Recently someone made a request. He said, "A person in my family wants to hear a sermon on hell." I am not asked very often to challenge you to think about hell. Speaking strictly from the past, in my experience this infrequent request comes in two situations. (1) The person is convinced that other people need to think about hell. Or, (2) the person feels the need for a sobering dose of fear. Certainly, those are not the only two reasons for wanting to study about hell.

How many of you already have "turned" me "off?" How many of you are saying, "David, please share something that will help us. Don't talk about hell."

What to you know about hell? "Everybody knows about hell." So, what can you tell me about hell? (1) "I do not want to go there." (2) "It is hot there with flames constantly burning." (3) "It is extremely painful there, and you cannot die to escape the suffering." (4) It is a place of absolute darkness." That is the common understanding of hell. We take everything said about hell in the New Testament, draw a composite picture, and accept details without thought.

You ask, "What is there to think about?" Two of the common images of hell drawn from horrible experiences in the first century world: (1) hell is a place of endless flames and (2) hell is a place of the blackest kind of darkness. In earthly experience, flames produce light. In our physical world, flames and absolute darkness do not mix.

  1. The Old Testament says very little if anything at all about heaven or hell as presented in the New Testament.
    1. Old Testament scripture says little about what happened to an Israelite after he or she died (remember that the Old Testament was written to Israelites).
      1. Life after death is not a prominent theme in the Old Testament.
      2. One prominent theme in the Old Testament declares serving God produces a desirable, materially rewarding physical existence.
        1. When God made a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), God's promises were:
          1. "I will make you a great nation."
          2. "I will bless you."
          3. "I will give you a name that is associated with greatness."
          4. "I will bless your friends and curse your enemies."
        2. Later God promised Abraham (Genesis 17:1-8):
          1. A multitude of nations will come from your descendants.
          2. Kings will be among your descendants.
      3. A few hundred years later Moses told Israel (Deuteronomy 7:6-8):
        For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
        1. It was very easy for Israel to decide, "God says we are special."
        2. "We are God's chosen people."
        3. "God picked us over every other people."
        4. "By God's own selection, we belong to God."
        5. "We are so important to God that God rescued us from slavery and destroyed our enslavers."
        6. "God loves us."
        7. The fact that all this happened because of God's love for and promise to Abraham did not seem to register in their thinking and understanding.
      4. In Deuteronomy 27 and 28, Moses enumerated all the ways God would bless or curse them depending on the way they obeyed or disobeyed God.
        1. Moses gave a long list of blessings, and all of them are physical.
        2. Moses gave a long list of curses, and all of them are physical.
        3. In both lists, there is not even one statement about heaven.
        4. In both lists, there is not even one statement about hell.
    2. These were the basic understandings of Israel in the Old Testament:
      1. As God's chosen people, they must obey the commandments, statutes, and ordinances of God.
      2. If they are an obedient people, God will bless them physically by giving them a good life of peace and prosperity.
      3. If they are a disobedient people, God will afflict them physically by giving them a horrible life of poverty, sickness, and hunger.

  2. The Israelite people of the New Testament felt special.
    1. "We are special because of who we are and who our forefathers were."
      1. "We are the descendants that God promised Abraham."
      2. "We are God's chosen people."
      3. "Our ancestors make us special because God gave them His promises."
    2. John the baptizer made a biting declaration to the religious leaders who came out into the wilderness to hear his teachings and to be baptized (Matthew 3:7-9).
      1. To have the nation's religious leaders make the difficult trip to wilderness just to hear you preach would be a huge ego trip for many preachers.
      2. Not for John.
      3. John called them a bunch of snakes who were running from God's wrath.
      4. If they were truly repenting, they needed to demonstrate their repentance in the way they lived.
      5. He said that they should not depend on false confidence.
        1. To say that they were special before God because they were the descendants of Abraham was false confidence.
        2. John said God had the power to make rocks the descendants of Abraham.
        3. It was not who they were that mattered.
        4. It was how they lived life for God that mattered.
    3. John 8 records a debate Jesus had with the Pharisees.
      1. Three times in that debate, the Pharisees defense was this, "We are the descendants of Abraham" (verses 33, 39, 53).
      2. Contextual implication: "We are special. We have a special relationship with God. Look who we are."
      3. Their confidence was so rooted in their identity that they refused to think about how they lived.

