Perspectives On The Afterlife…
From High School Sophomore: “what im confused about is how i dont think its fair that really good people who do great things but aren’t really religious don’t get to go to heaven…i don’t understand why heaven is so strict on who they let in….it doesnt seem fair.”
Why does it matter whether we believe in hell or not?
1. If we don’t, if we believe that because God is love everyone will go to heaven regardless of what they do or what they believe, then why would we ever share our faith with anyone? It’s so difficult for many of us—MYSELF INCLUDED!—that why would we put ourselves through that discomfort if there is no hell and everyone is going to heaven anyway? Not believing in hell could cause us to disobey Jesus’ final command to us before He ascended to heaven at the end of Matthew.
2. Furthermore, if we don’t believe in hell, when we go through tough times, why would we persevere by holding firm to Jesus if everyone will go to heaven anyways? It has been very tempting for me to cling to other belief systems, run to get comfort from certain sins, and set Jesus to the side for a while until a particular life-storm passes. The Bible calls this idolatry and it is the first of the Ten Commandments for a reason. But if I’m going to heaven anyways, why wouldn’t I turn to other “gods” if they get me through the night, if they give me short-term relief?
3. The issue of hell and judgment stunts some believers’ spiritual growth—they can’t seem to understand this issue with any type of clarity, so they might stop attending church altogether because the idea of a tyrant God sickens them; or they might ignore the issue and miss out on the closeness to God that comes with humbly and Biblically and prayerfully wrestling with issues; or a person might stay away from Jesus altogether and never surrender their lives to Him because of an incomplete understanding of this issue.
This is why Jesus talks about hell so much—believing in it (or not believing in it) can cause some serious consequences for us…
So tonight I’m going to share some handholds—secure grip given to us by Scripture—as we wrestle with this issue and discuss it with others, as well come alongside others who are also wrestling with it.
I. God Wants EVERYONE in Heaven
1. Ezekiel 18:23 NLT: “Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? says the Sovereign Lord. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live.”
2. John 1:12 NIV: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
God is love…He is FOR us…
He leads us with cords of human kindness (Hosea 11:4)—He doesn’t stand behind us with whips to get us to be more “religious”…
It is His kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4)—He loves us into His kingdom!;
He blesses us whether or not we bless Him back—causing the sun to shine and rain to fall on the good and the bad (Matthew 5:45);
Remember the Dad in the Prodigal Son (Luke 15)!
Remember God’s reaction after Adam & Eve sinned in the garden—he looked for them (pursued them—not to punish but to help!) and made them clothes (Genesis 3:9,21)!
Please make no mistake, my friends—God is not the cosmic version of the little boy gleefully burning ants on the sidewalk with his magnifying glass. God LOVES everyone and wants everyone to be with Him…We must trust that or else everything else starts to fall apart.
II. God Feels Pain When Humans Reject Him (& Go To Hell)
1. Ezekiel 18:23 NLT: (see verse above)
2. Genesis 6:5-6 NLT: “The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. So the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart.”
God is a person—with a personality, feeling emotions just like we do. Actually, we have feelings and emotions just like He does; we are made in His image (He is not made in our image). God is not a robot, force, or everything in the universe. He is a person—THE Person, and our choices affect Him, just as the choices children make affect their human parents.
III. Human Choice Is Part of the Equation
1. Matthew 23:37 NLT: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.”
2. John 1:12 NIV: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Conditional statement—we have a role to play in this verse—BELIEF in Jesus! TO receive Jesus (opening the door and inviting Him in and handing Him the title and deed to our home) is our part; He has already done His part (knocking on our doors desiring to be allowed in).
3. Romans 10:9 NIV: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The IF here again shows that we have a role to play in our eternal state—we aren’t just forgiven, saved, etc. anymore than two people become married simply because they both exist, simply because they both spend some time together. A choice in the affirmative must be made by both people. And we have the same choice to make to God regarding His marriage proposal to us.
Example: like when someone goes on a hunger strike and dies. I’m not making a judgment on the practice, per se, but I am making the point that such a person is often SURROUNDED by food, but that doesn’t nourish them. Similarly, every person is SURROUNDED by God and by His love, but if such a person doesn’t receive, accept, surrender to, and agree that they need God’s love and Jesus’ forgiveness, then they spiritually starve just like the person on the physical hunger strike.
Jesus can no more remove our sin without our consent than a surgeon can break into our house in the middle of the night and remove a malignant tumor from our bodies with us allowing the surgeon to do so.
