Jesus put before the crowd another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, `Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' He answered, `An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, `Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, `No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!"
It’s an odd thing, but most Christians today really don’t like to talk about hell.
We like to accentuate the positive, and hell is certainly not a positive place. But how can we avoid talking about it when Christ preached about hell 22 times?
John F. MacArthur, in his book Ashamed of the Gospel relates this:
“One survey of evangelical seminary students revealed that:
- Nearly half—46 percent—felt preaching about hell to unbelievers is in “poor taste.”
- Worse yet, three out of every ten self-professed “born again” people surveyed believe “good” people will go to heaven when they die—even if they’ve never trusted Christ.
- One in every ten evangelicals say they believe the concept of sin is outmoded.”
So whatever happened to our concept of hell? Research shows that only 32 percent of Americans believe that hell is a real place of torment. Is hell passé?
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the sons of the evil one being thrown into a fiery furnace at the end of the world. This is a reference to the fires of Gehenna, also referred to in the book of Revelation as the “lake of fire”. Gehenna was different that Sheol, a place where the dead pretty much just hang out waiting for the final judgment. Gehenna was actually a name of a garbage dump outside of
Some biblical scholars feel that Gehenna is an actual place of fiery torment; others speculate that it is a symbolic metaphor for eternal separation from God. But whatever we believe about the nature of the punishment that is to come to those who reject God, we cannot deny that Jesus himself said that there would be such a punishment. Martin Luther said, “What hell is, we know not; only this we know, that there is such a sure and certain place.”
Once we come to such a conclusion, we often ask ourselves why a God of love would send anyone to such a place as Jesus described.
James Packer, in his book Your Father Loves You, says this:
Why do men shy away from the thought of God as a judge? Why do they feel unworthy of him? The truth is that part of God’s moral perfection is his perfection in judgment. Would a God who did not care about the difference between right and wrong be a good and admirable being? Would a God who put no distinction between the beasts of history, the Hitlers and Stalins (if we dare use names), and his own saints be morally praiseworthy and perfect? Moral indifference would be an imperfection in God, not a perfection. And not to judge the world would be to show moral indifference. The final proof that God is a perfect moral being, not indifferent to questions of right and wrong, is the fact that he has committed himself to judge the world.
It is clear that the reality of divine judgment must have a direct effect on our view of life. If we know that retributive judgment faces us at the end of the road, we shall not live as otherwise we would. But it must be emphasized that the doctrine of divine judgment, and particularly of the final judgment, is not to be thought of primarily as a bogeyman, with which to frighten men into an outward form of conventional righteousness. It has its frightening implications for godless men, it is true; but its main thrust is as a revelation of the moral character of God, and an imparting of moral significance to human life.
There will be a judgment. To deny that would mean that God would be not have placed much importance on what we do or do not do. It would negate the whole necessity of the sacrifice of God’s only son to save us from such a fate. What would be the point of Jesus’ death on the cross if God were just going to say, “oh all right…you can come in anyway!”?
Anglican Bishop J.D. Ryle said,
A flood of false doctrine has lately broken in upon us. Men are beginning to tell us “that God is too merciful to punish souls for ever...that all mankind, however wicked and ungodly...will sooner or later be saved.” We are to embrace what is called “kinder theology,” and treat hell as a pagan fable...This question lies at the very foundation of the whole Gospel. The moral attributes of God, His justice, His holiness, His purity, are all involved in it. The Scripture has spoken plainly and fully on the subject of hell... If words mean anything, there is such a place as hell. If texts are to be interpreted fairly, there are those who will be cast into it...The same Bible which teaches that God in mercy and compassion sent Christ to die for sinners, does also teach that God hates sin, and must from His very nature punish all who cleave to sin or refuse the salvation He has provided.
God knows that I never speak of hell without pain and sorrow. I would gladly offer the salvation of the Gospel to the very chief of sinners. I would willingly say to the vilest and most profligate of mankind on his deathbed, “Repent, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” But God forbid that I should ever keep back from mortal man that scripture reveals a hell as well as heaven...that men may be lost as well as saved.
Jesus’ death on the cross is the most incontrovertible proof of the existence of a final judgment; without that judgment, there would be no need for salvation.
So what are we to do with our knowledge of the reality of hell? Do we rush about, pointing fingers, telling people to get to church or they will go to hell? Do we spend our time telling sinners that they will burn if they do not become Christians?
Critics of Christianity often call it a religion of fear, as if we have all become Christians because we are afraid of going to hell. But I have to wonder how many people become Christians because of the fear of hell. While Christians who were polled by ChristiaNet.com came in with a 95% belief in the existence of hell, if the first number I quoted, that of the number of Americans who believe in hell, is any indication, the number of people who have become Christians because of the fear of hell is probably a fairly low number. I believe, though, that that number probably rises the closer people come to the end of their lives.
My personal reason for becoming a Christian had nothing to do with fear of an afterlife in hell. My concern was more for my life here and now. If Christianity had nothing more to offer than an escape from hell, it wouldn’t be much of a way of life, would it? And really, why would anyone choose to believe in God because of the threat of an afterlife that they could choose NOT to believe in instead? Reading anecdotal accounts of people who have turned from Christianity to atheism, it’s often because of the doctrine of hell. People would rather not believe in God at all so that they can avoid believing in hell as well. One could easily say that atheism is religion of fear: fear of a belief in hell.
But, as Christians, we know that Christianity is more than an escape route from hell. It is the way we, as humans, can become whole again. It is the only way we can repair the damage that sin does to our lives and the damage we do to those we love. It is all about raising us above ourselves, not keeping us from falling lower than we are.
The only motivation that hell should have for Christians today is to encourage them to spread the gospel freely among family and friends. It’s impossible to motivate people to believe through fear, yet our fear for their fate should be one of our motivating factors.
When you read today’s gospel lesson, you’ll see that God does not give us the responsibility of judging who will end up in hell…it is reserved for the angels to gather up those who will be cast into the fiery furnace. The primary message we need to bear to the world is that God loves us and that he has provided a way for us to be with him in heaven someday through the sacrifice of his Son. People who are ready for what the gospel has to offer will crave that message.
Jesus used the imagery of seeds and sowers very wisely. We can only spread the seed. The Holy Spirit provides the water and light that helps the seed to grow. We can only be the means of distributing that seed. We are not the ones to decide how well it is growing and where it will end up, as our gospel lesson illustrates. We can’t tell which is the rocky ground, the hard path or the good soil. We can only spread the seed and trust God to do the rest.