I remember a telephone call a number of years ago here at Tenth. The caller had seen an evangelism tract with Tenth’s name and phone number stamped on it. The tract was about the subject of hell. The caller, who was pleasant, asked this question: For me to become a Christian, must I then understand that my mother and father who died unbelievers are spending eternity in hell?
Is this not a question that has troubled us? It certainly has troubled the world. From the world’s perspective, the subject of judgment and hell is the “dark side” of the gospel. Jude takes us into this subject.
I began last week’s sermon raising the Camelot-factor which plagues human history. Simply put, whatever good is given birth, it brings with it its own seed of destruction or corruption. Jude is distressed to see it happening at the church’s beginning and is raising the alarm to expose the corruption. But however concerned Jude may be about the spreading corruption, he also makes clear, through his comments on judgment, that God has matters under control. Let’s see what he has to say.
For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation…
From the human perspective, certain people slipped into the church without notice. From God’s perspective, they are following script. Some translators believe the Jude is referring to scriptures (whether Old or New) that speak of the wicked mixing in and corrupting God’s people. Jesus said as much in his parables about the tares being sown among the wheat and the bad getting caught in the fishing net with the good fish. Some believe that he has in mind a list of actual names designating who would commit such sin. However we look at it, one thing Jude is making clear is that God is not caught off guard by the appearance of wickedness. He not only is expecting it, he has plans to deal with the perpetrators.
Jude then gives three examples of other groups of sinners receiving judgment. The first example is that of the Israelites who rebelled in the wilderness: 5 Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. Jude could have directed us to several instances in the wilderness story, but the clearest is God’s promise that “none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers (Numbers 14:22-23). And thus for forty years they wandered until all the rebels died.
The next example takes us into a realm beyond our present senses: 6 And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day…
We don’t have the time to spend on the various explanations of who these angels might be and where Jude got his information. His message, however, is clear: not even mighty angels can avoid God’s judgment. Even now certain ones are kept chained in darkness from which there is no escape. They are kept for their day in court for which they can have no hope of being declared not guilty or obtaining a mistrial. Their judgment is sure and their prison invincible.
Finally, come Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, who 7 … serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. They serve as a warning to others of the punishment that will be visited upon the wicked.
Jude’s vivid metaphors of the ungodly who are disturbing the church ends with this last description of judgment: 12 These are…wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever. Note the comparison with the angels kept in gloomy darkness. The ungodly have reservations already made for their accommodations, and these reservations will not be canceled.
Jude’s concluding remarks about judgment comes in a reference from the nonbiblical book of Enoch:
14 It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with ten thousands of his holy ones, 15 to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly…
What do we learn about the judgment to come? One is that it will occur with the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Two, it will come in great power as displayed in the army that accompanies Christ. Three, everyone will be judged and all the ungodly will be convicted. Everyone will receive his due reward.
Jude presents pretty much what we know about judgment. Let’s consider the elements. First, the return of Christ brings the final Day of Judgment. In his message to the Athenians recorded in Acts 17, Paul tells them about God, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Jesus Christ who rose from the dead and ascended on high will return to render judgment.
Jesus himself spoke of his judging. He is the Son of Man who will return and separate the “sheep from the goats,” sending the goats into “eternal punishment” and the sheep into “eternal life” (Matthew 25:31ff).
Secondly, that judgment gives an eternal sentence – no time limit, no parole. There is an eternal fire, eternal chains, darkness reserved forever. Again, Jesus speaks of eternal punishment. He warns that we should fear God above man because God, “after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell” (Luke 12:5).
Thirdly, though there is the Day of Judgment to come when Christ returns, the punishment begins before then, just as the angels are kept in chains waiting the judgment to come. In the parable Jesus told of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus, both go their rewards upon death – for the rich man to hell, for the poor man to heaven.
Fourthly, our response to Jesus himself will be the determining factor for how we are judged. We all know John 3:16. Listen to what follows in verse 18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Lest we might conclude that belief is a mere mental statement, Jesus goes on to link faith with deed and heart:
19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.
He says elsewhere, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
Consider also the purposes for which the teachings on judgment are given. One is to uphold the power and justice of God. That is the primary purpose for Jude’s teachings. Don’t think that the ungodly are getting away with their ungodliness. Justice will be carried out. Another related purpose is to console the innocent and the righteous who suffer from injustice. Revelation 6:10 presents the complaint of the righteous martyrs, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
But the primary motivation for Jesus’ comments was to move his hearers to repent so that they would avoid such a fate.
“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:4-5).
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2-3).
“Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from,’…Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out” (Luke 13:22-28).
Indeed, Jesus’ very purpose in coming was to save people from condemnation. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).
