Chapter 7.....The Destiny of the Wicked
"Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be that go in thereat." Matthew ch.7:13.
of hell is possibly the most challenging arising from the testimony of Scripture.
The Bible, the best of books, contains fearful pictures of the destiny of the
wicked. In the Gospels those pictures are most frequently found, and our Lord
Himself gives us them. Were these pictures in the epistles it might be easy
to suggest that they were the result of Pauline hallucinations quite obviously
out of harmony with the spirit of the Lord. However the solemn fact confronts
us that the Lord Himself, the embodiment of mercy and of love, has most to say
upon the terrible end of the wicked. In these days when intellectual speculation
is the modern god we are easily snared and deluded by the idea that what man
thinks determines facts. Forthwith the modern mind wholly discrediting the idea
of hell, hell does, ipso facto, cease to exist!
THE problem of hell is possibly the most challenging arising from the testimony of Scripture. The Bible, the best of books, contains fearful pictures of the destiny of the wicked. In the Gospels those pictures are most frequently found, and our Lord Himself gives us them. Were these pictures in the epistles it might be easy to suggest that they were the result of Pauline hallucinations quite obviously out of harmony with the spirit of the Lord. However the solemn fact confronts us that the Lord Himself, the embodiment of mercy and of love, has most to say upon the terrible end of the wicked. In these days when intellectual speculation is the modern god we are easily snared and deluded by the idea that what man thinks determines facts. Forthwith the modern mind wholly discrediting the idea of hell, hell does, ipso facto, cease to exist!
It is a comparatively easy task to piece together theories concerning later interpolations in the Gospels, the acceptance by our Lord of the ideas current in His times and other considerations which minimise, if they do not entirely remove, the discredited elements in the Gospels, but in spite of all our theories hell does exist, what then? Facts are not moulded by fancies, and our task is not to weave a philosophy, which satisfies us, but to grasp the facts, which correspond to reality. We may not like the idea of hell, it may be reprehensible to us. But it were surely a calamity to assure our fellow men that hell does not exist; if all the time it is a destiny to which they may be hurrying with an unconcern encouraged by the easy assertions of the pulpit.
For my part, I cannot accept the awful responsibility of telling men that our Lord never uttered the words with which He is credited in the Gospels, or uttering them, expressed not eternal truth, but the current legends of His time. If I am to err I would rather err in preaching hell and find later that it had no existence than assure men it did not exist, only to find that later my unfounded assurance had blinded their minds to the awful destiny of the lost. If for no other reason, therefore, I cannot lightly regard the warnings of Scripture concerning the destiny of the wicked.
Who are the wicked? A wicked man is one in opposition to the will of God. The final will of God for men is repentance. He has overlooked the times of man's ignorance but ignorance, in the light of the Lord Jesus is now impossible, and God now commands all men to repent. The fact that God does overlook times of ignorance suggests that ignorance before a man has heard of Christ is different from ignorance after the good news in Jesus is made plain. If that be so the heathen unevangelised are in a position different from our own, but it is not the poor heathen who is in the greater condemnation; for the peril is for the man who has seen the light and refused it!
How God will deal with the heathen we cannot say. Why the Gospel light has been so long in reaching them is a mystery not to be fathomed this side of eternity. But for those who have heard the Gospel the wicked are clearly defined. The New Testament makes it quite clear that the supreme condemnation of a man is in his rejection of the Lord Jesus as Saviour. The wicked, with whose destiny we are now concerned, are they who have heard the message of the Gospel of salvation, have known that Christ died to redeem them from their sin, but, knowing it, prefer their sin. What awaits the man who persistently rejects Christ when he passes from this world?
The sorrows of such an one, as depicted by the Lord, are such as should excite in every believer the deepest concern. It is perfectly clear that to rescue men from such a doom is the supreme task of life and that no effort should be spared to persuade men to flee from the wrath to come. These terrible pictures are everywhere in the Gospels, so woven into the very warp and woof that, if they be removed, the records are left in tatters. Let me invite you prayerfully to read the Gospels with the special object of studying those passages that refer to the destiny of the wicked, and I think you will be unable to escape the conclusion that, in our Lord's view, their end is terrible.
There is a danger of confused thought when we speak of the destiny of the wicked as being "eternal punishment." The Rev. H. R. L. Sheppard, in his book, "The Impatience of a Parson," says" No father ever won the love of his children by threatening them with punishments that were cruelly in excess of their deserts."
But is such a contention a proper presentation of New Testament teaching? To propound such an analogy as a parallel of God's dealings with men is a complete travesty of the facts. There is a punishment meted out by a judge and, in some cases, the penalties are unduly severe. That disproportion arises because there is no relation between the crime and the punishment. Our judiciary system fines or imprisons an individual, but there is no correspondence between the crime and its punishment between the evil deed and its inevitable result. But God does not deal with men like that. " Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap." The reaping is always in relation to the sowing.
