Rescued from Eternal Misery
by Jack Wald | August 26th, 2018

Various texts

“War is hell.” William Tecumseh Sherman, a Union general in the American Civil War, is credited with this line and he knew first hand what he was talking about. He saw the death and destruction of thousands of young men and he himself created much of the destruction as he created a “scorched earth” policy, destroying industry, crops, livestock, and houses as he marched through the Southern state of Georgia.

But the difference between war and hell is that in war you can find human kindness. With all the brutality of WWII, there are stories of human kindness shown to prisoners who had recently been trying to kill their captors. Once the human connection was made, the enemy soldiers became human.

There is a famous WWI story about a truce that began on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium, for Christmas. They began by placing candles on trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols, most notably Stille Nacht (Silent Night). The British troops in the trenches across from them responded by singing English carols.

The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were calls for visits across the “No Man’s Land” where small gifts were exchanged — whisky, jam, cigars, chocolate, and the like. The soldiers exchanged gifts, sometimes addresses, and drank together. The artillery in the region fell silent that night. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently-fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Proper burials took place as soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects.

The truce spread to other areas of the line, and there are stories of football matches between the opposing forces. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, but in some areas, it continued until New Year’s Day.

The generals were furious and ordered the troops to begin shooting at each other again. In future years, bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to prevent any more spontaneous demonstrations of kindness.

But there will be no kindness in hell.

Last week I talked about heaven and this week our focus will be on hell.

Hell is not a popular doctrine. In 2008 the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported that 74% of Americans believe in heaven while only 59% believe in hell. I’d be very curious to see the results in a similar poll taken in other countries.

The fact that more people believe in heaven than in hell is not surprising. We like good news and tend to push away and repress bad news.

A few years ago at the annual Beeson Pastors School in Birmingham, Alabama, in the south of the US, two workshops were held to discuss “Whatever happened to hell?” The leader asked how many of the pastors had ever preached a sermon on hell. Nobody had.

One of the pastors agreed that pastors do shy away from the topic of everlasting damnation.

“It’s out of fear we’ll not appear relevant,” he said. “It’s pressure from the culture to not speak anything negative. I think we’ve begun to deny hell. There’s an assumption that everybody’s going to make it to heaven somehow.”

“Hell is a morally repugnant doctrine. People wonder why God would send people to eternal punishment.”

C.S. Lewis agreed that hell is a morally repugnant doctrine and said he detested it from the bottom of his heart. And unless we have a vindictive spirit, we do not like the doctrine of hell either. But truth is not determined by how much we like it.

Let me share four truths about hell. First, hell is a reality.

Why do we believe in hell? First of all, we believe in hell because this is what is taught in the Bible. This is not a doctrine derived from some obscure verse. Jesus, Peter and Paul affirmed in their teaching the existence of hell and repeatedly warned us of the dangers of going there. And, in fact, Jesus spoke more about hell than any other person in the New Testament. Hell was a very clear reality for Jesus. You can decide not to believe in hell but then you have to stand against the clear teaching of the Bible.

Secondly, God takes no pleasure or satisfaction in hell.

In discussions about hell, it is apparent to me that some Christians believe in hell because they want to see those who rejected Jesus be punished. “It will serve them right for rejecting what I shared with them.” But for God there is no satisfaction, no pleasure in the judgment that sends people to hell.

Ezekiel 18:30–32
30 “Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. 31 Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!

God delights in justice (this is, after all part of the character of God), but grieves over the people who suffer because of his justice.

C. S. Lewis said that hell is a morally repugnant doctrine. I think God shares his sentiments. God seeks life, not death.

Third, hell is the consequence of our choice.

If God does not take pleasure in the death of anyone, why doesn’t he simply forgive and allow everyone to come into heaven? This is what my father believed. This is what many people believe. They are uncomfortable with the thought that Jesus will judge us and simply want him to love us, overlook our sins, and allow us into his kingdom.

Let me explain the problem with this. If I want a fish to be my friend and live with me on land, the fish has to develop the capability of breathing the air I breathe. The gills of a fish are not able to do this and after a few short minutes in the air I breathe, the fish dies. What is necessary is for the fish to be transformed and be given lungs. No matter how much I love the fish, unless it develops lungs, it will die on land.

In the same way, unless I am transformed by Jesus, I will die in the air of heaven. It is not a question of God allowing me in or not. If I am to live in heaven, I need to be transformed by Jesus.

