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Evangelist, Baptist, Husband, Father, Mid-30's.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Reality of Hell

With the effort of those both inside and outside of Christianity to redefine Hell, and do away with the concept altogether, I’ve been thinking on the concepts which Hell impresses upon those who fear God, and why Hell is a perfectly acceptable topic for evangelism. I believe that Hell is an exceedingly useful topic, provided it encompasses the following four principles;

1. The Authority of God’s Law
2. The Perfection of God’s Judgment
3. The Severity of God’s Wrath
4. The Amazing Alternative to God’s Anger

One of my favorite songs is a redeaux of a Fanny Crosby hymn, called, Rescue the Perishing, sung by Billy and Cindy Foote. In this song the singer asks, “Have we forgotten the lost, the reality of Hell?” The answer to both in mainline Christendom is yes. I would draw a direct line from losing the reality of Hell, the necessity of Hell, to the forsaking of the lost, and I pray that this article will at least do a little to curtail that movement.

The Authority of God’s Law

Even among those who reject Hell, with a little probing they can usually be made to admit that REALLY bad people probably do go to Hell, or at least not to Heaven. Among these are the obligatory references to Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Joseph Stalin, and can generally be easily expanded to include serial rapists and pedophiles. Even the most God-hating heathens recognize that there is a call for justice, the problem is that their standard of sin does not match God’s standard of sin.

God’s law is perfect, it is complete, and it carries the same punishment for every infraction, for the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Even if we’ve kept every law and broken only one, we are guilty of all (James 2:10). A cursory look through the Old Testament shows that the same penalty exists for gross sexual sins to lies, from murder to dishonoring of parents.

Sin is transgression against the law (1 John 3:4), and every sinner, from the most prolific genocidal tyrant to the liar, will be judged against it (Revelation 20:13, 21:8). The reality of Hell shows that God’s law is a pedestal of his perfect standard of righteousness and of the justice by which he upholds the universe.

The Perfection of God’s Judgment

Mankind does an incalculable amount of work to uphold justice, everything from lawmakers who write thousands of laws a year, to enforcement officers who know the law and ensure it is carried out, to judges who hear infractions against the law and punish lawbreakers. And yet, with all of this work, lawlessness abounds, and humanity suffers.

The incompetence (either partial or complete) of mankind’s justice is setting up a comparison for when God judges perfectly. A verse which the unrighteous hate with a passion is at the end of Psalm 58, it says, “The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. Mankind will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.’”

The reality of Hell shows that God is able to judge justly and completely, that no lawbreaker will escape. Any and every sin has been remembered by God and will be dealt with, for a sin against an infinite God requires an infinite retribution.

The Severity of God’s Wrath

Throughout the Bible it describes God as the only Saviour (Deuteronomy 6:4, Isaiah 45:14-15, John 14:6, Acts 4:12, 1 Timothy 2:5, Jude 25, et al.). The salvation of God extends far past the agonies of Hell, but the hearer must realize that this salvation does include being saved from Hell. There are no lack of verses that explain that God hates the sinner (Psalm 1:5-6, 2:12, 3:7, 5:4-5, 7:11, 10:3, 11:5, Proverbs 12:22, 6:16-19, Hebrews 1:8-9, etc. etc.), but most people miss this fact as they live in his patience (Romans 2:4).

The Psalmist in Psalm 73 complains for the lack of temporal punishment on the wicked, but then he perceives their end, an end of terror; despised by God. Every person who has ever lived has an appointment to stand before God and give an account, and of that day Isaiah asks, “Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?” (Isaiah 33:14) The fullness of God’s wrath, of his hatred in action, is an incomprehensible rage against lawbreakers and enemies of righteousness. He promises to pursue his enemies into the darkness, and torment them in his own presence forever (Nahum 1:8, Revelation 14:10-11), for his vengeance is complete, and his wrath infinite. Any reprieve from Hell through abatement or annihilation would be another savior, and there is no Saviour but Christ (Philippians 2:9-11).

The reality of Hell shows that God truly does hate sin, sinners, and the results of sin. The extreme severity of Hell demonstrates both the crushing judgment on the lost, and the amazing grace which has been shed on so many.

The Amazing Alternative to God’s Anger

The Apostle Paul asks, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy?” (Romans 9:22-23) The saint, saved from God, by God, for God, looks at Hell and sees a place for sinners, a place from which none can escape, and a place in which every grace of God is removed; it is truly a terrifying concept, and truly it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the Living God (Hebrews 10:31).

