As we continue our series on Hot Topics, today we come to the topic of Eternity. And here at the beginning, I want you to try to conceive or imagine eternity. My guess is that certain words and images come to your mind. Vastness, infinitude, incomprehensible distance and time. It takes our breath away. We picture the seemingly unending vacuity of outer space. Or we imagine ourselves on an endless sea that fades away into mist. We struggle to even comprehend the meaning of the word “eternal.” We often shrink back whenever our minds come close to touching it. The prospect of eternity, of living forever, frightens us and so we try to avoid thinking about it too much. And yet the alternative—cessation, annihilation, ceasing to exist—is equally horrible to us. We want to live and keep on living. And so we’re torn—eternity is a subject that we can’t avoid and yet we can’t bear to think about. One of the purposes of our worship is to confront us with the reality of eternity.
Getting Clear on Definitions
To begin, we need to get clear on definitions, which means we need to make distinctions. First, we need to distinguish God’s eternity from our eternity, or timeless eternity from everlasting eternity. God is timeless. Or better, since “timeless” makes it sound like God lacks something, God is supra-temporal, beyond time, outside of time. God inhabits eternity (Isaiah 57:15). His life is so full that he doesn’t experience it in a succession of moments like we do. God is like an author, who exists completely and sufficiently outside of the story that he writes. That’s one kind of eternity, and we will never experience it.
Our eternity—the kind that we’re going to focus on this morning—is better thought of as everlastingness. Everlasting means that we will last forever. We don’t inhabit eternity; we inhabit the story, but this story is never-ending. Eternity for us means that, after this life, after this earthly phase of our existence, we will continue to live and exist and there will never come a time when we will stop living or existing. We never get outside of time; we live within time forever.
And now we need to make another distinction. It’s not enough that we will continue to exist, to last forever. But, more than that, we will exist either in a state of everlasting joy and life, or in a state of everlasting destruction and death. The Scriptures (Matthew 25, Revelation 20) teach that at the end of history, Christ will return, raise the dead, and execute a final judgment. At that time, the righteous—body and soul—will enter into the Joy of God forever, and the wicked—body and soul—will enter into Misery forever. The common names for these two eternal destinies are Heaven and Hell.
Our Fear of Heaven and Concern About Hell
Now there are many questions we could ask about Heaven and Hell. But for our purposes this morning, I want to focus on two. One is a fear we have about Heaven and one is a concern we have about Hell. Our fear about Heaven is this: we worry that we will be bored. We know that we are promised unending joy, but we struggle to believe it because we fear that having “arrived” at Joy, Joy will grow old and stale to us. And this fear is driven, at least in my case, by our experience of joy on earth. All of us have experienced great expectations. We’ve looked forward to something, to some event—a vacation, a party, marriage, children, a conversation, an opportunity at work. And that future thing creates desire in us. And that desire builds and builds until the event arrives, and then, no matter how good it is, it never lives up to our expectations. Our desires always outrun their satisfaction. Desire dies in its fulfillment. We get what we want, and we find that it’s not enough. And our repeated experience of this phenomenon, in every aspect of our lives, creates the fear in us that Heaven will be no different. We will arrive at the apex of Joy, and we will be disappointed. And then eternity opens up before our imaginations, age after age after age, and we despair because Joy has disappointed us and “now what?” I’ll return to this fear in a moment.
Is Hell Cosmic Overkill?
The concern about Hell is this: when we’re told that those who suppress God’s truth in unrighteousness will be consigned to everlasting conscious misery, many of us balk. We object. Hell sounds to us like Cosmic Overkill. God is pouring out infinite punishment for a limited and finite amount of sin. 70 or 80 years of sin. Unending, everlasting torment. We don’t object to the idea of punishment itself, but we feel that everlasting conscious misery is disproportionate. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
So I want to address this concern about Hell, and I want to do it in two ways. One is an appeal to reason; the other is an appeal to imagination. The appeal to reason runs like this:
- The greatness or heinousness of evil and sin depends on the one sinned against, either the worth and value of the person, or our relation to him. Cruelty to animals is wrong, but cruelty to people is worse, because people are more valuable than animals. All human beings have an intuitive sense of this fact, and Jesus confirms it when he says that we are more valuable than sparrows (Matthew 10:29-31). But not just the objective worth or value of someone, but their relation to us. Again all of us have a sense that lying to someone is wrong, but lying to your spouse, your children, your family is worse. The closeness of the relationship brings greater obligations. To violate this relationship is more heinous than violating a relationship with someone on the street. Again, the greatness of sin depends on the worth of the one sinned against, and our relation to them.
