Hell Or High Water, Week 2 — The “Why The . . . ?” Sermon Rewind

Week 2 of Hell Or High Water.


Recognizing that our status as relatively comfortable Christians makes us ask very different questions than the persecuted believers asked in Thessalonica, the message landed here:

The well-deserved wrath of God will stand forever in vivid contrast to the undeserved favor of God.


So we are talking about Hell Or High Water here & like I told you last week the opening of most of the messages in this series will be a bit different from the norm.  Because when it comes to most message and especially if it involves something like “hell,” I’d be tempted to tell a breezy little anecdote (I’ve got a file full of them) with a laugh line involving hell or show a Far Side cartoon on the subject (file full of them as well.).  The idea would be to lower your resistance, lessen the stakes, and move quasi-gently into the subject at hand.

            But I’m not going to do that.  Because as we saw last week, hell really is a place of separation & suffering and we rob it of its power & its horror when we turn it into a swear word or use it as a joke. Or when it’s a point of comparison:  hotter than hell, living hell, and war is hell come to mind.  No, it’s really beyond compare & the purpose of this series is to in some sense RE-fang the same hell we have been DE-fanging for 120 years or more.  It don’t want to trivialize hell with my preaching because if I trivialize it I may well be ensuring that more people go there.

            And it is interesting to me how when you push the issue, most people, and not even religious people, not just Jesus people, have a conviction that somehow, somewhere, the wicked pay.  Bad people get what they deserve.  They get justice.  Of course, that deep seated conviction a lot of you have raises a whole lot of questions about who is wicked and how do they pay, and I addressed some of that last week.  I believe that this deep level belief that the wicked get what’s coming to them comes, of course, because even the most enlightened among you, those who follow Jesus & because you love Jesus you’re hoping there’s no hell … you still don’t want to be eternal roommates with Hitler or Bin Laden.  Put it in those terms, and even the most reluctant among you has to offer some opening to the possibility of hell; of evil getting what it deserves.

            But what about the WHY?  Why in the world would there be a realm of separation & punishment at all?  Why not just a SPLATT! Non existence? Why this realm from which there is no escape?  If God is good and God is love why is God also a consuming fire?  And to help understand WHY we ask the WHY THE question, I need to point out something about our setting in North America today, esp for those of us who are Xns.  Those of you who were born elsewhere will really know what I’m saying.  But here it is: we by & large are comfortable.  We’re not threatened for our faith and if we are, we’re threatened ideologically, not threatened with bodily harm.  Most of us don’t have neighbors or family members who have been killed here in CLT for being Xn.  So because it’s a wee bit cushy to be a Xn in North America, that’s given a lot of folks over a lot of years the leisure time necessary to come up with questions like “why is there a hell?”  We think hell gives Jesus some bad PR because we, by and large, are comfortable & protected. 

            But not so with the early church.  They had much more in common with today’s Coptic Xn in Egypt where back a couple of months ago two busloads of them were massacred by ISIS terrorists simply because they were terrorists (same week as Manchester bombing; about 1/100th the publicity).  The Xns in the ancient Greek city of Thessalonica, in fact, were living THEN what the Coptics in Egypt are living now.  They had seen family members rustled from bed, taken by authorities, never to be seen again.  They knew their worship gatherings were under surveillance.  They’d been denied jobs because of their faith.  They’d seen church members fed to lions.  And so as they saw their persecutors PROSPER, they wondered among themselves and to Paul himself: “will this wrong ever be made right?  Are these persecutors ever going to get what is coming to them?”  Their discomfort lead to those questions while our relative comfort makes us ask a dif set like “why the?”  And all those things, interestingly enough, intersect at Paul’s answer.

            Look how he starts in 2 Thess 1:5:

5 All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.

Ah, God’s judgment is right.  I don’t know about you, but that is such a helpful reminder.  I wonder, I ponder, I get frustrated … but it is ultimately so helpful to go back to but God is right.  More than that, he invented right.  He defined what right IS a long time before we started trying to decide what IS right.  Then, more in 1:6a:  God is just.   God is just.  I love that, because you know what God is not? FAIR!  Right?  God’s not fair!  Hallelujah!  God’s not fair! (If you are perplexed right now, stay w/ me & I will show you what I mean.)

            Then the rest of 1:6b – 7:

He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.

OK, so the persecutors (waker-uppers in the middle of the night; feeders to lions) will get their punishment and you will get your relief.  Again, we’re not as viscerally concerned with that because we’ve got our smart phones and our lattes & if one of those Thessalonians had seen us with that stuff they’d have been like:  the kingdom has come!  But note who it is who brings the punishment in full finality:  Jesus!  Meek & mild!  He comes from heaven to raise hell!  Yikes.  So much for a mean God in the OT replaced by nice Jesus in the NT!