On a cross, the very Son of God endured the full wrath of God, for towards his church who had transgressed him in every way, his Father held in his hand “a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.” (Psalm 75:8) In his amazing love, Christ laid down his life, he drank that cup of wrath, he endured the full fury of God against sin, and it pleased his Father to crush him. In three hours on a cross, Jesus suffered more than any sinner ever will in Hell, for as he drained the cup, as he absorbed the full wrath of God, he declared, “It is finished.

There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1), that condemnation was met on a cross, justice crushed the perfect substitutionary Christ, and he endured it for his church, who have received grace upon grace upon grace, a salvation from sin, from Hell, from condemnation, from punishment, from separation, and from wandering. The vessels of wrath prepared for destruction show the saint what he has been saved from, what his Saviour endured, and that God truly is mighty to give compassion to whom he pleases and condemn others of his own volition.

The reality of Hell demonstrates the exceeding depths of God’s grace, that while no favor was merited, he chose to save a remnant, that while his anger burned against sinners, he accepts the propitiation of his Son, who bore the weight of condemnation, but whom was raised in glory for his obedience. When we lose the danger of Hell, we lose the grace of Heaven, or as Alistair Begg puts it so well, “Unless you have a real wrath, a real anger, the biblical concepts of long-suffering, of mercy, and of grace, are robbed of their meaning.

Conclusion

Losing Hell in Christendom is much more dangerous than just losing punishment and eternality; the very nature of God is distorted. Without the reality of Hell, God’s law loses its authority, his justice fails in time, his hatred of unrighteousness and sin’s consequence is mute, and his grace becomes less amazing. An alternate savior arises, and Christ becomes a liar; his work on Calvary was in vain (Galatians 2:21, Matthew 26:42).

There is a very real danger in rejecting Hell, it is quite literally Hell that gapes wide to catch your fall (Isaac Watts). In rejecting Hell, you reject the creator of Hell, the one who sees fit to punish perfectly the damnable sinfulness of sin, and who loves righteousness and hates wickedness. With no threat of punishment, evangelism fails, because everyone will be alright anyways, they are just missing the opportunity to live their best life now. With no threat of penalty, the prophet does not tremble when speaking for God, does not consider whether his words may have an eternal detriment to the souls of his hearers, and even to his own soul lest he turn to Christ.

The reality of Hell is that God is angry with the wicked every day, he is against the practitioner of sin, he is not slack concerning his promises, but will judge sinners and will see fit that they pay for their sins. The grace is that God’s own Son has paid for sin, he stands ready to forgive, reconcile, and save all who draw near to him in faith, magnified by a glimpse at what was the alternative. Christianity is so much more than escaping Hell, but a healthy fear of the God who can kill both body and soul in Hell should be a driving point in every believer’s life.

If we say we love God,
want to see his will done,
will we offer our lives,
or the just the songs we have sung?
– Billy and Cindy Foote

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Jonah Chapter 1.5

Prelude
The Book of Jonah is far more than a story about a big fish and a wayward prophet. It contains God’s sovereignty, his grace, his lovingkindness, and his transforming power. As I preached through Jonah last year, two questions piqued in my curiosity and I mulled over them for the full ~40 hours or so that I spent in study. Finally I was able to answer both. These two questions were

1. Why was Ninevah so open to Jonah’s terrible sermon in chapter 3 verse 4?
2. Why does the book end the way it does, with a seemingly unanswered question?

I can answer question two quite succinctly and accurately: the entire Book of Jonah is the answer to Jonah 4:10-11. Jonah, through writing this book, answers God’s question and demonstrates the fullness of his repentance for his uncompassionate response to God’s mercy and Ninevah’s salvation. Jonah beautifully bears witness to God’s goodness and kindness to both himself and Nineveh, showing his alignment to God's character.

The first question is not so easily answered, though I have formulated an answer, and this article will seek to expand a bit on why I believe Ninevah responded so fully to a sermon that didn’t even call for a response. I will take certain liberties, but will do my best to stay true to the text. Many of the details in this note are fictional, and I am not saying this is definitely how it happened, though I am quite certain it happened something like this:

Joppa, 770BC
Our crippled craft transitioned into the calm waters of Joppa Harbor. Riding high in the water our ship looked ready to sink at any moment. She had endured winds and waves more than twice what any ship in the Mittelmeer could be expected to endure, but by some miracle we had made landfall.

Emotions on board were mixed. We were relieved to be alive, we were saddened to have lost a friend in the voyage, we were anxious for the fate of our captain and ourselves for having jettisoned our precious cargo. But under it all was an amazing sense of joy, a peace that none of us had ever known before.

