************ Sermon on Belgic Confession Article 37 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 14, 2021
Belgic Confession Article 37 (#13)
Robert Ingersoll, a famous lawyer and atheist in the latter part of the nineteenth century, once delivered a blistering lecture on hell. He called hell "the scarecrow of religion" and told his audience how unscientific it was, and how all intelligent people had decided there was no such place. A drunk in the audience came up to him afterward and said, "Bob, I liked your lecture; I liked what you said about hell. But, Bob, I want to know if you are sure about it, because I'm depending upon you." A lot of people would sympathize with the drunk. They want to believe there is no hell, but they want to be sure before they leap.
I The Denial of Hell
A When it comes to hell, the modern day temptation is to forget about it and pretend it doesn't exist. A 2015 poll reveals only 57% of Americans believe in hell. Now, the figure varies widely depending on religion: 82% of all evangelicals believe there is such a place, mainline denominations are down to 60%, Roman Catholic are 63%, JWs are at only 7%, Jews are 22%, atheists are 3% (I would expect them to be 0%).
What has happened to hell?
Some can't reconcile belief in hell with belief in a loving God. What kind of God, they wonder, would allow a good person like Gandhi or the nice neighbor next door to go to hell?
Others find a belief in hell too negative, especially for evangelism. These people want to dangle the goodies of the Christian life in front of unbelievers and don't want to turn them off with talk of hell-fire and punishment.
Still others, like Robert Ingersoll I mentioned earlier, find talk of hell to be too unscientific, irrational, and old-fashioned for anyone to believe in such stuff anymore. They find the belief in hell to be intellectually unappealing.
Finally, some find a belief in hell to be no different from the hell we can create on earth from a nuclear holocaust, chemical warfare, toxic waste, biological warfare, concentration camps, or many third world prisons. Once these people discovered we can create hell on earth, it seemed silly to talk about a literal hell.
For these and other reasons, many people don't think much about or even believe in hell anymore. And, that even appears to be true within the church. Very few preachers, for instance, have "fire and brimstone" sermons anymore.
B What has happened to hell? What has happened is that hell has come under attack from two different directions. One attack comes from universalists. As their name implies, the universalist believes that all people will ultimately be saved. Universalism goes back at least as far as the second century of the Christian Church. The church father Origen (A.D. 185-254) preached that God will finally include every person in the kingdom of heaven. Today, this same doctrine is preached by the Unitarians. If you debate a universalist, he or she appeals to the great love of God and points to those Bible passages that speak of all being saved (Jn 12:32; Acts 3:21; Rom 5:18; 11:32; 1 Cor 15:22; Eph 1:10; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pt 3:9).
C The second attack comes from annihilationists, who teach that unbelievers will simply be put out of existence rather than suffer eternal punishment in hell. The annihilation of unbelievers is the official teaching of Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses. If you debate an annihilationist, he or she will point out that immortality is a gift of God to believers. Non-Christians, on the other hand, do not receive this gift and therefore simply cease to exist after death.
II The Reality of Hell
A Part of me wants to admit universalism and annihilationism are attractive. After all, none of us can ever take pleasure in the eternal punishment of those who reject God and His grace. Who of us would want even our worst enemy to face the horror of God's awful judgment in hell? Yet, we cannot escape the dreadful fact that hell does exist and that those who do not know Jesus as Savior and Lord are going to be eternally punished.
It is plain from Scripture that Jesus believed in the reality of hell. In fact, no one in the Bible speaks more about this place of judgment than does our loving Savior. Twelve times Jesus gives explicit warnings about hell. Listen to just one of His warnings:
Matthew 18:8–9 (NIV84) — 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. (cf Mt 5:22; 5:29; 5:30; 10:28; 23:15; 23:33; Mk 9:43; 9:45; 9:47; Lk 12:5; 16:23). Besides speaking about hell, Jesus also refers many times to the eternal punishment of unbelievers:
Matthew 25:41,46 (NIV84) — 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels ... 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (cf Mt 7:13; 8:11-12; 11:23; 13:49-50; 24:51; Lk 16:19-31).
All this talk about hell and punishment does not mean Jesus' message was fundamentally negative or that He was trying to scare people into believing. No one who has read the Gospels can doubt Jesus' love, compassion, and concern for people. Yet, at the same time Jesus makes it clear that unrepentant sin reaps a dreadful harvest.
B What Jesus says is emphasized by the Apostles. In our Scripture reading, for instance, Paul speaks of "God's judgment" (vs 2,3), of "wrath and anger" (vs 8), and of "trouble and distress for every human being who does evil" (vs 9). The author of Hebrews can tell us "It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb 10:31). Peter and Jude can speak of the "blackest darkness" that has been reserved for the ungodly (2 Pet 2:17; Jude 13). And, Revelation speaks of the "fiery lake of burning sulphur" which it calls the "second death" (Rev 21:8).
