Sermon 23

Fear the Fires of Hell

Luke 20:18

March 25, 2007


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father , Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.  

Since the time of Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153) we have been afraid that our good intentions will do us in. For the adage probably came from him that “the way to hell is paved with good intentions.” As unbelievable as it may sound, something good – good intentions – can lead us straight to hell. This, of course, is because they are not good enough. What is needed in addition to good intentions is a good life with good deeds to stay out of hell.

Now, as if this fear of hell were not enough, our Lord Jesus teaches us something even worse. In Luke 12:5 he tells us to “fear him who, after he has killed you, has power to cast you into hell, yes,… fear him!” Here Jesus tells us to fear something more than dying – even if our death were from some murderous rampage. No, here we are told to fear the one who can kill us and then cast us into hell. And that one is God himself. So fearing hell is increased by also fearing the one who can send you there.


God Damns Sinners

God therefore is to be feared. For he is the one who has prepared hell for the damned, who are those who reject his dear Son Jesus Christ. For God is no pussy cat. He’s a fierce bear or a poisonous snake (Amos 5:19). He creates weal and woe (Isaiah 45:7). He can be quite tough. This is because of our idolatry and sin. It provokes him to anger, over and over again! (Judges 2:14, 20, 3:8, 12, 4:2, 6:1, 9:23, 56, 10:7).

Indeed, the Lord “hates those who pay regard to vain idols” (Psalm 31:6). So even though God is famously “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6), that does not mean he never blows his top. For harsh judgment is in him. This judgment he hands on to his Son, Christ Jesus (John 5:27). And this includes putting into his hands “the keys of Death and Hades,” or hell (Revelations 1:18). So it is clear that God is the one who has prepared hell for those who cross his path (Matthew 25.41)!


That Place of Torment

This is terrible, because hell is more than an attitude, disposition or troubled state of mind. It’s more than one of those dark nights of the soul which we sometimes call “hell on earth.” No, hell is much more substantial than that. It isn’t so ephemeral. It rather is an actual place. In Luke 16:28 Jesus says hell is a “place of torment.” The old Latin Bible translates this as locum tormentorum. So hell is a place or a real location to be feared.

Hell is a place of torture and anguish that goes on and on without end. It is utterly horrible. When you’ve gone to hell you are stuck there – hemmed in, if you will, on all sides. A great “chasm” (Luke 16:26) separates you from the blessed and God’s mercies (Isaiah 59:2; 2 Thessalonians 1:9). Locum tormentorum, indeed!

This is so severe because Christ is so wonderful. In this torment extremes are matched. By rejecting Christ the Lord one commits a horrendous wrong. Punishment for this is therefore massive and unnerving.

We see this matching up of infraction and retribution in Luke 20:18. There we hear that those who reject Jesus (Luke 20:15) will be “broken to pieces… and crushed”! – finished off in “a miserable death” (Matthew 21:41)!


Negative Pedagogy

All of this is horrible beyond measure. Human sympathy demands that we say there’s nothing good in it. Clearly we would never wish anything like this even on our worst enemy. If we did, we would be acting like blood-thirsty beasts.

But all of God’s judgments are right and good and just (Psalm 119:137; Revelation 16:7) – regardless of how we feel about them. So those who go to hell belong there. And the extent of their pain and suffering isn’t unjust – though it may seem so to us.

But this spectacle of suffering is not for divine or human entertainment. No one is to gloat over the anguished souls in hell (Proverbs 24:17). We are to react in quite another way. Their suffering is to be a “warning” (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11). It’s negative pedagogy, if you will. It’s a way of teaching us by a bad example. It’s telling us to steer clear of that mess. It’s showing us what to avoid.


Hafenreffer’s Hell

So the picture of hell needs to be kept clearly before us – in all of its excruciating detail. We must not let hell, this place of torment, locum tormentorum, fade from our sight. We need this warning.

To do this, we need help. This is because it’s easy for us to skip over hell. It’s easy to let the word hell degenerate into slang expressions, or become the butt of bad jokes, or simply be fodder for cartoon strips. So we need help if we’re to learn from hell.

     To our rescue comes Matthew Hafenreffer (1561-1619), an esteemed German Lutheran teacher, born in that first generation after the death of Martin Luther on February 18, 1546. He no doubt learned from Luther about the horrors of hell. In hell, Luther wrote, the damned shall be “afflicted with every pain, distress, grief, and misery, burn eternally without a little drop of water with which to refresh themselves,… and furthermore… they shall be bereft both of God and of all His grace and gifts…. How can they be plagued more horribly and severely?” (Luther’s Works 28:144-145)!

