Hell Or High Water, Week 3 — The “Who The . . . ?” Sermon Rewind

Yesterday’s message …

  • Was an example of “biblical theology” in that it took a tour of several places in the biblical library;
  • Suggested that perhaps we shouldn’t ask, “who goes to hell?” but instead, gulp, “who DOESN’T?”
  • Landed at this bottom line in answering “who the?”:  Every ONE who gets what EVERYONE deserves.



Years ago now, 1971 in fact, in the Cotton Bowl stadium deep in the heart of Dallas, TX, the U of T was playing Notre Dame in college football.  It was an enormously important game, with National Championship implications, and the UT fans were there, dressed in their burnt orange, waving their cowbells (More Cowbell!), and holding up their “Hook Em Horns” signs (AV).  One fan in particular was particularly enthusiastic.  He happened to be sitting behind a row of nuns dressed in their habits, including their very large, the Flying Nun style “hats.”  Because, after all, ND is a Roman Catholic institution.  As it turned out, ND was winning in this particular game in pretty convincing fashion.  And for every good ND play, the row of nuns would jump up & down and celebrate in most un-nun-like fashion.

            But the more they celebrate, the more their large habits got in the way of the increasingly agitated UT fan behind them.  “I can’t see the game!” he’d grumble.  “These big hats get in my way!” he continued.  “Oh, I wish some religious ppl would be more considerate!” he fumed.  Finally, fed up with it all, with the game getting away from his team & his temper getting away from himself, he said in a loud voice, “I am so tired of these nuns!  I wish I could go someplace where there are no nuns!”  And one of them turned around and said without much emotion but with a great deal of conviction, “You can go to hell, sir, as I doubt there are any nuns there.”  BOOM! Got him!  AND ND won the game 24-11 … “Hook Em Horns” turned upside down to “Go to hell, Horns”!

            But who DOES go there?  And do those who got there get sent there by angry, offended nuns?  Or do they send themselves there?  We’ve talked about the WHAT of hell, been surprised at its WHY, but now we’ll settle in to the WHY of it all.  Turns out that 58% of Americans still believe in hell, and I assume that % is quite a bit higher in this room.  The other things about that survey is that even if a significant majority of Ams believe in hell, only a fractional minority believe THEY (the surveyed) are in any danger of actually going there.  So who does?  Let me just remind you, in case you weren’t here or you were her but forgot, but most of us, when we think about hell, we think it’s the place where bad people go.  And then when we’re asked “where’s the line between bad and just good enough?” we sort of reflexively answer, “just the other side of me.”  Hell, for most of us, is a really hot place reserved for really bad people and in wondering who goes there most of us have in mind the worst of the worst.

            But I wonder if in asking the question that way, we demonstrate a fundamental MISunderstanding of our standing before God.  Because scattered throughout Scripture are some truly horrifying verses, unsettling to our gentle eyes and ears.  Certainly damaging to our self-esteem!  Look at Psalm 14:3:

All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
    there is no one who does good,
    not even one.


Romans 1:18, 20b:


18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

Ephesians 2:3b:

Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.

I wish I could protect you from these offensive words (give you a “safe space”!!) but that would be preacher malpractice!  Because it is evident from these and other places that our self-destruction & disobedience is so raw and elemental that as it stands we have nothing to commend ourselves before God.  When we meet him at the judgment seat – either when we die or he returns – and our eternity hangs in the balance, we got nothin’.  We inherited a nature that is bent to sinning and then we indulged freely & repeatedly.  In light of all that, maybe, just maybe we ought to change the who goes there? question a bit … to who DOESN’T go there?

            Yikes.  Gulp.  A huge part of me didn’t want to turn the question that way but then as a preacher I didn’t want to dull your senses to the dangers of hell, INOCULATE you to it, all to the point that you end up in a place that I’d pretty much assured you you didn’t have to worry about.  What could be worse?

            Because it is apparently possible to arrive there in just that state: surprised, shocked, confused.  Look at Matthew 7:21-23, chilling words from the mouth of sweet Jesus:


21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’


And not the defense and the explanation; those who are surprised to find themselves OUTSIDE on that day point to their performance – what they said, what they did in the name of Jesus.  They rely on their actions, their skills, their passion.  Ugh.  Who goes there?  Apparently some ppl who thought they wouldn’t.           

            Then, an even more haunting passage in Revelation 20:11-15:

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

People are judged by “what they had done.”  Now: for years I hated this section because it seems to contradict so much of what I know about Scripture.  The bulk of the NT affirms a basic understanding that salvation comes by grace thru faith & so not by what we’ve done … and those in this passage are judged by what they’ve done.  Works.  Actions.  And then it hit me: Rev. 20 is talking about LOST people.  They ARE judged according to their actions, and anyone and everyone who is judged by actions, by how good they’ve been is in fact lost.  See: you don’t EVER want to be judged based on what YOU’VE DONE; you only want to be judged according to what JESUS DID.  Because everyone who trusts in deeds, works, behavior, performance – even done for Jesus – gets what those deeds, words, actions, performance merit: hell.  That realization plus the wrong question lands us here.  Who goes to hell?  Every ONE who gets what EVERYONE deserves.  That’s who is in hell.  Individuals who were trusting in their own goodness, behavior, helpfulness, and accomplishments get what all that stuff actually merits before God: separation.  Because if you’re gonna be judged by YOUR stuff, that includes the good but its balanced out by the bad.  The self-destruction. The deceptive.  The sinful.  And God can’t co-exist with any of that. 