IV. We Must Understand What Sin Is
1. Sin is not just a mistake; it is treason against God. When we sin, whether we know it or not, we are telling God that we don’t need Him, that we can live just fine without Him, that we are in charge of our own lives (that we are God). And while no one can kill God, when we ignore God we “kill” Him and His role in our lives/His plan for our lives. We pretend He’s not there so that He’ll disappear. Even more than that, we treat other things (whether you, another person, fame, money, popularity, success, etc.) as if it is God. We cheat on God when we make other things or people more important than Him. If you were dating and your boyfriend/girlfriend cheated on you every day for ten years without being sorry, would you want them to move to heaven with you? Sin is serious…
2. Sin is so powerful GOD MUST get rid of it eventually. Sin causes pain and God is eventually going to be finished with allowing it to fester.
Sin is contagious: 1 Corinthians 15:33: Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” We can begin to sin simply by spending much time with others while they are continuously doing a particular sin.
Sin is hereditary: Romans 5:12: Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…”
And so if God will eventually destroy sin, but we have sin woven throughout the fibers of our being, then we get destroyed too (not talking about annihilationism here, though). So God has made a way for us, through His Son, to give our sin to Jesus (so it can be nailed to the Cross) so we no longer are infected with the guilt of our sin. But we have to give our sin to Jesus on faith…
V. Good Deeds Are Important, But They’re Not Why God Made Us
Scripture: John 17:3 NIV: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God,and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
God doesn’t NEED us to do good deeds; He could do everything perfectly if He wanted to. Yes He did create good deeds in advance for us to do, but what He wants, first, is for us to know Him, the way a husband and a wife know each other. It’s why He made us. God wants our hearts before He wants our hands.
Remember when Jesus visits the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Martha is busy with the chores—she is not doing anything wrong/sinful per se—and she is aggravated that Mary is not helping her. But Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him, being with Him, soaking Him in. Jesus responds to Martha that Mary has “chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” God wants us to know Him!
And this is why it’s so important that we know God for Who He is (and not who we think He is or what makes us comfortable), that we call Him by His actual name (and not just any name we want), that we rely on His actual characteristics (and not those we approve of).
Example: Imagine if you did everything you’re parents asked you: chores, studied, got good grades, took care of younger siblings, went to church, ate dinner with the family, etc. But what if you did all that without ever smiling at your parents, without ever talking with them, without even acknowledging their existence, with a blank expression on your face? How would your parents feel?
Example II: Or imagine if you decided to call your wife (spouse) by another person’s name. “Honey, I just want to call you Trisha from now on. I know she’s our neighbor, but she has some great qualities, and I’d just like to pretend that you are her. I’m still giving YOU roses, and holding YOUR hand, etc., but I just want to call you by her name.” What would this do to the marriage relationship? I don’t think I need to go any further with this illustration!
Example III: Or imagine there is a student that gets perfect grades, that helps other students with their homework, but ignores/disobeys the authority of the teacher. Imagine this student simply does what he wants: gets up in the middle of class, watches a movie on his IPod Touch anytime, writes on the chalkboard during the teacher’s lesson, etc. The student would be reprimanded, but if he continued to simply ignore the authority and presence of the teacher, such a student would eventually be expelled, despite the good grades and helpful deeds. Being a successful student involves grades and helping others, but also involves a respectful and submissive relationship with the teacher. The same is true with God and life.
Well that’s what we do to God when we only do good deeds but choose not to believe in Him, or choose to believe He is someone else than who He really is. Pretty serious, huh?
God wants us to know HIM, for who HE is, and not who we want Him to be. God is a specific Person, not a generic role. He has a name: Yahweh, Y’Shua Messiah, and the Holy Spirit. Let’s know Him for Who He is…
VI. Heaven Will Be Perfect and Safe, So Everyone There Will Need To Be Loving…All the Time
Scripture: Revelation 21:1-5 NIV: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.'”
1. God can’t stand to see humans suffer, so in heaven there will be no more suffering. God will make sure of it. But if He lets people still infected with sin into heaven, then no one will really be safe.
Example: Just like certain roller coasters have a safety bar that drops down and protects two or more people sitting side by side. If one of the people decides they don’t want to bother with the safety bar—the rule of the amusement park—well they will not be allowed to ride the coaster because them not having the safety bar means the person next to them won’t get it either. So until they are ready to abide by the rule of the ride, they will not be allowed to ride…for their own safety, but also for the safety of those around them.
Example II: If you have swine flu but want to love and care for the babies in the nursery here at church on Sunday morning or Saturday night, even though your intentions and desire are good, you won’t be allowed to. Your germs will cause the babies harm, and maybe even death.
Because our sin also causes God pain, I think He wants to be done with it as well.
So heaven will be a place where God is free from suffering too.
