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“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with Him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats… And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
That’s the introduction and conclusion of our gospel reading for this Last Sunday of the Church Year. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…” a great SEPERATION will take place. For now, everything is co-mingled –good and bad, right and wrong, sadness and joy, the ugliness and beauty, saint and sinner.
For now says Jesus, ‘leave it that way.’ Let the weeds and the wheat grow together. But on the LAST DAY, “I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Mat.13:30)
But this is not really about weeds and wheat any more than about good fish and bad fish or sheep and goats. This is about men and women, boys and girls, real people, some whose names we know, some we only know by the fact that they share this planet with us, or they have in the past or they will in the future – all living together, and like it or not, no matter how hard we try SEPARATE AND SEGREGATE, co-mingled, co-habitating, co-dependent.
But ‘when the Son of Man comes in glory’ it will be a time of SEPARATION. Some to ETERNAL PUNISHMENT, some to ETERNAL LIFE.
Today, we are going to talk about ETERNAL PUNISHMENT.
Occasionally, someone will say to me, ‘pastor, we’re always talking about heaven and eternal life here. Why don’t we ever talk about hell?’ And I always say, ‘because I don’t like to think about it let alone talk about it.’ The thought of a NEVER-ENDING AGONY that men and women, boys and girls experience WITHOUT RELIEF, is just too appalling to think about.
And it’s TOO APPALLING because it’s PERSONAL. There are people I know who are friends, even family members, loved ones, and how many others whose names I may not knows? This is not just a fascinating point of doctrine to ponder.
And yet, I know that we SHOULD talk about it. If for no other reason that the Scriptures talk about it, and as Paul writes, “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Tim.3:16).
And so this morning, I’m going to give you hell.
But let there be not a speck of gloating or boasting in this. If “God has NO PLEASURE in the death of the wicked,” then neither should we.
When we speak of HELL, we do so with a lump in the throat and tears in our eyes just as our Lord, when He lamented, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I would have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you were not willing.” (Luke 18:41).
We speak of these things with the same attitude as St. Paul speaks of it to the Philippians, “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even WITH TEARS, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.” (Phil. 3:18).
So, what is it? What’s it like?
Talking about hell is like talking about heaven. We’ve got to rely on an outside word because no one alive has ever experienced either. We’re ‘temporal’ people. And all of our experience is with that which is ‘temporary.’ Things ETERNAL are beyond our ability to comprehend. ‘ETERNAL PUNISHMENT’ is just as incomprehensible to us as ‘ETERNAL LIFE.’
Which doesn’t mean that it DOESN’T EXIST or that it’s NOT REAL? It’s not our ability to comprehend something that makes it real. There are lots of things beyond my ability to understand that are very real – the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine of His Supper for instance.
But whenever something is beyond our ability to comprehend, you’ve just got to trust an OUTSIDE WORD from an INSIDE SOURCE. Someone from the outside who has been on the inside, has got to tell us about it. And our understanding is going to be limited to what we’re told.
The Bible is that OUTSIDE WORD from an INSIDE SOURCE. It’s the Word of God, and He knows HELL. He created it and Jesus Christ, who is fully God, and whose word the Bible is, descended into HELL. Just like He knows heaven because He ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
So, let’s just begin with that word, ‘ETERNAL.’ It applies to both Hell and Heaven. ‘ETERNAL’ means ‘no end,’ forever and ever, WITH THE FULL AND CERTAIN KNOWLEDGE THAT IT WILL NEVER END. When it comes to heaven where life is unimaginably good – that fact that it is ETERNAL is PURE PEACE AND JOY. When it comes to HELL where life is unimaginably bad, the fact that it is ETERNAL is PURE TORMENT.
It’s torment because it’s physical suffering and its torment because it’s mental suffering. There is a conscious awareness that there is no end to it. If only there was an end to it, there would be hope. But hell is HOPELESS. It’s not a time or PLACE FOR REFORM. It’s not REMEDIAL. It’s not a place to ‘do time’ until your time is up. And it’s also not ANNIHILATION. It’s ETERNAL PUNISHMENT.
To those SEPARATED to His left, Jesus says, “Depart from ME, you cursed, into eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Mat.25:41). That’s what this is really all about – separation from Jesus Christ – forever.
