An atheist recently requested the opportunity to deliver the invocation at a meeting of the Sedgwick County Commissioners in Kansas. The request was denied because the policy apparently says an invocation can only be delivered by leaders or clergy members of an established religious group in the county.” Just a couple of days ago, after the Freedom From Religion Foundation threatened to sue, Commissioner David Unruh said during a staff meeting, “If you don’t believe in (God), that’s fine with me. I don’t care, go to hell. It’s fine.”
Well, I don’t think it’s fine if someone goes to hell. And people who profess to be Christian should care about what will happen to unbelievers – even if they can’t agree just what that will be.
Christians are divided over just what will happen at the Judgement. Scripture is clear that a day of judgement
is coming, and it suggests that there will be some sort of punishment for those who reject Jesus Christ.
The specifics, though, are not as clear as we might think.
Some passages speak of utter darkness and gnashing of teeth. Others speak of the smoke of their torment rising forever. The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins has half of them being locked out of the celebration.
The Revelation tells of a lake of fire and the “Second Death.” John 3:16 sets up a contrast between perishing and eternal life – but we just heard Jesus say, “Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell.” And then He says in Matthew 18, “… your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.”
I suspect Scripture is deliberately unclear about this – because the focus of Scripture is not on the fate of unbelievers, but on God’s redeeming work. And that is the focus of what Jesus is saying to His disciples in this passage.
Our commission from Jesus is to go into all the world and preach the Gospel – the Good News that Jesus took the punishment we deserved for our sins, suffering the wrath of His Father toward our sin, then rose from the dead to give us eternal life. Jesus experienced His own hell so that His people won’t have to – but many of our fellow Christians think their mandate is to try to scare people out of hell.
When I was a teenager, a local church was screening the movie The Burning Hell, which featured Satan with his face painted like a colorful Harlequin. He was Torturer-in-Chief of all the lost souls in a dark and fiery place filled with sadistic demons and worms and gut-wrenching regret.
I went to see it several times, because I was not allowed to watch horror movies – and this one had that same kind of fascination for me.
Movies like this and preachers with a similar message capitalize on people’s fear of being thrown into hell. People often make a decision for Jesus out of fear: they have been so traumatized by the images or descriptions of eternal torment that they will say anything to get their “fire insurance.” I noticed that a lot of people who saw The Burning Hell were still trembling after they prayed the sinner’s prayer when it was over. They had little confidence, but lots of fear.
The Congregationalist pastor Jonathan Edwards helped to fan the flames of the Great Awakening in the mid-18th century with his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in which he wrote, “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 …” It is said that people interrupted his sermon numerous times, begging to know,
“What must we do to be saved?”
Even faithful believers can get caught up in that fear – especially if they start to think that God wants to throw us into hell, that God is just waiting for us to mess up, and that all it takes is one mistake for God to say that He is done with us.
I think that is Jesus getting at that here as He speaks first to His disciples before addressing the rest of the crowd. Let’s read verses 4 & 5 again:
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”
On its face, what Jesus seems to be saying is that they should be afraid of God – because God can throw them into hell. But notice how Jesus sets this up: by calling them “my friends”.
That is in contrast to the Pharisees, who are not Jesus’ friends. They are a threat to Jesus and His friends. They would pressure Pilate to have Jesus executed. They could stir up trouble which could cost the disciples their lives, as well. They also could introduce some “yeast of the Pharisees” – like doubt or self-righteousness – into the believers’ minds.
So Jesus is telling His followers not to be afraid of the Pharisees – who can kill them, but nothing more. If they are to be afraid of anyone, it is God – who has the power to throw them into hell. But Jesus immediately follows that by saying in verses 6 & 7:
“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
A whole lot more than many sparrows. Jesus’ followers were worth the life of the Son of God – so they really don’t have to be afraid. The worst that could happen to them is they could die – and the next thing they know, they’ll be back in the presence of Jesus.
So this hell-ish passage is really part of the Gospel – the Good News.
And as believers in Jesus, we are charged with proclaiming that Good News to the world. Even though we may not understand this mystery of hell, we must care about people who don’t know Jesus – and share with them His life-giving and life-changing Gospel. We must resist trying to terrify people into saying a prayer that means nothing to them and does nothing to change their lives. Instead, we should tell the beautiful and powerful story of God’s love for His fallen Creation, and of the Savior who gave His life and suffered His own Hell so that we won’t.