6 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, 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 into the fire of hell.
Nothing says “Happy Mother’s Day” better than a sermon on Eternal Conscious Punishment. That is what you might call a scheduling failure on my part. I knew that we wanted to wait until after Easter to start our sermon series on hell, and I didn’t want to wait too long because I wanted to be done by June when people start their family vacations and travels. What I failed to consider is that we would be looking at various passages of scripture about God sending people to hell for all of eternity on the day we celebrate the gift that is our mothers.
Before we get into our study for today, I want to teach you all an important theological word. Sometimes we look at Hebrew, other times at Greek, and occasionally a little Latin. The important word that I want to share with you all today is actually an English word and there is a very good chance that you already know this word. However, there is also a very good chance that you have not heard this word used too often in sermons or when people are doing theology. That word is “perhaps.”
Perhaps. How simple is that? To say “perhaps” is to simply state that there is a possibility for something. If I ask you if it will rain today, you might respond, “perhaps.” Or if I ask you if you think that your favorite team is going to win, to respond “perhaps” would be appropriate. You can’t say with 100% certainty that it is going to rain unless it is already raining. And your team might be better in every way than their opponent, but we also know that things happen. Pitchers hurt their shoulders, point guards get the flu, and goalies get flat tires on the way to the field.
To say “perhaps” is not to say how likely it is that something will happen. If it will “perhaps” rain, there might be a 1% chance, or a 99% chance of rain. The same thing is true of your team losing. For instance, my hometown Cleveland Cavaliers are playing the fourth game of their best-of-seven series against the Atlanta Hawks today. Will the Cavaliers lose? Perhaps, but the chances of that happening are quite small.
So when I use the word “perhaps” in theological discourse, it does not mean that I believe something is true or that this is how I interpret the Bible. But a good rule of thumb for some of our more challenging teachings in the Bible, especially one like hell where there are multiple views that are all found in our scriptures, is to simply approach these views with in a spirit of “perhaps.”
Is hell a place of eternal conscious punishment? Perhaps. Or is it only a temporary place where sins are purged or even a place where a post-mortem opportunity to repent is offered? Perhaps. Again, to say “perhaps” is not to say that I believe this to be true. It means that within my mind there is between a 1 and 99% chance of it being the case.
I definitely lean more toward one of the four or five interpretations of hell than the others. I don’t want to say which one I lean toward, though it will probably become obvious to you soon enough. Let me simply say at this point that I have really very little reason to believe in Purgatory, but there are some scriptures that can be interpreted as pointing toward Purgatory. Could there be a Purgatory? Perhaps, but I’m closer to a 1% than a 99% on the Purgatory scale.
Another warning before we look at our first view of hell today is that we need to be careful not to fall into the practice of prooftexting. Prooftexting is when you take a verse or two out of its original context because that verse fulfills a purpose in an argument that you are trying to make. You can make the Bible say just about anything you want if you don’t consider the context of the verses. For instance, one could argue that Jesus is not against cheating on your spouse based on the closing verses of the story of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus said that he found no fault in that woman, after all! But when you consider the body of all of the things that Jesus said, he is clearly for marital fidelity and even names adultery as an acceptable reason for divorce. Jesus says that if you look at another person with lust that you have committed adultery in your heart. So we can’t just look at one text and say that settles it. We consider the entire biblical narrative to come to some kind of decision. To say that Jesus isn’t against adultery is an extreme form of prooftexting.
Who prooftexts? Is it a liberal move or a conservative practice? Everyone prooftexts, so let the one who has not prootexted cast the first stone. Today we are looking at Eternal Conscious Punishment, and next week we will consider Purgatory, and Universal Salvation. Someone could say that Matthew 18:8 is clearly about the eternality of hell, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.” A Universalist might counter by quoting 1 John 4:8, “God is love.” So of course God isn’t going to send someone to hell for all eternity. That’s not love!
Yes, we must consider each of these verses when we are looking at the different versions of hell. But you can’t just read one verse and say, “stamp it, no erasies, God said it, I believe it, that’s all there is.” So today we will try to gain a more comprehensive understanding of Eternal Conscious Punishment and why it is has been the traditional view. And only after we better understand this subject will we offer a few critiques of this perspective.