VII. If We Want Others To Be In Heaven With Us, Then We’ll Tell Them About Jesus (In Words & Actions)
Scripture: Romans 10:14-15 NIV: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'”
God might well give people a “last chance” when they stand before Him. I don’t know. But if He does, they will still need to submit to Him, to admit that He is God and not them, and that He is in control of their lives, not them. What they were unwilling to do on earth for their entire lives, they will still need to do that as they stand before God. Furthermore, seeing God doesn’t automatically mean that people will believe in/submit to Him; most of the people who saw Jesus did not believe in Him (John 6:60-66). When a wild dog is cornered, it often acts more violently. So if a person is opposed to God being in control of his/her life on earth, my thought—like CS Lewis’ in the book “The Great Divorce”—is that they will be opposed even more the closer they get to God.
But the biggest problem with assuming that God will give everyone a last chance and that most people (or all) will therefore get into heaven that way is that it causes us to become lazy about sharing our faith with others.
Example: When I see a giant water spill or a spaghetti sauce bottle smashed on the floor at the supermarket, I don’t go and clean it up. I am not worried that someone will fall and get hurt, because I know that the manager will make sure that the mess gets cleaned up.
And so, if I believe that in the end everyone will get to heaven anyway after a one on one powwow with God, well then I am relieved of my responsibility to follow Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:18-20 NIV:
“Jesus came and told his disciples, ‘I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.'”
VIII. The Love/Grace of God Is Not Fire Insurance Guaranteeing Us Protection From Hell
We cannot say: “Well God is love, so He won’t put anyone in hell.” We can no more rely on God’s nature to protect us from our foolish decision of rejecting Him than we could rely on the safety of a Volvo by driving it wildly on the highway, driving on the opposite side of the road at oncoming traffic at a high rate of speed. Such a decision will eventually kill us, and it’s not the car’s fault (and it doesn’t mean there are flaws in the Volvo’s design).
No, as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 NIV:
“As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. 2For he says, ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.’”
1. Let us not “forfeit” God’s grace–Jonah 2:8 NIV: “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”
2. But let us seek God—while he may be found (Psalm 32:6 NIV: “Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found; surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him.”)
3. And you will not have to seek Him alone—there are other followers of Jesus at numerous healthy churches all over the world who are ready and willing and able to walk with you on your journey.
IX. Why He Hasn’t Returned Yet
Finally, let’s not forget that God the Father is DELAYING the return of His Son–and with Him Judgment for the whole world–for this reason: He is keeping the door open for more and more people to be forgiven and saved. And that is a very comforting thought indeed. Yet another proof of His love, His patience, His kindness, His loving & consistent pursuit of humanity.
Scripture: 2 Peter 3:8-9 The Message: “Don’t overlook the obvious here, friends. With God, one day is as good as a thousand years, a thousand years as a day. God isn’t late with his promise as some measure lateness. He is restraining himself on account of you, holding back the End because he doesn’t want anyone lost.”
X. What More Could He Do?
In the end, if we are still struggling to understand how a loving God and hell could both exist, can we at least fall back on the Cross? God the Father sent His only Son to die so that humans would have a chance to be set free from the chains of death and live with Him forever. What more can He do than that? How could He show His love for us more than that? What more do we expect of Him? He paid “the ultimate price,” made “the ultimate sacrifice.” And so we must come to grips with the Great Physician’s diagnosis–that we NEED to accept His death on our behalf, or we are lost. That we must agree to and embrace His choice of medicine for our spiritual affliction, or else try and cure ourselves on our own. That is our choice; how gracious of Him to give us a choice…
Why wait for a second helicopter (when one is available and we need to be airlifted out)?
Why demand a different brand of water (when we are dying of thirst)?
Extra Discussion Items (ran out of time during the sermon!)
1. I Just Can’t Believe In Hell
For Christians who say there is no hell, or that God would never send a human to hell, I empathize with the struggle many have with the idea of eternal suffering. But we must not go against what I see is the clear teaching of Scripture, and we must never underestimate the human power of denial–especially in regards to humanity’s eternal fate.
Let us remember the words of the LORD in Jeremiah, when all the prophets of idolatrous Judah were preaching “Peace, peace” though Jerusalem was being attacked by the most powerful army in the world: Babylon. The false prophets declared that there would be peace (giving the people false hope by telling them what they wanted to hear), even though the LORD had said that there would not be peace in this situation.
Jeremiah 14:13-15 NIV: “But I said, ‘Alas, Sovereign LORD! The prophets keep telling them, ‘You will not see the sword or suffer famine. Indeed, I will give you lasting peace in this place.’
14 Then the LORD said to me, ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds. 15 Therefore this is what the LORD says about the prophets who are prophesying in my name: I did not send them, yet they are saying, ‘No sword or famine will touch this land.’ Those same prophets will perish by sword and famine.'”
