This past Tuesday, after dinner, my children and I ate homemade popsicles on our back porch. The sun was setting, the breeze was nice, and the popsicles were sweet. It was an idyllic way to cap off a busy day.
Earlier in the day, I had memorized this passage and I was looking for a chance to practice. “Kids” I said, “can I share the bible passaged that I’ve memorized.”
“Sure dad,” they said.
Brittney came out of the house with Abigail, just as I hit the second part of the parable. The part where Jesus talks about the wicked being thrown into the blazing furnace and the subsequent weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The kids didn’t react or say anything after I had finished. They just stared at me, eating their blueberry and banana popsicles.
Brittney broke the silence. “Maybe that’s not the best pre-bedtime bible story, honey.”
“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This is the word of our Lord?
Why would our gentle and loving saviour preach a parable like this? Didn’t he know that this would be the last parable the crowds heard before going to bed that night. He could have sent them home with an inspiring picture of the pearly gates. But instead, he sends them home with a picture of fish rotting on the shore; the wicked being thrown into the fire.
We might wonder… is this the same person who ate with sinners and befriended prostitutes? I thought Jesus was all about love and inclusivity? This net business sounds like the God of the Old Testament.
You know, back in the 2nd century, a church leader named Marcion concluded that there was an incompatibility between the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus we meet in the New.
Marcion thought that the God of the Old Testament was inconsistent, jealous, and overly wrathful. Jesus, on the other hand, he believed, was the proper object of our worship; the loving representative of the real God.
There’s much more to Marcion’s thought than this, but this was his main idea.
And its gotten remarkable mileage. I hear it again and again. “I don’t like the God of the Old Testament” people say. “He’s fickle and vengeful. But Jesus, I like Jesus. Jesus loved all and he taught us to do the same.”
You’ve heard this before, I’m sure.
The major problem with this narrative is that it is easily dismissed by a thorough reading of both the Old and the New Testaments.
The God of the Old Testament, while hating idolatry and punishing it severely, is actually quite patient. And at the slightest sign of repentance, he is quick forgive. Just think of when Jonah went to Nineveh. God was going to destroy that place, because of its wickedness. But when they repented, he forgave.
Jesus, of course, fully modelled the patient love of the LORD. But he also showcased God’s justice. When confronted with people buying and selling in the temple, he overturned their tables. He also wasn’t afraid to warn people about the consequences of their sin.
In fact, no one in the scriptures talks more explicitly, frequently, and colourfully about the reality of Hell than Jesus. He talks about it more than Peter and Paul put together. In fact, Jesus describes hell in greater detail than he does heaven.
Don’t believe me. Here are a few examples:
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ Mark 9:44-48
In this passage, Jesus is warning people that there are real consequences to moral laxity and undisciplined living.
Later in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a few parables that end in judgement days scenes. In the parable of the talents, for instance, Jesus condemns the servant who buries his master’s talent in fear. The punishment for the fearful servant is this: “throw that worthless servant outside, into the (outer) darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Matthew 25:30.
And in the very next parable, Jesus describes a day of decisive separation. A day when the sheep will be separated from the goats. And he concludes at the end of that parable that “Those who neglect the poor will “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:46
And I could go on with quotes like this. There’s the parable of the wedding banquet. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Each of those end with a clear picture of judgement, warning, and weeping and gnashing of teeth. And the same is true for the parable in front of us today.
The Kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake, and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Jesus clearly believed in a day of final judgment and punishment. Do you?
In the Christian tradition there are three main views about Hell and the final judgement. There’s 1) the Universalist perspective, 2) the Annihilationist perspective, and 3) the Eternal Judgement perspective.
1: Universalists believe that in the end, basically everyone will enter the Kingdom of heaven. God’s redemptive love will extend to all. Christ’s death will cover all. God is love and God will not allow people to suffer the consequences of their sin, eternally. If not right away, he will one day incorporate all into his Kingdom of peace.
