Summary: No one seems to be excited about the topic of Hell. Even God's not keen on it. But it's crucial to our message of hope for the lost. What is it about Hell we need to know and that we need to tell others?
Does anyone know what the worst fire in American History was? Most people would say it was the great Chicago Fire in 1871. That fire started on Sunday, October 8 and ended on Tuesday, October 10, 1871, killing up to 300 people and destroyed a little over 3 square miles of Chicago, leaving over 100,000 people homeless.
But the great Chicago fire wasn’t the worst fire in American history. In fact, it wasn’t even the worst fire in 1871. The very same day the Chicago fire began… so did the one that destroyed Peshtigo, Wisconsin (about 48 miles north of Green Bay). Historians list this as THE deadliest fire in U.S. history. On October 8th (the same day the Chicago fire began) a drought in the lumber area of Peshtigo led to a fire that destroyed nearly 1900 sq. miles of small cities and homes in the area of Peshtigo (as opposed to the 3.3 square miles in Chicago) and killed nearly 2000 people (compared to 300 in Chicago).
The fire was so intense that when people tried to flee… there was no place to go. People died in their homes, and their basements and on the streets. Some folks jumped into a well, but the fire sucked all the oxygen away and they died of suffocation. Others tried to cross the river to the other side only to find the fire there as well.
The few that survived jumped into the river, and had to constantly douse themselves with water to avoid their hair catching on fire. The temperatures that day were estimated to be between 500 and 700 F. The destruction was so total there was virtually nothing left of the city.
It took days for word of the Peshtigo fire to reach the nation. When news finally reached the capital of Wisconsin, all the state’s officials were in Chicago, helping with relief efforts there. For weeks, the Chicago Fire so dominated newspaper headlines that the governor of Wisconsin had to issue a special proclamation to divert aid from Chicago to the Peshtigo area.
Speaking of the tragedy in Peshtigo (“The Deadly Night Of October 8, 1871”) one author noted “The only light available in the dark of the night was that given off by the fire itself, creating an eerie glow that seemed to taunt the dying and surviving alike like the open mouth of hell.”
In our text this morning Jesus tells us the story of a man who went to hell - it’s called the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Now, there are some folks who try to tell us that this story is not true. They say it's fictional. They dismiss it as merely a “parable.”
That’s always bothered me. I mean this story is not even called a parable by Jesus (or even by Luke, where the story appears). Additionally, even in His parables Jesus he never used a personal name like Lazarus, and ALL of Jesus’ parables were based on real-life events that people could identify with. This is the only story Jesus ever told that pulled back the curtain on what happens after death.
So I’ve always been puzzled that people would try so hard to say that this story is fiction. Why would they do that? Well, there’s all kinds of possibilities I guess. For example, I think some folks dismiss this story just to prove how smart they are (it’s a pride thing). It’s an intellectual exercise they go through to prove how deep and studied they are. Folks do that a lot of with things the Bible tells us.
But I’m convinced that a lot of other folks argue this story’s not true because they don’t like what it says. They read the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus and they see one of the most disturbing descriptions of hell in Scripture - and they don’t want to accept it.
Jesus tells us the Rich Man was “… in Hades, being in torment…” Luke 16:23
The Rich Man asked for “… mercy” and for “… Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water ‘and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’” Luke 16:24
And it’s described as a “place of torment” and a place people would avoid if they would “repent.” Luke 6:28 and 30
(PAUSE) Jesus tells us that Hell is a very, very unpleasant place, and because of that – Hell is a very, very uncomfortable topic for lots of folks.
ILLUS: Pew Research did a survey about 5 years ago where they discovered that 72% Americans said they believed in heaven (defined as a place “where people who have led good lives were eternally rewarded”). But, at the same time, 58% of U.S. adults also believe in hell (a place “where people who’d led bad lives and who died without being sorry were eternally punished”)