By Dr. Terry Swicegood
March 10 2019
If you grew up in the Bible belt, as I did, or grew up a Roman Catholic, you were absolutely sure that you were going to hell. You would not pass GO, you would not collect $200. No destined to go straight to hell.
When I was about eight years old my little Methodist church in North Carolina had a revival. There was a visiting evangelist who came and preached. I don’t remember what he looked like, but I sure remember what he said. He told us that if didn’t accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior we were on our way to hell, sure as shootin’. He described hell so vividly that I could just see it. The lake of fire, being tormented by its flames day and night, the hell hounds chasing us with their spears or pitchforks or whatever hell hounds carried. And the smell of sulfur and burning flesh.
And then he said, “Think about a day in your life when you were in terrible pain, awful pain, wracking pain.” (I could remember such a day for I had just come that week the dentist and had a tooth pulled without Novocain.) And the evangelist said, “This is the way it will be for you in hell, except the pain won last for a minute or an hour or a day or even a year, but for all eternity.
“Do you know how long that is? Do you know how long you are going to be there?” My eyes got real wide.
“Just imagine,” he preached, “a granite mountain 10, 000 feet high, and every 500 years a bird flies back and touches its wing on the mountain, just barely touches it. And when that bird wears that mountain down level with the ground that in hell is before breakfast. That’s how long eternity is.”
Well all I gathered from that sermon was that I sure didn’t want to end up in hell. I couldn’t figure out how I was going to keep from going to hell, for growing up in the Bible belt you always carried around all sorts of guilt. But I did know one thing. There may be a lot of people in this world who were going to hell, but the one category of persons who were not going to hell but going to heaven were preachers. So I decided I want to be a preacher. And that’s the story of my call to the ministry.
Maybe once upon a time the thought of hell convinced people they should repent, become believers and go to church. That just doesn’t work anymore.
According to Pew research. 55% Americans believe in heaven and hell. 17% believe in heaven not hell. 3 per cent believe in hell not heaven. 25 % believe in neither.
You have to take your scissors and cut out the most vital portions of the Bible to omit the fact that when we die we will be judged about how we have lived our lives and the decision we have made about Jesus Christ. As Paul lays it out in II Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done.”
That is what we affirm in the Apostle’s Creed, that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead.
In a nutshell, we believe that those who have died trusting in Christ will enter what we call heaven, life everlasting in God’s presence. Those who have died not acknowledging Christ will enter what we call hell, which is existence apart from God forevermore.
What is the Bible and Apostles’ Creed trying to teach us when it speaks of the judgment of God?
For a moment forget about what the Bible says about judgment and heaven and hell and think with me how judgment is woven into the fabric of the universe.
If your company loses money quarter after quarter, year after year, there’s a judgment day a coming.
If an NBA coach has a losing record for more than two seasons, there’s a judgment day a coming.
If you smoke two packs a day, and load up on ice cream and cake each night, there’s a judgment day a coming.
Accountability and judgment are part of our implicit compact with life. We have to answer for things. In secular life right now, accountability is “in.” Educators are being held accountable for students not learning. Business and manufacturers are being held liable for pollution and for faulty products. And perhaps the ultimate in accountability, a church in Florida was sued by a member who claims he did not receive the spiritual blessings promised when he tithed.
So we see that judgment is part and parcel of secular life. Why, therefore, have we been so resistant to the idea that in the spiritual realm we are also held accountable?
Let me approach the question of God’s judgment this way, then you can see what I mean.
Suppose I stood up here today and said, “There is no judgment. No after life with a heaven and a hell.”
It doesn’t matter how people live their lives. In the end, everyone will be saved. Mother Teresa and Adolph Hitler will both get a pat on the back from God. It doesn’t matter whether you respond to Christ or not. It doesn’t matter whether you go to church on Sunday, or whether you spend your Sundays on other pursuits.
It doesn’t matter whether you cheat on your spouse, whether you shortchange your children.
It doesn’t matter that you live in comfort in a big house on the hill, while you ignore the poor and hungry people living in squatters shacks down in the valley.
If I were to stand here today and say that, every single one of you would stand up in protest.
You know in your heart of hearts that life is consequential, that God does hold us accountable for what we do with our lives.
Can God allow the men and women who send 6 million Jews to their death go scott free?
Can God blithely ignore the genocide of the Armenians, the American Indians, and the people of Cambodian?
Can God issue an easy amnesty, saying, “None of this really matters.” That’s impossible to accept isn’t it.? We know the universe swings on a moral hinge.
So back to the Bible, and we are reminded that it isn’t true because the Bible says it, the Bible says it because it is true.