Hell is the consequence of my refusal to accept Jesus’ offer of spiritual transformation.

Fourth, this means hell was created by our free will. Let me explain.

When God created us and gave us free will, we had the choice of serving God or going off in whatever direction most pleased us and serving ourselves. When God gave us free will, the possibility of choosing not to obey God was created, and when we chose not to obey, evil came into the world. God did not create evil but in giving us free will the possibility of evil was created. Because God is just, evil cannot exist in his presence and so hell became a necessity.

God created a world for those who would follow him but then in an exercise of free will, some chose to go their own direction, away from God. Where could they go? How do you get away from God?

In Psalm 139 David wrote about the omnipresence of God. God is everywhere.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

Because God is everywhere present, in this life there is always the possibility, and the hope, that sinners will turn to Jesus and receive forgiveness and salvation. But what happens after we die our physical death?

God did not create hell to punish people; hell was created to accommodate those who choose not to follow God. Peter wrote in II Peter 3:9
He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
God does not want people to go to hell, he wants everyone to come into his kingdom.

If, in an exercise of free will, I choose not to follow God, then where do I go in eternity? To not follow God is to walk away from God’s presence and therefore hell becomes the place where God is not present. Hell is where God withdraws his presence and leaves people to suffer the consequences of their sin without the soothing, healing balm of his grace.

In Paul’s Romans letter, he began by talking about the self-centeredness and depravity of human behavior. (Romans 1:21–23)
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

God has made himself known in his creation and then, more specifically, in his Son. But our human nature, that looks first and foremost to ourselves, has a difficult time submitting to God. We prefer to rule ourselves than to be ruled. What is the result of rejecting the rule of God and preferring self-rule? (Romans 1:24–32)
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts.

28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.

God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts. God gave them over to shameful lusts. God gave them over to a depraved mind.

What is terrifying is that God’s wrath is not delivered as a thunderbolt from heaven or some other cataclysmic event, but simply by releasing man to do whatever he chooses to do. God simply lets go and says, “Do what you want.” When God gives us over to our own desires, he releases us and we go gleefully to our destruction. We destroy ourselves, our relationships and our world.

C.S. Lewis writes about this in The Problem of Pain.
“The damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; the doors of hell are locked on the inside. . . . They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved.”

What will hell be like?

As I mentioned, most of what the Bible says about heaven or hell is expressed in metaphors and similes. The streets of heaven are not really paved with gold and hell is not simply everlasting fire. And in my hope, I look forward to the delight of many seas, lakes, and rivers in heaven.

The Old Testament did not have an understanding of heaven or hell, there was simply Sheol, the place of the dead. It is in the New Testament that the understanding of heaven and hell came into view. Perhaps this is because with the coming of Jesus and his kingdom it was time to spell out more clearly what his kingdom would be like and when Jesus needed a picture to describe what hell was like, he picked the worst place he could think of, Gehenna.

Gehenna was a valley west and south of Jerusalem where the Canaanites worshiped Baal and the god Molech by sacrificing their children in a fire that burned continuously. King Josiah put an end to this worship and defiled the valley in order to make it unfit even for pagan worship.

In the time of Jesus the valley was used as the garbage dump for Jerusalem. All the filth and garbage of the city was thrown into it, including the bodies of dead animals and executed criminals. To consume all this, fires burned continuously. Maggots worked in this filth. When the wind blew from that direction over the city, its stench made everyone aware of its existence. At night wild dogs howled as they fought over the garbage.

When Jesus looked for a description of hell, he chose Gehenna. “Take a look at Gehenna,” he said, “and you will see what hell will be like.” All that is unfit for heaven will be thrown into hell. The worst imaginable fate would be to spend eternity in this burning, maggot-infested, garbage dump.

Over the ages theologians and church leaders have gone back and forth in their understanding of what hell will be like. Some have emphasized that it will be a place of great physical torment, constant pain with no hope of relief. Others have emphasized that hell will be a place where we will suffer great spiritual suffering with remorse and the consequences of separation from God.

Other Christians argue for the doctrine of annihilation, which states that those who choose not to follow Jesus will, at some point, cease to exist. God created from nothing and they will simply be uncreated. The impetus for this understanding comes from the nature of God to forgive. How could souls rest in eternal torment without the love of God reaching down and saving them? Those who choose not to come into heaven because of their refusal to surrender to the love of Jesus will mercifully be uncreated and denied the wonders and pleasures of heaven.

