Scott Bayles, pastor
Blooming Grove Christian Church: 5/24/15
Have you heard about the farmer from Illinois who died and went to Hell? The Devil really wanted to punish him, so he put him to work breaking up rocks with a sledgehammer. To make it worse he cranked up the temperature and the humidity. After a couple of days the Devil checked in on the man to see if he was suffering adequately, but he found the farmer was swinging his hammer and whistling a happy tune.
The Devil said, “I don’t understand this. I’ve turned the heat way up, it’s humid, you’re crushing rocks and sweating. Why are you so happy?” The man smiled, looked at the Devil and said, “Oh, this just reminds me of the hot humid August days back in Illinois. It’s just like home.”
The Devil decided to change things a bit. He dropped the temperature, sent down driving rain and torrential wind. Soon, Hell was a wet, muddy mess. But the farmer was happily slogging through the mud pushing a wheelbarrow full of crushed rocks. When the Devil questioned him, the man replied, “This is great. Just like April back in Illinois. It reminds me of working out in the fields doing the spring planting!”
The Devil was completely baffled. In desperation, he tried one last ditch effort. He made the temperature plummet. Hell was blanketed in snow and ice. But when he checked in on the famer, he couldn’t believe his eyes. The man was dancing, singing, and twirling his sledgehammer in glee. “How can you be so happy?” the Devil shouted, “Don’t you realize its 40 below zero!?” The man replied, “I told you, I’m from Illinois and Hell is frozen over! Don’t you know what that means!? The Cubs won the pennant!”
That story may not be very theologically sound, but I wanted to open with something lighthearted this morning because the rest of my sermon will be just the opposite. Last Sunday I began a short series entitled Afterlife, in which we are peering through the peepholes of Scripture into the hereafter. What we discover are three different places—or realms—that lie beyond death’s door. The first is Hades, which we discussed last Sunday. The last is Heaven, which we’ll talk about next week.
Today I’m going to talk about Hell.
The very mention of the word Hell conjures up images of pitchfork-toting demons delighting in the torture of condemned souls who writhe in the licking flames of some fire-lit volcanic cavern. It’s a grisly caricature. But the reality is still sobering.
I agree with the words of Francis Chan in his book, Erasing Hell: “As we roll up our sleeves and dig into the topic of hell, it’s important that you don’t distance what the Bible says from reality. In other words, don’t forget that the doctrine you are studying may be the destiny of many people. Hell should not be studied without tearful prayer. We must weep, pray, and fast over this issue, begging God to reveal to us through His Word the truth about hell.” I want to urge you embrace this attitude as we explore Hell.
The word hell appears in the Bible only 12 times. 11 of those 12 times all come from the lips of Jesus (the twelfth comes from Jesus’ little brother, James). What’s especially interesting is that Jesus only uses the word hell when speaking to a Jewish audience and only when he’s in or around Jerusalem. There’s a reason for that.
The word translated hell is gehenna, which literally means “The Valley of Hinnom,” and refers to an actual, physical valley on the south side of Jerusalem. This steep gorge was once used to burn children in sacrifice to the Ammonite god Molech (2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:31; 32:35). Jeremiah denounced such practices by saying that Hinnom Valley would become the valley of God's judgment, a place of slaughter (Jer. 7:32; 19:5-7). As the years passed, a sense of foreboding hung over the valley. Gehenna was a place so despised and cursed by God’s people that they turned it into the city dump where feces, refuse, and the dead bodies of criminals were devoured by maggots, while flames were kept burning 24/7. So when Jesus spoke of Hell, he was using this actual literal valley as an object lesson—a metaphor for final judgment.
Most of Jesus’ references to Hell are only passing and don’t offer any details about what happens there. One exception stands out, however: “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” (Matthew 10:24 NIV). I believe this verse should be the chief cornerstone in constructing our views about Hell.
In 2011, Christian Standard printed an article by Glen Elliott in which he describes two views of Hell. The traditional view, held by the majority of Christians for the last 1500 years, imagines Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment where condemned souls are essentially burned alive of endless eternity. The other view—typically referred to as annihilation or conditional immortality—sees Hell not a place of torment or torture but rather as a place of total destruction. This view suggests that when Christ comes again, all the souls in Hades will be resurrected and reunited with their bodies in order to stand before God for judgment. At that time the saved will enter into Heaven where they will live forever; but the unsaved be cast into Hell where God will thoroughly destroy both body and soul as Jesus says in Matthew 10.
It’s this second view that I believe to be more consistent with the teachings of Scripture. Although none of the prophets or apostles ever use the word hell, they continually speak of the final punishment for unrepentant sinners in terms of death and destruction. When we combine their writings, they fit together like pieces of a puzzle to form a clear picture of what awaits unsaved souls in Hell.