     So it’s not suprising that in Hafenreffer’s Loci Theologici he paints a startling picture of the ravages of hell. Here are his memorable words [quoted in The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. H. Schmid (1875; Fortress, 1899) p. 658]:


The punishments of Hell…. are the most exquisite pains of soul and body…, arising from the fear and sense of the most just wrath and vengeance of God against sins, the most sad consciousness of which they carry about with them, the baseness of which is manifest, and of which, likewise, no remission afterwards, and, therefore, no mitigation or end can be hoped for. Whence, in misery, they will execrate [or curse], with horrible lamentation and wailing, their former impiety, by which they carelessly neglected the commandments of the Lord, the admonitions of their brethren, and all the means of attaining salvation; but in vain. For in perpetual anguish, with dreadful trembling, in shame, confusion, and ignominy, in inextinguishable fire, in weeping and gnashing of teeth, amidst that which is eternal and terrible, torn away from the grace and favor of God, they must quake among devils, and be tortured without end to eternity.


These bone-chilling words shock us – and arouse us. So they’re good for us. They open our eyes. So they’re worth dwelling on, bit by bit – uncomfortable though they may be. Therefore mull them over. Don’t flee from them. Instead consider them carefully.


Pondering Perdition

Take to heart the following six lines from Hafenreffer’s paragraph that your eyes may be turned “from looking at vanities” (Psalm 119:37)! By way of these six lines, ponder the destruction and perdition of hell.

1. Most Exquisite Pains. No earthly pain will surpass the fires of hell. So suffering in hell will be the most exquisite – striking both body and soul. Our thoughts will terrify us and keep us awake at night. Our flesh and bones will ache with pain – leaving us weak and quivering.

2. The Most Just Wrath of God. The damned will know that hell is their just desert. All debates will have come to an end. Contesting God’s judgments will be out of the question. Why? What of all of our defiance? What’s become of our sinful indignation and fist-shaking against the high heavens? It all will have been smothered by the indisputable realization that God is right and the damned are wrong. Our complaining mouths will be shut tight (Romans 3:19)! The damned will know they haven’t a philosophical or theological leg to stand on. They, like Job of old, will shut their mouths all by themselves (Job 40:4-5). God won’t have to do it for them. Shame will shut them down instead.

3. The Most Sad Consciousness. All that’s left then is sorrow. No thrashing around. No scheming to get out. Nothing but sadness. The power of God’s truth will crush the excuses and appeals of the damned. None of them will be able to push off that crushing defeat. That God is right will be unassailable. Damnation in hell will be accepted and respected by all – even those in hell will bow before the Lord (Philippians 2:10)!

4. Cursing Oneself in Vain. Then insult will be added to injury. In addition to God’s damnation, the damned will damn themselves mercilessly! Yes, because they now see the truth by the light of the fires of hell, they will curse themselves for their stupidity and stubbornness. They will bemoan that they were an “impudent and stubborn…. and rebellious house” (Ezekiel 2:4-6) – that they were happy and smug participants in an “evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:39). Like Peter, they will “weep bitterly” (Matthew 26:75) for their sin. But unlike Peter their weeping will be too late. The door to heaven, wide open for the repentant on earth, will now be slammed shut (Matthew 25:10)! Horror of horrors!

5. In Perpetual Anguish. And this hell will be no purgatory, that is, some short period of cleansing before one’s eventual entry into the joys and peace of heaven. No! Hell is everlasting. Period. There are no ifs, ands or buts. Once in hell, a “great chasm” (Luke 16:26) divides it from heaven. That means all late entries into heaven from hell are cut off. They’re impossible. Not even death can put an end to the fires of hell (Revelation 9.6). Those fires, then, are truly “unquenchable” (Matthew 3:12; Mark 9:48).

6. Quaking Among Devils. In hell you are tortured relentlessly. In a supposed humor piece, the comedian Jack Handey (“My First Day in Hell,” The New Yorker, October 30, 2006) tries to imagine what this quaking among devils would be like. As his first day in hell draws to a close, he sees the demons asleep. “They look so innocent,” he says, “it’s hard to believe that just a few hours ago they were raping and torturing us.” The food there is pretty good, he writes, but the “trouble is, just about all of it is poisoned. So a few minutes after you finish eating you’re doubled over in agony. The weird thing is, as soon as you recover you’re ready to dig in all over again.” Then after greeting Satan upon first seeing him, he was “immediately set upon by demons” for speaking out of turn. “I can’t begin to describe the tortures they inflicted on me…. Suffice it to say that, even as you endure all the pain, you find yourself thinking, Wow, how did they think of that?”


Scared Straight

So thank God for Matthew Hafenreffer! Don’t listen to the therapists who say this kind of thing is psychologically damaging. No! Thank God instead for this description of hell. Don’t listen to the revisionists who say it’s all mythological and silly. No! Thank God instead for Hafenreffer’s detailed description of hell.