John Stott came out with support for this last option and F.F. Bruce declared himself to be an agnostic at this point. Once again, we simply do not know.

Let me engage in speculation and tell you what I think. I don’t think hell will be a place of primarily physical suffering. Because I do not think hell was created to punish, I do not think there will be beings who will torment those in hell. The pain experienced in hell will be pain inflicted by the residents of hell on each other as they become more and more consumed by their selfish desires and increasingly use and abuse others to feed their sense of self.

I like the idea expressed by C.S. Lewis in his book, The Great Divorce, that residents in hell can take a bus ride to the outskirts of heaven any time they choose to do so. God will, in his mercy, encourage as many as possible to choose to surrender their pride, their sin and follow him.

In this book Lewis writes of the artist who would prefer to stay in hell where he can display his paintings than come to heaven where there is no individual glory. He writes of the theologian who prefers to stay in hell than to come to heaven and admit his theology is wrong. He writes of the woman who prefers to stay in hell with her bitterness rather than forgive the one who wronged her. The people in hell are there because they refuse to submit to God. They are there by their own choice.

And then, perhaps, after a long, long time, however time will be measured in eternity, when there is no more hope of rescue and the residents of hell are stuck in the misery and suffering of hell, God, in his mercy, will bring a merciful annihilation.

But, as I said, this is just speculation.

What we do know is that hell, whatever it is, will be lived in the absence of God. So how bad would that be?

No matter how brutal the behavior in this world is, it is never pure evil because God is ever-present in this world. There is nowhere we can go to escape the presence of God and there is no evil we can experience where we will be apart from God’s presence.

So to imagine what misery hell would be, imagine a world without God’s presence.

In Galatians 5 Paul listed the fruit of the Spirit. As we grow in our relationship with Christ, these will be the fruit that will give evidence of our growth.
the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.

Hell will be life lived without the fruit of the Spirit.

Imagine living in a world where no one will love you, no one will care about you. When someone comes up to you and flatters you, you will know by experience that he or she is only saying what they say because they think they can get something from you or because they think they can use you for their own pleasure. There will be no one to whom you will be able to turn to receive genuine affection.

Imagine a world where there will be no spark of happiness, only gloom. Even when you get what you want by using someone, there will be no satisfaction. When you look around all you will see are detestable people who you think are pathetic, superficial idiots.

Ugliness will flirt and expect to be viewed as beautiful. Greed will ooze from the lips and expect to be able to fool you with false words of trust. All lusts will be naked and exposed, glaringly obvious to everyone even while those who are lusting will think they are being terribly clever and subtle in their pursuit of what they desire.

Imagine a world where no one extends any grace to you. When you make a mistake everyone pounces on you. When you are unable to perform some task you are ridiculed and belittled. You will never be affirmed for anything positive you think you do, even though your own motives for doing anything will be totally wrapped up in your self-absorbed preoccupation with yourself.

Imagine a world where in the midst of your sorrow and misery there is never a sympathetic look or touch. Imagine a world where there is absolutely no one you can trust. In every relationship you meet betrayal. Anything you share in a moment of weakness is used against you. You look to people who on earth were your friends but they use you for their own selfish purposes just as much as anyone else. And if you were able to look honestly at yourself, which you will not be able to do, you would see you are just as untrustworthy as those who had been your friends.

Imagine a world in which everyone’s passions are unrestrained. Anything anyone desires they work to get. Others will join together to force their way over you and take what you do not want to give. You too will make allies to protect yourself and then discover that your allies turn on you the moment they think they can get what they want from you.

You will seek to satisfy your own passions no matter how much it degrades you. Your battles will scar you and warp you until anyone seeing you on earth would shriek in horror, yet you will still view yourself as the best and most important person in the world.

Every society values most what is most rare and you will be ready to kill to get love and respect. But no matter how hard you try and how long you look you will not find love or respect. You will find only self-interest and self-absorption. As you slip through what passes for time you will sink deeper and deeper into depression and despair because of the unrelentingly cruel selfishness of others.

In your despair you will want to kill yourself but to your horror you will discover there is no escape, you will be unable even to kill yourself. You will suffer in hell but be unable to die. No one will care that you tried to kill yourself and failed, they will only mock you for being weak, ignoring the scars from their own attempts to kill themselves.