If you trust your goodness or your performance to get you to heaven, you know who that means is your Savior?  YOU!  And Jesus isn’t sharing space on the throne of heaven with any other savior, especially you.

            When you re-orient your mind to the politically incorrect thinking that everyone deserves hell, that hell is the default for the human race (!!!), then you will realize that relying on your performance and trusting that you will be good enough … is never, ever good enough.  There is no such thing as good enough!  Because we’re not graded on a curve, it’s not pass-fail, and hell is full of people who went kicking & screaming saying But I did / I said / I sang / I amEvery ONE who gets what EVERYONE deserves.

            Because I promise you this:  you don’t want to be judged based on what you’ve done but on what Jesus did.  What you’ve done – even the best of you! – is fraught with imperfection, self-destruction, self-obsession, self-delusion.  What Jesus did is perfect, flawless, complete.  I think if the surprised people in Matthew 7:21-23 – the ones “but Lord, look what we DID or SAID on your behalf!” – had simply said, “but Lord, we claim your sacrifice for sins to cover up all our flaws,” then the end result would have been very, very different.  Don’t rely on your TO DO list; depend on Jesus’ TO DONE list. 

            It’s not your goodness (NONE).

            But his grace (INFINITE).

            Because look at Ephesians 2:4-5, which comes just after the part where Paul has said that we are by nature objects of wrath

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

  See that?   By grace (his) you are saved, not by goodness (yours).  Not because of your performance for your parents, your school, your company, your church, even your Savior.  By your position within the protective canopy of his grace.  When you stand before him, recognizing that hell is a real & present danger, and admit, “I GOT NOTHIN’!”  He replies, “God, I’ve got it all because I paid it all.”  Every ONE who gets what EVERYONE deserves.

            Some of you might remember getting the perfect Christmas present when you were a kid.  For me, it was that old electric football game.  (AV)  Perfect!  But when you unwrapped the package and were so excited and were just about getting ready to play, what did the little notice say?  Batteries not included.  Doh!  And in those days NO ONE ever thought to bring the batteries with them so you’d be stuck for at least a day with the perfect game and no way to play it.  Almost, but not quite. 

            Listen: it’s never that way with grace!  God’s grace poured out for you on the cross and thru the resurrection needs no supplement!  No additional source of power! Grace includes it all!  Grace saves all who trust in it because when they die or when Jesus returns, they’re NOT judged fairly.  Thank God!  They’re not judged by what they’ve done.  Thank God!  They’re judged by what Jesus did.  Praise God.  Every ONE who gets what EVERYONE deserves.

            Earlier this summer, Wayne Hobson & I (AV) were blessing houses in a Steele Creek neighborhood.  And we happened upon the home of a VERY NICE guy who as part of the introduction (after the World Famous Refrigerator Magnet!) let us know that he was Sikh.  From Western India, Sikhism is a religion that is neither Muslim (Pakistan) nor Hindu (India) but has something in common with both of them.  And like I said, this guy could not have been nicer and the conversation could not have been more pleasant.  But he told us that in Sikhism that only after you die do you discover a) Who God is and b) if you have comported yourself well on earth to make it into his paradise for eternity. 

            So: if you’ve not caused great harm, been good to your fellow man, behaved yourself well, chances are that you will make it.  If you haven’t done any of the above, you’re in deep ….  It’s kind of logical, make sensible, fair.  And I very gently pointed out, “you know that’s where we have departure because we really believe it’s by Jesus’ goodness and not our own, because he has a lot more of it anyway.”  The very nice guy understood that and the three of us – Indian, Anglo, African=American! – were extremely respectful. 

            We talked a bit more about similarities and differences and because he was so open, I finally asked, “Well, how’re you doing? If your forever will be based on your behavior, how’s it going so far?”  He smiled as he answered, “I think pretty good so far.  I hope so.”  We prayed a blessing on his house and Wayne & I left just walking on air.  The guy was just that nice and we’d share love in a loving way.  And his answer sticks with me:  I hope so.  And I answer to you all with all the love I can muster:  why hope when you can know?  Hope is the best you can hope for if it depends on you.  But it doesn’t; it depends on Jesus.  And because his performance is marred with no imperfection at all, you can know.

            Don’t be among the many getting what they deserve because they thought they were the Savior.

            Be among the few getting what he gives because that acknowledge that Jesus is.