FIRE AND BRIMSTONE?
May 1, 1998 Issue
by Brett Hickey
A little over six months ago, an older "gentleman" responded to our ad in the local paper publicizing a debate on the Lord's Supper. He asked whether we used the common cup or individual cups. When I told him we used the common cup as the Lord's example provided and the Lord's command demanded, he made it clear that he could never worship with our group. He was too health conscious to even consider drinking after other people. I told him that basically, as members of the church of Christ, we were more fearful about displeasing God who can destroy both soul and body in hell, than we were about anybody or anything that could only hurt our body. He was incensed. He fired back, "The God that I know and read about would never want man to fear him. God is a God of love." I asked if it would be helpful if I gave him some scriptures that plainly taught that God requires reverential fear of His people, he suddenly noticed that his time had run out. This man and all who try to eliminate fear and punishment from the Bible, have the same problem. They have never read it carefully. As Jesus told the religious upper crust of His day, "Ye do err not knowing the scriptures..." It is amazing that in a survey of the Old and New Testaments, there are scores of scriptures where the fear of the Lord is demanded of God's people. Meanwhile, in our world of religious compromise, more and more so-called "Christian clergy" are inching toward the "Jehovah's Witness" claim that hell amounts to nothing more than the complete annihilation of all that is abhorrent to God. "Fire and brimstone" sermons are judged old-fashioned, pessimistic and inappropriate in today's sophisticated churches. Dignified, respectable services make everyone comfortable, and therefore happy to attend (and contribute). As with all other denominational departures from God's word, this can be contagious. This is why this subject elicits our immediate attention.
THE RICH MAN
We find, in Lk. 16:19-31, a good place to start unraveling the false claim that there is no place of conscious, unending punishment. Here Jesus relays the somber story of the Rich man who finds himself in a place of intolerable torment. Different people understand this passage differently. Some argue that this story pictures conscious torment after the judgment or after death, but before the final judgment. There is some merit to each of these positions. There is no justification, however, in considering this passage and taking the wholly irreconcilable position that there is no place of cognizant, prolonged punishment after death. We can be certain that this story is not abstract nonsense! Jesus did not waste time telling fanciful fairy tales. Equally important, we know that "God is not the author of confusion" (I Cor. 14:33). Pay particular attention to Lk. 16:24, in which the rich man cries out, "I am tormented in this flame." The Greek word for tormented used here means "tortured." What absolutely, positively, must be understood from this passage is that there is a place, at some point after death, where there is a state of misery and hopelessness. There is no other way to harmonize passages like Mk. 9:43-48, Mt. 25:31-46 and Rev. 20:10-15.
A CONSISTENT MESSAGE
Mark warns five times, in as many verses, about the unquenchable fires of hell. If being thrown into this fire means merely instant incineration, why mention its incessant nature. Taken this way, Jesus' words would be meaningless. In this same passage, He warns repeatedly that this hell (gehenna) is a place "where their worm dieth not" - not the warm, but their worm. This everlasting, pest control problem is just one more graphic indication of enduring discomfort,
John the Revelator adds that those cast into the "lake of fire and brimstone... shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever." If this image does not suggest a place of unending suffering for those who "know not God and obey not the gospel," what words would? This passage also demonstrates the reality of an end worse than death and hades. For at the end they both will be cast into the lake of fire.
Another powerful argument can be made from Matt. 25:31-46. Jesus here previews the great separation of sheep and goats on Judgment Day. There are only two possibilities: "everlasting punishment" or "life eternal." There is no "Door Number 3" as some have conveniently imagined for the ignorant and more moderate sinners. The words "everlasting" and "eternal" used here come from the same Greek word for unending. Meditate for just a moment on how long eternal life will be. Now you also know how long everlasting punishment will be.
IS GOOD TOO LOVING TO HATE SIN?
Why are some people comforted when they tell themselves that "God is too loving to send anyone to hell?" One reason can be explained in one of two ways: either they elevate themselves to God's level or drag Him down to their own level. In other words, they assume that God reasons just as they do. The prophet Isaiah exploded this myth in Is. 55:8-9: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."
Another major source of confusion is underestimating God's hatred for sin. The prophet puts it bluntly in Is. 59:2:
"Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear." We are taught of God to "Abhor that which is evil," but that is not always easy, even for Christians. If we could develop the same hate for all sin that God has we would not be as subject to temptation as we are. The truth is, we hate the sins that others commit and we are ignorant or somewhat tolerant of our own sins. So it is with sin in general, since we are all guilty of sin (Rom. 3:23), we cannot always appreciate the level of disgust that God has for it. Hence, the phenomenal power of the phrase, "Everybody's doing it." When everyone is committing a particular sin, it begins to look less sinister.
