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Doctrinal Matters: Afterlife

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Who Believes in Hell Anymore?

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

A Harris poll found that while 89% of Americans believe in heaven, only 73% believe in hell (Taylor, 1998). However, even this figure is misleading, since people differ in how they define “hell.” When defined as an actual location—a place of actual torment where people will be sent—only three in ten adults (31%) believe in hell (“Beliefs,” 1996). Most Americans believe that Satan is merely a symbol for evil. Only 27% strongly believe that Satan is real (“Religious Beliefs,” 2001).

American culture has sustained a steady assault from humanistic philosophy for several decades now. This constant bombardment of irreligious values has clearly taken its toll. In school, children have been fed a steady diet of atheistic evolution which holds that human beings owe their ultimate origin to rocks, dirt, and the chance forces of nature. Television sets have surely served as a principal medium through which the moral framework has been undermined and seriously eroded. Consequently, many previously unacceptable behaviors are on the increase in society—behaviors that are far more acceptable to the American people than they ever have been in the past.

These behaviors include such things as divorce, homosexuality, premarital sex, and gambling. The use of foul language is prevalent. The average person uses God’s name in vain. Such profanity is very commonplace—especially on television and in the movies. Fundamental values like honesty have given way to dishonesty in the form of lying, cheating, and deception. Americans now pretty much expect their politicians to lie. Pornography has spread across the land through so-called “adult” bookstores, cable channels, magazines, and the Internet. Satanism, astrology, spiritualism, the occult, and New Age religion are on the increase. More and more people are embracing Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and belief in reincarnation. The courts are literally clogged because of skyrocketing crime rates, and due to the fact that more and more people are retaliating and suing one another. America is no longer a country dominated by church-going peoples—as she was for the first 150 years of her national existence. Where once, Americans were characterized as people who strongly sought freedom for Bible religion, America is more nearly seen today as a culture that strives for freedom from religion. Indeed, forces have been working to eradicate God and the Christian religion from the American way of life.

Despite the fact that Americans in general, and Christians in particular, have many things for which to be thankful, and despite the fact that things usually are not as bad as they seem, nevertheless, much evidence exists to draw the conclusion that American society has become increasingly hedonistic, anti-Christian, and out of harmony with Bible principles. In fact, in many circles in this country the Bible is not even considered to be the verbally inspired Word of God—less than half of all adults (41%) believe the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches (“Religious Beliefs,” 2001). Indeed, American civilization is deteriorating. The moral, spiritual, and religious foundation of American society—this great nation—is disintegrating.

But there is an antidote, and there is only one antidote. The nation is in desperate need of returning to the Bible—the written instructions of the one God—and to the transcendent Creator of the Universe. The nation must go back to the Bible, back to those life-giving guidelines that will make a nation strong. Only the words of God are capable of sustaining a nation, and getting its citizens through this life in such a way that they will be prepared for life beyond the grave. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).

God’s words can change a person’s (or a nation’s) life by generating faith, obedience, and contentment in this life. Those words of God teach that sin is violation of God’s law (1 John 3:4). Sin is the only intrinsic evil in the world today. People cannot sin against God, and yet expect to be acceptable to Him. Sin, once committed, must be forgiven. But sin can be forgiven only under certain conditions that God, Himself, has specified in the Bible. If a person sins against God by violating His written revelation, and then leaves this life in an unforgiven condition, that person will be punished. Those are the facts of the matter. The Bible clearly teaches that those who leave this life with their sins unforgiven will spend eternity in hell. You cannot believe in heaven—and not believe in hell. The same Bible that teaches there is a heaven, also teaches there is a hell.

Many verses in the Bible verify this fact. Jesus said, “And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:4-5). Jesus Christ believed in hell! He warned about violating God’s will, and leaving this life unforgiven (i.e., spiritually unprepared), so that one is required to spend eternity separated from God in hell. Jesus further said: “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and will come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28).

In referring to the end of life on Earth, He declared: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:31). Referring to the disobedient, Jesus explained: “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ ” (vs. 41). Earlier in the same chapter He had said concerning the lost, “and cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vs. 30). He concluded the chapter by saying, “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (vs. 46). To be consistent, a person cannot believe in eternal life, and not believe in eternal punishment. The same Greek word is used in the same verse to describe both of those realms. Just as existence with God after this life is over will be forever or eternal, so separation from God due to disobedience in this life will result in eternal punishment.

Consider another profound, even startling, statement made by Jesus: “[I]f your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire” (Matthew 18:9). Jesus was not teaching that people should mutilate their bodies. He was simply stressing the fact that whatever it takes for a person to be obedient to God in this life—to be conformed to His will, to resist the forces of temptation that try to lure one into their grasp—whatever it takes to be faithful to God, is worth the sacrifice so that the person might enter into eternity qualified to live with God forever, rather than to spend eternity in the fires of hell.