- God is the most valuable, important, and worthy being in reality. In fact, he is infinitely beautiful and infinitely valuable and infinitely worthy. What’s more, he stands in the highest and nearest relation to all of us. He is our Creator, and therefore has total rights over us, and he sustains us in existence moment by moment, upholding us by the word of his power, and therefore has the nearest possible relation to us, nearer than spouse, parent, or child. Both of these mean that our obligation to God is an infinite obligation, because he is infinitely worthy of all honor.
- Therefore, to reject God and despise God and disobey God is to commit an infinite offense. A small sin against an infinitely worthy Being is an infinite sin, because the greatness of the evil depends upon the worth of the person sinned against. Our struggle to accept the doctrine of Hell is chiefly owing to the fact that we don’t have a high enough regard for the infinite glory of God.
- Finally, the only way for a finite creature to receive an infinite punishment is through an infinite amount of time. Or, an infinite sin requires an eternal punishment.
One more comment about the concern. One of the assumptions beneath the concern is that we are punished only for 70-80 years of sinning. But there’s nothing in the Scriptures to indicate that sin stops after death. In other words, sinners in Hell don’t stop rejecting God and despising God and hating God. If anything, it’s likely that their rejection and hatred increases. And ongoing sin therefore demands ongoing punishment.
The Bible-Shaped Imagination
It’s not enough to answer the question with reason. We need to feel the gravity of Hell through our imagination. So I want to explore three biblical images for Hell through the lens of one question: Is Hell God-inflicted or self-inflicted? Are people cast into Hell by a righteous and vengeful God, or is Hell something that we do to ourselves by stubbornly remaining in our own self-centeredness and rebellion?
The Bible presents Hell as banishment or ultimate exile. “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9). Jesus says to the false believers, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” “In some sense, as dark to the intellect as it is unendurable to the feelings, we can be both banished from the presence of Him who is present everywhere and erased from the knowledge of Him who knows all. We can be left utterly and absolutely outside—repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored” (Lewis, Weight of Glory). This is the outer darkness, outside the City of Joy and Life, where morning never comes, where we are utterly and completely alone. And the finality of this exile—the door slamming shut, the futility of our knocking, terror of being totally and unendingly forgotten—is what accounts for its horror.
The Bible depicts Hell as the pouring out of God’s wrath on sinners. The wicked store up wrath for the day of judgment (Romans 2:5). They fill up the cup of God’s wrath and he makes them drink it and they stagger and fall. This image is, in some ways, the opposite of the previous one. Instead of being away from the presence of the Lord, we are in his Presence as the objects of his fury and anger. The great Eye of God’s vengeance will roam over the earth; it will settle on you, and God will unleash a tidal wave of righteous and holy wrath that will overwhelm you.
The Bible depicts Hell as eternal destruction. This seems to be the natural and unavoidable consequence of the previous image. The tidal wave of righteous fury is poured out and the result is the eternal destruction of the wicked. “The worm does not die; the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). The smoke goes up forever and ever (Rev. 14:11). The fire of God’s wrath is ever-consuming, and yet the wicked are never finally consumed. Eternal death is eternal dying.
Is Hell God-Inflicted or Self-Inflicted?
All three of these images accent that Hell is God-inflicted. We are “thrown” into the outer darkness, cast outside of the city, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The pouring out of the wrath of God is his all-consuming response to human rebellion and pride. The fire of eternal destruction is sustained by the God who is a consuming fire. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:29).
At the same time, those who say that Hell is self-inflicted are not wrong. God does cast the wicked into the outer darkness. But it’s also true that “men loved darkness and hated the light and would not come to the light, lest their deeds be exposed” (John 3:19-20). Those who are banished from God’s presence may hate Hell, but they hate God more. Their exile is, in some sense, self-imposed. The one condition to enter the City of Life is to bow the knee to King Jesus, and this is the one thing that the rebellious heart will not do.
