Scripture: Luke 16:19-31
Sermon: “How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?!”
The 38 year old minister stepped up to the pulpit on July 8, 1741. Little did he or his people know that he was about to preach the most famous sermon in American history. Per usual he read his sermon in his boring style, but this day his congregation wept as they listened to:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell,…as one holds a spider…over the fire, abhors you;… his wrath towards you burns like fire;… you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours,… and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling in to the fire every moment. O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in!
The preacher went on to be Princeton’s president, and this sermon was Jonathan Edwards,’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. This wrathful, Puritan God is the backdrop to our loving God, and to the chief critique of Christianity, how can a loving God send people to Hell?!
Rob Bell, pastor of my niece and nephew’s 7000 attendee church in Grandville, MI, has just written a book on hell that is rocking the evangelical world. It’s called Love Wins, and says things controversial to the Bible belt like, Gandhi may be in heaven, or, maybe good people who haven’t accepted Jesus are in heaven… Rob’s been on GMA, talked with Newsweek’s Lisa Miller, etc. His thesis is that we do not determine the boundaries of God’s love, and so Rob is pushing towards a generous orthodoxy rather than Jonathan Edwards’ stingy orthodoxy.
Now I agree with his aim of a generous, not stingy, orthodoxy, though I do not believe that the Bible teaches that good people go to heaven, only people forgiven by Jesus. Having said that, I bet that I haven’t preached more than a handful or two of sermons on hell in my 23 years.
So before we just dismiss Edwards and hug Bell, let’s think about this. Do you know that Jesus said more about hell than anyone in the Bible (cf. v. 22, 23)? Have you read Miroslav Volv, a Croatian scholar who saw the violence in the Balkans, who says its the absence of a God of wrath that actually secretly nourishes violence because we tend to take matters into our own hands? Or have you read Polish Nobel Prize winning poet, Czeslaw Milosz, who witnessed atheism’s violence, and then writes that the true opiate of the people is the belief in nothingness after death…so that our betrayals, greed…and murders will not be judged?
For if there is no judgment or hell, then God did not give you free will, or God over-rides it, so you’re a robot. Now the Bible doesn’t paint God, as Edwards did, as almost gloating over destroying sinners in hell, rather it shows God respecting the desires of self-absorbed folk; e.g., in our passage only one of our heroes is named, the poor man Lazarus. What is the other one called? Simply rich man because money was his obsession, greed his god. It’s like The Lord of the Rings where Smeagol’s obsession with the ring transforms him into Gollom, the wretch who coughs and crawls after it. Just like all self-centered sin shrinks us to sub-human levels.
In C. S. Lewis’, The Great Divorce, he imagines a busload of complainers who take a trip from hell to heaven. At the pearly gates they are invited to leave their selfishness that has trapped them in hell. In a sense they peer through the gates and turn away to get back on the bus, grumbling all the way. Lewis concludes, hell is the greatest monument to human freedom. Isn’t it intriguing that the rich man, even in hell, treats Lazarus as his waterboy, Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue. He just doesn’t get it–it’s not all about him!
And so I conclude where C. S. Lewis concludes, There are only two kinds of people—those who say “Thy will be done’ to God or those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.” Which are you? So it’s true that a loving God does not send anyone to hell, love just has to allow free choice. So sadly we send ourselves. Rejecting Jesus has consequences.
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