The Fires of Hell
Pentecost 17B Mark 9:38-50
A prologue to this sermon.
Certain words belong together. Up, down. In, out. Right, left. Good, bad. Heaven, hell. The words, heaven and hell, belong together, just like the words good and bad belong together. We know that heaven is good and hell is bad. None of us really know for sure what heaven is; none of us really know for sure what hell is. All language is metaphorical. “No eye can see or mind conceive the good things that the Lord God has prepared for us.” Heaven is too grand and good for our minds to comprehend. Hell is too big and bad for our minds to comprehend. Both heaven and hell are eternal consequences for the ways we believe and behave in this life here on earth. We would all end up in hell if it were not for the mercy of God in our Lord Jesus Christ. End of the prologue.
I have preached innumerous sermons about heaven and countless sermons about eternal life. I have never preached a sermon about hell and eternal death.
In our contemporary world today, within mainline congregations like Grace Lutheran Church, how you do preach a sermon about hell? In our Lutheran circles and mainline denominations, we don’t hear many sermons or Bible classes about the fires of hell and eternal damnation. Have you ever heard a sermon on hell? Other than on television? I would guess not.
This was not true in the past. In the past, there were and many hellfire and damnation preachers such as Jonathan Edwards. In the early 1700s, Jonathan Edwards vigorously preached that people were to be afraid of the fires of hell, that it was time for people to make a decision for Christ and against living forever in the lake of eternal fire.
Jonathan Edwards was brilliant intellectually and theologically. He was the valedictorian of his class at the new college called Yale College which became Yale University. He eventually became the president of a university that became known as Princeton University. Jonathan Edwards was the father of revivalism and the Great Awakening in America and had as much influence on America as Benjamin Franklin. We all know about Benjamin Franklin but Jonathan Edwards was just as important in that early American scene.
Jonathan Edwards’s most famous sermon was, SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY GOD. The following words from his sermon are characteristic of his preaching. From that famous sermon, listen to his actual words and feel how the flames of fire are licking at your feet. Listen as if you were in the front pew at church and Jonathan Edwards was towering above you in the pulpit and wearing his black preaching robe. As a preacher, I will attempt to get into the flow and mood of his sermon.
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire. He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire. You are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince (the devil). Yet it is nothing but God’s hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.”
So how did you feel about the paragraph? Have you ever heard such words before? But that was a common staple of preaching in the seventeen hundreds here in America.
Yes, there have been thousands upon thousands of firey “hell stone and damnation” sermons given in the past where it was preached that God holds people over a pit of fire like a loathsome spider over the fire. But I suspect that you haven’t heard a sermon like that for a long long time… if ever.
But today, people still preach firey “hell and damnation” sermons. Yes, there are still fire and hell stone sermons today. For example, in preparation for this sermon, I used the Google search engine, typed in “sermons about hell” and found a website of sermons by a person by the name of Donny Martin. One sermon was entitled THE HORRORS OF HELL. He didn’t say it but he wanted his parishioners to experience fear of the fires of hell. My wife told me not to share the following story, especially with children in our worship services, so I remind you that the following story is a made-up story for a sermon illustration.
In his sermon, Donny Martin told the story of a young fourteen year old girl who was convicted in her church during a sermon and she wanted to go forward for an altar call, but she wouldn’t. Her parents sensed that she wanted to go forward to this altar call in order to give her heart to Jesus. But she wouldn’t. On the way home from church, there was a car accident and that young girl was trapped in the car. Her parents miraculously got out of the wrecked car. A stranger came up to that wrecked car but didn’t see a trail of gas towards the car. He flicked his cigarette butt and suddenly the wrecked car was a blazing ball of fire with the young fourteen year old daughter trapped in it. The daughter’s screams finally subsided and she pleaded from the burning car, “Daddy, Mommy, please help me.” I quote from the sermon: “Remembering her daughter’s conviction in the service earlier that night, the mother did the only thing she knew to do with whatever time her child had left; she begged her to give her heart to Christ. The girl was quiet for a moment, and then through the flames she cried out to her mother, and said, “Momma, I want to trust Jesus. But I can’t. It’s too late. It’s too late.” In another moment, all was quiet except for the crackle of the fire. Hell had claimed its victim.” (italics mine).
Have you ever heard a sermon like that? Yuk.
