Our Advent preaching series on the Four Last Things Concludes today. Sermon delivered on Advent 4C, Sunday, December 19, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Micah 5.2-5a; Psalm 16; 2 Thessalonians 1.5-12; St Matthew 25.31-46.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, we are continuing our focus during this Advent season on the Four Last Things. So far, we have discussed death, judgment, and Heaven. And now, on this final Sunday of Advent, I have the dubious distinction of getting to talk with you about Hell.
Hell is a difficult subject about which to preach. The doctrine of Hell is one of the most controversial tenets of the Christian faith, and delivering a sermon about Hell presents some serious pitfalls to preachers (these twin errors were famously identified by C.S. Lewis in his Preface to The Screwtape Letters, p. 3)
On the one hand, there is the danger of minimizing the doctrine of Hell. In fact, there are some who dismiss it completely. They contend that the concept of Hell is antiquated and the notion of God consigning human beings to eternal judgment is barbaric—better to dispense with it altogether, they’d say. But this simply won’t do. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, the doctrine of Hell “has the full support of Scripture and, specifically, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason” (p. 22). As difficult as the doctrine of Hell may be to reckon with, orthodox Christians can’t just write it off.
But then there’s an opposite yet equally dangerous error that preachers can fall prey to, and that’s overemphasizingthe doctrine of Hell. It’s possible for preachers to become so fixated on the terrors of Hell that the message of the gospel itself is overshadowed by vivid (and often speculative) descriptions of eternal suffering and torture. Those who are converted under such preaching nay come away with a shallow faith based solely on escaping the fires of Hell. Believers who are fed a steady of diet of “fire and brimstone” preaching may question their status before God and be fearful about their eternal destination.
This morning, as we look at what Scripture teaches about Hell, I hope that we can avoid these two pitfalls by both acknowledging the reality and horror of Hell while also holding forth the hope that the Advent of our Lord brings to hell-bound sinners.
As our readings for today illustrate, Scripture affirms both the existence and the horror of Hell. In our gospel lesson (Mt. 25:31-46), Jesus teaches that at the end of the age, He will separate the peoples of the earth into two groups—the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the unrighteous, the blessed and the accursed. These two different groups have two distinct destinations: the righteous will enter “into eternal life” (v. 46) while the unrighteous will depart “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41). This “eternal fire” is Hell, a place of punishment that our epistle reading tells us is set apart for “those who do not know God” and who “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:8).
Elsewhere, in his letter to the Romans, St. Paul makes it clear that all of us in our natural condition fall into this category. He tells us, “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands, no one seeks God” (Rom. 3:11). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Through both the created order and through His Word, God has clearly revealed what is right and wrong, and yet, left to our own devices, we defiantly choose evil rather than good, sin instead of obedience. Because God is righteous and perfectly just, He cannot and will not allow sin to go unpunished. Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages”—the consequences we have earned—for our “sin is death,” and not just physical death, but eternal death in Hell.
While Scripture does not provide us with a detailed account of the ins and outs of Hell, it gives us numerous images that convey its horrors. Throughout the New Testament, Hell is described as a place of “unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12), a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:42), a place of “torment” (Luke 16:23), “destruction” (Matt. 10:28), and “everlasting punishment” (Matt. 25:46). We get enough of a glimpse of Hell to know that it is a place of immense, ongoing suffering. I think this typically how we view Hell: as a place that God sends unrepentant evildoers as punishment for their sin.
But notice that our readings depict Hell through another lens as well. Jesus describes the final judgment not just as a separation of people form one another (into “sheep” and “goats”) but also as separation from Him, from God: “Depart from me into the eternal fire” (Matt. 25:41) and “these will go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). Similarly, in our epistle lesson, Hell is described not just as “flaming fire” and “eternal destruction,” but also as “separat[ion] from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might” (2 Thess. 1:9). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The chief punishment of Hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.”
Yes, Hell is indeed a sentence imposed by God, the just judge, but when we think of Hell as separation from God, it becomes clear that Hell is also a choice—the natural conclusion of a life lived apart from God. John 3:19 frames Hell in this manner: “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” Any time we sin, we are choosing to separate ourselves from God. We are choosing darkness over light; we are choosing to go our own way rather than following God’s ways.
This is the decision that Adam and Eve made in the Garden of Eden. Instead of living in obedience to God, they chose to go their own way and ate the forbidden fruit. On that day, all Hell broke loose on earth. We human beings have been following in their footsteps ever since. We chart our own courses thinking that we can find meaning, fulfillment, and joy through sinful pleasures and selfish pursuits. These things may bring temporary pleasure, they can never satisfy the deepest longings of our souls. Ultimately, following our own way will bring us misery, heartache, and pain; it makes our lives a living hell. So Eternal Hell—separation from God forever—is not just the punishment for our sin, but it’s one’s logical destination after a lifetime of distancing oneself from God through sinful choices.
This is sorry state of humanity after the Fall: a hellish existence here on earth, and as we look toward eternity, all we have is “a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” of God (Hebrews 10:27).
But thanks be to God that He does not abandon us to this miserable fate. Instead, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son [to be] born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). In the Advent of Christ, we have a hope that is far more powerful than Hell.
Since the Fall, as we’ve seen, humans have been looking for meaning and fulfillment in all the wrong places, creating a kind of hell on earth. So what did God do? He entered into His creation! Heaven came down to us! St. Athanasius puts it like this in his classic work On the Incarnation: “Men had turned from the contemplation of God above, and were looking for Him in the opposite direction, down among created things and things of sense. The Savior of us all, the Word of God, in His Great love took to Himself a body and moved as Man among men, meeting their sense, so to speak, halfway. He became Himself an object for the sense, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God did in the body.” (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 43). Through His life, ministry, and teaching, Jesus pointed people back to God the Father. He showed that abundant life—true meaning, joy, and fulfillment—could only be found in Him (John 10:10).
But Jesus came not just to save us from hell on earth, but from eternal Hell, the judgment we deserve for our sin. As the angel said when telling Joseph that Mary was with child, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21). Jesus would ultimately accomplish this through His Passion.
We confess in the Apostles Creed that Christ “descended into Hell.” There are different ways that believers interpret this article of the creed, but as Timothy George explains, “In essence, it means that in the sending and self-sacrifice of his Son, God himself has absorbed not only the penalty of sin but also its eternal consequences, the ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth.’” We could say that on the cross, Jesus experienced Hell for us. He was separated from God the Father—crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)—so that those who belong to Him wouldn’t have to be. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake He [became] sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” We who belong to Christ are clothed with His righteousness. This gives us the assurance that one day, “when the Son of Man comes in His glory” (Matt. 25:31), we will enter not into “eternal punishment,” but instead into “eternal life.” (Matt. 25:46).
Brothers and sisters, the Advent of Christ has changed everything. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again! And when He does, we need not fear a fiery judgment, for Christ has taken captive death and Hell. In Him, our hope for eternal life is secure. We can boldly proclaim with St. Paul, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.