            Then the punishment gets spelled out in 1:8-9:

8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might

Oh yuck.  Never ending death, away from the presence of God.  Separation and suffering.  Because God is just, the persecutors … get just what they deserve.  Punishment.  Separation.  Rarely does the bible portray it with so little fanfare but so much power.

            But look look look look at 1:10:

10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.

It’s not just about the punishment. It’s also about the prize!  Look what happens to all the ones who have been COUNTED worthy in 1:5 (they’re not worthy worthy, because of Christ they are COUNTED worthy!)!  Jesus gets glorified, in dazzling array and his people get to marvel.  It all conveys the sense of Hi-Def, Full Color majesty and celebration.  You get this incredible contrast:  Suffering / Glorified  Separated / Marveling   Lamenting / Celebrating   Gloom / Bright. And at the center of it all is the dazzling display of the avenging Jesus.  The contrast could not be more clear and the contrast is the point!  And in and odd way that you wouldn’t think of intuitively, that’s the Why The?, they “why” of hell & here it is:  The well-deserved wrath of God will stand forever in vivid contrast to the undeserved favor of God.  Hell highlights heaven!  It’s only the love of God that provides escape from the wrath of God.  The undeserved is the only escape from the well-deserved.  Yep, it’s all about this contrast, a contrast that God designs & a contrast that we comfy Xns don’t see as readily as the persecuted ones.  The well-deserved wrath of God will stand forever in vivid contrast to the undeserved favor of God.  

            Makes me think of this:  (Do clicks like an eye exam?)

            THIS AMC Gremlin car or THIS Lamborghini

            THIS (Duck-Billed Platypus) or THIS (Secretariat in full flight)

            THIS (landfill) or THIS (Taj Mahal)

            Or THIS (Alcatraz) or THIS (Bora Bora, Tahiti).

            That’s what Paul is doing here.  Giving you and me and all of us a sneak preview of eternity.  A sneak preview of the contrast that will characterize eternity.  Why in the world would you settle for the ugliness you deserve when you can have the brilliance and the beauty of what you don’t deserve?!

            And that Alcatraz notion gets me.  Because on Alcatraz, inmates could SEE freedom … they could SEE downtown San Francisco across the bay. Except there was NO WAY to get there … even if they got off the island (not likely) they’d surely die trying to swim in that water.  Because you know what they say, don’t you?  The coldest winter you’ll ever spend is a summer in San Francisco!  Truest of the frigid, churning water of the Bay.  Isolated, enduring punishment for as long as you the mind can conceive all while seeing the fruits of freedom in the distance.  The well-deserved wrath of God will stand forever in vivid contrast to the undeserved favor of God.  

            And I have to believe that hell is like that.  That God establishes that realm – and while he is not the owner-operator I very much believe that he is the booking agent – all so that his glory will be that much more vivid, that much more spectacular.  That in addition to his internally consistent desire that sin be punished and banished fully and finally, God allows hell to exist so that akk if creation including those who are dying what Scripture calls the second death will see what it is like for those who get what they don’t deserve.  The favor that comes from being among the bought people of God.  The well-deserved wrath of God will stand forever in vivid contrast to the undeserved favor of God.  

            Because in thinking of & then preparing for this message I was just overwhelmed with this notion that we get to celebrate the HOLY UNFAIRNESS OF GOD!  Yes!  God’s not fair … thank God!  If he was fair, we’d get what we deserve … and the “they” of 1:9 would be the “you” and the “me” of 2017.  ALL deserve that wrath and that separation and that suffering, from the persecutors OF the church to the apathetic WITHIN it.  But God is not fair.  We’re not graded on merit.  We’re graded on blood.

            And I just have to believe that a central reason why God inspired these words on hell – and even, if I may be presumptuous  why he prompted me to do this series – is to shock us out of our love affair with the world (where we are so COMFORTABLE!) and re-ignite our love affair with him.

            Because the stakes are high and choice could not be more clear.  You can have a Gremlin or a Lamborghini.  A landfill or the Taj Mahal.  Alcatraz or Tahiti.  But it’s a choice the consequences of which can never be reversed. It’s never too late … until it is.  I don’t want you to wake up on the other side of death having made the wrong choice.  I don’t want your gloom and despair and landfill to make the joy and favor and paradise of salvation shine all the more brightly.  And I don’t want you to spend all your life debating the “why” of hell to the point that you spend all of eternity in misery there.  So let’s pray together this prayer from Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell:

Recited prayer (projected) followed by invitation.

Please forgive me, Lord, for wanting to erase all the things in Scripture that don’t sit well with me.  Forgive me for trying to hide some of Your actions to make you more palatable to the world.  Forgive me for trying to make You fit my standards of justice and goodness and love.  You are God; You are good; I don’t always understand you, but I love you.  Thank you for who You are.