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Why believing in hell matters!

February 22, 2016

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I am sure the title of this blog will now mean I will get very few views. It is amazing that on a Sunday I can preach about any topic under the sun, but even I feel a bit guilty, ashamed about having to preach about hell. Our culture has made it a no go topic. For those outside church it justifies their reasons to stay out, they don’t want to be condemned or feel bad. And for those inside church we think it gives God bad PR and so we try and cover up any reference to it. However preaching through the book of Romans I came across Romans 11:22 which tells us to ‘Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God’ Therefore I want to consider the reasons scripture does speak about God’s sternness, wrath and hell! And ultimately I blog not to get lots of views but as a filing system for me to remember what I believe is important and I am likely to forget! So for a fuller treatment on this topic do a search for Tim Keller’s – The importance of hell, which I adapted to fit the context of Romans 11.

Paul raises the importance of considering God’s severity in the context that it will drive us to run towards God’s kindness and keep us trusting and believing in God’s kindness. As Christians we are not presumptuous, arrogant or judgemental – we assert that everyone, all individuals, all groups whether well meaning, religious or not (and definitely including ourselves) are all deserving God’s severity but that it is God’s kindness (mercy, grace, love & acceptance) that welcomes all who come to him. This is what Christians call the good news or gospel.

And so we consider the severity of God (and yes even preach on it) for the following reasons.

  1. It is in the bible. Our passage Romans 11 tells us to consider it. Romans 2 tells us to expect it. Jesus describes it. He likens the final form of it to be hell which he describes with imagery of a fire that never goes out but never totally destroys, also like the worst place he knows – gehenna, where rubbish is placed and burnt, and even corpses who have no connections, relatives in this world. We also see God’s wrath shown in the Old Testament against those whose sin has reached the need for judgement (see Genesis 15:16).
  2. It allows Grace to shine. In Romans 9 Paul has already argued that God ‘has the right to show his anger’ but ‘he is very patient’. v 23 ‘He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter’. In other words God’s grace, love and mercy can only be appreciated fully in the light of God’s justice and that we are all under his judgement of justice. As I preached on this I showed a youtube clip of Rachel Riley on ITV’s ‘It’s not rocket science’ where she flew down a zip wire through a ball of fire at 1000’s degree centigrade but she was unharmed as she was covered with water! The power of the water could only be amazed at in the context of the severity of the fire. Likewise we can only marvel at God’s mercy and grace when seen in the context of his justice.
  3. It unveils a life without God. The question that arises is ‘What is hell?’. Scripture uses metaphors but teaches that hell is the absence of God. It is a place where the sustaining and supporting power of God is not present. The words of judgement at the end of Jesus’ parables sum it up ‘depart from me’! Our passage in Romans 11 describes being cut off from the life, love and joy of God by not believing that life, love and joy come from him. The closest places to hell in our world are where we see the least of God – his love, righteousness & beauty. Hell is a consequence of rejecting God, as I think Romans 2 suggests. It is God loving us so much that he take’s  our rejection of him seriously and moves out of the neighbourhood. (An idea from Karl Barth). It is the decision to be our own god and worship ourselves – as C.S Lewis wrote ‘Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.

Or as Tim Keller writes:

The image of ‘gehenna’ and ‘maggots’ means decomposition. Once a body is dead it loses its beauty and strength and coherence, it begins to break into its constituent parts, to stink and to disintegrate. So what is a ‘totaled’ human soul? It does not cease to exist, but rather becomes completely incapable of all the things a human soul is for–reasoning, feeling, choosing, giving or receiving love or joy. Why? Because the human soul was built for worshipping and enjoying the true God, and all truly human life flows from that. In this world, all of humanity, even those who have turned away from God, still are supported by ‘kindly providences’ or ‘common grace’ (Acts 14:16-17; Psalm 104:10-30; James 1:17) keeping us still capable of wisdom, love, joy, and goodness. But when we lose God’s supportive presence all together, the result is hell.

Hell then is simply the consequence of running away from and not towards God’s kindness.

4. Finally considering the severity of God demonstrates the love and need of Jesus’ suffering. Paul, in Romans 9, has told us how he wished he was cursed and cut off from God to save some of his fellow Jews. His separation and suffering could not achieve this but God being cut off from God and being cursed could. This is our salvation that God stood in our place – when Jesus was cursed by dying on the cross, when he cried ‘I am thirsty’ and ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me’ he was bearing hell for us? The separation within God, of Jesus from Father & Spirit was the cost of our salvation, of us being spared hell, and if we do not consider that we do not begin to understand the need and the cost of Jesus’ death on the cross and the amazing love and kindness of God that did that for you – so the challenge of considering the severity of God is to be blown away by the magnitude of his love and grace and come running into the arms of God held out for us and receive his blessing. The arrogant, proud and judgmental are the ones who turn their back on this love and should not be surprised that in his love God may take our rejection of him seriously! &

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