March 7, 2004
HELL TO PAY
“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Luke 16:19-31
A rich man died and went to hell. When he got there, he was horrified. He never thought he would go to such a place. He never dreamed it would be so terrible. But there he was, his mind tormented by despair, his body burning with pain. He begged for even a drop of water to cool his tongue, crying, “I am in agony in this fire.” But he was told that not even a drop of relief could get to him. Hell was so utterly cut off from anything joyful or good that nobody and nothing from outside hell could go to him. The rich man would have given his whole fortune for one drop of water or one glimmer of hope that hell might not last forever. But his money could not help him in hell. He would suffer there forever. The agony would not be relieved even for a moment. The torment would never end.
Then, for perhaps the first time ever, the man thought of somebody besides himself. He thought of his five brothers back on earth. They were living in luxury as he had once lived. They were self-centered as he had been. They were ignoring eternity as he had ignored it. They were heading directly for hell, but they weren’t any more worried about it than he had been. If only someone would warn them! If only someone would tell them that they were sinners headed for a horrible end! If only someone would turn them around before it was too late!
What if somebody came back from the dead to tell them where their sins were taking them and to tell them how to avoid hell? The man knew that he could never get out of hell to go back and warn his brothers, but what if somebody from heaven came back from the dead to tell them? There was a poor beggar named Lazarus who had recently died and gone to heaven. Could Lazarus perhaps make a quick trip from heaven back to earth and warn the man’s brothers about hell and tell them the way to heaven? “Let him warn them,” pleaded the man, “so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”
The man was told that there was no need for a special messenger to warn his brothers. They already had the Scriptures to warn them. The writings of Moses and the prophets were perfectly clear about the fire that awaited unrepentant sinners. All the man’s brothers needed to do was pay attention to biblical truth.
“No,” cried the man, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” He didn’t think the brothers would believe some old book, but they would surely take hell seriously and change their ways if someone came back from death.
But the reply came back: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (see Luke 16:19-31)
How do we know about this man in hell? Jesus told about him. But maybe you don’t believe Jesus, and you don’t think hell is real. Or maybe you don’t think you could possibly go there. That was exactly the attitude of the rich man when he was still living on earth, enjoying health and wealth. He felt safe and secure. He was too wrapped up in the activities of life to worry about death. He never dreamed that hell could be so awful or that he was headed there. But that’s where he ended up.
You’re not in hell yet. You still have the opportunity go to heaven. But you won’t avoid hell if you think sin isn’t serious or that hell isn’t real. Hell is real and terrible beyond imagination. The Bible is clear about that. But you maybe you think the Bible isn’t enough to persuade you. That’s exactly what the man in hell thought. He was suffering horribly for his sins, but he still wasn’t convinced it was all his fault. He thought it was partly God’s fault for not giving a strong enough warning. When he said that his brothers would repent if someone came back from the dead to warn them, he was implying that he himself would have repented if only he had received a more impressive warning. But Jesus made it clear that the Bible contains all the warning anyone needs. If the Bible doesn’t persuade them, nothing will.
Events proved Jesus to be right. It turned out to be true that people who wouldn’t believe Scriptural warnings about hell wouldn’t believe even if someone rose from the dead. The man in hell had asked that someone named Lazarus come back from the dead to help people take God seriously. Not long after Jesus spoke about this, a man did come back from the dead, and he was even named Lazarus. Jesus raised his friend Lazarus to life, but did Jesus’ enemies repent? No, they plotted to murder Jesus and “made plans to kill Lazarus as well” (John 12:10). Eventually, when they succeeded in killing Jesus, he came back from the dead and rose to life. But even after his resurrection, his enemies would not believe that he was the Son of God and that they were on the road to hell. All of this proved Jesus to be right when he said, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Old Testament Warnings
When Jesus spoke of “Moses and the Prophets,” he meant the portion of the Bible people had at that time, the Old Testament. What does Moses say about hell? He records this warning from God: “A fire has been kindled by my wrath, one that burns to the realm of death below… It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them. (Deut. 32:22,35).
The book of Psalms says, “At the time of your appearing you will make them like a fiery furnace. In his wrath the Lord will swallow them up, and his fire will consume them” (Psalm 21:9). “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side” (Psalm 97:3).
The prophet Nahum says, “The Lord takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished… Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire… he will pursue his foes into outer darkness” (Nahum 1:6).
Moses and the prophets aren’t all gloom and doom. They speak of salvation and a bright future for those who trust God, receive his forgiveness, and change their ways. But they leave no doubt about God’s wrath against sin or the horror of hell. Consider the prophet Isaiah. He says more about God’s mercy, healing, and joy than any other Old Testament prophet, but he also says more about hell. Here are some excerpts from Isaiah:
Rebels and sinners will both be broken, and those who forsake the Lord will perish… The mighty man will become tinder and his work a spark; both will burn together, with no one to quench the fire. (1:28,31). The Lord will cause men to hear his majestic voice and will make them see his arm coming down with raging anger and consuming fire… [The place of burning] has long been prepared… Its fire pit has been made deep and wide, with an abundance of fire and wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of burning sulfur, sets it ablaze (30:30,33). Trembling grips the godless: “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?” (33:14). The fire will burn them up. They cannot even save themselves from the power of the flame” (47:14). “Their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind” (Isaiah 66:24).