And Ezekiel 13;1-12 NIV: “The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are now prophesying. Say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination: ‘Hear the word of the LORD! 3 This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing! 4 Your prophets, Israel, are like jackals among ruins. 5 You have not gone up to the breaches in the wall to repair it for the people of Israel so that it will stand firm in the battle on the day of the LORD. 6 Their visions are false and their divinations a lie. Even though the LORD has not sent them, they say, “The LORD declares,” and expect him to fulfill their words. 7 Have you not seen false visions and uttered lying divinations when you say, “The LORD declares,” though I have not spoken?
10 “‘Because they lead my people astray, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, 11 therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. Rain will come in torrents, and I will send hailstones hurtling down, and violent winds will burst forth. 12 When the wall collapses, will people not ask you, “Where is the whitewash you covered it with?”
Similarly, though our intentions may be good, we do no justice to people—we show no love to people—when we give them the false hope that in the end everyone goes to heaven, or that in the end there is no hell. Just as the doctor is a criminal when he/she says a patient is healthy when they truly are sick and dying. Ignorance is certainly not, and never leads to, bliss.
2. The Cost of Following Jesus
I have heard some people respond to this by saying, “But that’s not how I was raised! Are you asking me to turn my back on my culture, or on my family, in order to be a Christian?”
I empathize with this response, and I will never know personally what it’s like to be faced with such a decision. My parents are Christian and raised me as such.
My first response to this is please know that I am not asking you to do anything. I am merely parroting what the Bible and Jesus are saying. He is asking you, not me.
Secondly, is Jesus asking this of you? YES! It is a costly decision for many people to choose to follow Jesus…just as it is costly for many to choose not to. But we are talking about eternity here. As one of my college professors at Loyola University once said, “Whatever you believe about God, you bet your eternity on it. So be sure.”
Jesus asks MUCH of humans: take up your cross and follow Me, in this world you will have TROUBLE because of Me, I have to be more important to you than your family, etc. Jesus asks much of us because of how valuable our souls are…and because of how much it cost Him to offer us forgiveness, eternal life with Him, heaven, etc. As difficult a choice as it is for us, Jesus endured much more than that.
3. God Wins (Not Christians)
Finally, allow me to make a point about the term “Christian,” which unfortunately carries with it much baggage around the world.
I think many people are reluctant to “become Christian” because for many that term might have Jesus at its center but He is surrounded by other ingredients such as “white, anglo-saxon, American, Western culture, MTV, rock and roll, etc.” and simply a way of life that is both different and unappealing to many people.
But Jesus isn’t inviting the people of the world to become American…He is inviting them to be His sons and daughters.
I think there’s a sense where a person thinks, “If I become a Christian, then ‘those people’ win and ‘my people lose’.” As if religion is a game with many teams and many fans of those teams. For many, the idea of becoming Christian is similar to (but even worse) than the idea of die-hard White Sox fan rooting for the Cubs, or a die-hard Red-Sox fan rooting for the Yankees, or a Bears fan throwing out their Walter Payton jersies for Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers threads, etc.
But when my wife chose to surrender her life to Jesus on December 31, 1999 (knowing full well that she would lose her earthly family over her decision), it wasn’t “the Christian side” that won and the “Muslim team” that lost. God won when Sarah made that decision. God won because the Truth of the Bible belongs to God, not Christians. We are merely to be the microphones God picks up (if we will let Him) to declare to the world how great HE is, not how great we Christians are.
God isn’t on the Christian team’s side; those people who have surrendered their lives to Jesus are on HIS side, we’re on HIS bandwagon, we’re riding HIS COATTAILS, His greatness, His grace, His death and return to life. There is a difference.
God didn’t look around at the people groups of the world and say, “I choose Christians because they are so doggone great.”
We have made the decision to believe and trust in Jesus because of how doggone great HE is.
We Christians do not own God’s Truth anymore than Albert Einstein owns the theory of relativity. He didn’t make up e=mc2. He discovered the truth of that equation that has existed ever since God created it and the universe. Einstein is part of a small group of people who actually understand its significance and so he is qualified to teach and speak on it, but he doesn’t own it and he didn’t make it up—he discovered it.
So it’s not Einstein who wins when people learn that equation and believe it; science wins because now more advancements can be made and that knowledge/discovery built on to lead to more knowledge/discoveries.
But even in this situation, ultimately God wins, because by studying what God has made, we can learn so much about the greatness of GOD! Studying and learning about the theory of relativity can cause us to be in even more awe of God, and that is why science is such a fantastic subject to learn about.
So my point is that someone can accept Jesus and still retain their culture (as long as the aspects of that culture are not sinful). Jesus wants the people of the world to become like Him, not to adopt the culture of Western Hemisphere Christians.