On one occasion, Jesus addressed Himself to the religious leaders of His day. These were religious men, and yet Jesus said to them, “Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:33). That was a rhetorical question. Jesus was saying they were so wicked, they were so evil, they were so out of step with God’s will in this life, that He saw no way for them to leave this life without facing condemnation in hell. He also noted: “The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:41-42). How can a person possibly listen to those words, spoken by Jesus Christ Himself, and yet say hell does not exist?

The apostle Paul described the fate of those who live out of harmony with God’s will when he spoke of those “who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:32). He then stated, “but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil” (Romans 2:8).

In Revelation 20:15, we find this declaration: “[A]nyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.” John further recorded: “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone” (Revelation 21:8). There will be a hell. There will be eternal punishment for those who leave this life, having sinned against God, having violated His will, and having failed to receive forgiveness for those sins in the appointed way. Hence, it is imperative to know how to be forgiven.

How is forgiveness attained? The Bible answer to that question is—only through Christ. He is the Savior of all those who truly want to be saved. He is the only one who could atone for human sin and provide the antidote. The New Testament gives definitive teaching on how to be saved initially (in order to become a Christian), and how to maintain that saved status.

Jesus said, “[I]f you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). So the number one prerequisite to being saved and acceptable to God is to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Jesus further said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 17:6). Those are Jesus’ own words. His apostles declared: “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). These passages teach that Jesus Christ is the only avenue through Whom a person might be saved. A person must believe in the person of Jesus Christ, and in His Word. The writer of Hebrews wrote: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (11:6). Jesus said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). So the New Testament teaches that the first thing a person must do to be acceptable to God, and to avoid hell, is to believe in Jesus Christ by trusting in His Word. Faith comes by hearing God’s Word (Romans 10:17).

But, second, a person must repent of his or her sin. Jesus said, “but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3,5). The biblical doctrine of repentance means that, having come to a belief in Christ and His Word, the individual must change his mind about his past conduct, and his previous erroneous viewpoints. He must put those things behind him, changing his mind in order to bring his thinking into harmony with the Word of God.

Third, the New Testament teaches that a person must confess the deity of Jesus. Paul wrote that “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes to righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation” (Romans 10:9-10).

So a person must believe in Jesus Christ and His Word, turn from sin by changing the mind about that sin, and then confess the Lordship and deity of Christ with the mouth. But then the New Testament teaches that a person must be immersed in water in order to contact the blood of Christ and be forgiven of sin. Jesus, Himself, said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). What does it mean to be “born of water and the Spirit”? It means to be immersed in water according to the instructions given by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 5:26).

Many other passages make this point clear. For instance, Paul told the Galatian Christians: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (3:27). That is, a person is clothed with Christ in the action of water baptism. Peter said, “There is also an antitype which now saves us, namely baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). So water immersion is the point at which a person is saved by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. No wonder Ananias said to Saul, “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).

To summarize, these Scriptures teach that in order to become a Christian, a person must hear the word, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. When that person rises from the waters of baptism, he stands cleansed from sin by the blood of Christ. That person is now a Christian. After becoming a Christian, however, the individual is not given a guarantee that he automatically will be accepted in eternity. It depends upon whether he continues to live faithfully (Revelation 2:10). To remain saved, a person must live the Christian life faithfully, and take advantage of the means by which he may continue to be forgiven of sin. Living the Christian life faithfully includes frequent study of the Word of God in order to know how to live the Christian life, and to receive motivation to comply. When the Christian sins, he must repent of that sin, confess it, and pray to God for forgiveness (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9; James 5:20). In this fashion, the Christian may continue to be forgiven by the blood of Jesus while living the Christian life.

Make no mistake. A person dares not leave this life unforgiven and unprepared. The only hope is to commit to Jesus, and be obedient to God in this life. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether it be good or bad. Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:10-11). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). After all, “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). And, “the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9).

Is there a hell? Absolutely! The Bible teaches the existence of hell as certainly as it teaches the existence of heaven, God, and Christ. Hell may be summarized as everlasting fire, everlasting punishment, everlasting destruction, outer darkness, damnation, hell fire, and a lake of fire. If a person believes the Bible, or believes in Jesus Christ, or believes in God—he or she must believe in hell.

While perhaps hell may not be the best or the most mature motivation for loving God and for living faithfully to Him, fear of hell certainly is a legitimate reason, and a valid scriptural motive for causing a person to contemplate his conduct in this life, in order to be prepared to leave this life in good graces with God. The reader is urged to bring his or her life into compliance with the God of heaven by believing in His Son, repenting of past sins, confessing the name of Christ, and being immersed in water for the remission of those sins.

REFERENCES

“Beliefs: Heaven and Hell” (1996), Barna Research Online, [On-line], URL: http://www.barna.org/cgi-bin/PageCategory.asp?CategoryID=3.

“Religious Beliefs Vary Widely by Denomination” (2001), Barna Research Online, [On-line], URL: http://www.barna.org/cgi-bin/PagePressRelease.asp?PressReleaseID=92&Reference=A.

Taylor, Humphrey (1998), “Large Majority of People Believe They Will Go to Heaven,” [On-line], URL>: http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=167.




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