Faithlife Sermons

The Problem with Hell

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  1. Rob Bell recently released a book which has created a storm of controversy pertaining to hell and the outcome of people we call "lost."
    • Called "Love Wins," Bell has been accused of being a universalist and of not believing in "hell."
    • Bell says that he only wants to take a fresh look at what the hell texts say in order to determine if they say what we've said they do.
  2. Hell has been a contentious subject, and some say they cannot believe in a God who would invent such a thing. Timothy Keller made the subject of hell a chapter in his book, The Reason for God, and in his 6 lesson companion DVD a group of people who don't believe in God talk with him about how the doctrine of hell creates problems for them.
  3. In this sermon we will take a look at this subject. We won't answer all the questions, however, perhaps we can shed some important light on the subject.

I. The Arrogance of Humankind:

  1. In Robert Bellah's now famous work, The Habits of the Heart, 1985, he noted that 80% of Americans agree with the statement, "an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any church or synagogue."
    • Bellah said that the most fundamental belief in American culture is that moral truth is relative to individual consciousness.
    • In his book, The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis pointed out that in ancient times it was believed that there was a transcendent moral order outside the self which was built into the fabric of the universe.
      • Furthermore, it was believed that if you violated that moral order, there were attendant consequences that would occur. For example, putting your hand in fire would result in a burn.
      • The path to wisdom was in living in conformity to the moral order. To do so would result in developing virtues such as humility, compassion, courage, discretion, and loyalty.
  2. Of course, 80% of us believe that we have the right and responsibility to determine our own way.
    • Ultimate reality is seen not as supernatural (God) but as natural.
    • The ancients looked at an anxious person and prescribed spiritual character change. Modernity talks about stress-management techniques.
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis' friend, warned about modernity in The Lord of the Rings because of the evil consequences of seeing for power and control rather than wisdom and enjoyment of God's gifts to us.
  4. Neither Lewis, Bellah, Keller, nor Tolkien would be surprised with modern sensibilities which say, I am perfectly able to find my own way, thank you. Nor with the offense we feel when we face a God who is disappointed when we go our own way and angered when we do things that hurt others.
  5. These ideas are at the heart of or struggle with hell.

II. Reconciling Judgment and Love:

  1. In the Bible we face a God who is both loving and stern.
    • He treats his children with great affection and showers blessings on them even when they don't deserve it.
    • But He can also be a good of great, righteous anger who can blow up the world he created or turn his back when His people need him the most.
  2. Some people, erroneously, say that the two ideas are irreconcilable. Love and wrath.
  3. Is it really? Or maybe would it be unloving to have no wrath?
  4. Becky Pippert writes this. Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it....Anger isn't the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference....God's wrath is...his settled opposition to the cancer...which is eating ot the insides of the human racce he loves with his whole being.
  5. Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf, a Croatian who has seen violence in the Balkans writes, If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end to violence--that God would not be worthy of worship. Volf goes on to say that belief that everything is going to be set right in the end actually gives us the power to refrain from vengeance in this life.
  6. Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz wrote in an essay, The Descreet Charms of Nihilism, that Marx called religion the "opiate of the people," but Milosz said, A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death--that huge solace of thinking that our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders are not going to be judged...[but] all religions recognize that our deeds are imperishable.
  7. In the case of Communism and Nazism we see that brutality is the outcome of societies that are free to shape life and morals without regard for a transcendent value system.

III. What about Hell?

  1. We must understand that life as it is now is not what God intended. Genesis 1-3 describe the life that God intended for us.
  2. Adam and Eve made a decision to live on the basis of their own "wisdom." This caused a separation from the presence of God and the blessings that accord with that. WIth that separation came disappointment, pain, failure, darkness, and evil. Humankind got a taste of what hell is like in that separation.
  3. There are some questions I cannot answer about hell. We don't have enough information. Questions about hell include its duration, its location, its nature. I think that the language of the Bible is meant to send the message that hell is a poor CHOICE, given the opportunity of living with God forever.
  4. First the words for hell. There are three.
    • Hades Sheol in the OT (59 occurrences). In the NT, Hádēs occurs only 10 times. In all the NT passages except Matt. 11:23; Luke 10:15,
      • Hades is associated with death. It expresses the general concept of the invisible world or abode into which the spirits of men are ushered immediately after death.
      • The prevalent idea connected with it in its association with death are those of privation, detention, and just recompense.
      • In none of the passages in which the word itself occurs have we any disclosures or even hints of purgatorial fires, purifying processes, or extended operations of grace.
    • Gehenna is a reference to the Valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem. It is a place of awful images.
      • This valley lay to the south and southwest of Jerusalem. It was a place of idolatrous and human sacrifices.
      • It is also referred to as a place of punishment for rebellious or apostate Jews in the presence of the righteous. Gehenna was always conceived of as a place of both corporeal and spiritual punishment, not only for the Jews, but for all the wicked in the presence of the righteous.
      • In the NT Gehenna is presented always as the final place of punishment into which the wicked are cast after the last judgment. Because fire is often used as an apocalyptic symbol of judgment (especially eschatological judgment) it is difficult to insist that the flames are material. Nevertheless, such a symbol clearly represents a real and painful judgment.
    • Tartarus is only mentioned by Peter. It is the subterranean abyss of Greek mythology where demigods were punished. It is part of the realm of death designated in Scripture as Sheōl (7585) in the OT and Hádēs (86) in the NT.
  5. There are three streams of thought about Hell.
    • One is that it is a literal place where the disobedient will be punished painfully forever.
    • Another view says it is not eternal punishment. In his book, The Fire that Consumes, Edward Fudge says that annhilation is the end of those who choose not to obey God.
    • A third view says that hell is the inevitable result of choosing not to obey God.
      • Listen to what Rob Bell says. So when people say they don't believe in hell and they don't like the word sin, my first response is to ask, 'Have you sat and talked with a family who just found out their child has been molested? Repeatedly? a relative? Page 72, Love Wins.
      • In this view we see hell in the agonies of life. The brutalities of war. Not in the sense that those who suffered the pain are being punished, but rather in the kind of fruit that hell produces because of the horrible choices of mankind.


  1. Is hell a reality? Yes, I believe it is.
  2. What is its form? I don't know the answer to that. I suspect the language of the Bible is there to help us to see that hell is so awful, destructive, demonic, and black that we don't want it whatever its form is.
  3. Can we save ourselves from it? No. That's the whole point of the cross.
  4. Is God evil because of it? Absolutely not. How else would we want God to be other than totally angry and vengeful toward something that rapes young children, brutally kills others in pursuit of selfish gain, or steals an elderly couple's retirement to fatten his own bank account?
  5. Dear God, help us to be mindful of sin and hell. May we never trivialize it or deny it, but rather see that its tentacles reach out and try to lure us into its grasp. We give thanks that you have given us divine protection through the blood of Jesus who has conquered hell. In Jesus' name. Amen.
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