  3. A specific problem existed in Israel, and an understanding of hell addressed that problem.
    1. The problem: Israel's religious leaders believed that national identity could remove individual accountability.
      1. "What really matters is your ancestry."
      2. "If your mother and father are Israelites, if you were circumcised, if you offer the right sacrifices, if you followed the right rituals, that is what really counts."
      3. Jesus said, "No. Those things are important. But, what really counts is how you live your life. What really counts is your relationship with God."
    2. When you seek to understand hell, certain things are very important to remember.
      1. You must remember that Jesus taught the Jewish people, his own people.
      2. You must remember to understand Jesus' point to them.
      3. You must remember that Jesus' descriptions and symbols had specific meaning to those people, and we need to understand that meaning.
      4. If we reduce hell to pain, suffering, flames, and darkness, we miss much of the substance of Jesus' statements.

  4. What message did Jesus declare to Israel in his teachings about hell?
    (I am briefly sharing with you what requires a whole quarter of study and research.)
    1. Message # 1 about hell: the reality of hell declared that accountability is personal not national.
      1. There is an existence after death, and we will live with God or with Satan.
      2. Whom you live with on earth will determine whom you live with then.
      3. When you die, merely being an Israelite would not be the determining factor.
      4. Being a godly Israelite who obediently served God was the determining factor because life [not nationality] allowed you to receive God's mercy and grace.
    2. Message # 2 about hell: hell is a place of total uncleanness.
      1. To most of us, that message does not even compute in our understanding.
      2. It certainly does not mean to us what it meant to first century Israelites.
      3. The code of cleanliness was the code of purity; if you were unclean, you could not worship and you could not appear before God at the temple.
      4. Israelites understood there were five basic areas of uncleanness.
        1. The food you ate had to be approved, clean food (Leviticus 11).
        2. Giving birth made a woman unclean (Leviticus 12 and 15:19-33).
        3. Any discharge from a man's body made him unclean (Leviticus 15:1-18)
        4. Touching a person who was diseased with leprosy or touching something he or she touched made you unclean (Leviticus 14).
        5. Touching a dead body made you unclean (Numbers 19:11-22).
      5. An Israelite corrected uncleanness by following ceremonies for purification.
      6. The word for hell was Jerusalem's garbage dump.
        1. The garbage dump was the symbol of gross uncleanness.
        2. The worm was always working; the dump was always smoldering.
      7. In early Israelite history the emphasis was on ceremonial purity.
        1. In the age of the prophets, the emphasis shifted to moral and ethical purity.
        2. Jesus stressed moral and ethical purity.
    3. Message # 3 about hell: that existence occurs in the total absence of God and His influence.
      1. Israel had never known such a place, not even in slavery or captivity.
      2. You have never known a place where there is no influence from God.
      3. That means no good in any form exists there because good comes from God.
      4. Hell is a place of no mercy, no forgiveness, no compassion, and no kindness.
      5. Only Satan's influence exists there.
    4. Message # 4 concerning hell: hell is a place of remembering.
      1. Every person there knows he or she was deceived, and he or she knows when, how, and why.
      2. Every person there exists in the memory of every mistake he or she made.
      3. It is a place of intense grief and no joy.
      4. It is a place of utter selfishness; no one will be concerned for or about you.
      5. There will not even be the pretense of love; remember God is love.

[Prayer: God, thank you for giving us a choice. Help us understand that Jesus died to create that choice. Thank you for helping us understand what love is.]

What is hell's specific message to today? # 1: "I am accountable. Being listed in the church directory proves nothing. Living for God places me in His mercy and forgiveness. #2: If I am purified by the blood of Jesus, I must be committed to moral, ethical living. #3: Living in hell is existing totally outside the presence of God. #4: If I live with God, I will remember His mercy and forgiveness in Christ. If I live with Satan, I will remember Satan's deceit and my failures.

The popular, comical notion today is that hell is a P-A-R-T-Y. Everyone who loves to party gets together. Those in hell know the party was on earth. There is no party in hell.

The basic reason God went to the enormous effort to give us a Savior and to make available His mercy and grace was to give us a choice. Freedom is in Christ. In Satan, there is only deception.

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 27 August 2000

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