Where Do We Go From Here: What Jesus Said About Heaven and Hell

Series: Red Letters: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said?

 “Where Do We Go From Here?: What Jesus Said about Heaven & Hell” // Matt 25:31-46

Sunday, April 14, 2013 @ Jericho Ridge Community Church

Series: Red Letters


Years ago, I was traveling through Rome, Italy, and I decided to do some sightseeing and stand in the long line up to get into the Sistine Chapel.  It’s an interesting place…  You weave your way through a maze of rooms within the Vatican that house priceless artifacts but you pay no attention because you are heading for the main attraction.  Michelangelo’s breath-taking multi-paneled ceiling which depicts more than 300 figures from biblical history and is over 5,000 square feet of frescos.  But as you begin to walk out of the room, one painting looms larger than life over you on the far wall over the altar and creates a sense of ominous awe.  This painting wasn’t part of the original commission and Michelangelo was called back in 1535 for a project that took him 2 years longer to complete than the ceiling.  That painting is The Last Judgment It covers the entirety of the back wall as you exit those two little doors and it’s a deeply impressive piece of art.  But is it biblical?  It’s a question that you may not have thought about, but looking more closely at the various images you see bodies shedding their skins in grotesque kind of ways.  You see funny looking devil figures and people who look like they escaped from a horror film set with all of their make-up still on.  The Sistine Chapel might be a beautiful piece of art, but we have to ask ourselves does it accurately represent what the Bible teaches us about the last judgment... About heaven and hell? 


We’ve been in a teaching series for March and April called The Red Letters: What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said?  In it, we’ve been looking at some of the things that Jesus said that are challenging for us to wrestle with – both in content and in the implications.  Perhaps none of these is more important or more controversial and perhaps more misunderstood than the topic of where do we go when we die.  And I am going to suggest to you today that we have largely ignored what Jesus said about judgment and the afterlife in favour of cartoonish caricatures and weak platitudes.  But today, I am hopeful that we can press beyond some of that and ask what Jesus actually said about this important topic because it touches each and every one of our lives.  I think part of the problem, particularly is discussing emotionally charged topics like heaven and hell, is that Christians tend to get philosophical and fail to remember that this is people’s lives that we are talking about.  And so as always here at Jericho, can I remind you of the Ground Rules for Theological Dialogue.  First, and most importantly,    

Always engage in study and dialogue with humility, charity and lived convictions.  By lived convictions I mean that things have to be thought of in terms of their implications for discipleship.  How might this play out in my life right now, today?  In the interest of time today, we’re going to focus primarily on what Jesus says about hell, and here it is important to ask ourselves carefully         

  • Ask: What does the Bible say and what does it NOT say?
  • Watch out for issues of cultural bias or personal agenda(s)

Sometimes I talk with people who deeply want to believe that their dead loved one has “gone to a better place”, even though everything about their life would indicate otherwise, and so it is important to be aware that when we subject both our personal experiences and our cultural narratives to the biblical witness.  With that as our backdrop, I want to invite you to turn with me in your Bibles or on the YouVerson app on your smartphones to 

Matthew 25:31-46 - 5 Scripture Slides.   Jesus is preaching his final recorded sermon on earth and he’s come to the third of three parables about readiness and being watchful and being found faithful.  Ready?


So, what do we know from this passage about where we go from here? Again, in the interest of time and focus, we’re going to work through What Does Jesus Say About Hell?  (We’ll have to save what he says about heaven for another time).  But what we uncover in this text is that Jesus is clear on a few things, the first one being

  1. Hell is real, not fictional (Matthew 25:41) 

Verse 41 says that hell is a real place that was prepared or created for the devil and his followers, just as heaven is a place prepared or created for Jesus’ followers.  But here’s our cultural challenge…  That’s about all that Jesus says about hell.  But we have filled in the gaps (and then some!).       