In the past centuries like during the times of Jonathan Edwards and even nowadays on the Internet, we still hear sermons about the Last Judgment and the fires of hell.
But…but…but…you may have never heard a sermon about hell.
One reason that you may not have heard a sermon on hell is that I have been a pastor at this congregation for thirty years and I have not preached one sermon about hell. The point is: I am 64 years old, have been a Lutheran pastor for 36 years and have never preached a sermon on hell. I think it is about time. Today is the day.
I begin this sermon by asking you a personal question about the hell: What images come to your mind as you think about the hell? How do you feel about the above picture? What do you sense in your heart about hell? What are your feelings and beliefs about hell? What are your mental images? Your beliefs? Your gut feelings about hell? This is an honesty check: what are your gut beliefs about hell? Will you face the possibility of the fires of hell and eternal damnation? What will hell be like? What will happen to you? Is all of this stuff about hell a myth? Is this all a “make believe story” that needs to be de-emphasized by neglect? Is this story merely a fabrication to scare people into believing in Christ and following in his ways by threatening them that they could end up in the lake of fire?
What are some of your answers to the previous questions?
Many of us sense in our hearts and believe that: “Yes,” there will be a day of reckoning for all human beings at the end of time.
“Yes,” God will judge, that Christ will be with him to judge.
“Yes,” we will be judged based on what we have done and not done.
“Yes,” there will be mercy and grace. The blood of Christ will cover us and save us from our sins.
“Yes,” we will all plead for mercy and grace because we sense in our hearts that we could never deserve or merit eternal life based on what we have done and haven’t done.
“Yes,” only God is to be the judge, in this life and at the Last Judgment. We all have our roles in life and God’s role is to judge. That is not our role.
“Yes,” we sense that God’s judgments will be fair, just and merciful in the Last Judgment.
But where does hell fit into all of this?
And where do we begin with our sermon about hell? There are two places in the gospels where hell is mentioned several times. In the Sermon on the Mount and in the gospel lesson for today. Today, within our gospel, the word, “hell,” is referred to three times.
Let’s do a brief Bible study and see what the gospel lesson for today says.
-If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. Circle the word “hell,” and underline “to the unquenchable fire.” In other words, we hear that hell is the unquenchable fire.
If you hand causes you to sin and stumble, cut it off. We know better than to take these words literally. That is, it is better to physically cut off a hand rather than your hand leading you to sin and you end up in hell. Such thoughts are gruesome: to cut off one’s hand in order to avoid sinning.
Here again is another example of Aramaic exaggeration, overstatement or hyperbole in order to make a statement. Our hands can get us into trouble by stealing, hitting, killing, pointing, insulting.
Yes, sinful behaviors that involve our hands such as hitting, fighting, killing, stealing, pointing, threatening need to be curbed. We can injure people and kill people with the use of our hands.
But the problem is not primarily with our hands but primarily with the heart and head which controls our hands. It is not the hands that are the problem. It is the heart and the head which is. The heart and the head control the hands just as the heart and head control the tongue.
A person doesn’t cut out a tongue when it swears. The problem is not with the tongue but with the heart and head which control the tongue.
Focus on the word, “hell.” It is the first time that you have seen this word in this short gospel lesson. The word, “hell,” occurs three times in this lesson. These are only references to hell in the Gospel of Mark.
We know to interpret the concept of cutting off your right hand and throwing it away is an Aramaic hyperbole. Perhaps we should also interpret the concept of “hell” as Aramaic hyperbole. It is far too easy to take the concept of “hell” literally and at the same time to take the concept of “cutting off your right hand and throwing it away” symbolically.
In this section of the Gospel of Mark and in the Sermon on the Mount, we hear several examples of Jesus using Aramaic hyperbole. Jesus listeners knew better than to take his words literally. They took his words fundamentally, seriously, and knew the meaning behind the words.
Are you to take the following picture literally? Is that the way that Jesus wants you to interpret his teaching about the fires of hell?
-And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. Circle the word, “hell.” That is the second time you have seen that word in this short gospel lesson.
Again, feet don’t cause sin, but the human heart and head causes feet to wander off in sinful directions.
Again, we don’t take this teaching literally. We don’t go around cutting off people’s feet for going in the wrong direction. That would be a barbaric interpretation of Jesus’ words.
