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Thirty minutes in hell

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Revelation 20:11-15

I love church bulletin bloopers. Here are some recent additions to the file: “The sermon this morning: Jesus Walks on Water. The sermon tonight: Searching for Jesus”; “Ladies, don’t forget the rummage sale. It’s a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Don’t forget your husbands;” “Barbara remains in the hospital and is having trouble sleeping—she requests tapes of Pastor Joe’s sermons;” and, “The Rector will preach his farewell message, after which the choir will sing Break Forth into Joy.” But to get back at them, “Eight new choir robes are currently needed, due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones; “and, “At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be What is Hell? Come early and listen to our choir practice.”

This fall we’re seeking to know that we know him. Now we close our series by asking what happens to those who do not know him, and those who do. This week we get the bad news. Then next week, on Thanksgiving weekend, we get the good news. For today, let’s talk about the eternal destiny of those who do not know Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord—and why the issue matters to every one of us, whether we know him or not.

Avoid the “lake of fire”

John sees a “great white throne and him who was seated on it” (v. 11). “Great” (mega in the Greek) shows his power—the higher the throne, the greater the one who sat on it.

“White” points to his purity and holiness, his right to be judge. He is so holy that “earth and sky fled from his presence.” He is the Holy One of the universe.

One day, we will all stand before him: “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne” (v. 12a). One day we will all stand before God like this: “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

What happens here? “Books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books” (vs. 12-13). First, God will open the book of works, recording all we have done and every sin we’ve not confessed to God.

Nothing escapes his notice: “My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from me, nor is their sin concealed from my eyes” (Jeremiah 16:17); “God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14; cf. Luke 12:2-3; 1 Corinthians 4:5).

“You, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to his conduct, according to what his deeds have done” (Psalm 62:12).

“I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve” (Jeremiah 17:10).

“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory, withy his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16:27).

“We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

“No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

Upon this basis none of us can be admitted to God’s perfect paradise, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Then God opens the “Lamb’s book of life.”

Jesus told his disciples, “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).

Paul wrote, “Help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:3).

The book of Hebrews describes “the church of the first-born, whose names are written in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23).

God promises, “He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels” (Revelation 3:5).

This is the only way to get into heaven: “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27).

How can we be sure our names will be in this book? “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'” (John 14:6). The Bible is clear: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

What happens if our name is not found in this book of life? We will hear Jesus say, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).

“The cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).

But for those who make Christ their Lord, “The second death has no power over them” (Revelation 20:6), for “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death” (Revelation 2:11).

Learn more about hell

Is hell real? Hell is a real place, mentioned 23 times in the NT, 15 times by Jesus himself. He calls it a place of “torment” (Luke 16:23). Sixty two percent of all Americans, including 52 percent of self-described “born again Christians,” say that Satan does not exist. Only two percent of Americans are worried about going to hell. But our ignorance and deceit do not change the fact that it is real.

Dr. Maurice Rawlings tells about one of his patients, a man who died three times. At his first death he saw things so horrible that he experienced a religious conversion. His second clinical death, some days later, produced a wonderful, heavenly experience. At his third and final death, he was the one reassuring his doctor.

What is hell like?

God’s word often describes hell as “fire” (Luke 16:24). Revelation 14:10 says, “He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever” (cf. Matthew 13:49-50; Jude 7; Revelation 20:15).

Hell is called “darkness”: “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13; cf. Jude 6).

Most of all, hell is separation from God (Luke 16:26). Remember Jesus’ warning: “I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers'” (Matthew 7:23).

And hell is permanent (Luke 16:26); it is the “second death” (Revelation 20:14).

When do people go to hell?

They go immediately to a place of punishment in “fire,” as the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus makes clear (Luke 16:19-31).

“The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment. This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority” (2 Peter 2:9-10).

Then they are condemned to eternal hell at the final judgment: “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed” (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10). When they stand before God in the final judgment, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).

Is hell fair?

The rich man in Jesus’ parable never protests. He knows he deserves to go there. Dr. Rawlings found the same with patients who went to hell then were resuscitated: not one of them thought this was unfair. Every one knew he or she deserved to go to hell. Instead, the rich and religious man wants to spare his brothers, for they deserve to go there as well. Those in hell would make the greatest evangelists on earth.

The fact is, heaven is a perfect place. One sin would ruin it. So Jesus died to pay for our sins, to cleanse us from them. But if we refuse his salvation, we must pay for them ourselves. This means that we are unable to come into the presence of God, forever.

I especially appreciate the way Calvin Miller puts it. “God, can you be merciful and send me off to hell and lock me in forever?” “No, Pilgrim, I will not send you there, but if you chose to go there, I could never lock you out” (The Singer, p. 129).

What about the “ignorant?

I spent the summer of 1979 working in East Malaysia as a Baptist student missionary. For the first time in my life, I met people who had never heard of Jesus Christ. Our Lord’s name was as unfamiliar to them as the ancient Persian kings are to us. Missiologists estimate that as much as one-third of the world’s population has no realistic opportunity to know or understand God’s offer of salvation through Christ. What happens to them when they die?

One common suggestion is that God judges the “ignorant” according to the light they have, by his self-revelation in nature. Here’s my question: why is it necessary that Christians give them any more light? Yet we are commissioned and commanded to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20), to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

A second “answer” to our question suggests that God knows what the “ignorant” would do if they were given the chance to hear the gospel. But then why do we need to give them that chance?

A third approach claims that God would never send people to hell for rejecting a gospel they have not heard, with the implication that the “ignorant” will be in heaven. If this is true, we’d best not share the gospel with such people lest they reject it and go to perdition. The first two “answers” make missions unnecessary; this approach makes evangelism positively dangerous.

So far we’ve sought speculative answers to a speculative question. But the Bible was written in a pragmatic worldview, and is more interested in relevance than rationalism. If we could ask the Apostle Paul what happens to the “ignorant,” here’s his likely answer: go tell them. If you know that someone has not heard the gospel, share it with them. Don’t speculate—evangelize. We are clearly commissioned by Jesus to share our faith with the entire world, starting wherever “Jerusalem” is located on our personal maps.

One last fact: God is love (1 John 4:8). He grieves the lost even more than we do. We can trust the “ignorant” to his grace, all the while doing all we can do to share Christ with them. We have no biblical support whatever for believing that anyone can be in heaven apart from faith in Jesus. So we are called to solve the problem of the “ignorant” not with our theology but with our witness.

Conclusion

William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, once took a group of volunteers through an extensive training course lasting many weeks. When it was done he said to them, “I’m sorry our training took so long. If I could take you to hell for five minutes, none of what I’ve taught you would be necessary.” He was right.

“Five minutes in hell.” We’ve spent about thirty minutes going to hell through God’s Word today. Now, do whatever you must not to go there, or let someone else go there, tomorrow.