Hellfire and Brimstone

I was asked an interesting question this past week. Prior to officiating a baseball game, I was asked by a fellow umpire if I was “one of those hellfire and brimstone preachers”.  I did not know exactly how to answer without leaving the wrong impression. I simply told him that I often preached about hell, and I also preached about heaven. He responded as I anticipated. He said he did not think much good was accomplished by trying to motivate others through scare tactics or guilt feelings. He was more in favor of what he termed as “affirming” speech.  To that I  simply responded that Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone else in the Bible, and I tried to preach like Him.

There is a disdain for preaching that seeks to motivate moral behavior through a reference to hell

  • An article in the U.S. News and World Report a few years ago was devoted to the subject of hell. One interesting statement in the article said, “By most accounts hell has all but disappeared from the pulpit rhetoric of mainline Protestantism” (U.S. News and World Report, March, 25, 1991, p. 56).  Martin Marty, University of Chicago professor, said, “Hell has disappeared and no one noticed…if people really believed in hell, they would not be watching T.V. preachers, they would be out rescuing the lost.”
  • According to Reverend Avery Dulles, theology professor at Fordham University in New York, the emphasis is on the mercy and love of God.  ‘Hell is there and ready to receive anyone who meets the conditions for falling into it, but it’s quite possible that no one will really go there” (U.S. News p. 60).
    • Listen to the words of Jesus Himself in Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” I want you to know that this preacher is still concerned about doing good to avoid hell. I believe you should be, too.

I.  Recognizing the Reality of Hell: Despite the inclination to reject the reality of Hell, there are few Bible doctrines that are more clearly expressed in the scriptures. As we mentioned it was often referenced by Jesus Himself. How does the Bible describe Hell?

A.  A Place of Eternal Punishment: Mark 9:43-44 43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched — 44 where ‘Their worm does not die And the fire is not quenched.’ Notice that Hell is described as a place of fire that is never quenched. The part fo this that most folks easily dismiss is the part about never being quenched.  Is Jesus describing a place of everlasting, never ending torment?

1.  Consider Jesus depiction of the final judgment in Matt 25:44-46 44 “Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

a.  The words everlasting and eternal are the same Greek word – aionios (ahee-o’-nee-os); meaning perpetual. If the reward of life is never ending, then so also must be the punishment of Hell.

b.  This same word that is used to describe the eternal nature of the punishment of Hell in several places in the Bible, is the same word that is used to describe God, the Father, (Rom. 16:26)  and the Holy Spirit (Heb. 9:14) No one argues an alternative meaning in these verses.

2.  In a further explanation of this everlasting punishment, Jesus also describes hell as a place of darkness and isolation from God.

a. Matt. 22:13 – “Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

  • Outer darkness Barnes says this is descriptive of the dungeon or prisons that were constructed to house rebellious slaves. Dark hole in the ground.  Adam Clarke and others say the image is of the darkness found outside(outer) of the house (which is well lit for the feast). Cold and without any comfort.
  • Weeping, gnashing of teeth– the term for weeping here indicates extreme wailing; gnashing of teeth indicates “a vivid representation of the misery of disappointed expectations;” (ISBE) – a situation of constant regret & misery.

3.  Although Hell is depicted as a dark place, it also described as a place of fire.        Matthew 13:41-42 –  41 The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness,  42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth

a. This seeming contradiction (physical fire gives off light) indicates that this terminology is not literal, but symbolic of things not familiar to us here. “Fire” represents pain, “darkness” represents isolation and sorrow. We should not allow the symbolic nature of the language to lead us to conclude that Hell is not so bad. The reality is always greater than the symbol used to represent it. (If heaven is better; Hell is worse).

b.  This “fire” does not consume, it continues to burn. 

II.  Is Hell Contrary to the Nature of God? Many reject these clear Bible passages on the existence of Hell because they cannot reconcile the loving and forgiving nature of God with a place of eternal punishment. Is there a contradiction?  There is no contradiction. In fact, the nature of God, as the Bible teaches, demands the existence of Hell.

A.  God is just, and justice requires the punishment of sin. The apostle Paul wrote the following:    2 Thess 1:6-9Since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, 7 and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, 8 in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” .  Paul indicates that it is a righteous (just) thing for God to take vengeance on those who do not obey Him with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.

1.  The concept that most clearly explains and defines the existence of Hell is the holiness of God.The holiness of God requires the removal of sin – permanently.  “God is light and in Him is not darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). God cannot ignore or tolerate rebellion against His will. If God is sovereign and all powerful, then sin must be banished from Him. That is what Hell is all about. It is “eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord”. It is darkness without any light at all. It is the absence of all of God’s blessings.

