Several years ago during a concert in New York City, David Bowie said, “I don’t know where I’m going from here but I promise it won’t be boring.” This week, after Bowie died, that quote started making its way around the Internet. Although it wasn’t a deathbed statement from Bowie, it resonated with a lot of people.
Who cares what happens when we die, just as long as it’s not boring.
It’s sad that so many people can relate to that.
Jesus had a lot to say about death. More specifically, he had a lot to say about hell. That goes against the picture that many popular authors and speakers give us of a hippy Jesus who lets everyone in in the end. When Jesus talked about hell, and he did it often, it serves us as a reminder that eternity matters and that hell is real. It also reminds us that we can’t remain faithful to the Bible and all that it teaches while at the same time getting invited to sit at the cool table in our culture’s cafeteria. We’ll need to pick one.
Despite how uncool such a thing is these days, Jesus speaks of a real hell where real people are punished for all eternity.
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'” Matthew 25:41 (ESV)
In order to make hell more culturally acceptable, some in the church have attempted to remove its flames and replace them with really hot light bulbs, so to speak. They do this by telling us that hell is only temporary. If anyone does actually go there, they aren’t there for long before burning up into nothingness.
The problem with that approach is the word eternal. It’s the same word used to describe heaven (Matthew 25:46). I have yet to encounter someone who believes that when people get to heaven, they stay there for just a second before disappearing into non-existence.
Hell is real. And it is eternal. It’s just as real and eternal as heaven. And if we are to take Jesus at his word, we’ll see that it is a place where no one wants to be.
“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.'” Luke 16:22-24 (ESV)
So much for hell being a big party hosted by the boys from AC/DC.
I grew up in a Baptist church and I am now a Baptist pastor. I’ve been hearing sermons on hell for my whole life. I’ve even preached my fair share. Baptists like to hear sermons on hell almost as much as they like eating fried chicken and driving a Buick.
I’m glad about that. Over my lifetime, there has been a desensitization to hell, even among church leaders. It has become a joke, a cuss word or the dirty little secret that we hope no one finds out about. So it’s good to see that people care about the whole Bible being preached. I’m happy to know that there are still Christians out there who believe the unpopular parts of the Bible.
But our belief must not show itself merely in the boxes we check or the denominations we choose to align ourselves with. If we really believe in hell and all of the torment that comes along with it, it will impact the way that we treat others.
If we believe that hell is real, we will not allow our fear to keep us from speaking the truth in a loving and understandable way the next time a family member starts talking about how everyone will be saved in the end.
If we believe that hell is real, we’ll answer the door with Bible in hand the next time the Jehovah’s Witnesses come knocking. And perhaps we’ll even follow them over to our neighbor’s house just to make sure that none of the bad theology sticks over there.
If we believe that hell is real, we’ll want to play a part in getting the gospel to as many people as possible. We won’t fall prey to the false dichotomy that says that you have to either preach the gospel here or overseas. We’ll want to see and be a part of both.
And if we believe that hell is real, our churches will stop looking like game shows, sessions of Congress or some political rally and they will start being places where Jesus is genuinely worshiped, preached, loved, glorified and followed. I can’t prove it but I’m quite sure that fights in the church have sent more people to hell than any drug ever has.
The sincerity of our belief in hell will show itself not only in the creeds we confess but in the message we proclaim.
So, do you believe in hell?