God made us for Himself. We were made for communion with God. And the joy and delight of man is to live in that ‘close communion’ with his Creator and Provider and Lord and Friend. Augustine’s famous words, “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our souls are wrestles until they find their rest in thee.” To be cut off from the Lord forever is to be restless with no hope for rest.
To be cut off from God ETERNALLY is death. But not ‘death’ as in the end of suffering and pain, either physical or mental. But ‘death’ as in a never ending realization that you were wrong about the only thing in life that actually mattered with no hope for forgiveness or redemption or renewal.
So, there are no atheists in hell. Everyone will know fully even as they are fully known. Those separated to eternal punishment, know that what they rejected or just never got around to considering for everything else going on in their life, ‘know fully’ that God is real and that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God who redeemed THEM by His precious blood shed on the cross. ‘BUT THEY WERE NOT WILLING … to have it or receive it or believe it.
And that leads me to another thought. If this ‘death’ and ‘eternal punishment’ is something that we have never actually experienced this world, that must mean that we are not yet completely cut off from Christ. He is still with us, and we are still in His presence. Even if we ignore Him and fail to listen to His voice speak to us, and refuse to repent and turn from our sin now, He has not yet separated us from Himself. And that can only mean that it is not too late. The writer to the Hebrews quotes the Psalmist saying, “Today, if you hear my voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Heb. 4:7).
Now can we begin to understand Jesus strange warning, “if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Mat. 18:8-9).
I don’t know if you caught this or not, but Jesus said that hell was never originally intended for people. Jesus says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into eternal fire, PREPARED FOR THE DEVIL AND HIS ANGELS.” Hell was only ever meant to be a place to keep the devil and his fallen angels SEPARATED from His precious saints. But when men and women rejected God’s Word, which is to reject God, and listen and believed the serpent’s word and became disciples of the devil, hell had to be retrofitted to accommodate men and women, boys and girls.
There is some chatter out there about the MEANING OF ‘FIRE’ and the LOCATION OF ‘HELL.’ Is this ‘eternal fire’ REAL? Is ‘hell’ a REAL PLACE? I like what one Lutheran pastor, John Gerhard, once said, “It is wiser to be concerned about escaping this eternal fire by true repentance than to argue about the nature of the fire.” I also like what one early church father, John Chrysostom, once said, “We search not where it is, but how we may flee from it.”
According to the Scriptures, the only cause for anyone ever being separated out to ‘eternal punishment’ is lack of faith. Not bad behavior or insufficient good works or even ‘little faith.’ John the Baptist instructs the crowds coming out to him saying, “Whoever BELIEVES in the Son has eternal life; whoever does NOT OBEY the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:36). “Obedience” is simply the fruit of faith.
Jesus spells it out to Nicodemus as clearly as it can be said. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that WHOEVER BELIEVES in him should not perish but have eternal life… WHOEVER BELIEVES in Him is not condemned, but whoever DOES NOT BELIEVE is condemned already…”
Just before His ascension into heaven, Jesus said to His apostles, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16).
The fact of the matter is, all those who are in HEAVEN are there because GOD CHOSE THEM TO BE THERE. And all those who are in HELL are there because THEY CHOOSE TO BE THERE.
In his book called “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis has a this line where he says, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “thy will be done.”
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Tim.3:16). So, let this terrible Scripture be profitable to us.
Let it be a sober warning against unbelief
• and drifting away from hearing God’s Word and receiving His Supper,
• and falling into temptation,
• and turning away from our baptism.
Let Christ and Him crucified for your “ETERNAL LIFE” be bill-boarded before our eyes and broadcast into our ears,
• in this sanctuary
• and in our homes
• and when we’re at school and at work
• and at ‘all times and all places.’
And let us examine ourselves and put to death what needs to be put to death in us before it is too late.
And let us also love our neighbor,
• especially the one who rejects the grace of God in Jesus Christ,
• or has drifted away from the faith they were given in their baptism,
• or who is unaware of that “in Adam all die, but in Christ, all shall be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:22).
As for you, dear sheep:
“Have no fear little flock…
For the Father has chosen to give you the Kingdom;
For the Father will keep you in his love forever;
For His stoops down to hear you, uplift and restore you;
For He stays close beside you, in all things works with you;
Have good cheer little flock.” (LSB #735).