Summary: Is there a hell, what is hell like and why is hell necessary?
Over time some things lose their usefulness, they become obsolete. Just like 8-track tapes, Disneyland e-tickets, turntables, and typewriters. In our modern world these things have become artifacts of days gone by. And not only do things outgrow their usefulness, but ideas do as well. For instance, the idea of a flat earth is now obsolete. The idea that the universe revolves around the earth is now an obsolete idea that people no longer believe.
Today I’m going to talk about a topic that many people think is as obsolete as belief in a flat earth or an 8 track tape. Today I’m going to talk about hell. For many post-modern people at the end of the 20th century people, belief in hell is as outdated as being a part of the flat-earth society. University of Chicago historian Martin Marty has observed that the doctrine of hell has all but disappeared in contemporary society and no one really noticed it. Six years ago, when Britain’s Secretary of Education and Science John Patten suggested that the reason crime was rising was because the fear of hell was declining, the British newspapers thought he was nuts.1 John Lennon urged us to imagine that there was no heaven or hell, so the world could be as one. So we’ve reduced hell to a relic from the dark ages, something we joke about or make creative milk cartoons about. Woody Allen says, "Hell is Manhattan at rush hour."2
Yet despite this decline, many people in our culture today cling to the idea that hell is for real. In 1997 Time magazine conducted a poll where they found that 63% of Americans believe that hell exists as a place where people will be punished forever in the afterlife.3 Of course, only 1% of Americans believe they’d be in hell. So the doctrine of hell seems to be making a bit of a comeback.
We’ve been in a series on death and the afterlife called BEYOND DEATH’S DOOR. In this series we’ve been talking about what the Bible teaches about life beyond the grave, as we seek to peek beyond the curtain of death and catch a glimpse of what might lie beyond it. Today we’re going to look at the Bible’s teaching about hell, when the hereafter’s not so sweet. Let me first clarify that what I’m talking about here people’s ultimate destination, not what happens immediately after we die, but what happens after Jesus Christ comes again and judges the world. When people die today they go to a waiting place—-what theologians call the intermediate state—-and we’ll talk more about that next week. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that this temporary place--this intermediate state--has a place called purgatory, where Christians can become cleansed from any residual sins in their life--but that’s not what I’m addressing today. By talking about hell I’m talking about the final destination of those who reject God. Today we’re going to ask the question, "Is there really such a thing as hell?", "What is hell like," and "Why is hell necessary."
I. Is There A Hell?
Theologian Reinhold Neibuhr once cautioned, "It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell."4 He’s right…we should realize that there is much more about heaven and hell that we don’t know than what we do know. But there are some things we can know—maybe not the temperature—but we can know whether it’s for real, what it’s like and why it’s necessary.
We start with the question, "Is there really such a thing as hell?" We start in a passage in the Old Testament book of Daniel that looks forward to the end of the age.
Daniel 12:2-- "Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (New Living Translation).
As Daniel looks forward to the end of the age, that moment that all human history is leading towards, God reveals through the prophet Daniel that there will be a resurrection, where everyone who’s died will rise up from the grave and stand before God in judgment. Some people--those who’ve loved and served God--will rise up to eternal life. But others will be raised up for judgment, what Daniel calls shame and everlasting contempt. The Hebrew word translated "shame" here describes an internal sense of disgrace and reproach.5 So the "shame" comes from within the person, as he or she realizes the utter finality of their choices on this earth; the regret from those choices wells up as disgrace, reproach, "shame." Throughout the Old Testament this sense of "shame" is the consequence of people standing under God’s judgment and realizing the utter finality of their failures.
The word "contempt" describes external aversion, the kind of "contempt" that comes from being a guilty criminal who stands convicted before a just judge. And this "contempt" is said to be eternal, never ending; it doesn’t peter out or diminish with time. I chose this passage in particular because some people claim that the Old Testament doesn’t teach anything about hell.