is hell for real?
6th Sunday after Epiphany – A LSB #’s 704, 556:1-5, 707
Text – Matthew 5:30
And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off & throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
IS HELL FOR REAL?
A Shepherd Boy tended his master’s Sheep near a dark forest not far from the village. Soon he found life in the pasture very dull. All he could do to amuse himself was to talk to his dog or play on his shepherd’s pipe.
One day as he sat watching the Sheep & the quiet forest, & thinking what he would do should he see a wolf, he thought of a plan to amuse himself.
His master had told him to call for help should a wolf attack the flock, & the villagers would drive it away. So now, though he had not seen anything that even looked like a wolf, he ran toward the village shouting at the top of his voice, “Wolf! Wolf!”
As he expected, the villagers who heard the cry dropped their work & ran in great excitement to the pasture. But when they got there, they found the boy doubled up with laughter at the trick he had played on them. A few days later the shepherd boy again shouted, “Wolf! Wolf!” Again, the villagers ran to help him, only to be laughed at once more.
One evening as the sun was setting behind the forest & the shadows were creeping over the pasture, a Wolf really did spring from the underbrush & fall upon the Sheep. In terror the boy ran toward the village shouting “Wolf! Wolf!” But though the villagers heard the cry, they did not run to help him as they had before. “He cannot fool us again,” they said.
The Wolf killed a great many of the boy’s sheep & then slipped away into the forest. The moral of the story: There is no believing a liar, even when he speaks the truth. It’s a well-known fable of Aesop. In the Gospel reading, Jesus mentioned hell three different times, & the Word of God does not play games. Yet, depending on the survey you look at, as few as 32% of Americans believe that hell is an actual place of torment & suffering. That raises a few questions. Is Jesus a liar? And if He is lying about hell, can we believe anything He says?
In the reading from Matthew 5, Jesus warns us about hell with a radical illustration. He says it would be better to cut off your right hand & throw it away than that your whole body go into hell. So, if hell is not real, isn’t Jesus simply crying wolf? In Aesop’s fable, the boy cried wolf three times. In the Gospel text, Jesus warns us about hell three times.
In verse 22, Jesus says, “…whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; & whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Which of us here today has never called someone a fool? You & I are walking on treacherous ground. The hell of fire is not a figure of speech. It is an actual place of torment & suffering.
Jesus is trying to warn us of the danger that all of us are in. We live in a very corrupted & broken & sinful world, but His warnings also cause fear. Consider this analogy: Why are people afraid to hear the doctor say the “C” word? Cancer has been a painful, disfiguring & deadly disease for a long time. It strikes fear into the heart for anyone diagnosed with it.
Yet, if the oncologist is afraid to scare you with the diagnosis, then, not realizing you have cancer, you are not likely to seek treatment. Sin does bring death & unbelief is what brings hell. Jesus shares that diagnosis out of love because He knows that if we do not reject His treatment there is a 100% cure rate. His forgiveness will create within us a clean heart.
In the OT reading from Deuteronomy, Moses warns the people who were about to enter the Promised Land: “But if your heart turns away, & you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods & serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.” (30:17-18a ESV) Moses doesn’t use the hell word, but he’s giving the same warning as Jesus. He’s cautioning the people not to reject the treatment for unbelief that Yahweh offers to them. He’s warning them not to reject the Promised Land, which is a foreshadowing of heaven. In Matthew 5, Jesus expands the warning beyond that of the 6th commandment to say:
“…everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out & throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” (5:28-29 ESV) To our sinful heart & mind, God’s plan looks radical to the extreme.
Our culture no longer considers adultery to be sin, let alone just looking at a woman lustfully. Yet, Jesus tells us that tearing out your eye, if it causes you to sin, is better than having your whole body thrown into hell. Is Jesus crying wolf, or is hell for real?
To our culture, all of this is a joke, but in hell, there will be no room for the lie – that there is no God. On the Last Day, even this world’s atheists will come to know & experience God for real, & that will be as their righteous judge. They will acknowledge Him then, & they will pay an eternal price for refusing His love & forgiveness.
Even believers can find God’s teaching on hell to be daunting & unsettling. The horror of eternal suffering makes all people afraid to consider hell as real. It’s a fate far worse than cancer & all of us know how people are tempted to deny that they have even that disease. Jesus warns us about hell because of the serious nature of what lies before us for eternity.
Consider how seriously people take the Super Bowl game? Literally, billions of dollars change hands because of one football game being played today. Guess, for a moment, how much production just the Frito Lay company cranks out in the 6 weeks leading up to the Super Bowl? The answer = 600 million pounds. That alone is over a billion dollars in retail sales.
Do people take heaven & hell that seriously? Do you? Do you think Jesus is simply
“crying wolf” when He mentions hell three times in one Gospel reading from Matthew? Our culture today is all about certain types of justice, & rightly so in some cases. Yet, much of the world denies God the right to administer true justice, & He alone is without sin. If He does not punish wrong doing, how is He just?
If we don’t correct our children for their rebellion they instinctively recognize our failure to uphold justice & they disrespect us for it. God does not fall into that temptation of failing to uphold justice. He laid the price of it upon His Son who willingly accepted death on the cross.
Likewise, the more we minimize our sin, & the punishment it deserves, the more God’s grace & mercy decline in value. It’s partly true that heaven is so glorious & filled with bliss exactly because hell is so horrific & filled with suffering. They are polar opposites. There is zero overlap between them. There is no gray area where justice slips & slides.
Living in the sinful world that we do, there is nothing here that is remotely close to heaven or to hell. You & I have nothing to compare them to. To lose an eye or a hand is no small thing; neither will it be painless to turn aside from the temptations & habits of sinful lust. Left unchecked, thosevcx desires do lead down the road to damnation.
In this reading from Matthew, Jesus is making the point that now, today, is always the time to repent. Without turning back to our heavenly Father, we cannot know how far down the road to hell we have gone because we do not know the day of our death.
Jesus submits the doctrine of hell to Holy Scripture as an incontestable fact which the Church should preach to us & to the world without reservation or apology. This is just as a doctor should tell the patient of the very unpopular cancer diagnosis. The purpose of this shocking doctrine is to warn against unbelief & carnal security & thus to save from damnation.
The doctrine of hell is given to serve the main message of John the Baptist & of Jesus,
“Repent, for the reign of heaven is at hand.” Our true hope is found in the fact that God is present in our conflicts, even with teachings like eternal damnation. That is God’s teaching & He will be there as we struggle to accept it. Jesus came to earth to struggle & suffer & die along with us. Through His flesh, Jesus connects to His immortality especially in our suffering.
As Moses wrote, God is our life & length of days. Without Him, we have no life at all. Yes, hell is for real, because some choose not to accept the love of their heavenly Father, & He will not force them to love Him.
Jesus is not a liar, & He did rise from the dead after suffering hell in our place, so that all who follow Him can live with Him forever in the resurrection to life everlasting. Amen.
Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay; death brooded darkly o’er me. Sin was my torment night & day; in sin my mother bore me. But daily deeper still I fell; my life became a living hell, so firmly sin possessed me. My own good works all came to naught, no grace or merit gaining; free will against God’s judgment fought, dead to all good remaining. My fears increased till sheer despair left only death to be my share; the pangs of hell I suffered. God said to His beloved Son: “It’s time to have compassion. Then go, bright jewel of My crown, & bring to all salvation. From sin & sorrow set them free; stay bitter death from them that they may live with You forever. Amen. LSB 556:2-3, 5.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet