Today’s message, Good News for Eternity, is a two part message, so we won’t be able to talk about the nature of heaven a whole lot this week. We will keep that for next week and deal with a lot of the context of heaven today, but I think there’s still a lot of good news in the message today.
Christianity makes an incredible claim to be the only way to achieve eternal life. Since the invention of the written language, it seems, humankind has been fascinated with the concept of eternity, particularly, how to attain eternal life.
Ancient Japanese myths speak of a mermaid-like creature called a Ningyo, that controls the seas. If they get caught by a hunters snare, it is said that bad luck and stormy weather come to those who brave the high seas. But, if you can catch one, at the risk of causing destruction to your kinsmen, you can eat the mermaid and attain immortality, eternal life.
Taoist alchemists mixed elixirs from various ores, harvested from the earth. The elixirs were designed to transfer the life from the earth to the person who drank it to make them eternal beings. Unfortunately, the ores they used were usually toxic and killed the people who drank them, rather than bestow eternal life.
In an Ancient Sumarian text, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero is searching for the source of immortality due to distress after his friend Enkidu dies. His quest leads him to Utnapishtim, a Noah-like figure who was granted immortality when he built a large boat at the gods’ instructions to survive a great flood. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that his immortality was a special gift, but there’s a plant of unknown origin and species, which could be eaten to achieve eternal life. After finding it, though, Gilgamesh loses the plant to a snake, so we’ll never know if it would’ve worked.
And of course, you are all somewhat acquainted with the idea of the Fountain of Youth, the mythological fountain that restores the youth of anyone who would drink from it. It’s often said that the 16th century traveler, Ponce De Leon was searching for the fountain of youth when he landed his boat on the land we call Florida, today. What you probably don’t know is that the myth dates back to ancient times, to Heroditus in the 5th century BC, and to Alexander in the 3rd century AD.
The thing about most of these ancient myths is that they all have one major distinction from religious ideas of eternal life. And that is, that they are all focussed on a life lived on this earth eternally.
What actually separates the foolishness of ancient myths from Christianity is, believe it or not, science. There are two scientific principles at work here.
The first is called the second law of thermodynamics, which states that:
The total entropy of a system cannot increase or decrease over time in an isolated system.
That means that, within a closed system, like the universe, there is a certain amount of particles. There will never be more or less. Everything that is, has always been, and everything that is, will always be, at least in some form.
Nature demands that matter exist. But, because of this scientific axiom, scientists are forced to admit that the presence of matter within the closed system of the universe, in the first place, insists on a scientific explanation for the creation of the system.
You could say that another way. Science demands that the existence of the universe means there must be a supernatural explanation for it’s creation.
That anything exists in the first place is a phenomenon that defies the scientific method, itself. The scientific method actually demands that something supernatural created all things and that there was a beginning to all things at some point in history.
There’s a second principle at work, though. Scientific theories must be both observable and reproducible. One observation that has been made time and time again is that the universe is expanding at an exponential rate. The universe is getting bigger at a measurable and observable rate. Scientists have attempted to use the rate of expansion to date the origin of all things, because the universes expansion demands that there be a beginning. Scientists call that beginning, ‘The Big Bang.’
But, the universe expanding demands some kind of end as well. Because the universe is expanding exponentially—that is, faster and faster all the time—there will come a time when the expansion is so great that the molecules that make up the particles of the universe will no longer be able to hold together. In other words, even if the universe continues to exist forever, it will exist with no actual matter, no planets or stars or anything.
So, science affirms, whether intentionally or not, some of the teachings of the Bible, that there is a beginning and an end to the current creation. We can stop searching for the fountain of youth, because this world is going to die as will everything in it. There is no possibility of eternal life on this earth as we know it.
So, with that thought in mind, what did Jesus mean when he said,
John 3:16 (CSB) — God…gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
Jesus couldn’t mean that we would live forever on this earth or that people wouldn’t die. Certainly, everyone dies and the Bible even affirms this fact.
Jesus gave us further counsel on this when he said of the believer,
John 6:54 (CSB) — I will raise him up on the last day.
The ‘last day’ is a term that dates back to the ancient Israelites in the Old Testament times. The term is synonymous with the term ‘the Day of the Lord’ and refers to a final judgment day, when God will judge the earth for it’s wickedness.