There are several of images of life after death in the Bible. In the Hebrew Bible, the place where the dead go is called “Sheol”. Literally translated it means the place of shadows. Both the righteous and the unrighteous go to Sheol upon their death. The people who inhabit Sheol are shadows without substance or personality.
By the time of the New Testament there was a shift in Jewish belief. Many Jews believed that the righteous go to a place of comfort while the wicked go to Hades, a word which was substituted for Sheol. Paul, the church’s first and most influential theologian taught that when believers die they go go immediately to be with the Lord ( 2 Cor 5:8 ; Php 1:23 ).
Hades in the NT is the realm where the unrighteous and unbelievers go after death. There are several vivid images of Hell in the NT. One is Gehenna, another word for hell, which literally was the garbage dump outside Jerusalem. The Book of Revelation speaks of the unrighteous being cast into a lake of fire.
That’s pretty sobering stuff isn’t it and it raises all sorts of vexing questions. Does it mean that all unbelievers, all who do not trust in Christ are destined for the garbage dump and the lake of fire?
I will tell you a story. When I lived in MS, I attended presbytery one Saturday. The preacher for presbytery worship had just returned from a mission trip to Brazil. The purpose of the trip was to evangelize, to preach the gospel in a slum where tens of thousands of people lived. He vividly described the area, people living in shacks, running sewage in the streets, no electricity. You get the picture. .
And then he said that his team came to Brazil to preach the Gospel so that the inhabitants of the area had a chance to respond to Christ and not spend eternity in hell.
I wanted to jump up from my seat. I wanted to do that but I had to restrain myself. I thought, “How cruel of God. To create these poor Brazilians, who live an awful life, and then upon their deaths God consigns them to hell. I wanted to tell this preacher, “You God Is My Devil.”
But this sermon from MS does raise a question. What about the billions of people who have never had an opportunity to hear the Gospel? How about the mentally handicapped? How about righteous Jews, and Muslims, and Buddhists?
The New Testament doesn’t lay out systematic answers to these questions. There are only hints here and there and we are left to drawn our own conclusions.
1 Peter 3:19-20 offers a cryptic reference to Christ after death preaching “to the spirits in prison who formerly did not obey God.” . The Apostle’s Creed borrows from this verse with the words, “He was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell, and the third day he arose from the dead.”
He descended into hell. According to the Creed between the time of his death on Friday until his resurrection on Easter morning, he descended into the realm of the dead to preach to the spirits who were there.
One commentator calls this “Christ’s commando raid on hell.” Preaching to all who for whatever reason in this life did not respond to the claims of the Gospel. Is there a second chance after this life? Will everyone at the last be able to understand what they could not or would not understand about Christ while they were alive on this earth?
For me this small verse tucked away in I Peter reminds us that Christ’s invades even the darkest and most tormented places. We are never forgotten or abandoned, in this life and in the life to come.
A member of my church once asked me what I thought the Last Judgment would be like. I thought for a moment, then I answered. I think it will be something like this. I think, one by one, every one of us will have to come into God’s presence, and there will be a gigantic movie screen there, so huge that millions of people will see it. And on that screen will be projected our entire lives, every minute we lived from the time we were born until the time we died. Since we have all eternity, there’s plenty of time to review everyone’s life. Except the interesting thing about the movie of our lives is that it will have subtitles. On the main screen will be the action and the dialogue, but down below will be printed what we are thinking. So, while we are being introduced to a lady at a party, we are saying on the screen, “My don’t you look lovely this evening” , but the subtitle reads, “I’m thinking that you are so ugly that your imaginary friend played with other kids.”
There it all is, before God, our friends our family. The story of our lives. The good we intended to do but couldn’t pull off, as well as the goodness we paraded before others with such mixed motives inside. All revealed: the loves and the lusts, the hardship and heartache. Up there for everyone to see what we did and why we did it.
I told my friend, “When the movie of my life ends with my own death, I know that, all in all, there will be many parts of which I will be ashamed. So much I had to do, and so much I left undone.
“So many people to be loved and cared for, while I was so preoccupied with self.”
And just at the time when I hand my head in shame before God, I can see Jesus stepping down from his place at the right hand of the father, and coming over to me, and putting his arm around my shoulder and saying, “Father, it is true that Terry is a sinner. It is true that he has fallen short again and again. But, Father, I have paid the price for all that. Terry is my friend.”
And this is the meaning of the Day of Judgment for us. The One who will judge us is the one who has gone to cross to redeem us. The prospects of judgment are meant to lead us to the foot of the Cross, to fall on our knees in surrender and repentance. It is at the Cross that we know that our sins have been