  • Mythology and images grew up in the middle ages (Dante, Bunyan) and have been stoked by revivalists & pop culture

Take neo-Platonic Greek philosophy & mythology, mix in the literature and art of the middle ages (Dante’s inferno and even John Bunyan’s Pilgrims’ Progress), add the hell fire and brimstone preachers from the 1700’s through to the 1970’s, pop culture where Homer Simpson trades his soul to the devil for a donut, and that’s about as clear a picture as exists in most of our minds when it comes to the afterlife.  This picture is reinforced day by day in everything from Sistine chapel art to Far Side Comics – This one says “Welcome to Heaven, here’s your harp.  Welcome to hell, here’s your accordion”.  We have the devil in commercials selling cheese with his pitchfork and horns.  You may have grown up hearing hell fire and brimstone preachers give all kinds of very strong and passionate arguments for hell and scaring you into decisionism (as opposed to discipleship).  I can personally remember being locked into the chapel at summer camp as a young kid and shown a Billy Graham Evangelistic Association movie on hell in the early 1980’s - it scared the hell into me! 

And so our temptation can very easily be to jettison or to fictionalize or to minimize hell, something that Jesus never does.  He speaks of it in a particular way, however.  Not to fear monger but to cause us, as in this passage, to consider our actions and our choices.  More on that later. 


So what do we do with hell?  Books are being published furiously these days by various evangelicals… Some want to make hell more prominent in their preaching; some want to minimize it or erase it all together.  When Jesus talks about hell, however, it is always with a unique tone of warning. Why?  Because

  1.  Hell is bad.  Really, really bad. (2 Peter 2:4) 

In the book Dante’s Inferno, he goes into great detail about the various levels in hell: how you get there, who’s there with you, the signage in hell (the one above the entry door reads “Abandon all hope”).  Whenever the biblical writers speak about hell, however, they resort to metaphors because it’s just too horrible to put into words.  2 Peter 2 talks about gloomy pits of darkness. Other common phrases associated with hell in the New Testament include a focus on a particular aspect of the experience of hell, not the specifics about the environment.  They will say things like…  

  • Weeping, gnashing of teeth, anguish, torment, eternal fire… 

Sometimes we pick up on a metaphor and turn it into something literal or build it into something more than the biblical writers intended for us to do.  For example, ‘fire’ in the Scriptures is usually used as allusion to judgment or testing of one’s works.  It is something that is all consuming.  But in our modern visual culture and thanks to the influence of Dante, we have taken that which is metaphor and symbol and turned it into concrete gospel truth.

Tim Keller reminds us helpfully in his book “The Reason for God’ that

  • “All [biblical] language about [hell] is allusive, metaphorical and partial.” (Author Timothy Keller)

Hell is unspeakably bad. Literally, it’s such a horrible state of existence that it is only alluded to and we are pleaded with to avoid the experience of it.


Why?  Well, because we can see here from Jesus and other texts that

3.   Hell is punishment (Matthew 25:46; 23:33) 

In the parable prior to this, the unfaithful servant is punished for his actions.  In this description of the final judgment, hell is described as eternal punishment for those who knew what to do but who willfully refused to act.  Every time Jesus brings up the topic of judgment, He says

  • Our choices in our lives have very real consequences

You can see a kind of parental heart in this discussion – like we read in Deuteronomy earlier this morning, God lays out the consequences of our choices and implores us to choose life.  But He also allows us to choose the alternative.  God’s judgment is connected to your and my actions.

  • Some will rise to “everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting disgrace.” (Daniel 12:2)

What is the fruit that my life is bearing… The actions of some invite divine judgment, shame and everlasting disgrace. 


Here’s where I get concerned about those who want to erase or minimize hell.  In a very real way, if everyone goes to a better place when they die, there are no consequences for my actions here and now.  This view is known as universalism and it is rooted in the notion that all of God’s judgment, including hell, is designed to lead us to repentance.  That perhaps after death we’ll have a second or third or 15th or 15 millionth opportunity to recognize the foolishness of our actions and to choose good and to choose God.  Which begs the question of justice.    