Hell for any man is the consummation of the things he has definitely willed and originated. If a man deliberately leaves a piece of land uncultivated should we declare it to be intolerable that God allowed weeds to grow there in profusion? Whatever men suffer in the world to come will be the fruit of their own sowing, just so much, and no more or less. It will not be an arbitrary sentence inflicted upon them by a whimsical omnipotence " in excess of their deserts." Impatient parsons there may be but not an impatient Providence. The rich man in Hades made no complaint against the justice of his lot; he saw its inevitability proceeding from the quality of his life: he not only suffered but he knew he deserved to suffer. Hell was the unveiling of the moral consequences of life to which he had been deliberately blind.
The fact that hell is a moral consequent and not the vindictive vengeance of the Almighty will help us to see other difficulties in the right light. There are many who are convinced that some form of retribution is necessary in the world to come, but they cannot think that it will be everlasting. Some find refuge in the idea that annihilation awaits the evil doer. " The second death " consequent upon the judgment of the Great White Throne is suggestive in this connection, but nowhere in Scripture is death equivalent to extinction of being. When our beloved die they do not cease to exist. Death is separation but not extinction. At death the body and spirit are separated. The believer is at once " clothed upon " but not so the unbeliever, and the second death is indicative of a further separation to be endured by the spirit of a man. An experience which we cannot contemplate because it is beyond our understanding. If death means extinction then the second death is a second extinction!
But it is strongly felt that it is impossible to think that a God of Love should permit everlasting punishment. It seems a strong argument, because if everlasting misery is an idea intolerable to us how much more to God? If our love would save our fellows from such a dire eternity how much more potent is the love of God! But the destiny of the wicked is determined not by love but by sin. The salvation of the believer is determined by love, and .bow great that love is we shall not know until our redemption is complete but sin, and not love, determine hell. Let us not underestimate the terrible nature and consequence of sin.
Some incline to this belief in annihilation because they hold that if one soul is left in hell, God's purpose in redemption is unfulfilled. But the purpose is just as much unfulfilled by annihilation. The idea proceeds from a false view of God's purpose.
When we sin against the light we "crucify the Son of God afresh. " Only there on the Cross can we really appreciate what sin is- "He became sin for us." We may talk easily of sin but it is an agonising reality to God. If we saw sin as God sees it, if the world's sin needed the sacrifice of the Son of God on Calvary, if that awful price was paid, as it has been paid, then we should have no doubts as to the terrible curse sin has brought upon the human race. But we see sin from our point of view and its complexion is very different. Without expressing any opinion upon the rightness of the death penalty for murder, I am impressed by the ease with which the emotions of people can be aroused to sign petitions for the reprieves of murderers. If the criminal have a wife and family the public is constrained to mercy. But in judging the rightness and justice of a reprieve one must remember not only the sufferings of those who are related to the criminal but the sufferings of the man who was so cruelly murdered. And in judging sin we must remember God's point of view, because we must remember He has suffered in His Son at Calvary.
A familiar refuge for those who recognise the serious nature of sin is the confidence that in the world to come men will all at once or ultimately, see their folly and humbly repent. This is certainly a point of view which recognises the due importance of the moral issues involved, and which nobody would desire to confute if its truth could be established. It is, however, of the utmost importance, that we should weigh well the testimony of Scripture in this matter, for to tell men there is a second chance when there is not, is perilous the extreme. When one considers the parable of Dives and Lazarus some confidence in this belief is established. The rich man has five brothers and in Hades he pleads on their behalf. He was deeply concerned that they should not share the horrors of his lot. That thought of others is commendable.
Here is a man who has enjoyed life by making everybody the servants of his will and wealth. Nothing that would add to his selfish contentment has he denied himself, yet in Hades he thinks of his brethren! That does appear to be noble and generous, and it is some indication that hell makes men think, if nothing more. But giving full weight to this factor in the parable, we must also observe what is equally clear that there is no alleviation of Dives' distress; that is impossible. And while Dives pleads that his brethren may be spared the agony of his lot he does not pray that his sins may be forgiven.
I have no doubt whatsoever that both in time and eternity God is always willing to pardon and forgive those who humbly repent of their sins. I do not believe that there will ever be a time when God will shut up His compassion against the penitent sinner. If a man truly repents of his sin, as distinct from being sorry for the results of his sin, I believe God will ever be merciful. But the question is not one for God, it is one for men. It is not whether God will forgive in the world to come, but whether man will ever repent. Hell is the destiny of the man who will not repent and accept the salvation, which God offers in Jesus Christ.
There will be no repentant soul in hell. As to whether men will repent in the world to come is a question for the answer to which we must depend, in some degree, on present experience. To day the whole emphasis is upon childhood and adolescence. It is a commonplace that if England is to be held for Christ it must be held through the child and the youth. That sound contention rests upon the undoubted fact that as one gets older repentance gets harder. The longer the habit persists the greater its hold and the more titanic the struggle to escape. There may be such a thing as a death-bed repentance but any Christian who has sought to help the dying to turn to the Lord for salvation will know that the presence of death does not help a man to God; it not infrequently paralyses his powers of faith.