Let me introduce myself, my name is Amarna, the son of an Egyptian mother and Assyrian father. My father was a soldier who was stationed in Joppa in order to secure this vital military access to Southern Judea. I grew up on the sea, fishing from an early age, then transitioned to cargo vessels, taking my first voyage to the Balkans at the age of 9. Over the years, I have become an accomplished sailor. My preferred deity was my namesake, Aten, the Sun God, the God of Egypt and my forefathers; but in my travels (as far West as Tarshish and as far East as Colchis) I have encountered and worshipped many foreign gods. Some of these have seemed quite trite, gods for property, gods for catching fish, gods for curing ulcers and the like, but none seemed so powerful as Aten, who by his (or her/it) power was said to have created the world and was sustaining all life. Could Aten have been an attempt by the Egyptians to worship the True God who delivered Moses and the Jews from Egypt? I cannot say for sure, but this is my belief (at the time of this writing, not when I was an Aten follower, for Aten, though similar to Yahveh, is certainly not the same).

The strangest God I have ever encountered was just a few days ago. A Hebrew prophet by the name of Jonah had boarded our vessel bound for Tarshish. He had paid dearly for passage and we were glad to have a religious person on board who could teach us more ways to be blessed by the deities. That is, until he told us who his God was. Our captain, a polytheist if ever there was one and exceptionally superstitious, was especially insulted when Jonah told him that "Yahveh eloheinu Yahveh ehad." or translated "The Lord is God, the Lord is One." They finally broke company when Jonah declared without compromise, "Yahveh is THE God (Jonah 1:6), besides him there is no other."

This Jonah, who possessed great knowledge of the Words of his God (cf. Jonah 2), was rather strange, for he was fleeing from this God (Jonah 1:10). When we asked him why, he told us that his God was gracious and merciful and a forgiver of sins (none of us had even considered whether our gods could just forgive sins, and we regularly sacrificed all manner of things to them to earn their favor), and had commissioned him to go to Nineveh to declare God's anger with that city. Jonah was certain without any doubt that God intended to forgive the entire city, and he was not at all pleased about this (Jonah 4:2). After Jonah retired below deck we joked amongst ourselves that even if we wanted to, we couldn't sail him to Nineveh, since a sea-fairing boat was the last way you'd get to that desert city.

Then our troubles began, a storm hit us with such ferocity that it had to have been supernatural (Jonah 1:4). We called General Quarters and took our positions to keep the boat leeward and afloat. The captain called out for prayers of intercession to be made to every deity who could possibly help us (Jonah 1:5). I prayed fervently to Aten, but the darkness of the clouds gave me little hope of his help. Several times during the gale I thought we were done for, the ship rocked violently and tipped dangerously, and the call was made to throw overboard our cargo of valuable Arabian, Assyrian, and Egyptian wares. About this time we noticed that Jonah was nowhere to be found. After a brief search the captain came back on deck with Jonah in tow. We feared for our lives, and saw no end to the storm.

I was not the only one who felt this storm was not natural, for the crew called for lots to be cast to determine which deity should be prayed to. The lot fell on Jonah, and a hush fell across the deck, for none of us had thought to pray to Yahveh. Jonah's words pierced my heart, he declared that Yahveh, not Aten, was the creator of earth and sea. He commanded us to cast him overboard to appease his God, but we could not, for as strange as our gods were, we all abhorred human sacrifice, especially when the sacrifice appeared to be innocent of anything deserving of death. After rowing hard for land, but making no headway, we recognized that no other option presented itself. The storm grew worse; one moment we were at the summit of a mountainous wave, and the next we were in danger of being swallowed up in the valley. We prayed a prayer to Yahveh and cast his prophet into the sea.

Instantly the storm subsided, the sun came out, and our tattered sails on broken masts fluttered in a gentle breeze. We rushed to the stern and looked helplessly at the foundering prophet, wondering if we should drag him back aboard. Before we could finish the thought, the largest fish that any of us had ever seen engulfed Jonah; and then both ixthys and preacher were gone.

In Joppa I was shocked and pleased that our captain bore such strong witness to the power and sufficiency of the One-God, Yahveh, as he stood accused before our benefactor. I will forever remember him saying, “I count everything as loss in comparison to gaining God, my Saviour.” What will be his fate, I do not know, but his soul is secure in the Anointed One.

The rest of the crew expressed their desire to meet with a Rabbi and learn about the God of Israel, but as for myself, I could not shake a conviction I had. Jonah had been commissioned to warn the city of Nineveh of impending doom, but had not. God had bestowed such grace upon myself that I could think of nothing else but delivering Jonah’s message to Nineveh. Luckily, or probably more providentially, a caravan was leaving for Nineveh in the morning, and I made sure I was in it.

