. . . to be cast into the eternal fire. (Matthew 18:8)
One of the big questions today is this, 'Does God send people to hell? Why would a loving God do that?' How should you respond to such a question?
First of all, since the Bible is Godís inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word, it has all authority and must be read, studied, and obeyed. To refuse this is to live in disobedience to God. Jesus said that those who hear but refuse to obey his Word are like the man who builds his house on sand. The rains fell, the floods came, the winds blew and slammed against the house, and the house fell; and when it fell, great was the fall (Matt. 7:26-27). Though the Hebrew Scriptures speak of hell, calling it Sheol, Jesus in the New Testament is the one who most thoroughly develops the doctrine of hell. In the Sermon on the Mount he says, 'If your eye causes you to stumble, then pluck it out and throw it far from you, for it is better to enter into heaven with one eye, than to go into hell with your whole body.' The Greek word here (ballo) means to be cast, to be thrown. It is used countless times in the New Testament, including in Matthew 18:8. He tells us not to fear man for he can only kill the body. Rather we are to fear God who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matt. 10:28). He says hell is a place where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched (Mark 9:48). In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus he says hell is a place of conscious, endless, torment (Luke 16:9-31). The apostles speak of hell as well. Paul says all unbelievers will suffer torment away from the presence of God (2 Thess. 1:8-9). John calls it the lake of fire that burns with brimstone (Rev. 20:13-15).
So hell is a real place and people go there and suffer for eternity. But why do they go there? Isnít God gracious? Why does he send people to hell? God repeatedly gives people light to apprehend him through nature. Those who embrace the light are given more light. God will make it possible, somehow, some way, for these people to hear the good news of Jesus. Why then do people go to hell? Keep in mind the adage ó the punishment must fit the crime. If a poor woman in the hood1 ó abandoned by the father of her children, cannot find a job and cannot provide for her family ó holds up a convenience store clerk at gunpoint for money to buy food for her starving children, then surely we can be somewhat sympathetic toward her. Yes, she has broken the law and must be held accountable, but surely we can agree this is far different from a rich twenty-something in fashionable Avon, CT, who steals money from the same convenience store to support his drug habit. We understand the well-to-do young man from Avon is far more culpable than the poor mother from the hood. Likewise, to sin against another human being is a serious matter, but to sin against the pure, perfect, and holy God, the One who has given us so much, is the height of arrogance and culpability. We take God and his offer of eternal salvation lightly because we take our own sin and Godís holiness far too lightly. To continue in rejection of Godís mercy and grace in the gospel is the zenith of folly.
This leads to another question we often hear ó 'How can we Christians say that Jesus is the only way to God? What about all the other religions of the world? What about those who sincerely hold another faith?'
What people are asking in this question is ó isnít Christianity too narrow? We should be straightforward here and not hedge our words. Christianity is indeed narrow. Jesus says 'enter by the narrow gate for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction and many are those who find it. For the gate is narrow and the way is narrow that leads to life and few are those who find it' (Matt. 7:13-14). There are only two options here. Either Christianity is narrow and false or it is narrow and true. And in addressing this question of people sincerely holding other religions, we should realize there are three underlying and false assumptions people are making in this regard. One, they assume sincerity makes something true. But does it? I can be sincere about wanting to get to Danbury, CT, but if I get on I84 in West Hartford and travel east I will not get there. Two, oneís belief makes something true. But does it? I can believe that JFK was assassinated in 1958 in Denver but that does not make it true. And three, claiming exclusivity makes something wrong. But does it? Contrary to what so many say, all religions do not teach the same thing. In fact they are quite in opposition to one another. Islam, for example, says that while Jesus is a prophet he is not God, he did not die on the cross, and he was not raised from the dead. Christianity says that all of these things are true. So the issue really comes down to this ó is Christianity narrow and true or is it narrow and false?
