Summary: 1. Free will makes hell necessary. 2. Justice makes hell necessary. 3. Hell begins here and now, just as heaven does.
Bill Hybels, the pastor of Willow Creek Church in Chicago which has over 20,000 people in attendance each week, tells the story of an encounter he had with a young woman: “I recall one time being in a restaurant studying for a message, and a gal looked over from her table and saw me reading my Bible. She said, ‘Why do you study that stuff?’ And I thought, just to stimulate a little discussion, I’d try to knock her off balance. So I said, ‘Because I don’t feel like going to hell when I die.’ I was going to be really blunt, but I took the edge off it a little bit. And she said, ‘There is no such thing as heaven or hell.’ I thought, Well, I got something going now. So I turned in my chair and I said, ‘Why do you say that?’ She said, ‘Everybody knows that when you die your candle goes out — poof!’ I said, ‘You mean to tell me there’s no afterlife?’ ‘No.’ ‘So that means you must be able to just live as you please?’ ‘That’s right.’ ‘Like, there’s no Judgement Day or anything?’ ‘No.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s fascinating to me. Where did you hear that?’ She said, ‘I read it somewhere.’ ‘Can you give me the name of the book?’ ‘I don’t recall.’ ‘Can you give me the name of the author of the book?’ ‘I forget his name.’ ‘Did that author write any other books?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Is it possible that your author changed his mind two years after he wrote this particular book and then wrote another one that said there is a heaven and a hell? Is that possible?’ ‘It’s possible but not likely.’ ‘All right,’ I said. ‘ Let me get this straight. You are rolling the dice on your eternity predicated on what someone you don’t even know wrote in a book you can’t even recall the title of. Have I got that straight?’ I was playing a little Columbo act with her. She looked me right in the eye and said, ‘That’s right.’ And I said back to her, ‘You know what I think, sweetheart? I think you have merely created a belief that guarantees the continuation of your unencumbered lifestyle. I think you made it up, because it is very discomforting to think of a heaven. It is a very discomforting thought to think of a hell. It is very unnerving to face a holy God in the day of reckoning. I think you made it all up.’ We had quite a conversation after that.”
Like the young woman in Hybel’s story, many people today don’t want to believe in hell, because they do not want to alter the way they live. They easily accept anything that smacks of doubt, because it gives them relief from thinking about the realities of eternity. But Jesus wanted people to think about eternity often, for he preached about it constantly. In fact, the Bible is almost silent about the subject of hell, except the words that fall from the mouth of Jesus. This only makes sense, because we would expect that the One who came from eternity would know and talk about eternity more than anyone else.
The parable of the dragnet that we read about in the Scripture today, that is, the net thrown into the water and dragged into a boat, or dragged to shore, full of fish which were then separated, is very similar to Jesus’ story about the sheep and the goats. He said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left” (Matthew 25:31-33).
It is also very much like Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. 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 13:24-30).