You will turn to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to momentarily escape from the horror of hell but will discover that in hell these do not provide any escape at all from your misery and only add to it. The most terrifying part of hell will be knowing that what happens next will be no better and probably worse than what has already happened.

Every moment of every day will an unrelenting horror.

That is a world without God; no kindness, no gentleness, no love, no peace, no joy, no self-control.

Apart from the hand of Jesus that reaches down to rescue us, this is our destination. This is the world we deserve.

Beware! Beware! Beware of slipping into the delusion that you are a respectable person deserving of God’s kingdom. On a relative scale you may be better than most but no matter how wonderfully moral and kind you are, you fall short of God’s standard of holiness and deserve his wrath.

This is how Paul began his discussion of Christian theology in Romans 1-3. The wicked deserve the wrath of God. Those who think they are better than the wicked deserve the wrath of God. The religious deserve the wrath of God. And then in Romans 3:9-12 he concludes:
Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. 10 As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11 there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”

We were God’s enemies. Let that sink in. We were God’s enemies and then when we had no hope (Romans 5:6-8)
at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Our salvation, our life, our hope is all based on what God did for us. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

We deserve hell but are saved from the torments of hell because of the marvelous work of Jesus on our behalf.

Think of how far God went in order to rescue us from the fate we deserve. Jesus left the rights and privileges that were his in the relationship of the Triune God. Jesus separated himself from his eternal relationships to come and be born as a man. Jesus willingly went to the cross to suffer and die on our behalf. Jesus battled the devil and defeated death by rising from the dead.

Why did God do this for us? Because he loves us. When he sees us he sees his precious sons and daughters who need to be rescued. Because we are so loved, so precious, God did everything possible to bring us into relationship with himself.

Jesus came into the world bringing the light of heaven and hope of eternal salvation but amazingly, despite all he did for us, the dominant reaction was to run away. (John 3:19-20 – The Message)
This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God.

Consider all that Jesus has done and will do for us and then consider that some people in an exercise of their free will walk away in indifference, pride or antagonism. Many people say “Why does God have to be so particular? I am not a bad person. I’m not perfect, but then no one is perfect. I figure at the end that if God is really a god of love he will let me in.” I talked about this already but because this thinking is so dominant in our world, let me come back to it again.

There are a number of problems with this kind of thinking. First, I have already mentioned Paul’s argument in the opening chapters of Romans. We all deserve the wrath of God. We do not at all deserve his love.

Secondly, it is not that God can make a choice. It is not that God has a rule book in front of him and when you come up he says, “You knucklehead, why did you give me so much trouble. You broke the rules but I kind of like you and what the heck, let’s throw away the rules and make an exception in your case.”

God’s character is love and justice. God is a god of love but he is also a god of justice. You cannot ask God not to love and you cannot ask God not to be just. He is love and he is justice.

To explain why God cannot simply allow everyone to come into his kingdom, I used the analogy of a fish needing lungs to survive in the air we breathe. Others express it this way, that when you come into the presence of God you will be consumed by the fire of his holiness. Only when you are protected by Jesus can you enter into his presence. It is not a matter of God choosing, it is a matter of you surviving.

Because God is just, sin must be paid for. There is not a choice for God to make. We must be made pure or we will perish in his presence.

Because God is love, he saw we were incapable of living according to his perfect law and did not want us to perish. So he sent Jesus to be the way for us to come and live safely in his presence.

We do not understand how much Jesus sacrificed for us. We cannot understand why Jesus would do this for us. We will never fully understand the wonder of this love Jesus has for us. But we are grateful.

C.S. Lewis spoke about hell in a chapter in The Problem of Pain and said:
In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

Hell is real. Whatever it is like, it will be worse than you are capable of imagining. Hell is the eternal destination you deserve. Hell is where you will be going for eternity – unless you reach out and grab on to Jesus who came to save you.

This is not religious language expressing some philosophy. This is not some scheme of the church to gain members. This is a lighthouse sending out a warning light. This is a foghorn blasting through the delusion of the world. Grab on to Jesus. Cling desperately to him. Hold on to Jesus who alone will be able to save you from eternal misery and bring you safely into his kingdom. Today, this morning, and for every day left to you on earth, reach out to Jesus, take his hand, submit to him, choose life.