What about the pouring out of God’s wrath? How could this be in any way self-inflicted? In Romans 1, Paul says “The wrath of God is being revealed upon all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who in their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” And then he goes on to describe God’s wrath as God’s giving people over to their own depraved desires. When God gives a person or a people over to their rebellion, the Bible calls that “the wrath of God.” As C. S. Lewis once noted, “God says to us, ‘Thy will be done.’”
And, as we saw earlier, just as eternal destruction follows the pouring out of God’s wrath, so also eternal self-destruction follows God’s giving us over to our self-centeredness. We come apart. Our minds become depraved; our hearts become darkened. Love grows cold. We become isolated. We don’t just commit sins; we become sin. We become less and less human, more and more monstrous. Those who think there will be camaraderie and fellowship in Hell have failed to see what selfishness does even to our relationships on earth. Here, God in some measure, holds us back. He keeps us from going over the cliff. In Hell, he lets us go over the cliff. We curve inward on ourselves; our souls shrink and shrivel.
So is Hell self-inflicted or God-inflicted? Yes. It is both. The Bible gives us both, and both are horrific. And theologically and emotionally, we need both. Most of us recoil from the prospect of Hell because it’s so difficult to imagine people in Hell. People are people. And we are people. And we know what pain and suffering and agony are. And so the prospect of people like us, enduring age after age of pain and agony is gut-wrenchingly awful. But when the Bible speaks of final judgment, it does not stress the likeness between those in Heaven and those in Hell. It doesn’t talk about “people” in a generic sense. It speaks of the righteous and the wicked. And at that point, the wicked are more like devils than they are like people. And no one objects to God’s punishment on Satan. So if you struggle to think about those you love in this life enduring Hell, you should. Here you see them with their humanity still somewhat intact. The evil is present, but it is held in check by the common grace of God. In Hell, those same people will be utterly given over to their wickedness. The diabolical, selfish, and cruel tendencies present in them now will be given free reign. And they will come apart. They will cease to hold together. They will be almost unrecognizable to us. They will go to war with others and with themselves, and they will increasingly become nothing more than a gnawing ache, a ceaseless grumble, an everlasting weeping and a gnashing of teeth.
But, lest we think that God is merely passive in allowing people to fall into their wickedness, the Bible insists that God is active in judgment. His glory and majesty demands that he act to vindicate the worth of his name, to plant the flag of Truth and Justice in the heart of the rebel soul. And so, the wicked will not simply drift away from God’s presence; they will be thrown, hurled with a ferocity that will shock them with its total rejection.
And this they will endure forever. Listen to Jonathan Edwards describe the breathtaking horror of everlasting wrath:
It would be dreadful to suffer this Fierceness and Wrath of Almighty God one Moment; but you must suffer it to all Eternity: there will be no End to this exquisite horrible Misery: When you look forward, you shall see a long Forever, a boundless Duration before you, which will swallow up your Thoughts, and amaze your Soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any Deliverance, any End, any Mitigation, any Rest at all; you will know certainly that you must wear out long Ages, Millions of Millions of Ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless Vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many Ages have actually been spent by you in this Manner, you will know that all is but a Point to what remains. (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”)
We cannot out-horror Hell.
Will Heaven Be Boring?
What about Heaven? What about our fear of disappointment and boredom? Let’s again approach the question using reason and imagination. From the standpoint of reason, our disappointment in this life in some ways actually points to the surpassing glory of Heaven’s joys. Lewis called this the Argument from Desire: “If I discover in myself a desire for something which nothing in this world can satisfy, I must begin to think that I was made for another world.” The joys and pleasures of this world, as great as they are, inevitably let us down. They cannot sustain the weight of desire that we place upon them. But this is because they are not what we truly and ultimately desire. We were made for God. We were made to enjoy him and to be satisfied in him. The best joys here can only awaken and stoke the flames of our deepest and ultimate desire; they are pointers to a joy that is deeper and higher and wider and longer than anything that we can imagine. Here’s how Jonathan Edwards put it:
The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the ocean.” (“The Christian Pilgrim”)
The greatness of Heaven’s joys is the flip-side of the reason for the length of Hell’s torments. God is infinite—infinitely valuable, infinitely worthy, infinitely desirable, infinitely satisfying. And therefore, in Heaven, we will arrive at Infinite Joy, and never stop arriving. Heaven’s joys will cascade down upon us for age upon age. Just as a finite creature cannot receive an infinite punishment unless they have an infinite amount of time, so also a finite creature cannot receive infinite joy without an eternal amount of time. And not just eternal, but ever-increasing. Every new discovery and delight will give way to new vistas of joy and gladness. Heaven is a world of endless surprise, without possibility of boredom. Unlike the pleasures of earth, God is inexhaustible. We will spend age after age after age going further up and further in, being filled with the knowledge and love and joy of God with ever-increasing speed.