C The church's creeds and confessions also teach the reality of hell. The Belgic Confession of Faith speaks of
the terrible vengeance that God will bring on the evil ones who ... shall be made immortal – but only to be tormented in the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
D Logically, we can say hell is necessary. If there is no place for hell, then there is no place for heaven either because the one is illogical apart from the other. Also, there is no good reason for thinking that those who reject the love of God in this life will welcome being placed in a heaven where that love is supreme; yet, that is what will happen if there is no hell. Anyone who goes to hell will go because he will feel more at home there than in heaven.
III The Nature of Hell
A If hell does exist -- and it does -- what is it like? Any discussion on the nature of hell needs to include a look at three key words: the Greek word for "hell", the Greek word for "destruction," and the Greek word for "eternal."
The Greek word for hell is Gehenna. It is a valley south of Jerusalem where child sacrifice had taken place (2 K 23:10; Jer 7:31; 19:5-6); thus it is a place of sin and shame. It was also there that Jerusalem's garbage was taken to be burned; thus it is a place of smoke, fire, maggots, and filth. Gehenna thus came to refer to the fiery place of torment for the wicked after death.
The Greek word for destruction refers to the ruin, perdition, the loss of fellowship with God, the torment or pain, that is suffered by the ungodly.
The Greek word for everlasting is often used to describe the endless future blessedness of God's people. But when it is applied to the lost it describes a punishment that never ends, a punishment that goes on and on forever, a punishment that never ends. The punishment of hell, in other words, is not temporary, something from which people may some day be released. Jesus said that in hell "the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mk 9:48). The suffering is everlasting.
B I spent some time this past week looking up the various phrases the Bible uses to describe hell and punishment. Let me list them for you:
-fire of hell (Mt 5:22)
-darkness (Mt 8:12)
-weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt 8:12)
-worm does not die, fire is not quenched (Mk 9:48)
-everlasting destruction (Phil 3:19; 2 Thess 1:9)
-shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power (2 Thess 1:9)
-condemned to hell (Mt 23:33; Jn 5:29)
-cut to pieces (Lk 12:46)
-assigned a place with unbelievers (Lk 12:46)
-beaten with many blows (Lk 12:47)
-fire never goes out (Mk 9:43)
-fiery lake of burning sulphur (Rev 21:8)
-second death (Rev 21:8)
All of these are unpleasant descriptions, underscoring that the punishment for unforgiven sin is terrible. They also let us conclude that hell has both a spiritual and a physical dimension. Spiritually, hell means that we are cut off from God -- totally, completely, with no chance for fellowship with Him. Physically, hell means our bodies will suffer -- a terrible, never-ending, excruciating pain; a death that leaves us always dying but never dead.
This spiritual and physical suffering draws home to us the truth of the verse from Hebrews I quoted earlier:
(Heb 10:31) It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
IV The Who in Hell
A Who is in hell? First, as Jesus makes clear and the Belgic Confession affirms, the devil and his demons and evil spirits have a place reserved for themselves there. Joining them are the beast, the false prophet, the Antichrist, death, and Hades (Rev 20:10,13). All of them are thrown into the lake of fire.
B Second, of greater concern to us is the people who will populate hell. The Bible tells us that anyone who does not believe in Christ, "stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" (Jn 3:18). If you are an unbeliever, you end up in hell.
The Bible further describes unbelievers as those who have done evil (Jn 5:29), evildoers (Lk 13:27), the unrighteous (2 Pet 2:9), the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars -- their place will all be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur (Rev 21:8). Paul says that those whose mind is on earthly things (Phil 3:19), those who do not know God, those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus (2 Th 1:8), and those who think the cross is foolishness will all perish too (1 Cor 1:18).
Through all these descriptions runs the thought of alienation from God. Those who will be in hell will be there because in one way or another they have chosen it. They have rejected the love of God.
The Bible makes plain that unbelief is catastrophic -- far more catastrophic than AIDS or COVID-19, far more catastrophic than drought or hunger, far more catastrophic than hurricanes or tornadoes. Christ's death and resurrection means deliverance from condemnation for those who believe. But those who refuse to believe are left with the consequences of the evil they have done. The failure to believe means ending up in the hell-fire you deserve because of sin.
V The Challenge of Hell
A The Bible's teaching on hell leaves you and me with a double challenge. The first is directed inward, towards ourselves: Do we, by grace, believe in Jesus and share in His blessings? Or, have we rejected God's offer of love and grace and therefore face the punishment of hell?
B The second challenge of hell is directed outward, towards the lost. If we truly believe in hell's reality, then we will be very concerned with telling others about Jesus. I read this past week that a Christian is one who never gets used to the sound of heathen footsteps on their way to a Christless eternity. The need to present the Gospel is so great.
Question: What is 750,000 miles long, reaches around the earth 30 times, and grows 20 miles longer each day?
Answer: The line of people who are without Christ and on their way to hell.
Hell is real. Hell is awful. We cannot deny hell's existence.
However, hell is not the most important part of our faith. Karl Barth, the famous theologian, was once asked, "Do you believe in hell?" The Swiss scholar replied, "No, I don't believe in hell; I believe in Christ Jesus." Barth certainly has a point. I need to remember that it is Jesus, not hell, that is central to my faith. But Jesus is our Savior from hell.
So I ask: do you, by grace, believe in Jesus or are you one of the millions marching to hell?
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