The rich man in hell thought Moses and the prophets weren’t enough warning for his brothers and that they would listen if someone came back from the realm of the dead. But if they ignored God himself, speaking in the Bible, why would they believe any man, even someone who came back from the dead?
God has done all we could ask and more to warn us of hell and put us on a different road. He has spoken through Moses and the prophets, and God has even come to us himself in human flesh in the person of Jesus. The man in hell wanted a human spirit from heaven to come back from the dead and warn people about hell, but God went much farther than that when the Lord himself came down from heaven in bodily form. Jesus is the eternal Son of God who knows everything about heaven and hell and came down to us from heaven, plus as a man Jesus came back from the dead. Who could possibly be more believable about the reality of hell than Jesus? Jesus knows what he’s talking about when he tells of someone crying, “I am in agony in this fire” (Luke 16:24). Jesus knows what he’s talking about when he himself repeats Isaiah’s description of hell as a place “where the fire never goes out… where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44,48)? If you believe Moses and the prophets, you will surely believe Jesus. But if you won’t believe the Bible, you won’t believe the very voice of the Son of God.
Jesus warns about hell more than anyone else in the Bible. Jesus says it would be less painful to cut off a foot or a hand or an eye than “be thrown into eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8-9). Comparing people to trees, Jesus says, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6). Jesus says, “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:41-42). At the last judgment, Jesus will tell the wicked, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 26:41). In the book of Revelation, Jesus gives a vision of a future where Satan and all God’s enemies will be “thrown into the lake of burning sulphur… They will be tormented day and night forever and ever… If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:10,14-15).
Clark Pinnock is a theologian who claims to be evangelical, yet Pinnock says, “I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine … which needs to be changed. How,” he asks, “can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been?” But Christians do not project a deity like this; Christ himself reveals that hell is real.
I’ll be blunt: I believe hell is real but not because of what I want but in spite of what I want. I want no hell at all, but I don’t run the universe. God does. I believe hell is real because Jesus and the whole Bible warn of hell. Someday, when I know God better and am holy enough to see just how horrible sin is, I may praise God’s justice in condemning people to hell, but right now it’s hard for me to square what I know of God’s love with what I know of his wrath. However, I don’t have to figure it all out; I just have to take the Lord at his Word. If I could make up a religion to suit my own preferences, hell would be one of the first doctrines to go. And in an age when more preachers and churches do make up their own religion, hell is among the first to go. But hell won’t go away just because some religious leaders vote for a new god to suit themselves. Those who deny hell are contradicting the Word of God and the Son of God.
If you won’t believe hell is real, it’s not because Jesus hasn’t warned about it but because you don’t want to hear about it. You’ll have no trouble finding religious leaders who say what you want to hear. The Bible speaks of religious leaders who “prophesy lies” and “people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?” (Jeremiah 5:31). False teachers will have a lot to answer for in the end when their listeners are suffering in a hell their leaders didn’t warn them about.
Jesus is the Lord who sent Moses and the prophets, he’s the man who came back from the dead, and he’s the returning King who holds the keys of heaven and hell. Jesus knows more about hell than anyone. If you won’t believe his warnings in the Bible, you won’t be convinced by anything except actually going to hell, and then it will be too late. But you’re not there yet. So listen to those biblical warnings. Let them sink in. Even if you don’t like hearing about hell, even if you’d rather think about anything but hell, think about hell anyway. Pay attention to the warnings of Moses and the prophets, and of Jesus and the apostles. Take the Word of God to heart, even if it terrifies you. If you believe the warning, you might also escape.
Payment for Sin
Taking hell seriously means taking sin seriously. Hell is the measure of how bad sin is and how great God’s holiness is. Those who deny hell also downplay the seriousness of sin and the majesty of God. But sin is serious, God is holy and majestic, and hell is real. Some argue that if hell is real, God must be awful. At times I’m tempted to agree. But I must resist that temptation. Hell does not mean God is awful; it means sin is awful. A criminal being punished for his crimes might blame the judge, even when the judge is perfectly just and the punishment is fully deserved. The judge is not awful; the crime is awful. I may be tempted to think that hell means something is wrong with God. But there’s nothing wrong with God. Something is wrong with us, something so terribly wrong that there is hell to pay.
Eternal hell is the just punishment that awesome holiness inflicts on awful sin. Our sinful nature and our sinful actions deserve God’s judgment. The size of sin is measured not only by what humans it hurts but by the greatness of the God we defy by disobedience. A sin against God’s limitless majesty demands a limitless punishment. Justice demands that the price be paid. It cannot simply be canceled. For every sinner on earth, a limitless penalty must be paid. Limitless suffering must be inflicted for my sin, and limitless suffering must be inflicted for yours. For every sinner, there is hell to pay.
But this does not mean every sinner must go to hell. The limitless penalty must be paid, true enough, but in God’s amazing grace Jesus has taken the sins of many humans upon himself and suffered the full divine wrath against them. This too is something Moses and the prophets declared. They didn’t just speak of hell; they spoke of salvation. Moses recorded promises of a coming prophet and Savior (eg. Genesis 3:15; Deuteronomy 18:15), and through Moses God gave a temporary system of animal sacrifice, in which the sins of the people were symbolically transferred to animals that were killed and burned. These sacrifices were tokens of the way that the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus, would one day take all sins on himself and pay the price.
The prophets foresaw someone who would suffer in the place of sinners. “He was pierced for our transgressions,” wrote Isaiah. “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the New Testament explained what it all meant by saying, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). On the cross Jesus carried our sins and suffered the divine punishments of hell which our sins deserve.
You might wonder, “How could Jesus suffer hell when he was crucified? Isn’t hell everlasting? How could a few hours on a cross pay a penalty that would otherwise require endless ages of suffering? Wouldn’t Jesus have to suffer forever if he were really going to be our substitute and pay the penalty of hell?”
This is a profound mystery, but remember who Jesus is. He’s not just another limited human being. Any finite person who suffers the penalty of sin would have to suffer forever because sin offends God’s infinite majesty and requires an infinite penalty. But because Jesus is divine as well as human, he is unlimited in his being and could endure unlimited punishment in a limited period of time.
A movie about Jesus’ suffering might portray some of the physical tortures he enduring, but the worst suffering of Jesus was something no movie about passion could ever show. Jesus’ physical tortures were terrible, but far worse was the unseen torment of separation from his Father. That was the true hell experienced by Jesus. The essence of hell is to experience God’s wrath and none of his favor. Jesus absorbed the full horror of that. He was able to suffer this infinite pain and pay the full price only because his divine nature upheld his human nature.
We cannot understand what it meant for God the Father to turn his face away from the eternal Son of his love. We cannot understand how eternity intersected time at the cross. We cannot understand how the everlasting hell deserved by millions of people could be absorbed by one person in one day. We cannot understand it all, but we can believe and receive Jesus’ agony as the full payment for our sins, and we can follow his guidance on the path that leads away from hell and into eternal life.
The Only Alternative
Believe and obey the gospel. Jesus is the only alternative to eternal fire. If you live and die without Christ, no one is left to pay your penalty except you yourself. You will go to hell forever. You can’t save yourself. You can’t count on any religion to save you. You can’t make hell go away by wishing. If you will not accept Jesus’ atonement for your sin and submit to his rule over your life, if you won’t repent of sin, there is hell to pay. The Bible says, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Hebrews 10:26-27).
If you’re still not sure who actually goes to hell, the answer is simple: anyone who does not know God and submit to Jesus. The Bible says, “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). The only alternative to hell is Jesus.
At this very moment, millions of sinners are one heartbeat away from hell. Perhaps you’re one of them. If God did not keep your heart beating and preserve your life, you would die and go to hell this very moment. God’s mercy is giving you time to repent and connect with Jesus. But the time is limited. Warnings about hell will not go on forever; hell will go on forever.
I don’t like the thought of hell any more than you do. The fact that hell is real fills me with dread. I can’t bear the thought of such pain, and I shudder that this is what would await me if I faced the future without Jesus. I also can’t bear the thought that hell is what I deserve. I’d rather think I’m too good to deserve anything so horrible, and it shames me to realize that hell is all I really have a right to claim. It’s also painful for me to think that Jesus absorbed all the pain and shame I deserve. I can hardly bear to think that I am the cause of so much of his suffering. These things overwhelm me. Even knowing I’m saved, it hurts to think about hell, because I dread the thought of anyone else going there. It’s almost too awful to talk about. But I believe Moses and the prophets and Jesus when they talk about hell, and I know that God wants me to talk about hell so that fewer people will go there.
It’s tempting to say that God’s love makes it impossible to believe hell is real, but it’s more accurate to say that it’s impossible to measure God’s love without knowing about hell. If hell were not real, if sin were only a minor problem, Jesus would never have sacrificed himself. He would never have cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
Jesus went through the horror of being separated from God in order to pay the penalty of sin, and because Jesus did that, you don’t have to stay on the road to hell. There is an exit, a way to get on a completely different road, a road where the Lord walks with you and leads you to eternal joy.
If the thought of hell terrifies you so much that you think God is eager to destroy you, then let me assure you that God is much more eager to save than to punish. “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23) If Jesus wanted everyone to go to hell, he would not have come earth or suffered hell himself. So thank him for his love, ask him to save you, and trust that he will. Put your faith in him and walk with him, and you need not fear. “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9). “Since we have now been justified through his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Romans 5:9).
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.