His words, after all, are classic. I think they even surpass those of the great John Milton in Paradise Lost (1667), when he says, “death be not one stroke, as I supposed,… but endless misery” (X:809-810). And they equally surpass those of the pious and brilliant Jonathan Edwards in his classic American sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), when he says, the damned in hell wrestle with an “almighty merciless vengeance” forever, “crying in extreme misery and perfect despair.”

So thank God for Matthew Hafenreffer. His picture of hell is salutary. Believe it or not, it can actually scare you straight. And that’s good. For he believed, with Luther, that the wrath of God and the fires of hell can drive you straight to Christ, agitatur ad Christum (LW 16:232). So don’t listen to those who say such words will only hurl you into despair, dread and depression. Don’t listen to those who say such fear is no good for you. Instead trust Luther’s line that such fear can drive you to Christ – agitatur ad Christum!


There’s More than Fear

Now I know what you know. It’s true that there’s more to Christianity than fearing the fires of hell. You’re right. There’s more than being rescued from hell. We also love Jesus now because of his wisdom. And we believe in him now so we can be more loving. We also believe so we can have peace and joy now. We believe so we can be are part of the church. We believe so we can help out in this world. For faith in Jesus makes us stronger people now.

But be that as it may, don’t forget about the fires of hell. While they don’t tell the whole story about our life with God, they are crucial. Forgetting them will stop our faith from growing. For we must always be watching out lest we fall (1 Corinthians 10:12; Hebrews 3:12). Lutherans teach, you remember, that just because we’re baptized and believe, that doesn’t mean we’ll never fall away from Christ [The Book of Concord, Tappert edition (1959) p. 35]. So the fires of hell are important for Christians. They help keep us serious. And they also can help show others the way to Christ (1 Corinthians 14:24-25; Romans 2:5-10; Acts 2:37).


Of Surpassing Worth

Now what happens when the fires of hell drive us to Christ? What can he do for us? How does Christ relieve our fears and save us from going to hell?

In Christ we have the one of “surpassing worth” [υπερεχον] (Philippians 3:8-9). This is because in him we have a value or worth that goes beyond what we can muster on our own, by being good and decent. When we live with Christ by entrusting our lives to him we no longer worry about the past. Our mistakes and omissions no longer plague us. Now, like St. Paul , we can truly forget what lies behind us and press on “for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

This is amazing. It’s even miraculous! Just think of it: the past will no longer haunt us. But it haunts everybody, you say! Yes indeed, but not those who entrust their lives to Christ. That burden is lifted. How does he do this?

Colossians 2:13-14 says Christ cancels the legal bond that stands against us, or contrarium nobis, as the Old Latin Bible puts it. This  legal bond is from God’s law that says all sinners must be punished. No sins escape God’s judgment and all sins are punished. With this God’s wrath and threats weigh heavily upon us. But Christ puts an end to all of this.

He doesn’t, however, lift our burden by changing the rules and saying our sin no longer matters. He doesn’t cancel this debt by simple declaration. No, something far more ghastly must happen, for indeed, there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22).


Canceling Our Debt

And that is precisely what Jesus does. He cancels that bond which stands against us by “nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). This he does by being himself nailed to the cross for us. By so doing he is punished in our place. This happens by having all our sins inflicted on his body (1 Peter 2:24). The whips and rods that bruised him, the nails driven into him, the spear jammed into his side, all these were the sins of the world – piercing into his flesh.

Now when he is so punished for our sins, our punishment then ends. Therefore we no longer have to fear being punished. The curse is lifted and we are set free (Galatians 3:13; 5:1). So give thanks to God for this wonder! Do so by glorifying Christ himself. You can sing praise to Christ using these grand words (LBW 95):


                    Glory be to Jesus,

                    Who in bitter pains,

                    Poured for me the life-blood

                    From his sacred veins….


                    Blest through endless ages

                    Be that precious stream

                    Which from endless torment

                    Did the world redeem.


Preach the Whole Counsel of God

And when we’re done singing let us do good works in honor of Christ – knowing that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). Let us do that by seeing to it that the whole counsel of God’s word is preached (Acts 20:27). Let us therefore support sermons that testify to both the fear and the hope, the fright and the peace. Let us not shrink back from encouraging the church to preach and teach both the kindness and the severity of God (Romans 11:22).

            Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), an astute reader of Luther, gives this combination memorable formulation in his book, Christian Discourses (1848; Kierkegaard’s Writings 17:175). There he writes that


it is easy to win people by enticing; it is also easy to frighten them away by repelling. But, if possible, with a fervent inwardness that no one could resist, to invite them to come, and in addition with a terror that could teach even the bravest to shudder,… indeed that is difficult,…. [but that would be] to steer rightly…


Let just that difficult way be our work (Matthew 7:14)! Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)  

Pastor Marshall in West Seattle, July 29, 2009

[photo credit: Ruth H. Marshall]