Jesus and the elephant in the room

Al Stewart

I pulled up at a service station behind a kombi van a while ago.  There was a young guy, (a bit of a hippy really) filling the car and on the back of the kombi was a sticker with the words "Jesus" clearly printed.  As I walked a little closer the sticker said "Jesus save us from your followers". 

In Australia today most people are still positive about Jesus.  In fact many young people will say Jesus was "way cool".

Jesus was way cool
Everybody liked Jesus
Everybody wanted to hang out with him
Anything he wanted to do, he did
He turned water into wine
And if he wanted
He could have turned wheat into marijuana
Or sugar into cocaine
Or vitamin pills into amphetamines
He walked on the water
And swam on the land
He would tell these stories
And people would listen
He was really cool

King Missile’s Jesus was way cool, 1991

While I realise the band is mocking us, it is still true.  Julia Baird said in the Sydney Morning Herald " 23 December 2005 " "while the church, tarnished by paedophilia scandals, criticised for archaic attitudes to sexuality, and losing relevance due to an ageing hierarchy, is increasingly regarded with distrust and suspicion, Jesus is considered credible, authentic " and even hip".  Jesus is still easy to talk about, he is the beating heart of our message, but are we talking about the real Jesus?  However I wonder if the real Jesus is being presented to our nation.

It is a great sadness that so many Christian leaders will never talk about the topic that Jesus spoke about most.  It is left out of sermons and public discourse, even those who believe the Bible will speak of this topic so rarely.  There are many who will say Jesus liked children, small furry animals and long walks on the beach but will not actually mention the elephant in the room.  The elephant is of course " "HELL'.  Jesus taught about hell more than any other subject.  There is no escaping that Jesus is the greatest hell fire preacher in the Bible. Luke 12:4-5 reads:
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him".

Jesus stands in line with the Old Testament Prophets and Psalmist who warn of God's judgement.  However many of us, even regular Bible readers may not be aware of just how often Jesus speaks about hell, we have 1,870   verses recording Jesus' teaching.  13 per cent of these verses are about judgement and hell " more than any other topic.  Of the approximate 40 parables Jesus told, more than half of them relate to God's eternal judgment of sinners. 

Lest we think "can't we just get back to the sweet simple sermon on the mount" " Jesus explicitly mentions hell 3 times in the sermon on the mount.  The Greek word "Gehenna' translated hell in our English versions this is the New Testament's toughest word about hell, referring to the Valley of Hinon near Jerusalem, a garbage dump where offal, dead animals, even dead bodies were burned continuously in Jesus' day.  This word is used 12 times in the New Testament, 11 of them are on the lips of Jesus himself.  We cannot have Jesus and not have the topic that he taught about more than any other. 

Our great problem is that over the last 20 centuries people with too much time on their hands and too much imagination (always a bad combination) have tried to improve and add to the way Jesus teaches about hell.  You may be aware of those terrible paintings from the Middle Ages with demons complete with horns and tails, pouring fire into people's mouths and ears.  Sinners being tortured in an area of their anatomy depending on their particular sin eg liars being held up by the tongue etc etc.  This results in a view of hell that is so monstrous and so bizarre that the average person cannot deal with it and so "kicks it into touch" as either nonsense or unthinkable.  Thus we do not take hell seriously.

Jesus never teaches this way. He uses metaphors and word pictures to describe how terrible this place will really be:
Gehenna - the valley and the burning
the fire - which destroys things
the prison - there will be no escape and it will be locked in with
the pit or the abyss - dark, deep, fearful
outer darkness and the grinding of teeth - loneliness and regret. 

We may well ask how can there be outer darkness and fire at the same time.  This is exactly the point, Jesus is talking about HELL in word pictures or metaphors to emphasise different aspects and teach us how terrible this will be. 

The Bible teaches a real physical existence, a resurrected body (John 5:28-29)  where everyone will be raised to either the resurrection of life or the resurrection of judgement.  Those sent to hell will suffer a terrible lonely, empty, hopeless existence.  It will be human nature without restraint without the goodness of God.  We saw what human nature is capable of in just a few days with the crowd at the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  What terrors are we capable of in eternity?  And worst of all there will be no change of heart, repentance is a gift from God and the time for that gift will have gone.  As C. S. Lewis says in the "problem of pain" -  "the doors of hell are locked on the inside" there will be no change of heart. 

Of course many will ask how can this be justice, is God a monster?  No, this is simply God giving people what they have chosen.  The end result of a life ignoring God, of walking away from him is that we will be sent from him to an empty, hopeless eternity.

And it will last for ever.  As terrible as this is, as much as this has been questioned the Bible equates the language to describe eternal life with the same language to describe this eternal punishment, the phrases are parallel.  Even to the point of using the words that talk of God living "for ever and ever' to describe the punishment that will last for "ever and ever'.  Jesus himself says the fire never goes out (Mark 9:48). 

It is hard to hear this message and stay neutral isn't it? Is Jesus himself a monster?  Obviously; not as Jesus speaks about this eternal judgment with tears in his eyes, he weeps over Jerusalem, he calls people to turn back, he warns people of hell because he desperately wants people not to go there.  The most terrible evidence of hell in the Bible is to see Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he dies.  As Jesus is close enough to truly see the terror he will suffer in our place; that he faces the wrath of God, it quite literally turns him into a weeping, sweating mess.  What love in action and how terrible a thing he must be saving us from to go through that for us. 

I began this article with people saying that Jesus was "way cool".  This may be so but he was certainly "way divisive".  People loved him or hated him, and wanted to give him their lives, or they wanted to take his life. 

Do we really think we can present the true Jesus today that every one will think is "way cool".  The true Jesus will always divide people.

If we are to be loving we must speak to people about the elephant in the room.  We must be like Jesus and tell people about hell.  And yet I suspect today that we do a very poor job of this.  When was the last time that you preached or heard a sermon explicitly about hell.  We may mention "judgement' in passing, in some vague manner.  But how often are we prepared to actually "cross the pain barrier" as Rico Tice the English evangelist describes it. 

When gospel presentations leave out Jesus' teaching about hell there are a number of problems.

1. The gospel doesn't make sense anymore.  Jesus saves us from what?  Why does Jesus need to die on the cross?  (as simply an example for us?).  The gospel is distorted then, from a rescue mission to save us from a lost eternity it becomes a few thoughts from a concerned God or a self improvement class as Jesus wishes to be our personal trainer.  Jesus came to "improve our life" here, rather than to rescue us for eternity. 

2. We loose the holiness of God and seriousness of sin. 

3. Evangelism looses its cutting edge.  Evangelism, sharing the gospel, without the terrible prospect of hell for those who reject it is like removing a blade from the razor and then telling a man to shave his head.  (I have had some experience in the shaving of heads, and you do need a blade in the razor).

4. It is ultimately unloving.  It was Jesus' love and compassion that led him to speak about hell constantly to people.  What stops us maybe embarrassment, it maybe fear, it maybe the fact that it is so politically incorrect to mention this but it is certainly unloving to be silent. 

We must present the real Jesus " all of him.  We need to be prayerful that God would make us as loving as Jesus and as bold as he was in preaching the same great warnings to flee from the wrath to come.