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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Hell — Is It Real?

By David W. Argue
July 18, 2010

Hell — Is it real?

“I hope not” is my first response.

My human nature wants the answer to be: “No, hell is not real. You have nothing to be anxious about.”

After all, I like happy endings.

“And so they all lived happily ever after,” was the final line in a lot of stories as I began this journey — and I would really like it to end that way.

It is comforting to think that everyone just “makes it” into heaven. We equate heaven with God’s love and benevolence; we too easily remove those qualities from His character when we contemplate hell.

And the whole concept of hell seems so susceptible to myth. Perhaps you’ve walked through a museum as I have and seen all those medieval portrayals of hell as a devil’s torture chamber full of monsters. Can’t we dismiss all of this stuff to wild imaginations in a quite primitive time?

I like to think a lot more about heaven anyway.

“Things above,” you know.

All the while, deep inside, a gnawing reality begins to stir.

Jesus’ teaching
In search for the answers, I reach for my Bible. The issue is too complex and important to rely on any other authority. As I begin to read the New Testament, I discover numerous references in Matthew to statements Christ himself made concerning this uncomfortable subject.

• “Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22, NIV).

• “It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (5:29).

• “Be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (10:28).

When I read Jesus’ extensive parables in Matthew 13:24-50 concerning humanity’s eternal destinations, several verses stand out.

• “Let them both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn” (13:30). (Gain some insight for this verse by also reading verse 39: “The enemy who sows them [the weeds] is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.”)

• “They [the angels] will throw them [those who cause sin and do evil] into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42).

• “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:49,50).

And the warnings continue throughout this opening Gospel.

• “If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown in the fire of hell” (18:9).

• “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (23:33).

• “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41).

• “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (25:46).

As I read the other Gospels, I note that Mark, Luke and John put less emphasis on this subject, but they join Matthew in speaking of “hell, where the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43); being “thrown into hell” (Mark 9:45,47); “weeping there, and gnashing of teeth” (Luke 13:28); “torment” and “agony” (Luke); “wrath” (Luke and John); and being “condemned” (Mark, Luke, John).

At times I am fighting back tears.

The Gospels speak together to assure us there is nothing mythical about hell. Jesus makes it clear that it is no medieval torture chamber subject to demonic whim. Rather, it is the ultimate judgment against evil, a judgment originally intended for “the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41) but certain to include all who would follow their ways.

In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote: “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it.”

Language filters
If we aren’t careful, the Gospels’ language describing hell can sometimes work to erode our feelings of certainty about it. For example, how can anyone be burned everlastingly and not expire or be reduced to ash?

What helps me greatly with this question and others is to keep in focus that there are two filters I must work through as I begin to understand hell: (1) the filter of language and culture in the first century, the setting of these documents, and (2) the frailty of our imaginations and language in this life to describe the new order of eternity.

In a sense, we are caught in the middle.

But we cannot lose sight of the Savior’s key warnings. There will be everlasting punishment for wickedness of every kind. Those condemned will respond in anguish and defiance. The eternal sentences of both the righteous and the wicked will signal God’s final justice (keep in mind, a justice that graciously forgives all who repent while there is still opportunity).

The place of eternal torment will exist as surely as the new heaven and new earth that Revelation 21:1-5 so beautifully describes. But, where God’s immediate and comforting presence is the hallmark of the new creation, hell will involve a complete separation from God and His Holy Spirit forever. I cannot begin to imagine how awful, how lonely, how emotionally cold and hopeless that will be.

Eternal destinations
One day, all of us will come to stand before Christ, the Judge of all, and respond to His cross-examination.

“We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:10,11).

From that place of justice, humanity will be separated and sent to two destinations — heaven for those who have accepted the atonement of Christ for their sins, and hell for those who have rejected that opportunity.

Believers in Christ who already “know what it is to fear the Lord” give their lives to “persuade men” to turn to Christ now, while this life is unfolding and before the eternal judgment commences.

Anyone can avoid hell by turning now to Jesus and asking Him to forgive their sins.

Jesus said, “Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40).

Why not take action right now? You can make that decision right where you are. Ask Jesus to save you from your sins, take you into His family, and open the door to heaven for you. Your destiny can be secure, and your life now can take on heavenly meaning.

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).

It’s God’s promise.

Now, it’s your move.

DAVID W. ARGUE is a former executive presbyter and an author, ministry coach and pastor-at-large living in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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