Over the three weeks or so it took to travel to Nineveh, I learned that the animosity between Israel and Assyria was greater than I had ever fathomed. Joppa was firmly held by the Assyrians, and so we never saw any fighting there, but I learned that fighting had been fierce elsewhere. Though we lived in a relative time of peace, a time of tributes paid from Israel to Assyria, we were beset several times by Israelite and Assyrian patrols who harassed us and searched us for spies and weapons. We passed burned out cities in Northern Israel and Syria, and passed unspeakable tributes to the Assyrian war-machine’s violence. It was during this time that I at least could empathize with Jonah’s resistance to offering Assyria forgiveness, for truly their atrocities were heinous and prevalent, but I saw that each person is in great need of forgiveness and would not and could not presume that I was in any less need of forgiveness than anyone in Assyria. I was blessed to be able to bear testimony to my fellow travelers about the God who accepted intercession, who received propitiation and who saved our lives and souls off the coast of Joppa. My Assyrian companions were riveted by the story, and one man, a native of Nineveh, canted his head when he heard of the great fish that swallowed Jonah. I do not know if they will repent towards the True and Faithful God or not, but they have been presented with the truth of the Creator and Judge of the world.

Nineveh, 770BC
The grandeur of Nineveh was awe-inspiring. As we came upon it on the bank of the Tigris River, I was astonished by the high walls, the beautiful fa├žade, the armada of fishing boats, and the towering palm trees which did not reach anywhere near the top of the walls. As we neared the Quay Gate I could not help but notice a proliferation of bronze and golden fish statues adorning the gate. One especially stood out, the largest, engraved, “City of Nina, Beloved of Ishtar”, and I couldn’t help but think it looked strikingly similar to the fish I had seen less than a month in the past.

Entering Nineveh as a foreigner seeking audience with the city's officials was not an easy task. I pled my case to governors, to sergeants, to priests of Nina, to anyone who would listen, to no avail, and finally, as my welcome in Nineveh was all but worn out as a doomsday prophet, I was invited to speak to the king. I explained to him who I had been, a non-Jew living in Judea, a faithful servant of Assyria, a journeyman fisherman, and a faithful follower of Aten among other gods. Then I explained who I had become, a follower of the God of Israel, a messenger of his grace and a herald of his sovereignty, a sinner saved by grace and one desperately calling all who would listen to turn from dead idols to the Living God. The king’s anger became evident when he heard this, he clawed the armrests of his throne, which I realized were carved into the shape of the idol of the city, a fish.

Sensing that my appointment with the king was quickly nearing its end, I continued, explaining that the wrath of the God of Israel had been kindled against Nineveh for her sins against Heaven, against humanity, and against the Jewish people, that God was prepared to curse the nation which had cursed his chosen people. I recounted the story of Jonah who was the commissioned prophet to warn the city, and told of how he had been swallowed by a fish in his disobedience. I cried out that I had seen the power of Yahveh and against it no man or beast or city could stand, that lest Nineveh repent, she would be in ruins.

The king exploded in anger, calling me a spy and a liar and a false prophet, he thundered that just has Nina had taken care of Jonah, she would take care of me. He called for his guards to seize me immediately, and had me locked in stocks in the central square of the city. In a mocking voice he told me that if my warning were true, that I would perish among the rubble of that great city. My punishment endured for weeks, given only minimal water and occasionally a bit of rotten refuse for sustenance. At first I was not given any chance of respite; then a priest of Nina offered me amnesty if I would only worship the fish goddess, to which I replied in a weak and broken voice, “Yahveh eloheinu Yahveh ehad.

After weeks and weeks of this torturous captivity, I had become a spectacle, a derision, the scum of the earth, for I would preach to any person who would listen to turn to my God; I was able to bear witness regularly every day from my chains. It was apparent that I was not long for the world, for the authorities had grown tired of me and were setting a date for my execution; all that remained was to find a proper way to make an example of me to any that would preach against the gods of Assyria. I cringed at the thought of being flayed alive and nailed to the wall of Nineveh. My faith began to falter, calls for recantation came more and more frequently, and I considered praying to Aten for help, I considered praying to Nina for reprieve, but in my weakness I found an unexpected strength in Yahveh.

Then a murmur arose in the square, followed by a supernatural silence, and through eyes blurred by dehydration, I made out a figure walking to the stairs overlooking the crowds numbering in the thousands. Struggling to focus, I saw that this disheveled man looked familiar; he was clearly a Hebrew by his dress, though his skin and his clothing were bleached white, as if by acid. I can't tell you why, but I got the distinct impression that he had been inside of a fish; he certainly looked like he had been to death and back. It seemed as though all of Nineveh gave him ear and waited for him to speak. He looked towards Heaven, and then preached that famous short sermon,

Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!

The rest is history.