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43 And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:
44 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
45 And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:
46 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:
48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
There is an epitaph that has been often used on tombstones down through the centuries:
“Consider, young man, as you walk by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, you soon shall be,
So prepare, young man to follow me.”
That sounds profound, but someone took a chisel and hammered out a response on one tombstone:
“To follow you is not my intent;
Until I know which way you went!”
That reminds me of a story a fellow pastor told me. He was in Mexico City, he ran out of the airport, jumped into a cab, and gave directions to the driver—in English, of course. The driver took off like a shot, put the pedal to the metal, and ignoring pedestrians and traffic signals literally flew through the streets. They went furiously this way, then made a turn and went furiously that way, then another turn and they were off again, until the preacher realized that the driver had no clue as to where they were going.
Fortunately, the preacher finally got that problem worked out, but many people go through life like that. They live at a furious pace. Their lives are full of activity and things, but they have no direction. They have no clue as to where they are going.
Ultimately, they are going in one of two directions. They are either going to heaven or hell. Today, let us talk about hell.
First question: What is Hell Like?. I suspect that the first image we have of hell is a cartoon image of millions of naked souls being herded by demons with pitchforks into caves of fire. Fire is always associated with hell.
Matthew 13:42 says, “They will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”. Once a minister preached on that verse, and afterward, and old woman, with a mouth full of dentures, asked him, “What about them that aint got no teeth.” The preacher replied sadly, “you do not need worry about that maam. Teeth will be provided.”
In Mark 9:43, 45, and 48, Hell is described as a place where “the fire is not quenched.” In the book of Revelation, the Final Judgment is described as a “lake of fire.” (Rev. 19:20)
I remember a time when I burned my hand severely. I was on a camping trip. We were breaking camp after cooking breakfast. I began to disassemble the gas stove. Without thinking, I grabbed the grill of the stove. That grill was still red hot. I seared a grill pattern across the palm of my hand. I was in agonizing pain for hours, just from burning my hand. Think what it would be like to be burned all over your body and to have the burning go on forever and ever. In hell, the fire never dies, the pain never subsides.
The KJV Bible most commonly translates three words as “hell.”
First, there is the Old Testament word “ Sheol” . This Hebrew word is more aptly translated as “the grave” or “the abode of the dead,” and most modern translations have it that way. “Sheol” does not usually refer to a place of eternal punishment.
The Greek word “Hades” is used a few times in the New Testament, and occasionally refers to a place of eternal punishment.
But the Greek word used in our text today is “Gehenna,” of “the valley of Hinnom” This valley ran down the south-west wall of Jerusalem. It had a bad reputation. Centuries earlier, the valley was used for human sacrifice. King Ahaz and King Manasseh sacrificed their sons to the pagan God Molech there. Later Hinnom became Jerusalem’s trash dump. Its bad reputation increased because of the filth, the smell, and the constant smoke from the fires burning garbage. When the ancient Jews wanted to describe Hell, they could not do better than look over the walls of Jerusalem down in the valley of Hinnom.
Jesus also used this awful scene as a symbol of hell. In effect, he said, “Do you want to know what hell is like? Look at Gehenna.” So hell may be described as God’s cosmic garbage dump. All that is unfit for heaven will be thrown into hell.
Perhaps if Jesus were with us today in the flesh, he would use as figures of hell the horrors of the 20th Century--Hitler’s death camps, or Stalin’s Gulags--as vivid pictures that hint at what Hell will be like.
C.S Lewis said that hell will be a state in which all our evil desires are extended to infinity. As Jesus says,”their worm does not die” (Mark 9:48). In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote:
“Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must either be true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live forever. Perhaps my bad temper or my jealousy are gradually getting worse - so gradually that the increase in seventy years will not be very noticeable. But it might be absolute hell in a million years: in fact, if Christianity is true, Hell is the precisely correct technical term for what it would be” [book 3, ch. 1].
One of the most terrifying aspects about hell is its duration. Hell is eternal. Charles Haddon Spurgeon said: "In hell there is no hope. The dammed have not even the hope of dying--the hope of being annihilated. They are forever--forever--forever lost! On every chain in hell, there is written ‘forever.’ In the fires there, blaze out the words, ‘forever.’ Above their heads, they read, ‘forever.’ Their eyes are galled and their hearts are pained with the thought that it is ‘forever.’"
