Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What is Hell?

I was once asked how I could believe in Hell if I was a Christian.  On the surface of it, the very notion of a place like Hell seems to be contrary to the idea of a loving God.  Some today might try to argue around the doctrine of Hell by calling it out as an extra-biblical idea that the church has adopted over the centuries.  After all, the concept of a place of conscious eternal torment is only mentioned a few times in the Bible.  Perhaps we are reading too much into it.

The argument that Hell is an extra-Christian idea might hold weight if one of the principle biblical lecturers on the subject was not in fact Christ Himself.

There are several verses where Jesus describes this place of suffering.  From Jesus own words we learn that this place is eternal (Matthew 25:46), painful (Matthew 13:50), and comes as a consequence of sin (Mark 9:43).  It is a place of judgment where people get what they deserve.

There are however, many misconceptions about Hell.  Hell is not a place where the Devil is king.  That concept was adopted from Greek mythology where Hades is ruler of the underworld (a concept vastly different from the biblical idea of Hell).  In fact, Hell will be a punishment for Satan as well (Revelation 20:10).  Hell is not the Devil’s home base out of which he sends demons to pester the people of Earth.  Hell is nothing but a punishment.  Though it is the rightful destination of all evil, evil has no power there.

It is also a place of equitable punishment.  It seems from the Bible that not everyone will be punished equally in Hell, but will be punished according to what they have done and what they knew (see for example Luke 12:47-48).  It is a place of just punishment.  No more or less than we deserve.

The other interesting thing about Hell is that it appears that those in it never seem to repent.  Jesus told a story of a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus who died.  The rich man went to Hell, and the poor man went to heaven to be with Abraham.  In this story, the rich man is in agony.  Being a descendent of Abraham, he calls up to heaven and asks Abraham to send Lazarus to make him feel better.  I can think of nothing more self-centered than asking someone to join you in Hell just so that you can feel better, but that is just what the rich man does.  He doesn’t care if Lazarus suffers so long as he feels a little bit better.  To achieve his goal he attempts to appeal to Abraham’s nepotism even calling him “father.”  He doesn’t even bother to talk to Lazarus whom he is asking to sacrifice for him.

The Rich Man and Lazarus on Earth as illustrated by Gustave Dore

When the rich man doesn’t get what he wants he tries to have Lazarus sent back from the dead to warn his brothers.  At first this seems like a good idea, but if you read between the lines it is almost as if he was saying, “If only I had had the right miracle happen, I would have repented.”  Of course he wouldn’t have repented even if someone came back from the dead.  Even seeing the truth of Hell from the inside, he doesn’t repent.  At no time does the rich man ever say, “I’m sorry God! I messed up!  Please forgive me!”  In fact, he never addresses God at all from his agony.  Even in the face of Hell the rich man is still acting as he did his whole life, trampling over others to get what he desires.  Hell had no power to reform him.

The ironic thing is that it seems that those in Hell get what they are after their entire lives.  Many people want to get away from God.  Hell is the place where that is possible.  It may be that those in Hell get not only what they deserve, but what they sought their entire lives.  As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “All get what they want; they do not always like it.”

From this perspective, Hell seems to fit with God’s justice, but what about God’s mercy?  Why would God make a place from which no one can be rescued and no one can escape?

Well, He did make an escape.  We know there is a way out of Hell because someone went there and came back again.  That person is Jesus.  He took our punishment for us, and in doing so He made a way out of Hell.  He paid our debt, so that God’s justice can be satisfied and His mercy and grace can flow.  Perfect justice meets amazing grace in the person of Jesus.

But that’s not all God did to provide a way out of Hell.  He left a powerful siege weapon here on Earth to break down the gates of Hell and free the captives.  Jesus said about this weapon, “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”  That weapon is the Church.

The Church is everyone around the world who believes that Jesus Christ is God, that He took on flesh, that He died for our sins, and that He rose again.  It is those who are trusting Jesus alone for their salvation from Hell.  If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you are saved, and you need not fear Hell.  But more than that, you along with your fellow believers can storm the gates of Hell and rescue the lost.  We do this by telling others the message of the hope of salvation in Jesus.

Can evil hold this message back?  Not a chance in . . . you get the idea.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Is This Heaven?

Earlier this year, I was driving my father-in-law from Sofia back to his hometown of Kostenets.  As we drove over the Vakarel pass the beautiful Ihtiman valley spread out before us with the massive snow capped Rilla mountain to our right.  As we gazed at this breathtaking site I mentioned how beautiful Bulgaria is.  My father-in-law responded by saying, “It’s a piece of heaven.”

Bulgaria certainly seems like a piece of heaven to me.  I love it here.  I think it’s beautiful, and I love the people and culture.  I have close friends and family in Bulgaria.  This place is my home.

Yet there are many people who don’t think that highly of Bulgaria.  Part of the reason for this is that we get some bad press.  Generally speaking, the only news westerners hear about Bulgaria is bad news.  “Bulgaria is one of the European Union’s poorest country.”  “Bulgarian immigrants are taking Western jobs.”  “Bulgaria is overcrowded with refugees.”  These are not exactly the most flattering headlines.

Often times, this hidden little gem of a country gets overlooked or scoffed at as a sort of backwoods place with poorly educated people.  It is not a fair view of Bulgaria, but it is a common one.

Back in the first century there was a tiny little town that people viewed in a similar way to how they might view Bulgaria today.  It was so decidedly below average that one first century leader once asked if anything good could come from there.  In this town there once lived a man who had a very common name that today would be translated as “Joshua.”  Joshua was of a minority people group in his country and a member of a minority religion.  When he grew up he went into ministry.  His ministry lasted for just three years when he was condemned by the religious and academic elites of the time and executed by the local Roman governor.

But Joshua’s story did not end there.  You see the town in question was Nazareth, and the name "Joshua," when referring to Him, is more commonly translated as "Jesus."  Out of this little town of Nazareth, pathetic in every way, came a man who would transform the world.  Nazareth was so much a part of who Jesus was, that one of the early names for Christianity was “The Nazarene Sect” (Acts 24:5).

Just as Heaven came to Nazareth, and transformed the world, I believe God can take this little piece of Heaven called Bulgaria and transform the world.  We are strategically placed between Europe and Asia, and not to far from Africa.  People from all over the world come through here.  We merely need the right people who are willing to give everything for God that the light of Jesus might shine around the world out of Bulgaria.

Sometimes I look around Bulgaria and ask, “Is this heaven?”

No.  It’s Nazareth.