Many scientists believe that there is no eternal existence for humanity. But, most religions, including Christianity, speak of a future eternal state of being. And I think that the fundamental difference between these two perspectives hinges on the concept of…
Either, there is no God and everything that exists fizzles out into nothingness at some day in the future or there is a God who supernaturally created everything that exists and that God will return to judge the world in the end in order to determine humanities eternal state of being.
I think this is interesting, actually, because there are really two kinds of people in the world. There are those who don’t believe in a supernatural creator and likewise, also don’t believe in an eternal judgment. And then there are those who do believe in some sort of supernatural creator, and those people all have some sort of moral system because they believe there will be some sort of judgment.
We can separate them into two groups: atheists and agnostics, who don’t believe in a creator—at least not a creator we can know anything about—and theists, who do believe in some sort of creator.
In Romans 1, the apostle Paul helps us understand why the atheist/theist distinction occurs. Notice the progression of thought. Paul begins with the concept of Judgment. He writes,
Romans 1:18 (CSB) — For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Paul says that the wrath of God, that is judgment, is upon everyone who is godless and unrighteous. But, he isn’t talking about sinners, in general. He says that the unrighteous are those who suppress the truth.
Well, this truth. Paul continued,
Romans 1:19–20 (CSB) — What can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. As a result, people are without excuse.
In this passage, the godless and unrighteous are those who suppress the truth that God’s eternal power and divine nature can be witnessed in the world itself. You see, the difference between an atheist and a Christian is not that the Christian is unscientific. God is a scientific God and He has given us this incredible universe to explore. Science is great. The difference between an atheist and a Christian is that the atheist is ungodly and unrighteous, because they suppress the truth of the reality of God.
As we already said, the existence of the universe demands that there be a supernatural creator, yet, atheists demand that there must be a natural explanation—although they cannot provide one—because they refuse to admit there is a God. They suppress the truth of God, even to the point that they deny the scientific method, itself.
The qualifying difference between a theist and an atheist is not whether or not science is true; it’s whether or not God is real. Christians look for the beauty of God in scientific discovery. Atheists look to suppress God with scientific discovery.
So Paul teaches that knowing that God is righteous and that the end, the day of the Lord, is coming, the atheist suppresses the idea of God.
Today, atheists and agnostics (those who think you just can’t know about a God) represent roughly 7% of the worlds population. So, judgment is coming and although mass media would have us to believe that most people don’t believe in God, the statistics are pretty clear that the majority of the world believes in a god and acknowledges a coming judgment that determines the eternal state of the person.
I can’t deal with all religions today, but I want to give you an idea of what Christianity teaches regarding the timescale for eternity. I think it makes sense to most Christians that eventually there will be a judgment day and then everyone on the planet will be judged and then go to heaven or hell. Even if you don’t believe that, you can wrap your mind around the concept of heaven and hell—the good place to go forever and the bad place to go forever.
But, what if we die before judgment day?
That’s a question that has been debated pretty hotly among Christians for a long time.
There are three historical perspectives, all three of which are present today: Soul sleep, the immortal soul, and the intermediary state.
The immortality of the soul separates the concept of the soul form the body. This perspective is based on the philosophy of Plato, the student of Socrates who lived in the 4th century BC. Plato taught that the body is nothing, and that the eternal state of being of a human is to be a purely spiritual being or a soul. Because of this teaching, many people today think that the ‘new heavenly body’ referred to in the scriptures is just a spiritual existence of the soul.
‘Soul sleep’ is the idea that if you die before judgment, then your soul sleeps until it is united to a new physical body in God’s eternal Kingdom. This was the view of a 15th century theologian named Martin Luther and remains a common perspective in many Evangelical and mainline branches of Christianity. It is also the view of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The most common view among Evangelical Christians, like us, is the belief in an intermediary state. This view is an attempt to explain the Apostle Paul’s statement that,
2 Corinthians 5:8 (CSB) — We are confident, and we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
Paul is saying that when we leave this body, we go to be at home with the Lord. In other words, when this body dies, we go to be with Jesus.
The issue is this. If we can go to be with Jesus now, but we don’t get new bodies until after judgment, then there must be a place our souls go in the meantime. So, this view says that the soul goes to be with God spiritually until the judgment when we finally get new bodies and go to be with the Lord physically, forever.
There’s problems with all three of these views.
The problem with the immortality of the soul is that the idea of an immortal soul comes from secular philosophy and is no where in the Bible. In fact, the biblical word for soul means ‘whole self’ and includes the body as well as the mind and spirit in many passages of scripture. So, Bible believing Christians should not believe that the soul is ever separate from the body.
Soul sleep has good warrant as the New Testament authors often illustrate the concept of death for Christians with the word sleep. For example, Paul says,
1 Corinthians 15:51 (CSB) — I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed,
He is saying that some people will be changed to have new bodies in the end who did not sleep, or die, because they will still be alive on earth when the judgment occurs.
The problem with soul sleep is that the word sleep is just a metaphor for death in this passage and others like it. Soul sleep also is an effort to explain death from a human perspective, not God’s perspective.
That’s also the first problem with the intermediary state view. Time is part of the created order. God is not constrained by time, neither is God’s dwelling constrained by time. The biblical concept of eternity does not mean that we live forever and ever on the same time scale we are on now. Eternity is a term used for the timelessness of dwelling with God, where He is. Eternity occurs from God’s perspective so, we don’t need to figure out, within time, what happens to us between death and eternity.
The idea of the intermediary state also fails for the same reason as the immortal soul view. The soul is not separate from the body, so it makes no sense to say that the body goes in the grave and the soul to live with God until judgment day. Further, if someone dies and goes to wait for judgment with God, how does God know who gets to go to the intermediary heaven or the intermediary hell if judgment hasn’t happened yet?
None of these views work.
The view I believe to be the most biblical doesn’t have a name, but I’ll call it ‘the timelessness view.’ In this view, when people die, they transcend the physical constraints of this world and go immediately through judgment. No sleeping. No separation from the body. No intermediary state. You die and go immediately through judgment and into your eternal place. And that’s what I’ve tried to illustrate on the graphic, that those who follow Jesus go immediately to God’s eternal Kingdom or out into the abyss (hell) when they die, regardless of when that actually occurs within this world.
Finally, as we talk about judgment, I don’t believe the Bible to teach that we will all wait in line at the throne of God to receive individual judgment. I believe that the stories of judgment in scripture, especially those given in parables by Jesus, are illustrations to help us understand how judgment occurs. But, I believe our judgment is momentary. When you die, you are judged and go to be in heaven or hell.
That’s why I didn’t put judgment on the graphic.
The Apostle Paul wrote,
Colossians 3:4 (CSB) — When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
When Jesus returns, those who are part of His Kingdom will immediately be with Him. No waiting in lines before God’s throne in order to figure out who the Christians are. It’s instantaneous.
You can see the juxtaposition. Paul says it’s instant, but Jesus tells stories to explain the heart of the people, that are clearly figurative. Let’s look at one the stories Jesus told.
Matthew 25:31–35, 41 (CSB) — When the Son of Man [Jesus] comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…Then he will also say to those on the left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels!’
In this passage we see Jesus separate those who follow Him and honor God from those who deny God. Those who follow Jesus inherit an eternal—timeless—kingdom. Those who don’t are cursed and sent into a place of eternal torment. Usually we call these places heaven and hell.
So, let’s talk about…
The key scripture on hell, as far as I’m concerned, comes from the first letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church. Paul is explaining to them that it is not their job to punish wrongdoers, because God will do that on judgment day. Of which he writes,
2 Thessalonians 1:7–10 (CSB) — This will take place at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels, when he takes vengeance with flaming fire on those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from his glorious strength…
So, there are lots of verses about eternal punishment and most of them don’t use the word hell. That’s the word we’ve chosen to encompass all the different terms that are used in the Bible. Here Hell isn’t actually referred to with any name, but it’s clear he is talking about eternal punishment.
The first question is, Who goes to hell?
Paul says clearly that it is those who don’t know God that go to hell. Some people know God. Other people don’t know God. The people who don’t know God will go to hell.
But, Paul also makes a striking statement about ‘knowing God’ that complicates this. You might think that it’s the good people in the world who ‘know God.’ You might expect Paul to say that those who know God are those who obey God’s laws.
But, he doesn’t. He actually says that those who obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus are those who know God.
So, if you are someone who claims to know God, then you want to pay attention to this. And if you are here because you want to know God, then you need to pay attention to this. You see, it’s not those who follow all the rules that stay out of hell. That’s following the law.
It’s actually those who Admit—this is our ABC’s we talk about all the time—those who A, admit that they can’t follow God’s laws that avoid hell. Like, it’s not the good people that know God. It’s the bad people who are willing to admit that they are the bad people who know God.
So, to obey the gospel means to admit we need Jesus and then to B, believe that Jesus died to take away the wrath of God that we deserved for being bad people.
And then C, commit to follow Jesus by faith even though we know we are going to fall short.
That’s how you obey the Gospel. That’s how you know God.
This is important. Hell is for everyone who doesn’t admit that they were and still are today a wretched sinner and that it is only by the unfathomable mercy of a loving God that we could ever find our way out of the mess we are in. Heaven is for people that know there is nothing good in them and that it is only Christ’s work on that cross that counts for anything. Hell is for everyone who has not experienced the mercy of God in such a profound way that the mercy of God flows out of them at every turn.
The reality is, if you think about it, hell is really for everyone. But, if you know God, because you admit your failure, believe that Jesus covers your sin and commit to follow Him in His Kingdom, then you are pardoned from your sin and you get to go somewhere else. Instead of hell, you get to go to be with Jesus for eternity.
So, you should be clear on who goes to hell and that should cause you to search your heart and the discern whether you really know God.
But, the second thing to learn here is that eternal destruction means exile from the Lord’s presence. Paul wrote,
2 Thessalonians 1:10 (CSB) — They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from his glorious strength…
People like to say that they belong in hell because that’s where all their friends will be and stuff like that. But, that’s a fairly ridiculous statement for a number of reasons. See, if you think like that you probably have a defunct view of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Jesus created all things and said that it is good. What God created is goodness. This whole world that God created was good and plentiful from the beginning. So, when people get drunk, party, have sex and do all the things that Christians aren’t “supposed to do,” they are still enjoying the good things God created. God created sex. God created people to enjoy people. We call that fellowship. God even created alcohol. And He created all of those things, among other reasons, for the enjoyment of the people He created, who, by the way, God said are good.
Now, there are righteous and unrighteous ways that those good and perfect gifts are to be utilized, but it should not seem like Christians are stuffy people who don’t like to have any fun, because, those good and perfect gifts were created for our enjoyment. Sex is to be enjoyed in marriage. Alcohol is to be enjoyed responsible, and so on. But, those are good things God created for His people.
See, no one is going to go to hell and spend eternity drunk on the couch with a couple girls on their arm. When you are separated from God you are separated from all of God’s good and perfect gifts.
Hell is actually a place where there is never joy, never satisfaction, never relief of any kind. It’s a lonely place where you are left alone with your thoughts—which sounds nice for some of us introverted people—but in hell you are left alone with thoughts of bitterness and rage against God and thoughts of regret and sadness over the life that you chose.
Jesus told a story about a man who did not deal well with God’s resources, who was afraid to spend God’s resources as He commanded. Here’s his judgment of this man.
Matthew 25:30 (CSB) — And throw this good-for-nothing servant into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
You see, it’s just as Paul also said. Separation from goodness—outer darkness. Sadness—weeping. And gnashing of teeth—bitterness and anger.
I suppose I’m for the first time ever preaching a fire and brimstone message today. It’s bleak, but it’s very real and very serious.
Some people are actually somewhat hopeful about hell, because they believe something called…
Annihilationism is the idea that hell consumes those who go there so that their soul no longer exists. The idea is that they are only tormented for a time and then they cease to exist. But, for two reasons we already talked about, that cannot be. Eternity doesn’t mean forever. It means outside of time. And the soul is never separated from the body.
Hell is very real, very eternal, and very serious.
So, as your next step today—take your NS cards out now—I want you to consider if, based on the testimony of scripture, are you concerned about hell?
If you came in this morning hoping that you will avoid hell because you are a good person or you have done enough good things, then you may need to Admit that you are a wretched sinner in God’s eyes and that you are deserving of God’s wrath.
And if you are ready to commit for the first time, not just to be a good person, but to obey the Gospel, to serve Jesus not to earn heaven, but because He has single-handedly rescued you from hell, then check the box that says commit to Christ.
And the obvious inference of this message is for those of you who profess to be Christians. To what degree do you really believe in hell?
Your next step might just need to be to start to be active in sharing truth with those in your life. It might need to start there.
And maybe God has revealed a different step to you, write that down.
Write down your Next Step and then when we pass the collection plates, please put your card in the basket so that we can pray for you in your next step this week.