Again we must consider the authoritative Holy Scriptures. I realize many reject this, saying that we are arguing our position in a circle, but there really is no other authority. All religious and philosophical writing, apart from the Scriptures and books written which support the Scriptures, are grounded on nothing but speculation, kind of like the U.S. dollar. No longer having the gold standard, our dollar is tied to nothing but a vague sense of confidence. People who hold any position contrary to Godís inspired Word are far worse off than that. So what do the Scriptures say concerning Jesus? Jesus made remarkable claims about himself ó saying among other things that he is God, that he would die and was to be raised from the dead, that he could forgive sins. Only three options are available. First, perhaps he was a liar, but if so, then people ought to quit calling him a moral teacher. Those close to him, however, even his enemies, said that he never sinned. So he could not have been a liar. Second, maybe he was crazy, like people in insane asylums. The problem with this view is we immediately realize one who 'doesnít have both oars in the water.' There is no indication that Jesus was in the least maladjusted or psycho. And third, he is the Lord of glory. If Jesus really is the Saviour of the world then all he says about himself and all his Word says about him must be obeyed. And this means we must believe on him and turn away from our sins to gain right standing with God. So how can we be sure Jesus is the Lord? The greatest evidence is his resurrection from the dead. The Hebrew Scriptures prophesied it. Jesus said it would happen, and all his apostles said they saw him numerous times after his resurrection. Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to over five hundred people at one time. He told the Corinthians, at the time of his epistle, that most of those who saw him after his resurrection were still living at the time. In other words, donít take Paulís word for it. Go ask those who saw him. If I am a prosecuting attorney wanting to put you away for some crime and I parade five hundred witnesses before the jury and judge, you are in big trouble. Christís resurrection proves that all he said is true. We, therefore, have no other option than to obey him, to believe in him.
And sometimes I am asked, 'What is the most important thing we need to know?'
I like to answer that question like this. I remember years ago reading an interview in Christianity Today magazine where the writer was interviewing the great Welsh preacher Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, just prior to Lloyd-Jonesí death from cancer. At the end of the interview Lloyd-Jones was asked if there was anything else he would like to say. To this Lloyd-Jones said, 'Yes, flee from the wrath of God which is to come and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.' I cannot say it any better. Our lives are but a vapour. We appear for a little while and then vanish away quickly. I am nearly sixty years old and I marvel, wondering, where did all the years go? I am astounded at how quickly a year now passes. None of us are long for this world. We may die tomorrow, and even if we live to be ninety, what is that in light of eternity! To put it another way, if one is not prepared to die, then one is not prepared to live; and you are not prepared to die, if you are not covered by the blood of Jesus Christ shed at Calvaryís cross. I say this with great reverence and awe. We all will stand before God and give account of every careless word, of every deed we have done in the flesh, whether good or bad. If we have not the righteousness of Jesus Christ covering us, if our sins have not been washed away by the blood of the Lamb, the Lord Jesus, then we are in a most dreadful condition. So what is the most important thing you need to know? You must know that while you are made in the image of God, and while you have dignity before God, you nonetheless have sinned against a perfect and holy God. He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. God cannot and will not 'wink' at your sin. He is not a benevolent grandfather who looks the other way at your sin. He must judge it. He judged it at Calvary, placing our sins upon his Son, hurling the full fury of his wrath at Jesus, who willingly took it and died. This is the glorious transaction the Bible calls the atonement. God put our sin on Jesus and gave us the righteousness of Jesus. But this does not come to all in a universal fashion. This reconciliation to the Father comes only as we see our sin, own up to it, acknowledging our guilt, and fleeing to Jesus for grace and mercy. So I say to you, turn from your sin, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. As you do so, you will see your life begin to change. Your values, actions, and words will increasingly be in conformity with Godís word. Find a gospel-preaching church, one that believes and honours the Bible, attend it, and join it. And pursue God by reading his word daily and seek him in prayer. You will find yourself growing in your faith and love for others. Then you will truly begin to live. There is nothing more glorious than to know and love Jesus and his people and world.
1. 'Hood' = a shortened form of 'neighbourhood', implying a ghetto or poor urban community.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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