Summary: The Bible teaches a solemn and terrible truth about the reality of hell
Two weeks ago there were about a hundred protesters picketing the Second Baptist Church of Houston, Texas. This was a group of Hindus who were upset that the Southern Baptist Convention was encouraging its churches like Second Baptist, which incidentally has over 10,000 members, to make a special effort to share the gospel with Hindu people. This group was no doubt encouraged by the Hindus in India who insisted that the Pope, during his recent trip there, declared that Jesus Christ is not the only route to salvation. As one Hindu leader said, "A religion that condemns all others to eternal hell is selfish, exclusionist and promotes hatred." Jews and Muslims are also angered over the fact that Southern Baptists have been encouraged to pray for them. Many in the media have expressed outrage toward what they see as the intolerance of evangelical Christians. One newspaper editorial said, "These conversion efforts are reminiscent of the Middle Ages when the church burned at the stake anyone who refused to convert."
In a recent Breakpoint Commentary, Chuck Colson points out how ridiculous this reaction is. Praying for people, or even efforts to verbally persuade someone to embrace a new religion, can hardly be compared to burning people at the stake. He notes that Christianity has always been seen as a universal religion which claims to offer salvation to all people, no matter what their ethnic or religious background. Yet, the objections which are raised do tend to raise some uncomfortable questions in many of our minds. Does it make sense that Christianity would be the only true religion? Are people out there who don't believe, or maybe have never even heard of Jesus, really going to hell? Well, I'm not sure we'll fully answer these questions today, but we are going to look at a parable of Jesus which gives us His perspective on this very important topic. Our text is Matthew 13:47-50. As we explore the Word of God, let's pray that He would help us understand what these words mean to our lives.
The New International Version calls this The Parable of the Net. I call it the parable about catching fish. Matthew 13:47 "Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish." In most situations, fishing with a net is not legal in Minnesota, but in the 1st Century it obviously was the most efficient method. The phrase "all kinds of fish" doesn't mean a large number, but rather a wide variety of fish. 13:48 "When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away." Good and bad has nothing to do with the moral character of the fish but rather refers to the fact that some fish were big enough for eating, while others were not; some fish were ceremonially clean or kosher, while others were not, or maybe that some fish were worth keeping, while others were not. In fact, "bad fish" literally means "worthless fish." A simple story. What does it mean? Jesus answers that question in the next two verses. 13:49,50 "This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
I want you to note that this story is very similar to the parable of the weeds which we explored two weeks ago. There, it is the weeds or, in Verse 41, "all who do evil," which are thrown into a fiery furnace. Now, some have suggested that Matthew got confused as he was writing this chapter. They claim the parable is about the disciples fishing for men, not about the last judgment. After all, they say, the furnace is hardly a place where you would put bad fish. But, the text doesn't say the fish are thrown into the fiery furnace, but rather the wicked will be. Though we may wish it were otherwise, there is no reason to believe that Matthew is doing anything but faithfully reporting the parable and then giving us Jesus' interpretation of what He said. I think this seems a very clear and easy to understand parable. I suspect the problem that most folks have is not that they don't know what it means, but rather they don't like what it means. But there are a couple of questions about this passage which are good to address.
#1) Does Jesus intend that we take His description of hell literally? In other words, is hell really a fiery furnace? A few years ago it was reported in some Christian media that scientists in Siberia had drilled through the earth's crust and had found hell. The report said they had put microphones down there and heard people screaming. The fact that some Christians are gullible enough to believe a story like that is a topic for another day. Months later, a couple of fellows in Finland confessed the whole thing was a hoax. They had made up the story just to see how many people would believe something so bizarre. Now, I am reasonably certain that hell is not located beneath the earth's surface. It is not really "down there." Hell is part of a whole other realm and dimension. As people who inhabit this world, it is really impossible for us to even imagine what hell is actually like. But, that doesn't mean it is not real. The fact that Jesus so often describes hell as a fiery place where there are things like "weeping and gnashing of teeth," indicates that there is almost certainly a connection between those words and the reality. Hell is at root a total separation from God, that is the essence of what it is. But, that doesn't mean it can't be a fiery place. We must keep in mind that if Jesus' description of hell as a place of fire is symbolic, the reality is no doubt much more horrible, much more terrible, than a fiery furnace.