From the Newsletter of Institute for Christian Renewal Volume XXXVI Number 6 – Spring 2016. The article is (c) Copyright, 2016, Institute for Christian Renewal. Express written permission to duplicate it for non-commercial purposes must be requested by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Canon Mark A. Pearson
Christ the Controversialist
All religions and philosophies throughout the ages address basic issues our hearts and minds raise.
This does not mean they give the same answers. Those who so glibly state that “all religions teach the same thing” have never studied the various religions of the world. If they had studied them they would know that the answers given by various religions differ significantly.
This is important. As intellectual historian and political philosopher Richard M. Weaver, Jr. (1910-1963) noted, “Ideas have consequences.” Give a wrong answer to a question and bad, perhaps dire, consequences will follow. Just think how this is true with medical decisions or whether the traffic light is red or green.
Jesus came make the atoning sacrifice for our sins so we can be saved. He came to inaugurate God’s Kingdom on earth and to exhort people to be godly.
But He also came to teach basic, foundational truths about reality. English Anglican priest and author John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) called Him “Christ the Controversialist,” not just because He was a controversial figure (although He certainly was), but because He engaged in controversies about basic things. He had the presumption to state that His answers were the definitive ones, that He was “the truth” (John 14:6) and that it was the truth which made people free (John 8:32).
The Hell-fire Preacher Is . . .
With that in mind let us look at the issue of Hell.
Some people think that St. Paul hijacked Jesus’ teachings and twisted His message of love into something far different. More than one person has said to me, “God saves everyone. No one is going to Hell except maybe a Hitler. Isn’t that what Jesus taught? Wasn’t it Paul who messed up the New Testament?”
The unequivocal answer to these questions is a loud and resounding NO! The fact is, the greatest preacher of Hell in the Bible is Jesus.
First, let’s prove that point. Then let’s look at why Jesus was so earnest about teaching about Hell. Finally, we’ll examine why the truth about Hell matters (or should matter) to us today.
- Did Jesus Teach about Hell?
Jesus warned His hearers about Hell in two different ways. The first way was to contrast Heaven and Hell with various either/or illustrations. Besides making it clear there are two final (and opposite) eternal destinies, each of the four illustrations listed below adds a detail or two to our understanding.
Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). The sheep will “inherit the kingdom” (verse 34) but the goats will be ordered to “depart . . . into the eternal fire” (verse 41). Sheep were those who ministered to the practical needs of genuinely needy people (verses 40-43). While we are not saved by our good works, our profession of faith is authenticated in part by how we respond to the Lordship of Christ because “faith without works is dead (James 2: 14-17).
Wheat and Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30). At the time of the harvest the wheat is to be gathered into the master’s barn (heaven) but the weeds are to be bound into bundles “to be burned” (verse 30).
The sobering truth of this can be illustrated by a comparison of airplanes and their destinations. Some people suggest that everyone is on the airplane bound for heaven, only some do not know it. Believers receive more blessings now because they pray for them. It’s like they’re sitting in first class on the ‘plane. Non-believers are crammed into second class and only later discover they’ve arrived at the same airport.
But Jesus teaching is quite the opposite. Continuing the airplane analogy, believers land at the airport of the wonderful city called heaven while non-believers are in a different plane which crashes and burns.
Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (Mat-thew 25:1-13). The bridesmaids who were ready went into the wedding banquet but the door was shut to the rest. The Lord of the feast would not open the door to them because, he said, “I do not know you.” (verse 12).
If the illustration of sheep and goats teaches us that good works are necessary to prove our salvation, the illustration of the wise and foolish bridesmaids teaches us that being good and doing good by themselves do not yield salvation. One has to know Jesus as personal Lord and Savior to be saved. Grace is what saves.
Lazarus and The Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31). Both men died. Lazarus was carried “to Abraham’s bosom” (verse 22). “Dives” (as tradition calls him) was “in agony in these flames” (verse 24). Between the two places “a great chasm has been fixed” so that people cannot cross from one place to the other (verse 26). In this Jesus is teaching there is no second chance for salvation after death.
So then, the first way Jesus warned about Hell was by employing various either/or (heaven/hell) illustrations. The second way Jesus warned about Hell was by exhortation. Let’s look at just two:
In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus used a figure of speech to indicate it was better to lose an offending (sinning) body part (eye, hand) than to be thrown “into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30).
