Over Christmas 2015 at City Church Birmingham we invited those who visited our Carol services to take part in a poll to identify the three most important questions that we would like to ask God. On January 3rd, 10th and 17th each question is answered in turn. Here are my notes that provide a reasonably accurate transcript from the third talk.
Good morning. We are pleased to have you with us this morning for the last in our three week series ‘If I could ask God one question.’ If you missed either of our first two in the series ‘God, why don’t you make it more obvious’ and ‘God why did you create a world of misery’ then do listen on-line via our web site or download the City Church App (IPhone) (Android).
This morning we look at the question that more people wanted to hear an answer to than any other; ‘God, if you’re a loving God, why do you send people to hell?’ Almost a quarter of the 500 people who voted asked for an answer to this question. And no wonder. Hell is an emotive topic. We naturally find ourselves asking ‘what possible reason could a God of love have for punishing people in hell for all eternity?’ British Philosopher Bertrand Russell took issue with the person of Jesus at precisely this point when he wrote ‘There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.’ And I guess, if we are honest, hell is in some sense an idea that we would all wish away.
So is it really possible to ever get to a point where we could believe in and even love a God who sends people to hell? It’s my job this morning to demonstrate that we can trust God even if we cannot fully understand this matter. We may not find every answer to every question we could ask but I trust we can find enough reassurance to trust God with what we can’t know. So I want to start with the fact that
1. We long for a God of Justice
I’m sure we all know the song Imagine by John Lennon. Rolling Stone ranked it number three in their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time“. So iconic is it that its played every year just before the New Year’s Times Square Ball drops in New York City. It is an anthem for our times; I won’t try to sing it but I think we know the words;
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…
Maybe it seems obvious to you that the universe is a much better place without hell and you can see why. Yet, I’m not sure if when we really stop to think about it that we really believe John Lennon. I find an awful lot of evidence to suggest that we do not want to believe we live in a world where people do evil things and get away with it. Just on Friday I read the following on the BBC website ‘lawyers are now representing at least 20 men and one woman, including the 12 residents of children’s homes, who say they were abused by former MP Lord Janner.’ With Jimmy Saville no charges have ever been brought, many of those who perpetrated crimes against humanity from Nazi Germany to Rwanda, Bosnia to IS in Northern Iraq. We ask ourselves will justice be done and ever be seen to be done?
In his autobiographical book about death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes, effectively, says ‘no chance.’ As an atheist he writes: “It is difficult for us to contemplate, fixedly, the possibility, let alone the certainty, that life is a matter of cosmic hazard, its fundamental purpose mere self-perpetuation, that it unfolds in emptiness, that our planet will one day drift in frozen silence, and that the human species will completely disappear and not be missed, because there is nobody and nothing out there to miss us. That is what growing up means. And it is frightening prospect for a race that has for so long relied on its own invented gods for consolation.” If you look for justice, and if you ask for justice, then ultimately you are naïve and immature. ‘Grow up’ says Julian Barnes.
Breaking Bad is one of the greatest TV series of the last 10 years winning 16 Emmy awards. The creator and producer Vince Gilligan said in an interview in the New York Times back in 2011
‘I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. “I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.” ‘ There is in each one of us a cry for justice. Whether that arises from the cast iron penalty Aston Villa should have had yesterday against Leicester to justice for Stephen Lawrence.
And so we say it would be evil of God not to judge. What kind of God just stands by and allows wicked people to get away with it? If God does exist we do hope that he is a God of justice.
And there are so many places in the Bible where God’s people cry out for justice. We read in Psalm 82:2-4, 8.
“How long will you defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?
Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
for all the nations are your inheritance.’
So here is my first point, it is the fact that God is a God of justice that means he must judge and that is the loving thing for God to do. God’s is a God of love but a God of love has also to be a God of justice demonstrate that love. He defends the cause of the innocent and he will put right every wrong. In our passage (2 Thess.1:1-10) and v.6. we read these words, ‘God is just: he will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled and us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.’
For God to be good he must judge –and that is why judgement is always presented in the Bible as a good thing – because it shows that justice matters
It is because God is good, just and loving that there is a hell.
(I am indebted to a talk by Robin Whaley given at the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union for many of the good ideas that feature in this first point).
We might well accept that justice should catch up finally with Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin or mass murderers
2. But isn’t hell too extreme?
The thought that hell might be a place where ordinary people like you and me are punished and not just tyrants and dictators seems completely over the top.
Let me say two things in response to that fair concern
a) There are degrees of punishment
Because God is just not everyone will receive the same punishment
We read in Matthew 11:20-24
Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
b) God’s punishment fits the crime – it is proportionate
One thing we do have to grasp is what hell is the punishment for.
We might well think that the most serious sin is hurting another person, especially an innocent child or destroying the environment. And indeed God will hold us to account for all wrong actions.
