m not sure what the purpose was for this question and what is so important for knowing the answer. There are two basic interpretations with various nuances depending on the tradition and how much the tradition relies on extra canonical sources (sources other than the Scriptures that we have maintained as inspired). One group maintains that these were a group of humanoid giants living at that time. However, the majority of Christiandom believes that these were some form of fallen angels. If you just want more information, I suggest you start with Wikipedia. It has a pretty accurate summary of the various takes on the subject including a nice integration of texts that may or may not shed light on the subject that lie outside canonical scripture. Basically they were fallen angels who led humans astray that God gave over to their wickedness. As such, they are the source of the belief in demons. So let’s return to what happens with the wicked.
• It is the consequence of the wicked. (Romans 1:21, 24, 26, 28)
This is what has helped me reconcile the idea of hell and God being loving. The question often asked, “How can a loving God send people to eternal torture?”
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.
This is what God does with His wrath. This is what the consequence is for rejecting Him. He gives them over to their desires. “You want it your way. Well, I’m not going to force you to my ways even though my ways lead to life.”
But what about those that aren’t so bad. God says, “I’m not going to stop you but you know deep down inside that what you are doing will destroy you. The path you are leading will lead to your undoing.” Just as following the ways of God prepares us for life in the Kingdom for all eternity, life apart from the ways of God prepares us for eternity apart from the source of life: God. God says, “You want to harden your heart about following my hearts and living a life of loving God and loving others? Okay. I’m not going to stop you. I’m not going to force you. I will let you have your own way now and forever.”
God loves you so much that God is willing to let you choose something besides Him.
Isn’t that the ultimate expression of love? Love doesn’t force someone else to do his or her will. Neither does God. He gives us over to our own depravity. He does offer us an escape. It is an escape to life now and forever of following His teachings and His ways.
In pioneer days on the prairie lands, fires would sometimes ignite in the tall, dry grass. They would literally find themselves about to be consumed by the flames. The winds would push the flames much faster than they could run. Often even the horses couldn’t outrun the flames. There was no time for escape. So they would burn a patch of ground around where they stood and waited. The fire would sweep up to that patch, find nothing to burn, and pass by. And later those ashes would nurture new life.
If this is serious concern and maybe obstacle for following Jesus, then I understand. I share your concern. I’ve wrestled with this idea. Maybe it is an obstacle that is simply hindering from totally giving yourself to Jesus. It is difficult. But let me suggest something to you. I suggest because this is what I’ve come see and believe. Maybe your god is too small. If it is hard to see a loving God as angry at times, maybe your god is simply too small. I’ve come to believe that following a God that would not vindicate the innocent and abused and oppressed is just too small. I desire to follow a God that I can trust fully. I can literally give myself to 100%. And this is a God that knows things that I never will understand. This is a God who knows and sees the depths of my heart as well as the hearts of everyone. He sees the things that I keep locked up. He sees those things that I’ve worked hard to overcome and remain in check. Yet God also sees that I from the depths of my heart know that He is the one that delivered me and He knows that with all my being I don’t want to remain in bondage and I don’t want to go back there.
I know this God judges perfectly with perfect wisdom. I have caught a glimpse of this God that is holy—this God that is completely good and other than what I am. And I have caught a glimpse of an immense love that is greater and deeper and more powerful than the ocean. This love that desires me to be more than my mistakes, more than sins, more than my personality glitches, my imperfections, and my character defects. And God has given me the choice—the choice to choose Him. The choice to choose Him today and everyday. Just as God as given you that choice. The choice is not about escaping punishment but about embracing life and embracing all that God has created me to be as His grace embraces and surrounds me. That is the choice that I made years ago. I do not regret it in the least. It is the choice I make anew today. It is the choice God desires so much (more than we will ever know) that we need to make today. Can you trust that maybe God is much greater than you know? Do you trust God enough to give yourself fully to Him without reservation? Then do so. Tell God as we pray.