THE PROBLEM WITH HUMAN WISDOM
Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthian Christians, "For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent." The danger in relying on our own wisdom and understanding is obvious. Numerous scriptures examples bear this out.
Would we be surprised to learn that Adam and Eve reasoned like men and women today? Could they not have said to themselves: "Surely God loves us too much to kick us out of the garden. He would never demand physical labor of us. He would never make us endure death, pain and sorrow. No, not our God!"
Would human reasoning lead us to predict Jesus' forfeiture of heaven to pay the debt for sin? The bitter scene at Golgotha burns away the fog of human speculation and unveils God's true hate for sin. Isaiah again rescues us from
tortured hour after hour on Calvary's cross, is it inconceivable that He would punish a wicked, hardened, rebellious creation that rejected His great sacrifice?
THE HELL OF GEHENNA
What kind of place is Jesus talking about when He personally admonishes us about gehenna? According to Thayer, this hell, addressed eleven times by Jesus, is derived from ...a valley SE of Jerusalem, which was so called from the cries of the little children who were thrown into the fiery arms of Moloch. The Jews so abhorred the place after these horrible sacrifices had been abolished by King Josiah (2 Kgs. 23:10), that they cast into it not only all manner of refuse, by King Josiah (2 Kgs. 23:10), that they cast into it not only all manner of refuse, but even the dead bodies of animals and of unburied criminals who had been executed." But when Jesus issues these warnings about hell, He is not notifying us that all the wicked will be thrown into a burning pile of garbage Southeast of Jerusalem. Jesus cautions us in Lk. 12:5, "Fear him which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell..." So, God's power is not limited to the giving and taking of life. He uses this familiar image to suggest a place that would make that burning dump look like an oasis. He is referring to a place prepared for the "devil and his angels"; a place of intense heat and utter darkness (Mt. 25:30); a place without peace or rest (Rev. 14:11); a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt. 13:50).
To defend their "gospel" of a hell-less eternity, some Bible students scurry out of the New Testament hoping to find a foothold in the Old. There is no such haven. In Lev. 10:1-2 the priests Nadab and Abihu are devoured by fire for their unauthorized acts of worship. Korah and his company rebelled against Moses' authority in Num. 16 and met a similar fate. Ahazi ah's troops were also consumed by fire for obeying the evil king's orders in 2 Kgs. 1:9-16. Looking back to such Old Testament events, Paul says in Heb. 10:27-29 that those who despise Christ are worthy of a much worse punishment. Squeezing in the doctrine of complete annihilation of light of these truths, would be insulting even to human reasoning.
JUST PREACHER SCARE TACTICS?
Is the preacher who preaches hell-fire and brimstone just trying to scare you? No, he is just being faithful to his commission. As a preacher, he must be able to say to himself when he goes to bed at night: "I have kept back nothing that was profitable... I have not shunned to declare the whole counsel of God?" (Acts 20) "That is his duty. So, while he may not be trying to alarm you, but the Lord is. They must get our attention and for most of us His love alone is not enough-at least not at first. In 2 Pet. 3:7-12, the apostle uses the impending threat of judgment to encourage his brethren to "holy conversation and godliness."
Those who teach that there is no place of torment are encouraging people to be, like the foolish virgins of Matt. 25, unprepared. Some of the most stirring words in scripture are found in that text that reads "the door was shut". No amount of pounding or pleading would open that door. There was no earthly reign to give the slothful another opportunity. Ignorance earned no one any special favors or consideration (Acts 17:30; 2Th. 1:8).
THE GOOD NEWS!
Some have expressed the concern that there may only be room in heaven for 144,000 people. This confusion comes from placing a literal "interpretation" on symbols from a highly figurative book. This assumption places Jesus in an unfavorable light. When He was able to create a world that support billions of human lives, why would He be limited to a heaven that only had room for a litle more than 100,000? This would make us question the validity of Peter's oft repeated statement of Acts 10:34-35: "God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him." The "good news" is, we can be saved from the "lake of fire" where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth" in "outer darkness." After the Judgment, we need not be concerned about a "no vacancy" sign at heaven's gate. Jesus assured us that in His "Father's house are many mansions" (In. 14:1-3), yet only "few" will be saved (Mt. 7:13-14). Comfort one another with these words.
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