One of my favorite theological writers is a man by the name of Mirslav Volf.  His book Exclusion and Embrace has been called one of the most influential works of the 20th century.  Growing up in the former Yugoslavia, he witnessed the atrocities of the ethnic tensions and civil war that tore that country apart and killed many of his friends and neighbours.  In his book he write about this notion of our actions having consequences: “If God were not angry at injustice, God would not be worthy of our worship. The practice of Christian nonviolence requires the belief that God will one day judge. If you disagree, I suggest imagining that you are in a war zone... Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats cut.


Imagine telling them that they should not punish their enemies because God does not judge or punish. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home to insist that an all-loving God does not judge or punish.” (Exclusion and Embrace, 303)


Just recently in Tanzania, there’s been a wave of attacks, mutilations and killings of children with albinism.  One little girl was just 3 years old.  When we look at our world, we see the systemic injustice perpetuated against the poor in Guatemala, the horrible things done throughout history by leaders, these things cry out for justice.  And so when Jesus brings up hell, one of the things he is doing is reminding us that even if a person escapes justice in this life, that there is a just and righteous God who does not let the guilty off scott free.  There is a day when they, and when you and I will answer for our actions. 25:46 “they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into life eternal.”  The judge of all things, who is just and fair will not let the righteous go unrewarded or the guilty go unpunished.

The other notion that we see used in this discussion is the word eternal 

4.   Hell is eternal (Matthew 25:46) 

In other biblical texts like 2 Thessalonians 1, we read that         

  • “They will be punished with eternal destruction, forever separated from the Lord & from his glorious power.”  (2 Thess. 1:9)

But the challenge with the word “eternal” is that we lack reference points in our time-oriented minds to process what that means.   

  • There are still lots of questions:  Annihilationism? (does the person’s personhood cease to exist, or they are annihilated?)  Conscious?

I think here it’s wise to be careful about philosophical speculation.  I’m not suggesting that we don’t think carefully and deeply about this, I’m just inviting us to consider what we know and can know.  Jesus himself, the only person who had access to that information, for whatever reason, chose not to give it to us in recorded biblical witness and so our minds can run into speculation and philosophy and set up all kinds of elaborate systems but I want to caution us to stick with what we know and why it was revealed to us.  So let’s move in that direction.  The 5th thing we know is


5.   Hell is separation from God (Matthew 25:46) 

These will ‘go away’ Jesus says into hell, which in other passages is described in complete contrast to God who is love and light.  Hell is

  • “Outer darkness” (Mt. 25:30, Jude 7)

Here we are back at the purpose of using metaphors – darkness & fire are vivid ways of describing what happens to us when we lose the presence of God.  Isolation, disintegration where we endlessly, horrifically and literally fall apart.  Tim Keller puts it well when he says “in the teaching of Jesus the ultimate condemnation from the mouth of God is 'depart from me.' That is remarkable--to simply be away from God is the worst thing that can happen to us! Why? We were originally created to walk in God's immediate presence (Genesis 2.)... the Bible says sin excludes us from God's 'face' (Isaiah 59:2.) All the life, joy, love, strength, and meaning we have looked for and longed for is found in his face -that is, in his favor, presence, fellowship, and pleasure.”  When all of that is taken away, it is hell. 

  • “This condition will consist in a total absence of God, of all good, all comfort and all salvation”  (The Confession of Cornelis Ris, 1766)


I don’t know about you, but perhaps the most frequent objection to Christian faith that I encounter relates to this topic…  Why or how Would a loving God send people to hell?  You have likely heard this objection.