The traditional view of hell in the Protestant tradition says that we were created by a perfect God, yet we are less than perfect. We are sinners and therefore we cannot be in the presence of a perfect God as imperfect people. We and God are like oil and water, we cannot mix. But there is good news! Through Jesus’s free gift, we can be made right with God and enter into eternity with God. Yet there are those who do not accept the gift of salvation through Jesus and will be separated from God for all of eternity. Those who are separated from God will be subjected to punishment.
We call this view the Eternal Conscious Punishment view of hell, and all three words in that title are important descriptors. To say that hell is eternal is to say that it will never end. Verse 8 from our text this morning speaks of the “eternal fire” of hell. The eternal fire is a theme that comes up a number of times through the New Testament, and often it comes from the mouth of Jesus. In Matthew 25 we read about Jesus separating the sheep from the goats, those who were faithful from those who were not. In verse 21 Jesus says, “Then [the king] 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.’”
The word “conscious” means that those who are in hell will not be asleep or unable to experience punishment. The traditional view of hell is described as “conscious” punishment to set it apart from an annihilationist view, which says that hell is eternal separation from God, but that a person’s experience of that punishment is limited. We will get to that in a few weeks.
I don’t think you really need me to explain to you what “punishment” means, but maybe why we believe that there is punishment in hell. Mark 9 is a parallel to our text from Matthew for this morning, but in Mark’s account Jesus quotes Isaiah 66. Mark 9:47b-48: “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”
The word that is translated here as hell is the Greek word Gehenna. Gehenna literally means “the Valley of Hinnom,” The Valley of Hinnom was located just outside of Jerusalem and it was a place known for practicing idolatry and making sacrifices to false gods. Jesus refers to Gehenna eleven times in our New Testament. In Mark 9, Jesus quotes Isaiah 66 where God’s enemies are killed in the Valley of Hinnom, and Isaiah says that the worms who eat the corpses of the people will not die and the fires will not be quenched. So what Jesus is doing is building upon an Old Testament story, taking this punishment that takes place in the next valley over and appling it to punishment after death.
These images of fire and the worm that consumes the flesh of the damned is a common theme throughout the texts about hell. Remember the story of Lazarus and the rich man? After these two men die, Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man to hell. And the rich man is tormented by the flames and he desires for Lazarus just to dip the tip of his finger in water and touch it to his tongue to offer some kind of relief.
The image of fire is clearly used as a warning of punishment. Yet, I want to offer just a bit of a caveat here. We need to be careful of taking some of these metaphors too literally. Yes, the Bible talks about punishment as flames that do not end and a worm that does not die. And I have no interest in denying that there will be punishment. But are these images literal?
Let us consider another metaphor that is used for hell, which is the “darkness.” Several times when Jesus speaks of hell he speaks of the darkness or outer darkness, such as Matthew 22:13, “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” At least three times Jesus refers to hell as “darkness.” The book of Jude picks up on this theme as well in chapter 13.
Imagine now that you are sitting in your home in the current day and we experience one of these storms that seem to pop up out of nowhere. It is about 9:00 pm, too early to go to bed, but it is starting to get dark. What do you do? You get out the candles, placing them around the room, and lighting them on fire.
Fire makes light.
So is hell a place of fire or a place of darkness? Perhaps.
I’m simply pointing out that the descriptions that we have of hell are metaphors. When Jesus speaks of Gehenna, he is referring to a specific place and event and referring to that as an example of the suffering that is to come. Just be careful of how literal we take this.
I hope that I have accurately captured the basic understanding of Eternal Conscious Punishment. So what are the criticism of the Eternal Conscious Punishment view of hell? There are a number of biblical arguments that can be made, but I’ll save those for when we look at the other views. For now, I’ll just say that when we read about the eternal flames of hell, it isn’t always clear what is eternal, the suffering or the flames themselves? Is hell eternal and the suffering of the people temporary?
