Last week the Pope made headlines when he said that hell is a real place. Addressing a parish gathering in a suburb of Rome, he said noted that hell "really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more." He's definitely right that we don’t talk about it very much, even in church.
When was the last time you heard a sermon on hell?
The latest research from George Barna reveals that only 32 percent of Americans see hell as "an actual place of torment and suffering where people's souls go after death." We're a lot more comfortable with heaven. And most of people expect to go there--somehow, some way--when they die. Hell is not such a hot topic these days.
I have two purposes for noting this. First, to commend the Pope for speaking up in favor of the doctrine of hell. Second, to comment on the connection between hell and Holy Week. If hell is a myth, then Jesus' death on the cross makes no sense whatsoever.
This morning I did a quick survey of the gospels to catch something of the flow of Jesus' teaching during the days leading up to his crucifixion. I wanted to see what our Lord had on his mind as he made the long journey to the cross. You can see the answer most clearly in Matthew's gospel. I was struck by Christ’s emphasis on coming judgment on the unrepentant, especially the religious leaders who rejected him. That's the point of the parable of the tenants (21:33-46) and the parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14). In the latter Jesus speaks of "outer darkness" where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. When he pronounces seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, he calls them children of hell (v. 15). Jesus speaks again of weeping and gnashing of teeth in 24:51 and 25:30. But the clearest example comes in Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus speaks of the judgment of the nations and the separation of the sheep and the goats. Regarding the "goats," Jesus says, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (v. 41). They will go away into "eternal punishment" (v. 46).
This is striking because these solemn words were spoken by our Lord on Wednesday of Holy Week, two days before his crucifixion. We cannot escape two conclusions as we think about what this means:
1) Jesus believed in hell and warned that some people were going there.
2) Jesus' death is the "ransom for many" that delivers us from hell.
What is the worst thing about hell? It's not the fire (though the fire is real). It's not the memory of your past (though the memory is real). It's not the darkness (though the darkness is real). The worst thing about hell is that it is the one place in the universe where people are utterly and forever forsaken by God. Hell is truly a God-forsaken place. That's the hell of hell. To be in a place where God has abandoned you for all eternity.
It is precisely at this point that we encounter these tortured words from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). Jesus died a sinner's death and took a sinner's punishment so that guilty sinners like you and me could be eternally forgiven. He was forsaken that we might never be forsaken. Those who trust in him will never be disappointed, in this life or in the life to come. A hymn by Ann Ross Cundell Cousin beautifully captures the deeper meaning of the cross:
O Christ, what burdens bowed Thy Head!
Our load was laid on Thee;
Thou stoodest in the sinner's stead-
Didst bear all ill for me:
A victim led, Thy blood was shed!
Now there's no load for me.
Death and the curse were in our cup-
O Christ, 'twas full for Thee!
But Thou hast drain'd the last dark drop:
'Tis empty now for me.
That bitter cup, love drank it up,
Now blessings flow for me.
Jehovah lifted up His rod:
O Christ, it fell on Thee!
Thou wast sore stricken of Thy God;
There's not one stripe for me.
Thy tears, Thy blood beneath it flowed;
Thy bruising healeth me.