If life here is our preparation for the world to come, is there any reason to believe that the habits of sin so sedulously cultivated and enjoyed will be repentance is delayed the harder it becomes. I cannot help thinking too, that redemption was accomplished at Calvary in time, because salvation was possible in time only. God has made the issues of eternity vivid in the light of Calvary. If there should be no second chance, none will be able justly to say the issue was not clear.
How shall we describe the sufferings of eternity? What is literal fire? What does the psalmist mean when he speaks of fire in his bones? The condition of the wicked is "unclothed " in distinction from the righteous who are " clothed upon." It may be that the habits developed and cultivated in the body of the flesh will persist while the power to give them satisfaction will be no more. Drugs have a way of increasing their power over an individual, exciting his passionate for them while decreasing in their satisfaction. Any passion unbridled masters a man until the satisfaction derived is infinitesimal while the passion for indulgence rages as a fire. The increasing investment of the character in sin may perhaps imply that there comes a time when a man is forced to an indulgence from which all pleasure has long departed, which now, indeed, gives nothing but pain, yet the power of it cannot be broken. Such a condition is intelligible but its meaning in suffering we cannot fathom. Of one thing we may be sure; the terrible price of Calvary is some evidence of the peril from which God would rescue men. It is far better to think of hell as a place worse than it is (if that were possible) than to minimise its agonies and tempt sinners to drift.
Yet we may legitimately feel that while grievous sinners may conceivably be destined to everlasting sorrow there are thousands who are not Christians but are estimable people in their lives. What is to become of them? My answer is twofold. Jesus Christ is the acid test of integrity. A man's attitude to Jesus Christ is the final verdict upon his character. If he does not love the Man of Calvary dying there for sin then it is the final and unmistakable evidence that he does not love goodness for there is no goodness outside of Christ, as there is nothing but goodness in Him. A man's attitude cannot he judged by external marks such as church membership, the Sacraments, or even the Scriptures.
The conclusive test is his deep heart attitude to the Love of God revealed in Jesus Christ as Saviour. If a man contemplates that love and rejects it then however he may appear to his friends, the quality of his character is beyond a doubt. At the same time, before a man can reject Christ, he must have heard the Gospel. It must have been made plain to him and he must have wilfully rejected the Lord as Saviour. The accent of condemnation is upon the stubborn unyielding will. How God will deal with those to whom the Gospel has not been preached I do not know. Such people ought never to be in touch with a true disciple because it is the duty of the disciple to preach the word "instantly," and so continually to communicate the word of truth that the obligation and responsibility is upon the hearer to decide his attitude to the claims of the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Dives could see Lazarus. We are not told that Lazarus could see or speak to Dives. Dives does not wish his brethren to share his lot; perhaps that was no virtue, because hell is not a place of fellowship but of loneliness and solitude. The true fellowship of men," the tie that binds"," is in Jesus Christ, and when men are not bound together in Him, they are alone in a desolate experience. For them fellowship is not possible and perhaps if it were, it might but add to their sorrow.
Will those in heaven be happy if loved ones are not there? What real abiding fellowship and love can persist between a man whose joy is in the Lord and a man whose pleasure is in sin? Beyond that we cannot go in safety, but as a mere speculation one may hazard the suggestion that heaven and hell may be the same place, that loved ones who have rejected Christ may be with those who have accepted Him. The presence of the Living Christ in all His holiness, tenderness and sacrificial love, the supreme joy of the believer may be at once the supreme agony of the unbeliever. Did not they cry to the mountains and the rocks-' ' Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb?" His presence, the presence of Jesus the Christ of Calvary, that presence an agony!
One's heart is deeply solemnised by these reflections. My conclusions may appear to some to be harsh and merciless. They are not intended so to be. I do not wish to urge men to accept Christ to escape the consequences of their sin although it were better to save them by fear, even terror, than they should be lost for ever. I do not wish to be preaching hell fire to the unbeliever continually; I prefer to plead with men by all the love of God revealed at Calvary. But I do pray God that He may ever keep me conscious of this awful destiny of the wicked, that my preaching shall be tempered by it, that I may ever feel the urgency of the Gospel and the dread responsibility of beseeching men to accept the Lord as Saviour. With the realisation of the terrible issues of eternity deeply rooted in his soul the preacher will be content with nothing less than a ministry which expounds the eternal truths and sets forth simply the way of salvation. He will have no time for anything but this the supreme and urgent need of the individual soul. The solemn realisation before God of the terrible destiny to which men are so carelessly hastening will give an edge to our message, an impulse to our ministry, a passionate love for those outside of Christ.
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