Sunday, May 31, 2009

Do We Need To Believe In Hell? (Sermon on Luke 16: 19-31)

Mention hell today in the street, and you may well be laughed at. For most people, hell is imagined as the topic of a cartoon, where a camp devil complete with pitchfork makes things unpleasant for really bad people. Gary Larson is the guy behind The Far Side comics which appear daily in newspapers, and hell is a regular feature of the strip. One cartoon has a man sitting in hell, with a cup of obviously bad coffee - he says ‘Well, they really do think of everything here.’

If hell isn’t imagined in the comic realms, then others seek to bring it into the current age - not a future place of punishment, but as a particularly trying situation of daily life - so for example, Archbishop Tutu described Zimbabwe as ‘a hell on earth’ just this week. Or Bryan McFadden (out of Westlife) said of his ex-wife Kerry Katona ‘Me and my family have been put through hell by her stupid games.’

Hell is either now here, or else nowhere. So why is it that Christians continue to affirm their belief in hell? Why do we need to believe in hell - and what is it like? Firstly, let’s be clear what we mean by hell. When I speak of hell, I’m talking about eternal, conscious punishment of sin outside of the presence and joy of the Lord.

Let me say from the start that we don’t pick and choose the bits that we like or don’t like from the faith, but rather, just like the resurrection, or the Trinity, we believe what the Bible declares, because this is what God tells us in his word. The Bible isn’t an encyclopedia, where we can just turn up the chapter on hell (under the letter H) and find out everything about it. Rather, we take the scriptures as a whole to learn what God reveals about death and beyond.

On the existence of hell, there can be no doubt. Daniel 12:2 says that ‘many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.’ There are two final destinations - life or contempt, heaven or hell. This is affirmed and repeated by the Lord Jesus, at the end of the parable of the sheep and the goats, ‘And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ (Matthew 25:46)

There will be a judgement, and there are consequences to our actions in this life. These are the things stated plainly by Jesus time and again, with the two destinations declared. We find this in our reading tonight. We’re introduced to two men, with two different situations on earth, and two different destinies.

One man has everything now, and the other has nothing. There’s the rich man in his palace, and the poor man sitting begging at his gate. The rich man was wealthy, and also thought of himself as religious. He dressed in all the latest designer fashions, and had a feast every day. As he was chauffeured in and out through his gates, he always saw Lazarus sitting begging, but never did anything to help.

Lazarus, on the other hand, had a miserable existence. Covered with sores, hunger made worse by the smells of the tasty food on the rich man’s table. His only company were the dogs who came and licked his sores.

At death, there is the complete reversal of their condition, and while Lazarus is carried by the angels to Abraham’s side, the rich man ends up in Hades.

Hades is the realm of the dead, in Greek thinking, and here we see that it is a place of torment for those who have rejected God. What makes it even worse for the man is that he can see afar off the poor beggar, who’s sitting beside Abraham in comfort and rest.

When we read of that torment here - the flame, the heat, the thirst, and in other places where Jesus speaks of ‘the unquenchable fire’ (Mark 10:43), ‘outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matthew 25:30), some write these off as merely symbolic - not really describing what it is actually like. But as one commentator says, ‘Let nobody say: it is only symbolical and therefore not so terrible. By mere inversion one could say: if the symbol, the mere picture, is already awe-inspiring, how horrible must the original (the actual) be!’

The rich man cries out to Abraham, asking that he send Lazarus with even a drop of cooling water for his tongue. Ironic, isn’t it, that the one who had everything he ever needed, and ignored the needs of one who lived right in front of his gates is now the one who is in desperate need himself!

The rich man had always been the one who called the shots, whether in business or family, and even now, he seeks to control the lives of others, trying to boss Lazarus around. But Abraham says it is futile - the judgement is just, and the punishment is final - there are no transfers from heaven to hell, or hell to heaven after death. It’s a bit like the ‘transfer window’ in football these days - there are only certain periods of time for people to move from Manchester United to Chelsea, say - and once the deadline comes, then they have to stay where they are. But as well as there being no transfers, the judgement is just: the man has already received his good things, he had ‘heaven on earth’ and squandered it.

Abraham says that ‘you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish.’ It would be easy for some to read that as an isolated statement and conclude that rich people go to hell, and poor people go to heaven. But it’s not as simple as that. We have to read this in its context, and it seems that this story is told against the Pharisees, who were both religious and rich. They thought that you could go to church on Sundays and be religious, but then live the rest of your life in a separate category, pursuing riches and not caring for others.

Look back to Luke 16:14. ‘The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.’

The rich man was clearly religious - he knew Abraham, and even called him Father - something a good Jew would do, being descended from Abraham. But more than that, when he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers about the wrath to come, Abraham refuses, because his brothers have all they need to avoid ending up in Hades. “They have Moses and the Prophets.” That is to say, they have the Old Testament Scriptures. By shutting off this as a possible excuse for ending up in hell, Abraham exposes the folly of the rich man himself, condemning him also for failing to listen to Moses and the Prophets.

The rich man is not in Hades / hell because he is rich. It is because he selfishly used his riches for himself while ignoring the needs of those around him - prime example being poor Lazarus, who sat at his gate.

Similarly, Lazarus does not end up in paradise simply because he is poor. It is because he trusted in God, even through his terrible circumstances. Did you notice that while the rich man isn’t named, Lazarus is - what’s the significance of that? Well, Lazarus means ‘God has helped.’ Despite his poverty, God has helped him, and Lazarus responds in faith.

As the rich man makes clear in his last plea, hell is a place that can be avoided, through repentance, by turning away from the habitual life of sin and greed, and turning towards God. But he seeks it for his brothers through a supernatural sign, rather than through them reading God’s word and repenting. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus to them to call them to repent. Look at what Abraham says in reply - ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.

Remember what Paul wrote to the Corinthians? ‘Jews demand signs and Gentiles seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.’ (1 Cor 1:22-23). Here’s the demand for another sign, which even then wouldn’t lead to faith. What Jesus says here in the parable is born out when he himself rose from the dead - the Pharisees didn’t repent and believe, but opposed the disciples all the more.

Why do we need to believe in hell? We need to believe in hell because it is as much a reality as heaven. We need to believe in hell because it satisfies the inbuilt sense of justice each of us have. We need to believe in hell because it is no joking matter. We need to believe in hell because millions of people are on the broad road to destruction. We need to believe in hell because not all will be saved. We need to believe in hell because there are no second chances after death. We need to believe in hell because Jesus speaks of it more often than anyone else in the Scriptures. We need to believe in hell so as to warn people that they are heading for a lost eternity. We need to believe in hell so that people don’t waste their life on unimportant things.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Halls, Dundonald on Sunday evening 31st May 2009.

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