Similarly, we don’t take this teaching about hell literally. But perhaps some of you do.
-And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. Almost the same words are spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Here again is another example of exaggeration, overstatement or hyperbole in order to make a point. We Christians know that our hearts can look lustfully at a person of the opposite sex and greedily at someone else’s possessions. Jesus is interested in healing our inner hearts and heads so that we are not dominated by unhealthy sexual desires or covetous desires.
Circle the word, “hell.” For the third time. Most Christians know to interpret the concept of “tearing your eye out and throwing it away” as Aramaic hyperbole. Perhaps we should also interpret the concept of “hell” as Aramaic hyperbole. It is easy to take the concept of “hell” literally and at the same time to take the concept of “cutting out your eye and throwing it away” symbolically. It seems that there is an inconsistency to take the concept of “hell” literally and “cutting our eyes out” symbolically.It seems this whole section of Scripture is filled with Aramaic hyperbole, including both “hell” and “tearing your eye out.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, we heard another similar teaching about name-calling and the threat of the punishment of a firey hell: “And if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, "You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.”If you are angry at another person and call them names, you will be liable to go to the hell of fire. In other words, hell is fire, a lake of fire.
In this sermon, we need to pause, stop and think about hell. We need to think carefully about what the Bible teaches about hell and how we interpret the Bible’s teachings about hell. Do we take the concept of hell literally and therefore paint pictures of it which are grafted into our minds?
Other Biblical authors do not use the concept of hell such as the two apostles John and Paul. That is, the Gospel of John talks about darkness and the Apostle Paul speaks of judgment. Neither one of them speaks about hell. John’s darkness is equivalent to Matthew’s hell, just as John’s life is equivalent to Matthew’s kingdom of heaven.
Notice that the concept of hell as burning fire is part of these teachings of Jesus in which there are Aramaic hyperbole. A question is: Are “the fires of hell” also part of Aramaic hyperbole or overstatement in order to make a point? Like the teachings about anger which use Aramaic hyperbole, (if you call a brother a fool you are liable to the fires of hell), is the very concept of hell an Aramaic exaggeration of the truth which, if taken literally, would not be true?
When you see and experience pictures of hell as in this sermon, is there deep tendency to take such pictoral images too literally?
For many people, the last judgment is separation from God. For them, hell is separation from God, rather than a firey eternaltorture in the lake of fire. For them, the firey eternal torture in a lake of fire is picturesque language that is not to be taken literally, any more than we take literally the “pearly gates” and “streets paved with gold” found in heaven. (Revelation 21:21). “Firey hell” and “pearly gates” and “streets paved with gold” are examples of picturesque language.
I would guess that none of us think that heaven actually has pearly gates or streets paved with gold.
Below is a picture of a lake of fire, a concept that is part of the Book of Revelation. The concept of a lake of fire is found in Boof of Revelation three times. (Rev 19:20; 20:10; 21:8; Isaiah 30:33)
The concept of hell as eternal fire is found in ten Bible verses in the Bible. (in Mt 25:41; 13:42; Jude 7; Mk 9:43,45,47; 18:8,9; Mt 3:12; Luke 3:17)
Are we to take these teachings about the fires of hell literally? Like this picture above? I think not. We are not to take such teachings literally anymore than we take the teachings of Jesus literally ... about literally cutting off hands, literally cutting off feet and literally cutting out eyes in order to avoid sin. No, we are NOT to take such teachings literally. If you take these teachings literally, they become barbaric.
I like the four gospel’s emphasis on eternal life. 26 times were hear about eternal life in the four gospels. There is not one reference to eternal death in the four gospels.
There are not many words in the Bible to describe the negative consequences of the last judgment other than the metaphorical language of the fires of hell. But the concept of "forever" and "eternal life" occurs more than 400 times in the Scriptures. No wonder I have preached so many sermons on eternal life and living with God forever.
The power of heaven is so much more transforming, enlivening and energizing than the threat of hell and damnation.
Certain words belong together, In and out. Up and good. Right and left. Good and bad. Heaven and hell. The truth about heaven and hell is a reminder that there are eternal consequences for the way we believe and live during our time here on earth. Thank heavens for the mercy of God given to us through his Son, Jesus Christ, who died to atone for our sins. Amen.