2.  Hell is to punish sin. But does the punishment fit the crime? Many would say no. They propose that eternal banishment is too harsh for a loving God. Any judgment by us that concludes Hell is too severe, presupposes that we fully understand the nature and tragedy of sin. The only one who can rightfully judge if the punishment fits the crime is the one who fully understands the crime. God alone can thus judge. In fact ,Jesus’ perfect human life qualified Him to judge us without reservation.  God clearly states that the wages of sin are eternal death (separation from God).

III.   Who is going to Hell? Most people refuse to believe that none but the worst of criminals would go there. But Jesus also taught that most people will travel the road to eternal punishment. The gate is wide and there are many that go thereby. (Matt 7:13)

A.  Matthew 25:41 says that hell has been “prepared for the devil and his angels”.

B. Revelation 21:8 says the “cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” will be there.

C.  As we noted in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 those who do not know God and those who will not obey the gospel of Christ will be punished with everlasting destruction.

  • In short, all sinners who choose to remain in their sin will be found in hell.

D.  Many will be surprised to find themselves there. In Luke 16 Jesus told a story about two very different men: a rich man who had it made here on earth & a beggar who suffered everyday (the dogs came and licked his sores). They both died. They were as different in death as they were in life. The rich man was in the greatest torment, and Lazarus, the beggar was in total comfort and provision.  Jesus’ story tells us much about the very different eternal destinies of men.

1.   Luke 16:22-2322″… The rich man also died and was buried. “And being in torments in Hades… In this passage the words “torment” and “agony” both appear twice and once the word “flame.” This is the general description of Hell. His condition is apparent from the dialogue that ensues. (you knew I was going to preach a lesson with Abraham in it1)

a.  The rich man, who needed no one or nothing in this life, was in desperate need there. He could not do anything to make it better.   Vs. 24Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame. Later his thoughts ran to those of his own household who might possibly come to that place. He begs Abraham to send the beggar to warn them.  Vs. 27-28 “Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father’s house–for I have five brothers– that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.

b.  But the answer to both his requests was the same. There was no remedy on that side of the gulf. He could not even help those who were still alive.

2.  Abraham’s answers depict the reality of this eternal separation. There are a few lessons here for us:

a.  Comfort in this life is not a guarantee of comfort in the next.  Verse 25 says, During your life you received your good things… [now] you are in agony.” God had already extended goodness to him,  but he did nothing with it. The key words there are “during your life.” “During your life” is all the time you get. Now is the time to prepare by properly using the blessing God is sending.  Don’t interpret God’s goodness toward you today as an indicator that everything is all right. Paul wrote in Romans 2:4, “…do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”

b.  There is no remedy for one in Hades or Hell. Abraham’s response to the rich man’s request is in vs. 26, there is a great chasm fixed…that none may cross over from there to us.” Someone has pointed out that in the beginning of the story, the two men are separated by a gate, by the end of the story they are separated by a gulf! You can step through a gate. You cannot step across a gulf. The point is, there was nothing anyone could do – even if they had wanted to.

c. The warning has been issued. The only thing that can be done has been done. Even for those who have not passed over the gulf, the only thing that will be done has been done already. When the rich requested that Abraham be sent to his brothers, he was told, “They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them. He should have listened to the Old Testament Scriptures. That was the only hope for his relatives, too. Today we must listen to what God is saying in the N.T. If you are concerned about your children, or brothers & sisters, tell them about what God has already said. But get busy today. There is coming a time when it will be too late.

Conclusion:  I hope you do not think less of me for attempting to motivate you through hellfire and brimstone preaching. As it is with every word that Jesus every spoke about the subject, it was done in love and concern for your eternal soul.

  • Robert Ingersoll, a famous lawyer and atheist in the latter part of the nineteenth century, once delivered a blistering lecture on hell. He called hell the “scarecrow of religion” and told his audience how unscientific it was, and how all intelligent people had decided there was no such place. A drunk in the audience came up to him afterward and said, “Bob, I liked your lecture; I liked what you said about hell. But, Bob, I want you to be sure about it, because I’m depending upon you.”  Who are you depending on in this matter? I will put my trust in the words of Jesus. On this side of death, you can obtain ten thousand gallons of the water of God’s mercy whenever you need it. On the other side, if you die outside of Christ, there will be none – not even one drop.
  • As dark as the image of Hell is in the scriptures, the glory of the gospel is that no one has to go there. God’s desire is that everyone would be saved. The evidence of that is Calvary. Jesus won an enormous victory for us there. He conquered the power of Satan, and paid the ransom for every person.
  • Will you obey God today? In Romans 2 Paul warned that those who impenitent and refused to obey God were storing up wrath for themselves in the day of wrath and the righteous judgment of God. (2:5) But Paul goes on to tell them that when they were baptized into Christ they were baptized into His death, and they become free from sin. They were resurrected with Christ to a new life.