The Bible says our life on this earth is like a mist, a vapor, a shadow. It is like grass or flowers that wither quickly. Our life here is a brief prelude to eternity. The purpose of life is to get ready for eternity. The purpose of life is to go in the right direction. It is certainly not to go toward that awful dreadful place where the fire burns forever.
Now, someone will ask, Is not all this fire and eternal burning and darkness symbolic language? Of course it is. For example, in the Bible, fire represents God’s judgment. Revelation 19 pictures Jesus returning with fire in his eyes and a sword coming out of his mouth. That is not to be taken literally. It is a word picture telling us that Jesus is coming back to the earth in judgment.
Further, hell is a spiritual place. No physical bodies are in hell; hence, there is nothing to burn. What the Bible is doing is describing the most awful place in time and eternity in human language, and in human terms. Living in a cosmic garbage dump for all eternity is about the worst existence we can imagine. The point then is that hell is far worse.
Even though the language is symbolic, the language makes its point. We understand that Hell is not a place we want to be.
Separation from God
Above all, Hell is a place without God. Trivia question: Where is God? The usual answer is that God is everywhere. No, he is not. God is not in hell. 2 Thess. 1:9 says those in Hell “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,”
Understand that hell was not part of the original creation. God created everything good, because God is good. God created human beings for a divine relationship. But a real relationship is only possible when we make a choice to enter into it. God created us with the ability to choose God or reject God. But most people reject God. Where do they go? Where do those go who separate themselves from God? To Hell.
Pope John Paul II said, “The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.” The Pope then goes on to quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church which reads: "To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'" [http://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP2HEAVN.HTM. retrieved 01/28/05].
In this life, we are surrounded by God’s good presence. Even people who actively reject God right now benefit from his goodness and his presence among us. As Matthew 5:45 says, "He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." All of that ends in hell. We cannot even imagine what life would be like if God is removed, but that is how eternal life will be for those in hell.
We were created for connection with God. That was, and is, God’s purpose. The people who go to hell miss that purpose, which is the only reason for living at all. Jesus warned of this when he said,"Many will come from the east and the west, and will take their place at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" Matthew 8:11-12 (NIV).
Notice that fire is not mentioned in these verses. The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” represent the anguish of eternal regret at the missed opportunity to be united with God..
We sometimes hear the statement, “I don’t believe that a good God will send anyone to Hell.” The statement is correct but it misses the point. We never say, “How could a good judge sentence a criminal to prison for his crimes?” We do not say that because the judge is not responsible for the person being sentenced. The criminal is responsible for his own actions. Even so, God does not send anyone to hell.
2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord ... is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”
Why is it then that most people are going to hell? Because that is what they want. It seems incredible to believers, but it appears to be a basic truth that many people do not want to be in God’s presence. They want to go to Hell where they will not be bothered by God, and God lets them go. We were created in the image of God. A part of that image is free will. We make the choice. In the end, there are only two kinds of people. There are those who say to God, "Thy will be done", and those to whom God says, "Thy will be done". Thus going to hell is entirely voluntary.
When Calvin Coolidge was Vice-President, one of his duties was presiding over the Senate. One day a senator angrily told another senator to go “straight to hell.” The offended Senator complained to Coolidge, and Coolidge looked up from the book he had been reading and replied. “I’ve looked through the rule book. You don’t have to go” [Crossroads. Issue 7, p. 16]. That is a truth about Hell that we need to treasure. You do not have to go.
So the last question we ask is: Where is the fire escape? I mean that literally—the “fire” escape. Jesus is the fire escape. Jesus Christ is the way, not just to escape hell, but to enter into an everlasting relationship with God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
God does not warn us about hell to scare us into a relationship with God, but God does tell us the natural consequence of separation from our Creator. With that warning comes a way out. The way is trust in Jesus Christ. As I said in the beginning, ultimately there are two ways to go. One is hell. You do not want to go that way. The other way is heaven. Choose Jesus and go that way. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 5/17/05