Preaching Heaven and Hell in the Modern Age

by David Wells

This subject which I have been assigned is a tough one.  I’ve been asked to think about preaching the truth of heaven and hell in this modern world.  We have difficulties with this for two reasons: first, it is almost impossible for us to imagine what heaven and hell will be like.  It is hard to imagine goodness as good as heaven is going to be, and badness as bad as hell is going to be.  There is a sense in which both are so far beyond our experience that it is impossible to conceive them.  Why is this?  Let me provide one thought you may or may not find helpful.  It does seem to me that life is very ambiguous in the sense that we never experience goodness without at least being in the context of badness.  We see the one beside the other, and sometimes experiences the one along with the other.  We don’t actually see evil in its total nakedness, unrestrained in this world.  Evil is always somewhat restrained, occasionally by human conscience, by the providential hand of God, and by government. 

So when C.S. Lewis wanted to think about good and evil as they are in themselves, he thought that he should take them in another world itself (in The Space Trilogy).  In hell, what you have is evil without restraint (in The Great Divorce).  God’s hand and providential restraints are withdrawn.  Here you have unqualified, unimpeded, unrestrained selfishness.  In this life, even in a fallen world, we still experience creation as good (cf. Acts 14) even as we experience this intrusion into creation.  We experience these things side by side, modifying and qualifying each other in our experience.  It is hard to extrapolate what heaven and hell might be like. 

Let me make a second point on preaching heaven and hell.  I think we are all aware that we live in a culture where human autonomy reigns.  It is of the essence of sin, and it has an unusually potent expression in our culture right now.  This autonomy says I will not march to somebody else’s drum beat.  We all know this is the reality for people today, and we also know that heaven and hell can be caricatured.  Sometimes because of these difficulties we become tentative about speaking these truths, particularly the latter.  We cannot pull back in this way.  We must speak on these matters because at the heart of the biblical gospel is this declaration that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  This is because God’s judgment is brought forward in time where the wrath of God was fully satisfied in Christ.  There is a doorway over which the words are “No Condemnation.”  If you walk through that doorway, it leads directly to the presence of our Father.  If you go through the other doorway, it reads “Condemnation” which leads away from the presence of God and to the place where there are no longer any restraints over what is wrong or evil.  There is a narrow way which goes through one way, and there is a broad way which goes through the other door.  So how can we not speak about this?  The doctrine of judgment that lies immediately before both is not just a footnote to the Christian faith; it is right at the very heart of the Christian faith.  It is in this way the matter of evil, this intrusion into creation, that evil with all of its consequences are dealt with.  All of the rebellion that has been raised against God, all of the disorder brought into life, has been dealt with. 

The key to understanding heaven and hell is the supremacy of Jesus Christ.  He is supreme in our redemption, and he is supreme in his conquest over all the enemies with have blighted human life.  He is as supreme in the one as he is in the other.  Therefore, thinking about heaven and hell has to begin a long way before eternity.  It needs to begin with and anchored in the person of Christ. 

I want to look at two phrases in our text, Hebrews 2 (cf. Psalm 8).  In Psalm 8, you get two totally difference perspectives about man.  The cultural mandate in Psalm 8, a mandate never rescinded, but in fact is reaffirmed.  The problem is that creation itself has been derailed, and we do not see everything being worked out in terms of the cultural mandate.  Indeed, Romans 8, Paul makes striking statements about the creation, namely that creation is subjected to futility, meaning that creation is not reaching its goal for which it was created.  Elsewhere, Paul says that creation is going to be set free from its bondage.  Even now the creation is groaning and waiting its liberation.  It is not only the creation, but we ourselves too who groan, waiting to be liberated.  All of life, so it seems, is jarred loose from God.  We cannot realize the purpose for which we are made. 

Often times we ourselves are the casualties of creation.  Life is dangerous, even for us.  Harvest gets withered.  Life is disordered, and in the modern world everything has two edges and two sides.  Every advance is matched by a potential loss.  The very profession of medicine which can find cures for diseases is also the same profession with threatens life with abortion.  Nuclear energy can provide us with means to power life, but the same energy can destroy the planet.  Has this brought us any peace in our lives?  It has not.  We know that all of these things can be used to evil ends.  Everyday we are aware of the fact that we live in the world of brilliance without wisdom, of knowledge without humility, and of power without conscience.  We do not see all things subject to the purposes of God in people.  We do not see the cultural mandate being carried forward flawlessly.  We encounter obstacles and dangers everywhere.  They are not only outside ourselves, but they are in us as well.  We groan inwardly.  Redeemed we are, and yet sinners we remain.  We belong to a human race in whom corruption has taken root, producing great frustration and pain and disarray. 

You and I have been redeemed in full in as much as nothing needs to be added to what Christ did on the cross.  Nothing can be added to that or taken away from that.  We have been redeemed in full, and yet we know ourselves to not yet to be fully redeemed.  Certainly in the creation and even in us who are right on the front end of redemption, even in us, we too groan for liberation.  For this rule, this redemptive rule of Christ, has been inaugurated, but it has not been consummated.  We have a taste of things to come.  It is a glorious taste that we do not have what awaits us.  So we groan – we groan about our divided selves, sometimes serving Christ, other times serving ourselves.  Celebrating the sovereignty of God in all of life, and yet sometimes we are not able to trust God in the actual circumstances in life.  Seeing him as the center as the goal of all of life, and yet sometimes becoming so preoccupied with what is happening about us, so consumed that we lose sight of his centrality to all of life.  What strange creatures we are!  We have been redeemed in full, yet we know that we are not yet fully redeemed.  We live in both worlds; one that is passing and dying, and the other which is dawning and coming.  This strange hybrids that we are.  Don’t we long to see more of the life to come, to be liberated from what seems to be like an anchor that ties us into a world which is so disappointing and painful?  If we long for liberation, our spirits are groaning for it, what we are groaning for is heaven.  What we are longing for is that time where goodness is so good, it is inconceivable.  It will not be accompanied with badness. 

In Hebrews 10:11-13, there is the contrasts of priests who stand because their work was never finished.  Christ sat down at the right hand of God.  The contrast of the standing and sitting is between the work that was never finished and the work that was finished decisively for all time and can never be and will never be repeated, neither in the Mass nor in Heaven.  Notice that he links us with a quotation from Psalm 110:1

The Lord says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”

This was a way of stating the absolute rule and sovereignty of Christ.  This sovereignty arises as it were out of the ashes of his enemies’ defeat.  The imagery is of a world conqueror where he would raise the foot and stomp on the disgraced enemy’s neck.  All of the power which have brought such pain, corruption, and destruction, are not a doomed, defeated, disgraced enemy under Christ’s foot.  This is the triumphant note sounded throughout the New Testament (cf. Eph. 1:21; 1 Pet. 3:22).  It has God’s holiness that required Christ’s death.  It was God’s love that sent His Son to die.  It was God’s power that raised him from the dead.

Everybody experiences the problem of evil in human life.  How is that the world is still filled with evil when there is a good and sovereign God?  People are indifferent to what is right, and evil is going unpunished.  Right now, there is no balancing of the scales in life.  So is it that God is not sovereign?  Of course not.  Is he not good?  Of course not.  What’s the explanation then?  The only explanation that we have and is true is that the final chapter has not yet been written.  For many non-Christian theists, the problem of evil is a terrible, overwhelming problem because it never gets solved.  The only way to solve it is to say that evil is not real or to say that it is real but God has accommodated himself to it.  Neither of these options are for the Christian.  Evil is real evil, and God has not accommodated himself to it.  The Christian perspective is of a coming judgment.  When God does act in judgment, he will show himself to be the final line of resistance to all that is wrong.  In this life, there is no balancing of the scales.  He is going to put truth forever on the throne, and is forever going to put evil on the scaffold.  He is going to demonstrate that he is all powerful, all knowing, and all sovereign, and the universe is going to run the way he planned.

We should not be taken by surprise by the NT doctrine of judgment, for if we look at the cross, we already see an anticipation of it.  At the cross, there are bells that are tolling, but what we see at the cross is how God is going to act on sin and evil.  For us who are in Christ, that judgment has been brought forward in Christ; for those outside of Christ, that judgment will come at the end of time.  At the cross, the game was locked up.  All we are seeing now is a few, futile moves, none of which can change the outcome of what happened then. 

Let me make two points in closing.  First, Christian faith is only about this kind of Christ who is supreme in our redemption and is supreme in conquest in all of life’s enemies.  He is unique, central, indispensable in the conquest of evil.  During the 1980s and 1990s, some churches have concluded that this kind of Christ is not palatable to postmodernists.  They offered a slimmed down version of the gospel, especially regarding sin, death, and hell.  These cardinal truths were not on display, rather they were concealed and hidden.  This selling of a cut-rate Christianity, a Christianity for the lowest bidder is bearing consequence today.  What we are looking like today is a little bit of what we look at in Hebrews.  These Christians had shrunk back from making a robust, unqualified confession of Christ because it was offensive to Jews.  For us it is the cultural context.  That is what is leading some of us to pull back, because it is offensive to postmodernists.  90% of the unchurched said they come to hear preaching, and 88% came to hear doctrine.  Can you believe that? 

Second, we today are living between the “already” and the “not yet.”  Christ has already conquered, yet the conquest has not been fully realized.  There is a final word.  Death itself any longer has a sting.  Thanks be to God in Christ for this victory.  In the midst of life’s struggles, shouldn’t we be lifting up the eyes of the people in our church to look and to see beyond this moment of conflict, where defeat, decay, and death reigns, to see through it, even though we only see darkly through a glass, and yet to be captured through this thought that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for him”?  Indeed, we should look beyond the already, for Christ has conquered.  God is going to establish to fact that he is the final resistance to all that is wrong.  There will be a clear demarcation between good and evil, light and darkness, right and wrong.  May God be glorified as we lift up our eyes to see his goodness and grace.


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