He told His hearers not to fear those who could merely kill the body, but the One Who “can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
Did Jesus Really Say All This?
What are we to make of these teachings on Hell the Bible says come from Jesus?
Some might say that they were added later on by a mean, nasty Church. But there’s no evidence the manuscripts of the New Testament were tampered with. There were no cries of, “My grandfather heard Jesus teach and he schooled me in His teaching, and the manuscripts floating around are wrong in what they quote Jesus as saying.”
Others might say that a belief in Hell is inconsistent with a God of love. But all that says is those objecting have defined love differently from Jesus.
While most people today do not craft idols of stone, some do craft intellectual idols. They have an idea of what God should be like and what love really means and when the Bible teaches something else they conclude the Bible is wrong and not themselves.
I’ve been following the political scene quite closely this year. One of the people still in the running (as of March 28) for President was asked why her position on a particular moral issue did not square with what Scripture has for centuries been understood to mean. Her comment was, “If a religion teaches something else [than what I have been saying], then we need to change the religion.” Really?
Such an attitude reminds me of medical patients who, upon hearing bad news from the doctor, respond, “Oh what does the doctor know?” Or the little child who doesn’t want to be seen by the mess he just made, covering his face with his hands saying, “You can’t see me.” Just because we wish Jesus didn’t say something doesn’t mean He didn’t. And when it comes to eternal lostness in Hell, He said it over and over again.
- Why Was Jesus So Earnest in Teaching about Hell?
Why did Jesus talk about Hell so often? The answer is simple: He knew that Hell is real, that many people are heading there, that it’s a place of eternal lostness with no further chance of escape, and that He doesn’t want people to go there.
He knows these things because, first, He is God from all eternity. He knows them, secondly, because His painful trip to the Cross was necessitated by our sins and their need for atonement, lest we go to Hell. Jesus’ trip to the Cross was not the sad end to the life of one who bucked the establishment once too often. It was the culmination of the plan of salvation.
Why did He use such graphic language? Because of the urgency. By analogy, I speak with a gentle voice when I tell people that the kind of peanut butter I like is, “in my humble opinion,” better than everything else on the market, but I speak with urgency and animation when I warn them of a clear and present danger. I would say, “I think Teddy Peanut Butter is better than Skippy” a whole lot differently than I would say, “Your house is on fire. Get out now!”
The Romans occupying the Holy Land regularly crucified people and their agony was visible for all to see.
This is why He cried out to His Father in the Garden of Gethsemane that “this cup” (of His going to the Cross) would “pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). But because the Cross was the only way our sins could be paid for, Jesus was willing to do it.
The stakes for Him were high, but He would rise from the dead on the third day. But the stakes individual people are much higher, because if one does not receive Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for sin, he or she will spend a lost eternity as a goat, a weed, a foolish bridesmaid or that rich man, Dives. Jesus’ urgency is because He knew (and knows) the danger of eternal Hell for those not saved.
- Why Jesus’ Teaching About Hell Should Matter to Us Today
First, about us. Are you trusting Christ for your eternal salvation? Our hope for heaven is not based on how good we are and how much good we do — important as these things are. One prayer many of us remember saying starts, “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies” (Book of Common Prayer, page 337). If you have never humbly asked Jesus to be your hope — your only hope — for heaven, say yes to His free gift of eternal salvation right now.
Second, about others. People you care about — family members, neighbors, schoolmates, fellow workers, and people at your hobby club or fraternal organization — all need to know Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior so they can spend all eternity in Heaven. Remember, the difference between sheep and goats is not between going to the same end place only in different levels of comfort along the way. There are two final, permanent destinations.
What should we do? First, make a list of those people you really want to come to Jesus for salvation. (Of course we should want everyone, but too often when we think about everyone in general we don’t think about anyone in particular.) Put this list in a place you will easily and frequently see. Pray for these people at least once a day.
Second, ask God to give you opportunities to talk with them about the Lord. As long as you’re gentle (but persistent) and talk about things in addition to the Gospel / Jesus / Church, you won’t do harm. Too often we are so afraid of saying the wrong thing we say nothing.
Third, when we talk about the Lord we speak of (a) basic things of the faith (for example, the little booklet “The Four Spiritual Laws”), and (b) what God has done in our lives.
Fourth, invite them to Church. Don’t just ask them to come with you “some time,” but set a date and pick them up in your car, and sit with them there. What an incredible joy when you see someone you care for come to salvation.+