The place I will often go in this conversation with people is to help them wrestle with what Jesus teaches about where we go from here and how it is intimately connected with the here and now.  In Matthew 25, Jesus’s is responding to how people have treated the poor.  In his critique of religious people in Matthew 23, Jesus wants to know how they figure by their outward actions they will escape the fires of hell, when their inner lives are filled with putrid thoughts and motives.  In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus notes that the rich man knew Lazarus’ name, thus he had ample opportunity in his lifetime to have helped the poor man, but he chose a different path.  So the question “why would God send people to hell” is a bit misleading in the sense that

“Scripture sees hell as self-chosen . . . [H]ell appears as God's gesture of respect for human choice.  All receive what they actually chose, either to be with God forever, worshipping him, or without God forever, worshipping themselves.” (J.I Packer) 


My choices and your choices have very real and ultimately eternal consequences.  God doesn’t send people to hell; hell is our refusal to be reconciled to God.  Here we need to pair this with what we talked about last weekend – the reality that not of us will ‘choose our way to heaven’ based on good works.  But our works will ultimately be judged.  Our choices will be laid bare and our motives sifted and tested and God will give us what we most desire.      


In C.S. Lewis’s wonderful book, “The Great Divorce” – the residents of hell take a bus trip to heaven.  And they are given the choice to stay.  But one by one, they decline on various grounds.  And Lewis uses the various conversations to make the point that:

“It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud. In the end, there are only two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Your will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Your will be done.’” 


The Psalms and Romans 1 speaks of God giving us the desires of our hearts… Of turning us over to the desires of our heart.  Some of us, deep in our beings are still screaming at God “I am the captain of my fate, I am the master of my soul”, and so one day, God will ultimately say to those who live like that – fine, I respect your choice.  In the afterlife, you will get what you have most wanted – either to be your own saviour and master or to have God as your saviour and master. Hell is the extension of your chosen path, stretching into eternity.  This is why hell is so scary. And this is what Lewis is driving at it that quote: Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God 'sending us' to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.”  Hell is the law of natural consequences and it is something that we are all headed for unless we chose wisely.  Many classical writers speak of hell as being a prison with the door locked from the inside by us, and God simply respects our choice.  To me, that is perhaps more sobering than any hellfire and brimstone sermon I have ever heard.  And it’s also why focusing on the metaphors and imagery is distracting at best and eternally harmful at worst. Because it obscures the real issue: How then, shall I live my life?   


Whenever the bible teaches about eternity, it does so with the purpose to call stark attention to how you and I live our lives today.  What we choose today has consequences.  Tony Campolo asks the question this way: “what is the organizing principle of my life? What is my life organized around?  If my life is organized around things that won’t be in heaven – things like sexual exploitation, greed, gluttony, argumentativeness, deception – it is logical that you won’t even want to be in heaven.  John 5:29 reminds us that our present as well as our eternity is rooted in our actions, not our intentions. 


And so today, you and I have a choice, in fact, choices, that are still ours to make.  We stand now, and each day, at a crossroads, where two roads diverge in the yellow woods, as poet Robert Frost says.  Which one are you walking down currently?  Where does it lead – in a daily sense but also in an ultimate sense?  Today, you road might lead to grumbling, tomorrow bitterness but while we are still here, you and I have choices to make.  The most important choice is how you orient your life – towards or away from God.  Who is ultimately the master of your fate / the captain of your soul?  If you have never made that choice, then today is your day…  If you have made that choice but are living however you want, with disregard for God’s principles and the way that He has invited us to orient our lives, be warned friends.  There is still time to change your path.  In some senses, hell is like ‘smelling salts’ – it’s a warning for each and every one of us to ask questions of discipleship.  How am I living my life today?  In humble receptivity to the grace and mercy of God and the promptings of the Holy Spirit? Or has my heart begun to grow cold or hard in any places.  I’m going to invite Jared to come and play instrumentally that song we sang earlier and as a response I am going to invite you to close your eyes and ask God: is there anything about my choices this week, today, that You want me to attend to?  [call for salvation...  Finish in prayer].   

Would a loving God really send people to hell? What do we know about hell from the Bible and what have we perhaps imported from pop culture, philosophy, and the art of the middle ages?Join the people of Jericho Ridge as we explore what Jesus said about hell and the implications for each of our lives.

Speaker: Brad Sumner

April 14, 2013
Matthew 25:31-46

Brad Sumner

Lead Pastor

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