But the sin that the Bible says condemns us is refusing to love the one person to whom we owe everything – that is God. Michael Ots has said ‘Sin is serious because it is ultimately not against people but against God himself.’ And sometimes it is not what we do but who we do it against that makes all the difference.
So, if I betray the confidence of a friend by telling others of her secrets then that is wrong but it’s unlikely to be a crime but if I betray my country by telling another country its secrets then that is treason -a very serious crime. A number of years ago during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Palace in Baghdad, Iraq, journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw his shoes at the United States President George W. Bush. “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!” yelled al-Zaidi in Arabic as he threw his shoes. President Bush ducked twice, avoiding being hit. I’m sure people throw shoes all the time in arguments but to throw your shoe at the leader of the free world as you call him a dog is quite a different thing. That is not an attack on an individual but an attack on everything he stands for as President.
The sin that sends to hell is to snub not a president but the God who made us and sustains us. It is to dishonour him and insult him.
We read again in 2 Thess. 1:8-9, ‘He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And in one sense the punishment fits the crime because hell is to exist without God for ever.
They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord.’
So, yes, hell is a punishment from God and the Bible says it is proportionate. I know that might be very difficult to understand and to accept. The natural response is to reject out-of-hand such unpallitable truths. But listen to the advice of Francis Chan, from his book Erasing Hell ‘Don’t believe something just because you want to, and don’t embrace an idea just because you’ve always believed it. Believe what is biblical. Test all your assumptions against the words God gave us in the Bible.’ And so therefore let me say a few things that I hope might help us further as we wrestle with this difficult idea.
3. Does God send people to hell?
In some sense I want to take issue with the question ‘if you are a God of love why do you send people to hell’ by asking are we right to say that it is God who sends people to hell?
It is true that hell is a punishment from God but it is also the natural consequence of rejecting God. Hell is separation from God and all the good things he’s made – so if in our lives we are making it clear that we want nothing to do with him and want him out of our lives – then hell is getting everything we’ve wanted all our lives and getting it forever.
CS Lewis writes in the Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” In some sense hell is a place for people who would rather live without God but then find that when we die we don’t end and our self-absorbed, self-centred life, our life without God goes on and on forever.
4. God takes no delight in hell
God is just, hell is real but please remember that God does not desire that any should perish in this way. It’s a common enough view to think of hell as some kind of medieval torture chamber in which God takes some kind of sadistic pleasure in punishing people but really that could not be further from the truth. That simply isn’t the Bible’s view.
Throughout the Bible we meet a God who is patient with people wanting people to turn to him. We read in Ezekiel 33:11 ‘Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’
I really don’t think it is too much to say that God hates hell and he hates people going there. And that is why he delays his judgement.
2 Peter 3:9 says ‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ If you are someone who is thinking right now I’m really not sure where I might spend eternity, then let me say this – there is still time for you. The one who talked more about hell than any other is Jesus Christ himself. And yet the wonderful news of the gospel is that. ..
5. Christ came to save people from hell
When Jesus came into our world he didn’t come just to us against hell – he came to rescue us from hell itself. That is the difference between what we might call religion in general and Christianity in particular.
The world over religion is like a leaflet printed by life-guards to warn you of danger. Christianity is like the life-guard who runs into the surf to rescue you. Jesus said that his whole purpose in coming into our world was to seek and save the lost and he saw his death as the very means by which he would do so.
We read in Mark’s gospel Mark 15:33-34,
‘At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).‘ And then in v.37-38, ‘With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.’
The cloud of darkness represented God’s judgement, the cry of Jesus on the cross was his experience of God-forsakenness and the curtain torn in two the moment Jesus died is the visible sign that Jesus death makes it possible for us to be reconciled to God.
Whatever I do not understand about hell I do understand this – the one who spoke of hell more than any other, was willing to go through hell on the cross that you and I might not have to.
The choice we have is whether we want to pay for our sin ourselves or turn to Jesus and accept that he has suffered hell for us that we might not have to.
This morning we’ve asked God a question and we’ve considered something of the answer that the Bible gives. It might not be the answer we were hoping for, but what we learn is that God is a God who isn’t always easy to understand, and whose ways are far beyond us; a God whose thoughts are much higher than our thoughts. Do you have a problem with hell? Good. Can I urge you not to let those problems push you away from God. For it is true that Jesus had a problem with hell. He preached about hell, he warned about hell with tears in his eyes, he suffered and died to keep you out of hell.
Let me say two things as we close.
a) When it comes to hell, we can’t afford to be wrong.
Antony Flew many years before he ever became a believer in God wrote in his book God and Philosophy ‘If there is a chance at all that we are in danger of some unending misery, then knowledge which might show us how this is to be avoided must become overwhelmingly important.
b) When it comes to hell, we can’t afford to delay
Scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal said ‘Between heaven and hell is only this life, which is the most fragile thing in the world.’
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