While there are far more pieces to this puzzle than I could possibly assemble in one sermon, I’d like to present four very important pieces that help make the picture clear—each of them dealing with the final punishment of unbelievers.
The first piece of the puzzle is Psalms of Punishment.
• PSALMS OF PUNISHMENT
David’s poetry and prose often proclaim God’s goodness and grace, but on occasion he sings about more solemn matters. In Psalm 37, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he envisions the final fate of the ungodly.
He begins, “For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the earth. A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the earth and enjoy peace and prosperity” (Psalm 37: 9-11). He continues, “But the wicked will perish: The Lord's enemies will be like the beauty of the fields, they will vanish—vanish like smoke” (vs. 28 NIV). Finally, he concludes, “But all sinners will be destroyed; the future of the wicked will be cut off” (vs. 38 NIV).
David envisioned a day when the wicked would be destroyed, their future cut off, and they would simply vanish like smoke—images that seem very contrary to what we normally think of as Hell. At that time the meek will inherit the earth. Jesus, likewise pointed forward to this day when he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). This hasn’t happened yet, but it will when Christ comes again. At the second coming of Christ the meek will inherit the earth and the wicked, David says, will be no more; they will vanish like smoke.
In another psalm, David writes, “Though the wicked sprout like weeds and evildoers flourish, they will be destroyed forever. But you, O Lord, will be exalted forever. Your enemies, Lord, will surely perish…” (Psalm 92:7-9 NLT).
David, the warrior, had seen with his own eyes how God physically destroyed the enemies of Israel; but “destroyed forever” in the same sense that God is “exalted forever” suggests a punishment far beyond slain soldiers and sacked cities. The HCSB says “eternally destroyed”. The NASB, “destroyed forevermore.” David is describing a more profound and permanent destruction, in which the enemies of God utterly perish. In Hell, everything perishes. Hope perishes. Happiness perishes. Even the bodies and souls of God-deniers perish.
The Old Testament prophets agreed and, in fact, the utter destruction of the ungodly is a recurring theme throughout the prophecies of punishment—which is the next piece of our puzzle.
• PROPHECIES OF PUNISHMENT
The Old Testament prophets often painted very vivid pictures of God’s judgment against mankind. Few are clearer than the final chapter of the Old Testament: “The day of judgment is coming, burning like a furnace. On that day the arrogant and the wicked will be burned up like straw. They will be consumed—roots, branches, and all” (Malachi 4:1 NLT).
Straw doesn’t last long in a fire, does it? Regarding this verse, John MacArthur explains, “Malachi spoke of God’s judgment as a destructive fire that swiftly and totally consumes with excessive heat… The destruction of the roots, normally protected by their subsurface location, provides a vivid, proverbial picture of its totality” (McArthur 1367).
Malachi concludes, “‘Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 4:3 NIV). Malachi portrays Hell’s fire as all-consuming and utterly destructive, leaving nothing behind but ashes.
Other Old Testament prophets pronounced the same sentence upon the wicked. The final chapter of Isaiah likewise concludes with a prophecy of punishment. He writes, “See, the LORD is coming with fire, and his swift chariots roar like a whirlwind. He will bring punishment with the fury of his anger and the flaming fire of his hot rebuke. The LORD will punish the world by fire and by his sword. He will judge the earth, and many will be killed by him… they will come to a terrible end.” (Isaiah 66:15-16 NLT). Noticed that Isaiah clearly says that “many will be killed” rather than tormented or tortured; that they will meet their end.
The final verse describes the aftermath of God’s judgment: “all mankind will come and bow down before me… and they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind” (Isaiah 66:24 NLT). Many who have read these words imagine the flames and maggots eternally tormenting the living inhabitants of Hell, but that isn’t the case here; rather, Isaiah clearly describes the worms and fire as consuming the already “dead bodies” of God’s enemies. No one is crying out in pain or begging for water. They can’t. They’re already dead.
Both Malachi and Isaiah (along with every other Old Testament prophet) spoke of a swift and sudden end for unbelievers as opposed to the unending torment we often ascribe to Hell. Jesus preaches the same message in the New Testament, where we see the final fate of unbelievers portrayed in parables of punishment.
• PARABLES OF PUNISHMENT
Jesus often used parables to teach spiritual truths in a way that people could visualize. Many of them touch on the topic of final judgment. For instance, in a pint-size parable, Jesus urges listeners, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV). Here, Jesus presents two possible paths—one that leads to life and one that leads to destruction. Oddly, many preachers proclaim that everyone lives forever—some in Heaven and some in Hell. But Jesus never makes that claim. Rather the “life” offered to believers is always juxtaposed against death, destruction, or perishing.