There will no doubt be variations in the pleasures at God’s right hand. Some of them will be high and ecstatic, full of sharp and piercing sweetness. Others will be deep and weighty, bringing us to tears with their beauty. Some will overawe us with their intensity, like the thrill we feel on a great rollercoaster. Others will warm us with their coziness and comfort, like when we spend a pleasant evening at home with the family. And if you hadn’t noticed, we’re already using our imaginations to contemplate Heaven. And in truth, every earthly joy and every imagined joy is a pointer like this. The key passage is 1 Corinthians 2:9: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has the mind of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Baseball in Heaven
I sometimes imagine heaven as a little league baseball game, with my boys playing, me coaching, and my dad watching. Because my dad died three years ago, it’s a joy I’ll never have on earth. I don’t know that I’ll have it in heaven. I have no idea how the distinct joy of playing catch with a seven year old while being watched by a seventy year old could be there. How old will we be in heaven? A mother knows that the pleasure of holding her newborn is one of the highest joys of her life. But how can there be newborns in heaven? And isn’t my heavenly baseball game just like a barren woman who pictures herself in heaven rocking her newborn to sleep? What is the point of imagining such impossibilities?
But in my case, imagining the heavenly ball game is not what I really want. The ball game is a placeholder for something. It’s a way of reaffirming my belief in 1 Corinthians 2:9 and Revelation 22: he will wipe away every tear from my eyes. It’s my way of believing the promises of God.
But God didn’t promise me the baseball game with my sons and my dad. That’s true, but he did promise, “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.” “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also graciously give us all things?” All things, including the baseball game and the barren woman’s child. Either heaven will have my ballgame, or something better. Either heaven will see the barren woman with her baby, or something better. But since I have no clear picture of what the “something better” might be, I project my greatest desires (which are often the converse of my greatest earthly sorrows) and then say, “Even better than that.”
We Cannot Out-Hope Heaven
So you see, the exercise is not in vain. The fact that the mind of man has not conceived what God has prepared for those who love him doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t exercise our mental muscles, just as the fact that the love of Christ surpasses knowledge doesn’t mean that we should cease trying to know it. Pushing the limits of our imaginations here (provided we remember that they are only our imaginations) doesn’t threaten the joys of heaven. No one will be disappointed, least of all, me. We work out our imaginations here so that we can, metaphorically speaking, give God’s omnipotent goodness a workout there. Just as we cannot out-horror Hell, we cannot out-hope Heaven.
And this means that every earthly joy and every earthly disappointment is an opportunity to inflame the hope of glory. The day is coming when every tear will be wiped away, everything sad will come untrue, every joy will be surpassed, and every pleasure will lead us home to God who is the Joy at the heart of every joy.
The Fork in Your Road
But that day is not yet. Here we live in the world of the Choice. For much of the time, eternity feels distant, far away, out of sight, and out of mind. The reality is that, for all of us, it is always just around the corner. It is as near as death, and our lives are just a vapor. There is no turning back; you are here and now. You are alive and you are heading in a particular direction. This sermon is a fork in the road.
Think of it this way. You will cling to something forever. There will be something that you will seek to satisfy the ache and longing of your soul with forever. It will either be God, or it will be yourself. You will either come out of yourself into the clear sky of God’s glory and gladness and find your heart filled to overflowing, or you will curve inward on yourself, trying to satisfy your soul’s thirst on broken pieces of clay that turn to ash in your mouth.
And that brings us to the Table. When Jesus died, he swallowed Death and Hell. On the cross, he endured the infinite wrath of Almighty God on behalf of sinners. He took our banishment, our wrath, our destruction. And in doing so, he opened a way out of the prison of Self into the bright, blue sky of God’s goodness and joy. At this table, we eat and drink to proclaim the good news that we need no longer fear eternity. In his presence is fullness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore.