SCARY GOOD NEWS
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
It was not a typical Christmas celebration. The place was off the beaten path. The preacher looked wild and weird. His words were fierce and jarring. “You bunch of snakes!” he said to the crowd. “Who told you that you could escape from God’s wrath? You need a complete turnaround from the direction you’ve been going. Don’t try to tell yourself, ‘We come from a long line of good, churchgoing people.’ God could take rocks and make them into churchgoers. You’d better change, or you’ll get the ax! You’ll get thrown into the fire!” (see Luke 3:7-9).
How would you like that for a Christmas service? Is that any way to mark Jesus’ coming? Well, shocking as it sounds, that’s the kind of preacher Jesus chose to prepare the way for him. Jesus didn’t pick a soft-spoken, well-dressed fellow who got up and said, “Hi, there. I’m Pastor John, and I’m so glad to see all of you here today. We’ve got a service planned for you that you are really going to enjoy.” No, Jesus chose a crudely clothed, tough talking preacher who became known as John the Baptist. This man lived in a desert region and preached to anyone who would come out there to hear him. “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). He baptized those who admitted they had big problems, wanted forgiveness of their sins, and were willing to change their everyday behavior.
Nowadays we prefer to mark Jesus’ coming with sweet carols and soft candlelight, not warnings of hellfire. But if we stick with fuzzy, feel-good platitudes, we’re not ready for Jesus and we won’t understand Christmas.
Tough Message, Tender Mercy
Why was Jesus born? Jesus himself answered that question in John 3:16 when he said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God sent Jesus into the world in order to prevent people from perishing. Christmas is about God’s love and eternal life, true enough, but it’s also about avoiding the fire of hell. Only if you repent and believe in Jesus will you have eternal life. Otherwise you will perish in hell.
John the Baptist compared Jesus to a farmer harvesting grain, separating the wheat from the useless chaff: “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17).
After describing John’s hard-hitting message, the Bible adds, “And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news” (Luke 3:18). Good news? How can such ferocious warnings be called good news? It’s good news when someone honest enough to tell the bad news of sin, guilt, and judgment (which we know deep down is true) is also telling us that there is still a way to be saved.
Think of it this way. If you feel perfectly fine and your doctor says that you have incurable cancer, you’ll take it as bad news. But what if you’ve already felt sick, and you suspect you have cancer? What if a doctor then confirms your fears, says the cancer is real, warns that you’ll die without treatment, but also says that you can be cured if you’ll accept the treatment? You would take that as good news. In giving you bad news, the doctor is only confirming what you already suspected, but in telling you that your life can still be saved, he’s giving you unexpected good news that you hardly dared to hope for.
When John the Baptist spoke to people, he didn’t get a very positive response from those who were satisfied with themselves and felt they were good enough to deserve God’s approval. They thought John was preaching bad news. The ones who responded most eagerly to John were people who knew they were bad, who admitted their sins and feared that nothing but hell awaited them. When John called them snakes and sinners, his voice rang with authority. When John warned them of hell, they knew he was telling the truth. And when he said that someone greater than himself was coming and then described Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), repentant sinners rejoiced. Because John truthfully told them the bad news about themselves, they knew he was also truthful when he told them the good news of Jesus.
Years earlier, when John the Baptist was a newborn, his father said of him, “You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the path of peace” (Luke 1:76-29).
John’s tough message flowed out of God’s tender mercy. He told people their problems so that they would seek salvation. He spoke of their sins so that they would seek forgiveness. He warned of eternal darkness and death so that they would welcome the rising sun coming to them from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ, and learn to walk in his light.
Perishing in Hell
Some people think we shouldn’t talk about hell and should just emphasize God’s love instead. But is there any greater declaration of God’s love than John 3:16? “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” In that most magnificent verse about God’s love, Jesus says that the only way not to perish in hell is to believe in him. That’s the scary good news.
Christmas is all about God’s gift of his Son to give eternal life to all who believe in him, rather than letting them perish in hell. And make no mistake: if you don’t believe in Jesus and receive a new life from him, you will go to hell.
What is hell? Probably the most familiar picture is of hell as fire. When John the Baptist was preparing the way for Jesus, John repeatedly warned of fire for those who did not repent. Jesus himself also spoke of hellfire. In fact, Jesus said more about hellfire than anyone else in the Bible. He described 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) Jesus told about someone who died and went to hell. There he “was in torment” and cried out, “I am in agony in this fire” (Luke 16:23-24). Jesus said that at the last judgment he 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).
The fire of hell isn’t really meant for people. It’s meant for Satan and his demons. But when people abandon God, they are siding with Satan, whether they realize it or not, and so they end up sharing the same horrible fate as Satan. Here’s how the book of Revelation portrays the damned: “The devil … was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. 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… their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death” (Revelation 20:10,14-15; 21:8).
You may wonder, “Will hell have real flames?” Satan and his demons are spirits. They don’t have the same physical makeup we do. The fire of hell is designed first of all for them, so in order to be a fire designed for spirit creatures, hellfire can’t be exactly the same as the flames we know here on earth. But that doesn’t make hell any less real or any less horrible. It just means that the hell is worse than anything we’ve ever experienced here on earth. Hell isn’t less real than fire but more real, since it lasts forever. Hell isn’t less horrible than fire but more horrible, since it torments the spirit as well as the body. In fact, rather than saying that the fire of hell doesn’t have real flames, it might be more accurate to say that what we know as flames aren’t very real compared to the fire of hell.
The Bible describes hell as a fire that never stops burning, a worm that never stops gnawing, a dying where no one ever rests in peace, a darkness where no one ever sleeps. These are all ways to picture a horror beyond picturing. Hell means pain and punishment. It means total ruin, utter loss. Whatever strength and significance a person once had is wiped out in hell. “The mighty man will become tinder and his work a spark; both will burn together, with no one to quench the fire” (Isaiah 1:31). That is what will happen to every person apart from Christ.
That all sounds horrible, and it is–it’s so horrible that many people can’t bear to think it’s real, so horrible they insist that God would never do this to anyone. But that’s where it’s easy to get confused. Hell isn’t just what God does to you. It’s also what you do to yourself.
Hell is being exiled from God, existing forever without tasting his goodness. The Bible often speaks of the wrath of God. How does God express his wrath? Sometimes he simply lets people be themselves. In Romans 1 the Bible says that God shows his wrath by handing people over to their own choices. He lets them go their own way. They develop the most degrading forms of religion. They wallow in the most disgusting sexual perversions. They sink into every kind of hateful and antisocial behavior. Even as they become more and more messed up and miserable, they still go on without God. This is a taste of hell on earth.
One God’s strongest punishments of sin is simply to step back. One of the fiercest expressions of his wrath is to let you be yourself and do your own thing, to let you sink deeper and deeper into sin and all its consequences. Sin is itself a fire that torments and consumes. Hell is the place where sinners get what they asked for: an existence where God leaves them alone.
Maybe you’ve always thought that earth is a place where you should be free to be on your own and that you’ll go to hell only if God interferes and forces you to go there. But the truth is just the opposite. Earth is the place where God interferes. Again and again, God restrains the full force of evil and limits its consequences. Again and again, he pours out good gifts on people who don’t even acknowledge him or ask him. As Jesus puts it, God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). On earth God makes sure that even the most sinful people keep some trace of his image and taste some measure of his kindness.
Hell is where God finally stops interfering. Sinners who thought they were living without God on earth find out in hell what it’s really like to live without God. In hell they find out what sin is really like when there’s no goodness to hold it back, when God simply leaves sinners to themselves. Someone has said that there are two kinds of people: those who say to God, “Your will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Your will be done.”
Sin is godlessness. Hell is the full experience of that godlessness. It is eternity without God. The Bible says that when Christ returns, “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 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). “Shut out from the presence of the Lord”– hell is being on your own, without God.
That’s why hell is such utter sorrow. God is the source of every good and perfect gift. He’s the source of all joy, so when we’re shut out from his presence, we’re shut out from joy. Joy comes from God, so godlessness is joylessness. Love also comes from God. Without God it is impossible to love or to accept love. That is hell–an existence without love. Love comes only from God, so godlessness is lovelessness.
Godlessness is also worthlessness. Right now, even though we’re sinful and have plenty to be ashamed of, there is still much that is worthwhile in each of us. Even the worst of us has something good and noble left, because God makes sure that at least some trace of his image remains. But if we insist on living for ourselves instead of God, then eventually God will take away the worthwhile traits he’s given us. Those who receive the Lord and his kingdom by faith will receive more and more, but those who turn away from the Lord will lose what little they have (Matthew 13:11-12). Jesus says, “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).
Hell is a place where people become utterly worthless and contemptible. The prophet Isaiah says “their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind” (Isaiah 66:24). Loathsome! The prophet Daniel says, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). Shame and everlasting contempt–that’s all that’s left once everything having to do with God is taken from you, and you’re left to go on without the Lord.
Hell is hideous. That’s not because God is hideous. It’s because sin is hideous. Hell is being stuck forever in your sin and in God’s holy wrath against it. That’s what hell is, and that’s what John 3:16 means when it uses the word perish.
Saved from Hell
Now do you see why Christmas is so important? If there had been no Christmas, if God had never sent his Son into our sinful world, then hell would be the unavoidable fate of this world and of everyone in it. There would be no possibility of escape. All of us are born with a tendency to sin, to do what we want rather than what God’s wants. All God had to do was just stand back and let us go, and we would be doomed forever. But God didn’t just stand back. When God looked at his fallen world, he could have given it either Christmas or hell. He gave it Christmas.
The Son of God left heaven and became human in the womb of a virgin named Mary. God could have sent the whole earth down to hell, but instead he sent heaven down to earth. God entered into our predicament in the person of the baby Jesus. God had the right to condemn every last one of us, but instead he became one of us and took upon himself the penalty sinners deserve.
The Lord took our humanness upon himself at Christmas, and he took our sin upon himself at Calvary. Jesus hung on a cross and suffered hell in our place. He endured the hellish separation from his heavenly Father that we sinners deserve. He endured God’s justice so we could receive God’s love. He endured the Father’s rejection so we could enjoy his acceptance. That’s how much God loved the world. He sent his Son from the throne room of heaven to a lowly manger, and from the manger to the cross and to the horror of hell, so that all who believe in Jesus should not perish in hell but have eternal life.
Listen again to what Jesus says in John 3:16 and also in verses 17 and 18.
God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
You see, God didn’t send Jesus to condemn the world. The world is already skilled at condemning itself. God sent his Son not to condemn but to save the world. And this means you must believe in God’s Son. Put your faith in Jesus. Ask him to forgive your sins and change your life. Then you will be saved from hell. You will have eternal life. But if you don’t believe, you condemn yourself. Jesus doesn’t have to condemn you–you stand condemned already. You’re paving your own path to hell by not receiving God’s own Son, his greatest gift of love.
In order for you to go to hell, what must happen? Nothing at all! If nothing happens to you, if you remain your same old self and are not born again into a living faith in Jesus, then you are ready for hell just the way you are. Jesus said, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again… Whoever does not believe stands condemned already” (John 3:3,18). You need to know the truth about hell so you can avoid it.
You also need to know about hell so you can see who Jesus is and what he’s done. How can you know the greatness of the Savior if you don’t know what you need to be saved from? Someone has written, “If there is no Hell, there is no need for salvation, only good teaching and example… Salvation from ignorance needs only a man; salvation from Hell needs a God.” Only God could bear the sins of the world and the agony of hell and still rise from the dead. The scary good news of Christmas is that although hell is real, God has sent his Son to save all who believe in him.
Still another reason you need to accept the grim truth about hell is so that you can accept the glorious truth about heaven. How can you take God’s promises of heaven seriously if you don’t take his warnings of hell seriously? How can you believe that Jesus will give you eternal life if you don’t believe that you would suffer eternal fire without him? Christian author C. S. Lewis once said, “I have met no people who fully disbelieved in hell and also had a living and life-giving belief in heaven.”
The scary good news is that no matter who you are, you deserve hell, and yet no matter how much you deserve hell, Jesus can save you from it. “Whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” That word whoever is good news indeed. Whoever–no matter who you are. Whoever–no matter what your skin color or nationality. Whoever–no matter whether you’re male or female, young or old. Whoever–no matter what you’ve done, no matter how evil you’ve been, no matter how much you deserve hell. Whoever you are, you can still be saved if you put your faith in Jesus and put your life in his hands. Whoever! That means you! Believe in Jesus. Trust him today, and you will never perish in hell. Instead, you’ll have everlasting life in heaven.
Father, the thought of hell makes us shudder. Thank you for loving us enough to warn us about the ultimate horror of existing forever without you. Thank you for loving us so much that you sent your one and only Son to save us.
Lord Jesus, help each one of us not only to commemorate your coming into the world on Christmas, but also to welcome you into our own hearts. Help each person hearing my voice to hear your voice, to reject the road that leads to hell and to believe in you. May each one receive eternal life in your name. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.