Another sentence-length parable offers this portrait of judgment: “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6 NIV). What do we expect will happen to a dried and withered branch when it is tossed into a fire? It will burn up, of course; and, if the fire is hot enough, nothing will be left of it. That was Jesus’ implication. He makes the same implication in his parable about the wheat and weeds. If you recall, Jesus tells the tale of a farmer who planted wheat in his field but an enemy sowed weeds in among the wheat. So farmer tells his hired hands, “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn” (Matthew 13:30 NIV).
Again, what do we expect to happen to weeds that are bundled up and burned? We’ve all seen bonfires or other similar sites before. We recently did some yard work around our house, gathering several twigs and withered branches. We piled them into our burn-pit, stuffed some old newspaper in the middle of the pile, squirted some lighter fluid and set it all ablaze. The bright orange flames rose a few feet off the ground as the fire cracked and popped. When the fire had finished its work, having burned for no more than half an hour, there was nothing left in the pit but a layer of white ash. This is the image Jesus conveyed when he spoke of chaff, withered branches, and dried weeds being tossed into the fire and burned up. It’s an image of finality.
The final piece of the puzzle is Peter’s picture of punishment.
• PICTURE OF PUNISHMENT
Peter isn’t one for poetry. He doesn’t speak in parable. Rather, he paints a picture of the Day of Judgment as plain and vivid as we could ask. Peter begins with a description of the punishment awaiting false prophets and those who deny Jesus.
He writes, “They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping” (2 Peter 2:2-3 NIV). In other words, God won’t let them get away with it. Their punishment is hanging over them. And when it comes it will be swift destruction.
As evidence, Peter cites an ancient example: “For God did not spare the ancient world—except for Noah and the seven others in his family. Noah warned the world of God’s righteous judgment. So God protected Noah when he destroyed the world of ungodly people with a vast flood. Later, God condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and turned them into heaps of ashes. He made them an example of what will happen to ungodly people” (2 Peter 2:5-6 NLT).
Peter likens the punishment of ungodly people to the devastating destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Both Jesus and Jude make the same comparison (Luke 17:30, Jude 7). The fate of those two abominable cities stands as the quintessential illustration of Hell’s fury. Fire and brimstone literally rained down from Heaven. To be sure, there would have been some suffering in the process, even some “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But their suffering wouldn’t have lasted long; only long enough for the rain of hot sulfur to rid the land of their evil. In the wake of that catastrophic fire—however long it burned—nothing was left of the two cities, not even a trace!
In case we aren’t getting the picture, Peter continues: “The present heavens and earth have been stored up for fire. They are being kept for the Day of Judgment, when ungodly people will be destroyed” (2 Peter 3:7 NLT). Here Peter ties the fate of the wicked to the fate of the world. And then Peter describes the fate that waits both: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare…That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat” (2 Peter 3:10 NIV). The Day of Judgment will be consummated in a fire that burns so hot that the chemical elements, from actinium to zirconium, will melt away and the universe will be wiped clean. Those who reject and rebel against God will be caught up in that blaze and just like Sodom and Gomorrah, just like the heavens and earth, nothing will be left—not even a trace!
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. He concludes by reassuring those who trust in Jesus, “But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13 NLT). Next week, we’ll talk about what we can look forward to in the new heavens and new earth.
In the meantime, there are literally dozen—even hundreds—more Scriptures we could examine on the nature of Hell and the Day of Judgment. And the ones we have examined (or haven’t) may raise a whole classroom full of questions. While I’d be happy to answer them privately, I believe these four pieces of the puzzle—the Psalms, Prophecies, Parables, Peter’s Picture—fit neatly together to give us a clear understanding of the fate that awaits the inhabitants of Hell.
I will share one last Scripture with you, however. Paul writes to the church in Philippi, “Many people live like enemies of the cross of Christ. I have often told you about them, and it makes me cry to tell you about them now. In the end, they will be destroyed.” (Philippians 3:18-19 NCV). Paul didn’t speak flippantly about the final fate of unbelievers, but he spoke truthfully and tearfully. I pray that we always do the same. Let’s not divorce the teaching of Scripture from everyday life.
The doctrine of Hell will be the destiny of millions—many will be people we know and love. Let us pray for them, weep for them, and—by all means—let us share the Gospel of Christ with them.
If you’re not certain about your final destination—whether you’re on the narrow road to life in Heaven or the highway to destruction in Hell—don’t put off accepting Jesus as your Savoir. Jesus assured us that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Everlasting life is available to you right now, if you’ll turn to Jesus and put your faith in him. If I can help you with that, come talk with me while we stand and sing.