Monday, September 06, 2010


This is a clip from ER. It addresses the question of what you tell a dying person. When they are apparently going to a Christless eternity, should you just smother them with platitudes?

The chaplain is the classic fake Christian you’d expect to find in most theologically liberal churches today. I have twice been rebuffed when I shared my faith with dying patients. One complained to the surgeon who had referred her to me that she wanted a cure rather than Christian mumbo-jumbo. Alas neither was available to her. The other considered what I had said, but thought that as he had lived his life with no regard to God it would be dishonest to change now.

However, even evangelical Christians are reluctant to spell out to the dying that they are heading for Hell. I think the reason is that we hardly believe in Hell ourselves.

The modern take on Hell is that it is intolerable to think that a God of love would inflict eternal punishment on anyone no matter how terrible their crime. Like the Israelis God is being accused of a disproportionate response.

There are three views on Hell that are probably erroneous. First: Universalism; the idea that everyone will be saved eventually, though this might involve a spell in purgatory. Hell will therefore be empty (some people allow that Hitler and Joseph Stalin will be there).

Second: Anihilationism; the idea that those who die outside of Christ will eventually be annihilated, ceasing to exist. There are some Biblical arguments for this position: Philippians 3:19 - Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. 1 Thessalonians 5:3 - While people are saying, "Peace and safety," destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 - They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power. 2 Peter 3:7 - By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

Not only that the image of fire suggests that they are completely consumed. Furthermore, the idea of eternal punishment for finite sinfulness seems to many to be unjust.

Third: the idea that Hell is the self exclusion of a person from the presence of God. CS Lewis put it this way: "The doors of Hell are locked on the inside." and "There are two kinds of people: Those who say to God, 'Thy will be done.' and those to whom God says, 'Thy will be done.'

This view describes Hell as complete separation from God. Thus in Matthew 7:23 God will say to sinners, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!" But there are problems with this position also. Hebrews 10:31 tells us that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of living God, and 12:29 tells us that our God is a consuming fire. The fires of Hell have been prepared by God (Matthew 25:41) while Revelation 14:9-10 tells us 'A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: "If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb."

This biblical picture does not seem to square well with the idea that Hell is simply 'self-exclusion from God'.

What is the Biblical position on Hell? The gospels refer to a real place. Jesus (who speaks about Hell more than anyone else) talks about being thrown into gehenna, or the valley of Hinnon. This was a smoldering rubbish dump outside the walls of Jerusalem where former generations had sacrificed their children to the Ammonite god, Molech. From readings in the Apocrypha we know that it had recognized as a place of devilment and heart-wrenching grief and had come to symbolize the place of everlasting punishment. Jesus uses gehenna as a metaphor for Hell. He describes a place that sinners are thrown into. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus it is called a place of torment. Elsewhere he calls it a remote place - outer darkness. In Acts 1:25 we are told that Judas Iscariot went to 'his own place'.

Popular mythology thinks of Hell as the Devil's kingdom. In Bournemouth there are beautiful gardens stretching alongside the Bourne stream, from which the town takes its name. The Upper and Middle Gardens are beautiful with camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, exotic trees and shrubs and wonderful flowerbeds. The Lower Gardens are there for the tourists with a bandstand, crazy golf, a balloon ride, songbirds in cages, waterfalls and the Pavilion dance hall and theatre. Many people today can't abide the idea of heaven (which they see as sitting on a cloud in a nightdress plucking at a lyre) and would prefer the Devil's domain, the Lower Pleasure Gardens, where wine women and song are the order of the day, with slot machines and poker thrown in.

This is the Devil's lie. Hell is not like Las Vegas - though I think Las Vegas would be like Hell for me. It is not the Devil's domain. Like everywhere else in the Universe it is under God's sovereign rule. When in Matthew 10:28 Jesus says, "Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Hell." he is not talking about Satan but about God. Do you remember in the popular film Ghost the villains were pictured as being sucked below the ground by some evil black slime? That is not how it works. The film is to be commended for showing that wicked people go to Hell, but their theology is all wrong. Likewise the various versions of the Faustian legend. It is God who throws people into Hell.

Lest we get carried a way by the metaphor of 'outer darkness' and see Hell as just remoteness from God (as some think CS Lewis is saying in The Great Divorce) we should also remember that it is a place of 'wailing and gnashing of teeth'. Hell is a place of pain and suffering. Plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand or foot would be preferable to going there. The fire there is unquenchable. The picture is of worms burrowing into the body. It is hard to imagine worms surviving fire, so we are allowed to think of these descriptions as symbolic, in the same way as we regard the pictures in the book of Revelation. But they are symbolic of unimaginable pain and anguish. You would not want to go there.

Hell is clearly linked to punishment. Modern prison reformers are apt to say that the punishment of prison is to be deprived of one's liberty. Older generations did not think so. Hard labor was part of the punishment, not color television and conjugal visits. In Matthew 25:46 Jesus tells us that unbelievers go away to eternal punishment. St Paul writes to the Thessalonians (2 Thess 1:6-10) "God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you...those who do not know God...will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction".

The picture of Hell as 'separation from God' has some validity. The Thessalonians text continues "away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might." and Matthew 7:23 has the Lord telling the wicked to "Depart from me." It is not the whole story to say the wicked exclude themselves from God. God also excludes himself from them.

Anyone who has unsaved relatives must shudder at the thought of God casting out from his presence people that we love to endure not just a lifetime, but an eternity of suffering. Perhaps because of this John Stott has espoused an anihilationist position. It is not a state that one would which on one's worst enemy, let alone on a parent or a child.

It should make us all the more urgent in our evangelism since the escape from Hell is quite easy this side of death. All we need to do is recognize our need of a savior and put our trust in him. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

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