shall not perish
Dear Friends in Christ,
I think most of you here today know that I don’t have the best hearing in the world. For over 40 years now I’ve had to battle that problem because of what my audiologist calls nerve deadness in my ears. Do you have any idea what caused those nerves in my ears to become permanently incapacitated? It’s not a condition I was born with. It wasn’t due to an injury of some sort. Rather, it was due to loud noise, loud noise that I allowed to enter my ear canals when I was in my teenage years and thought it was really cool to listen to rock music with my headphones on and my stereo turned up all the way. That rather unwise choice on my part led me to have a condition that I know some of you are very familiar with because you have it too. It’s called tinnitus which can manifest itself in a variety of ways. For example, it can sound like a loud buzzing in your ear or like a bunch of crickets or locusts or as is the case with me, it sounds like a loud high-pitched ringing that never goes away. And that ringing, along with the nerve deadness, makes it very difficult for me to hear especially high frequency sounds, like that of a female’s voice. Which is why some years ago I finally bit the bullet and decided to try hearing aids. Interestingly, not only have those tiny devices improved my hearing dramatically, they also somehow greatly diminish the continual ringing in my ears.
And while my lack of hearing is involuntary, for many people in our world today it is voluntary, especially when it comes to hearing what God has to say to them. He speaks to us in so many ways, through the kindness of a grandmother, through the sternness of a father, through the beauty of nature. Through an illness he tells us that life doesn’t always go according to plan. Through a funeral he reminds us that our days are numbered. God is definitely a God who speaks to his children. And through his Word, and by that I mean his written Word that we have in the form of the Bible and his living Word that we have in his Son Jesus Christ, he not only speaks to us, but he extends a most wonderful invitation to us to come to him and enjoy eternity in his presence.
Sadly, however, there always have been and there always will be people who do not listen to or respond to that invitation. I don’t know if it’s because they have no interest in it or they don’t feel a need for it or they feel like they’ve got better or more important things to do. But they spend their lives in essence telling God to leave them alone. And at their final breath, he does. In Matt. 25 Jesus says to those on his left: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” That passage escorts us into the most somber and sobering of Christian doctrines, hell. Jesus alludes to hell in the passage we’ve been studying for much of this year, John 3:16, when he uses the term “perish.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Perish. We don’t like that word, do we? And I sincerely doubt that any of you would have complained if I had skipped this part of John 3:16 and gone straight to the part on eternal life because we don’t like to talk about hell and we don’t like to think about hell. And some people’s way of coping with hell quite frankly is to casualize it or trivialize it. They’ll use it to describe their golf game: “That was a helluva round I played today.” Or they’ll use it to describe a dinner they’ve just eaten: “That was a helluva meal you prepared there, Sweetheart!” They laugh about hell. They tell jokes about it. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say, “Well, at least if I go to hell I’ll have plenty of company because all my friends will be there too!” Some choose to simply ignore hell, even in the church. Martin Marty is a church historian at the University of Chicago and he scoured 100 years of scholarly theological journals looking for one entry on the topic of hell and he didn’t find it. “Hell,” he wrote, “disappeared and no one noticed.”
It’s easy to see why because hell is a horrible and hideous topic. And anyone who can casualize it or trivialize it or joke about it has not studied it. New Testament writers use phrases like “blackest darkness,” “eternal fire,” “weeping and gnashing of teeth” to describe hell. Let me tell you, my friends, a glimpse into the pit of hell will definitely not brighten your day. But it will enlighten your understanding of Jesus and what he did for you. Interestingly, he talked about hell more often than any other person in the New Testament. In fact, 13% of his teaching refers to judgment in hell. Two out of every three of his parables refer to end times, resurrection, and eternal judgment. He was never cruel when he talked about hell, but he was candid and he was concerned. So that’s what we want to be today as we study this eternal dwelling place of those who die without believing in Jesus as their Savior.
We begin then with hell’s location. By that I mean hell is an actual place. Or to put it another way, hell is real. Jesus, for example, urges us to fear God who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. When the rich man died in the story that served as our Gospel reading before, he found himself in hell, where Jesus says he experienced unbearable agony, unimaginable torment, and unquenchable thirst. It’s a sobering thought to think that God would quarantine a section of his universe as a depository for stubborn, resistant, and rebellious hearts.
Now I suspect some of you are wondering, where exactly is hell? Well, Jesus doesn’t give us any specifics as to its precise location, but he does give us a rather chilling one-word clue in Matt. 22:13. He says it’s “outside.” “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Outside of what? Outside of heaven for one thing. Outside of the boundaries of God’s kingdom. Outside of God’s presence and his good graces. And make no mistake about it, my friends. Once a person is outside, there is no way to get back inside. Once a person is in hell, there is no way to get out. There is no escape hatch. There is no back door.