The main trouble with Universalism is that it’s awfully hard to reconcile universalism with parables like the one we’re looking at today. Why would Jesus talk so consistently and explicitly about judgement day, if it weren’t a real reality, and if everyone just received a participant ribbon at the end of history for being human being.
Those who take the bible seriously, usually end up holding the second or the third view.
Both Annahiliationists and Eternal Judgement people believe in a day of sorting and separation. They believe that when Jesus returns, he will separate the righteous from the unrighteous. But they differ on what happens next.
2: Annahiliationists believe that the wicked will be destroyed on Judgment day and that that is that. Game over for the unrighteous. In the book of Revelation, the picture we get seems to point this direction. In John’s vision only those who belong to Jesus are welcomed into the New Jerusalem. The wicked, however, are thrown into a lake of fire. It is said the Satan will be tormented forever in the lake of fire, but that is not said of the others who are thrown in.
Fire destroys. And there’s a finality to this picture. There isn’t room for hell in the new heavens and earth.
Most days, I find myself in agreement with the Annahiliationists. This view is most attractive to me. But, I have to admit that there seems to be more biblical support for the Eternal Punishment camp.
3: This view states that life continues on, eternally, for both the wicked and the righteous. The Righteous will enjoy life with God, forever. The wicked will be cast from God’s presence and suffer the consequences of their sin, forever.
In our parable today, it seems as though the blazing furnace is not the end for those who get thrown in. The weeping and gnashing of teeth—a picture of misery and violence—happens after the wicked are thrown into the furnace.
In the parable of “the rich man and Lazarus” (Luke 16), the rich man is not annihilated when he dies. Rather, his life carries on and he suffers in a distinct place, a place that he is not allowed to leave. And as we already heard in the parable of the Sheep and the goats (Matthew 25), the punishment given to those who do not feed the hungry or clothe the sick is eternal. Literally, the greek word for “eternal” is used in the text.
The Heidelberg Catechism teaches Eternal Punishment. As does the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt. So all the confessions that our denomination adheres too, testify that this is what the scriptures say.
(Back to Cover Slide)
One of the difficulties we have in trying to describe hell with any accuracy, is that the Bible’s language for hell is all pictoral and metaphorical. Even the word “Hell” itself is a picture. “Ghenna”, the greek word for hell, was literally a smouldering garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. It was hot place. Filled with smouldering mounds of decomposing food and feces. So when Jesus says: “If your right arm causes you to sin, cut it off, lest you go down into Ghenna” that’s the picture he’s playing with.
This is the picture. But what is the reality?
C.S. Lewis and Pastor Tim Keller have helped me out a lot in my own journey of trying to understand hell.
For them, the scary biblical pictures are simply seeking to describe the awful reality of what it means to do life apart from God.
For Keller and Lewis, hell is not a fiery place ruled by a red guy with a pitchfork. It’s much worse than that, Keller says. It’s the place where God let’s us be as twisted and wicked as we want to be. There’s no common grace in hell. No basic created goodness left. No parameters on human behaviour, either. Just the terrible, terrible disintegration that happens when everyone in a community decides to worship themselves.
And this terrible disintegration of personhood and community, says Lewis, is not just an end time reality. Its something that we participate in today—if we’re not careful.
Lewis describes the progression like this.
“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God “sending us” to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud.”
Can’t you see yourself in this statement.
Hell starts small. A little cheating on your taxes. A few simply clicks of the mouse. You wish you wouldn’t do it. But its not a big deal, you tell yourself. Everyones’s doing it. So you go on. Pretty soon, greed or lust takes a hold of your mind. And begins to twist your soul. You self-justify. You start crossing boundaries that would have horrified you a few years earlier. You worry what others will think, but not enough to stop. Slowly others become devalued in your mind. Mere tools in your search for more and more of what you want.
Now, imagine that process going on for eternity. But without the safeguards of a working conscious, a functioning justice system, or friends who care for you. And its not just happening to you, but everyone around you.
That is Hell. It is the place where God allows us to be as self-centred as we want to be. God isn’t there tormenting people. He respects our freedom, and simply hands us over into Sin’s vicious embrace. There will be misery and violence, weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And I don’t know about you, but that picture scares me a lot more than a blazing furnace or a red dude with a pitchfork.
A few weeks ago, a woman called me. Someone from the community. She wanted to talk with a pastor. So we set up a visit. I asked Ashley if she could be at church on the day this visit took place. I was worried about it. Something didn’t feel right. Within 5 minutes of the visit, I was totally on edge and had to fight to remain calm. This woman was caught in a descending spiral of trouble. But she wasn’t repentant or ready to take responsibility for her life. From her perspective, the world was against her. This included siblings. Her Church.
I listened and empathized. I tried to encourage her down a healthy path. But she didn’t come looking for a healthy way forward. She wanted an ally in her angry campaign of blame and avoidance.
A few phone conversations later, and it came to light that this woman was caught in a web of deceit and lies.
I pass no judgment on that woman. Boundaries, yes. But judgement, no. I pray for her. Because I know that that self-destructive hell-bent journey could happen to me too.
Sin is so deceitful. It messes with our mind. And Satan is always ready to point out for us the next little step that will lead to our destruction.
Hell is a journey that starts on earth. Do you feel it? Do you sense that in yourself. At a certain point, God will respect your desire to worship yourself, and leave you to pursue your own desires with reckless abandon. And when the day of separation comes….
The Kingdom of heaven is a like a net that was let down into the lake. It caught all kinds of fish.
But when full, the fishermen pulled the net up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw away the bad.
So it will be at the end of the age, says Jesus. Today the Spirit out fishing. Might Christ be out fishing for you. Calling you off the destructive path an on the narrow way? Today the Spirit is out fishing. Tomorrow, the angels will haul the catch onto shore. And only the righteous will enter into life with God. But the wicked will be cast away to a place where there will be misery and violence.
Cynics will say that this is all a scare tactic, fear mongering, designed to produce conformity.
That is one conclusion that you could draw.
But another conclusion you could draw is that Jesus loves us enough to tell us the truth about reality.
This parable, and the others like it, are coming from a place of love. That why Jesus shares them.
The other reason, he shares them, I think, is because they help to showcase the depths of God’s love shown in Christ.
The apostles creed says that “Jesus descended into hell.” Meaning he suffered the worst kind of spiritual and physical disintegration that can be imagined. On the cross, Jesus was abandoned by his Father in heaven. Cast into the furnace of sin and death. He, the righteous one, experienced the depth of misery and violence. Why?
Because God loves us and wants to rescue us from our hell-bent path towards destruction. Jesus endured hell, for us and for our salvation.
The truth is that only one fish caught by the Kingdom net was worthy of keeping. Jesus Christ.
But out of love, that Good fish took upon himself the punishment of the bad. So that we could be clothed with his righteousness, and renewed by his Holy Spirit. By Faith.
If you don’t get the seriousness of the Kingdom, you’ll never fully appreciate the power of the cross. Or the pure bliss of knowing that you are clothed with the righteousness of Christ.
Some of you here today need to be assured of this. Assured that you belong to your faithful saviour Jesus Christ. And so I have words of assurance for you today. The promise of the gospel is that nothing in all creation, not even the power of sin or hell, can separate you from your Faithful saviour Jesus Christ. Trust him. Link your life to him. He will not let you go.
But others of you here today, perhaps, need to be challenged. You’re coasting along. Coming to Church on Sunday but living for yourself the rest of the time. Sliding through life without much care or concern for God and the things of God. Know today, what God is about and what the Kingdom of heaven is like.
There comes a day when the game of life ends and when the Kingdom of God takes over. You’ll want to be ready.