The first point that I want to make is that the idea that God cannot be in the presence of sinful people because God is perfect and we are not is simply not biblical. Quick, someone quote me the chapter and verse! No, you can’t. For sure, we are told that God hates sin. But this dualistic idea that God cannot be in the presence of sin is not a Christian idea. It comes from Greek philosophy. This is from Plato, not the Bible. In fact, the Bible tells us just the opposite. God can be in the presence of sin and sinners. We call that the incarnation.
As Christians we believe that God came to this earth, this fallen earth filled with sinful people, and lived among us. And with whom did the perfect God/human, Jesus of Nazareth, spend his time? Tax collectors. Prostitutes. Sinners. Don’t tell me that God cannot be in the presence of sinners. My entire belief system relies on the opposite being true.
A second critique would be more of a philosophical response, which is to say that a loving God would never send most people that ever lived to hell for all of eternity to suffer. Of course, many Christians have responded by saying that God does not condemn people to hell, they choose to reject his gift of salvation. I think that is a pretty good response, at least in a culture that is predominantly Christian. But for me, the real issue comes down to those who have never heard the Gospel. If they have never heard the message of salvation through Jesus, then they didn’t reject the message. It was a failure of communication.
I remember asking this question when I was a child because it didn’t seem fair to me even at a young age. The answer that was given to me was that those who had never heard the Gospel would be dealt fewer stripes in hell, which is based on a translation of Luke 12.
My friends, there are currently close to 6 billion people on this planet. I have no idea how many people have ever lived. I don’t have a problem with someone telling me that if someone hears the message of the Gospel and rejects it that they will enter into some kind of punishment for that. But of the 6 billion people on the earth today and the billions upon billions of people who have ever lived, how many do you think have actually had the chance to reject the Gospel?
I’ve made it clear in previous sermons that I do not believe in predestination. I cannot believe in a God who predestines some for heaven and I definitely cannot believe in a God who predestines some for eternal suffering. And if God has placed people around this globe throughout the ages on remote islands and various continents, is that really so different from God predestining some for hell? Most of us are here today because we were born to Christian families in a predominantly Christian country. If you or I had been born in the year 100 AD in Africa, we would not have even had the chance to reject the Gospel, and that doesn’t seem to me like we would deserve eternal conscious punishment because of where and when we were born.
No, I don’t believe that everyone is going to heaven when they die. But I don’t think that the only biblical option is eternal conscious punishment. And at the end of the day, I am left with more questions than answers.
I started today by joking a bit about how odd it is to study eternal conscious punishment on Mother’s Day. Perhaps we can redeem that mistake yet today.
When we talk about heaven and hell, the discussion inevitably sets up these two poles of God’s love and God’s justice. We talk about some acts revealing God’s love while others reveal God’s justice. God created us out of love, died for us out of love, and saves us out of his love. But God punishes us out of his justice. We broke the rules and we must be punished accordingly. That is justice. When we set them up like this, I think we make love and justice to be opposites. It almost becomes like a hat that God can simply switch. Alright, now God is wearing his justice hat. Now he is wearing his loving hat. No, if we describe love and justice as opposites, we don’t have a good understanding of these terms.
Often throughout the Bible, especially the New Testament, God is described as a Father. A loving father, no less, who will search high and low for a lost sheep and run to meet a lost son. There are also mothering images used for God in the Bible. Between the parables of the lost sheep and the lost son, Jesus tells the story of the lost coin where God is described as a woman who lost one of her ten coins.
On Mother’s Day, we recall our mothers, hopefully for the good things that they did. I have no doubt that my mother loves me, and I never doubted that when I was growing up, even when I was being punished. And believe me, I did a few things that deserved punishment, even if mother didn’t find out about them all!
When my mother punished me, was she being loving or was she being just? Both. Yet when we think about the punishment that sinners receive from God, we only focus on the justice aspect of it. Our sins require punishment. Jesus took that punishment upon himself, and all you need to do is accept that. If you don’t the just thing to do is for you and me to be punished for our wrong doings. That’s how we usually think of punishment.
But what if punishment isn’t simply an act of justice on God’s part where we get what we deserve? What if punishment, what if hell is not simply an act of God’s justice, but an act of God who is both just and loving?
I believe in punishment. But I also believe that even while punishing us, God is still loving us. We will address that in the weeks to come.