Which leads into our next point and that is hell’s duration. Hell’s location is actual and its duration is eternal. Oh that hell’s punishment would cease. We could almost stomach the reality of hell if we knew there would be an end to it. And while there are some denominations and Bible scholars who believe in a total annihilation of the wicked at the final judgment, I really don’t believe the Bible teaches that. For example, Rev. 14:11 says: “The smoke of their torment rises forever and ever, and they will have no relief day or night.” In Matt. 25:46 where Jesus summarizes the final fate of the believers and the unbelievers, he uses the same adjective to describe those contrasting destinies. He says: “Then they (the unrighteous) will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” So hell will last as long as heaven, which means that hell will last forever.
But there’s more. We move from hell’s location and duration to hell’s separation. This to me is the worst part of hell because the separation I’m talking about here is separation from God. Imagine that. No more of heaven’s kindnesses. No more divine mercies. Hell is a blessing-less world. Now you and I have never seen a blessing-less world. In fact, no one on this earth has ever seen a blessing-less world. Even the most vile and evil of human beings still experience blessings from the hand of God, don’t they? Like Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, God causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust. Adolph Hitler could look out his window and enjoy the beauty of the Alps. Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden knew wealth and luxury that none of us will ever know. Hard-hearted God haters still enjoy the overflow of God’s goodness. The child molester, the serial rapist, the mass murderer can still hear the sweet laughter of a child or smell the pleasing aroma of a steak cooking on the grill.
We need to be quick to point out, however, that all those gifts and blessings are confiscated at the door of hell, never to be enjoyed again, because God, who is the source and giver of all those blessings, will have no part and no place in hell. His presence will be completely and I dare say noticeably absent from hell. So those who are there will have no more access to him, no more blessings from him, no more chances to be saved by him.
You know what God’s absence from hell also means? It means there will be no corrective voice in hell, no ultimate lawgiver and lawmaker. Instead there will be only lawbreakers. Now I realize that a lot of people in our world today do not pay any heed to the corrective voice of God that comes in the form of conscience or his written law. But many people do. So can you imagine a world where nobody heeds that corrective voice? Can you imagine the chaos that would exist in a place where there is no moral restraint? Can you imagine having to live forever with the worst of humanity – the murderers, the rapists, the pimps and prostitutes, the drug dealers and drug addicts? Sometimes people picture hell as one big party, but I hope you can see this morning that that is one huge mistake and one huge misconception. There will be no happiness in hell, no fun, no joy, no peace, no hope. Like one writer has put it: “Not only will the unbeliever be in hell, hell will be in the unbeliever.”
That takes us to another aspect of hell that we need to consider. And that is hell’s justification. How can we justify hell? The answer is fairness. Please remember that hell is the repository for rebellious, resistant, and unrepentant insurrectionists. It is reserved not for those who seek God and stumble at times as most of us do, but for those who turn away from God and rebel. Those who are in hell have spent their lives saying to Jesus what the crowd on Good Friday said of Jesus to Pontius Pilate. They said: “We don’t want this man as our king.” Though God tells us in Ezek. 33:11 that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but rather desires that they turn from their ways and live; and though he has done everything possible and everything necessary to keep people out of hell; when people stubbornly refuse his efforts to save them, he grants them their request. Please understand, my friends, God never sends anyone to hell. Rather, people send themselves to hell. As Max Lucado puts it in his book And the Angels Were Silent: “Hell is the chosen place of the person who loves self more than God, who loves sin more than his Savior, who loves this world more than God’s world. Judgment is that moment when God looks at the rebellious and says, ‘Your choice will be honored.’”
So we’ve looked at hell’s location, its duration, its separation, and its justification. That leaves us with only one more point to make and that is what I’m calling in my sermon theme hell’s supreme surprise. And that is that Jesus went there so we won’t have to. When Jesus hung on the cross, Isaiah 53:6 tells us that his Father laid on him the iniquity, this sin, of us all. At that moment, the One who was perfect became imperfect. The One who was holy became unholy. The One who was sinless became not a sinner, but sin itself. And God poured out on him the punishment that we deserved for our sins. And that punishment was hell. Remember the separation from God that we talked about earlier in this sermon? Well, that’s exactly what Jesus experienced on the cross, so much so that right before he died he lifted his eyes to the heavens and searched for some sign of his Father. Seeing none, he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Understand, my friends, that Jesus went through hell for you so that he would never have to go to heaven without you.
So please receive that good news by faith today. Don’t let another day pass by without you embracing Jesus as your Savior. Because without him, this earth is the closest you will ever get to heaven. But with him, this earth is the closest you will ever come to hell. Amen.