This is not a comprehensive study of judgment and hell, but I have given you the basic, classic Christian doctrine, using a selection from numerous biblical passages. Now then, let’s tackle our personal response. We Christians worry over such doctrine for one particular reason – people whom we respect and love are facing judgment if they do not turn to Christ, and already there are those we mourn for who have already died.
NonChristians find the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment revolting. They are furious over the concept. It is one thing to say that Christianity is the best way to God; it is another to say that one will burn in hell for not believing. It is fine to say that the wicked will get their just reward, but are Holocaust victims to face the same fate as their Nazi persecutors? Are heroes and victims of 911 enduring the same suffering as their killers?
Such thoughts have caused some Christians to leave their faith. I know of one such young man who had been raised in a Christian home, attended Christian schools, and kept only a circle of Christian friends. Then, when he took a job, he discovered in the workplace nice people who either had another faith or no faith. How could they be condemned who were as nice as he was?
Others have not denied the Christian faith, but have altered their views so that the subject is more palatable. Some say that unbelievers literally perish and do not endure eternal suffering. Some hold that some are saved who do not believe, using various explanations. I certainly struggle with this and will confess that this doctrine alone is one that has shaken my faith, but I have never resorted to the above alternative teachings for the following reasons.
First, to reject the doctrine of hell because I don’t like it, because I can’t quite square it with a loving God, strikes me as a statement more about me than about God. In truth, what do I know about sin? The young man who abandoned his faith did so because he stepped out of his Christian world into the reality of the secular world, and he saw that unbelievers aren’t so bad after all. But what if we could step out of our physical world and look into human hearts to see sin fully laid bare; what then would be our reaction?
And what would be our reaction if we truly were confronted with God in his holiness? We talk about being in the presence of God, but I mean really in his presence, so that our full senses take him in. Isaiah’s reaction was to fall down and cry out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell with a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:6). The apostle John fell down “as though dead” when he found himself in the presence of Christ in his glory (Revelation 1:12ff). I have not had such experiences, either to clearly see sin or God. How then can I question the legitimacy of hell?
Another reason for sticking with the biblical teachings on hell and judgment is that the alternatives strike me as an attempt to merely lower the stakes, so to speak. I don’t like to gamble. Placing bets on games do not make the games more interesting or exciting to me. I don’t want personal loss riding on whether the ball goes into the basket or bounces off the rim. I want games to be merely games. I am suspicious that efforts to interpret scriptures differently or outright reject them are really attempts to keep our relationship with God on a “sporting basis.” We regard, then, the judgment stuff as nothing more than theatrics to add to the suspense. Eternal destiny can’t really be at stake.
Liberal theologians dump the whole truth – sin, atonement, resurrection – it’s all myth. Some evangelicals are writing off the “negatives.” What Richard Niebuhr once wrote about liberal theology strikes me as applying to our efforts to remove the doctrine of hell. Their message boils down to this: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross." And so hell becomes merely a way of talking about how bad we feel. Judgment is a way of describing how we are missing out on a good relationship with God.
The cross makes the stakes real. The cross keeps me from playing religion, which is what I feel what liberal ministers do. They talk the language but divest it of all its meaning, so that in the end their work is simply another alternative to helping people live better. The same can be done by lifestyle coaches and activist groups.
It is when I get to the cross that both perspectives are made clearer for me. How terrible, how horrible sin must be that such a price must be made to free us from it. How awe-full must be the holiness of God that he must turn his face from his Son calling out to him on the cross. What do I know of sin and holiness? What do I know of righteousness and love? How pure must God’s righteousness be that he cannot wave off the smallest of sin, but carry justice against it on the cross.
And most mysterious of all – how wondrous must be such love that God the Father would give up his Son, that the Son would willingly give up his life, for…whom? For sinners, for enemies: “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”; “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:8, 10). The cross presents a God with wrath who brought men with sin into a kingdom of righteousness through the sufferings of a Christ – his only begotten Son – on a Cross.
Christ took my sin and gave me his righteousness. I was a rebel and God gave up his Son to make me his son. This is what I know.
I don’t have to like the doctrine of hell. I certainly don’t have to feel good about my pleasant neighbor getting his “due.” But what I have learned to do is trust my heavenly Father who is infinitely more just and more merciful than I, as shown through the cross. What I have to do is love my neighbor with the tiny fraction of God’s love shown to me, so that I will faithfully pray for him, befriend him, and share that wondrous love with him. I have to uphold the holiness and righteousness of my God and let him be God, not toned down to make me feel comfortable.
I have to take Christ for who he says he is – Savior, Lord, Judge.
For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. 22 The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:21-29).
Hear the voice of your Lord now who would be your Savior. Choose the resurrection of life. Choose the very Judge who would also be your Rock of refuge from judgment; choose Christ.
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