Friday, April 29, 2005

The Wrath of God (2)

God's wrath is utterly terrible
What does the wrath of God entail? What is it?

As we think about this we need to keep at the forefront of our minds that God is not cruel, his wrath is not a loss of self-control, it is not wounded pride lashing out, not a bad temper. It is God's just reaction to our sin. It will be utterly fair. "God is only angry where anger is called for" (Packer).

In this just wrath there are four elements:

(Headings taken from Edward Donnelly's book on Heaven and Hell)

God's wrath means Absolute Poverty
2 Thessalonians 1:9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power

Hell is a place of separation from God. That doesn't sound so bad a thing. Many people would want to be separate from God. They think that Hell will be a place of fun and games, with no big brother looking over them with a disapproving eye.

But what they fail to realise is that every moment of pleasure, everything that is enjoyable - the very ability to enjoy anything is a gift from God. Here on earth we are surrounded and blessed with God's goodness and his gifts. In Hell there will be nothing that is good, nothing that is pleasurable.

Everything that makes life worthwhile will be taken away. It will be absolute poverty in every sense. Nothing pleasurable to look at, to hear, to taste, to smell, to think about, to touch. In this life every good and pleasant thing comes from God. It is God's goodness that makes life pleasing to us.

Sometimes people say things like, "I would rather be in Hell because all my friends are there." But there will be no friends in Hell. Friendship is a blessing from God. There you will hate the people who have been your friends here on earth, because you will see that their friendship came between you and God. In Hell there will be no laughter, no enjoyment of any kind.

God's wrath means you will be stripped of any and every blessing.

God's wrath means Agonising Pain
But there is something worse. There is pain amidst the poverty.

Revelation 14:10 He will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever."

Fire, smoke, burning sulphur. Elsewhere it speaks about a worm that does not die.

The imagery of Revelation isn't literal. When it speaks of fire and burning sulphur, and of worms eating at the damned, like the rest of Revelation it is using symbolic language. But that symbolism corresponds to something real. And in Revelation the reality is always cranked up a gear from the picture.

It speaks to us of pain, pain beyond anything we can imagine. Perhaps the pain of a stinging conscience, that will rebuke and it will be like a worm that gnaws at our memories. And will it be that the damned will remember every person who displayed Christian love to them, and every sermon, and every person who witnessed to them, and it will seem so clear to them and they will cry out, "Why didn't I see it? Why did I ignore what was so obvious?"?

The weeping and gnashing of teeth. How often have we wept over something that has broken us, or when we have been unbearably lonely? Jesus says that there will be such weeping in Hell as people face the wrath of God, as they find themselves unbearably lonely.

There will be agonising pain. But it is worse than that.

God's wrath means an Angry Presence
God is not absent from Hell. Often we are told that Hell is where God is not. That is wrong. Hell is part of God's creation, and he is present everywhere. Rev 14:10 tells us that he is present in Hell. This makes Hell infinitely worse. The essence of Hell is the fire of God's holy and righteous anger poured out unrelentingly on sinners. Popular opinion has the devil as the master of Hell, where he rules and gives out pleasure to his cronies. Scripture teaches something more awful. God rules even in Hell. He has prepared Hell for the devil and his angels. (Matt 25:41)

Perhaps this is what it means that they will be tormented. The same word is used of Lot as he lived in Sodom. It says that his righteous soul was tormented as he saw the wickedness of men around him. Have you ever felt that? Have you seen the foulness of men's sins and it has burned itself into your mind and it has made you want to weep. Perhaps as you have looked at what is done in abortion, or in countries where children have been murdered. And the images of wickedness have lingered in your mind and tormented you.

As the wicked live for ever in the presence of God they will be tormented by the sight of his holy righteousness. It will blind them with its dazzling purity. It will be a sickening terror to them. No matter where they run to they will not be able to escape. The presence that should have comforted them anywhere in this world will hunt and haunt them. The righteous that could have been applied to cover their sins will always be before them accusing them.

And it will be utterly just.

But more than that. Hell is the mighty releasing of God's wrath, unrelenting and unrestrained and indescribable. In v 19 we have a picture of the utterly appalling nature of it. Its taken from the vineyards of Palestine. The harvesters would go out and fill their baskets with grapes plucked from the vines. Then they would return and tip these baskets into a huge press, where the servant girls took off their shoes and trampled through the grapes, thousands and thousands of them, crushing them until the juice ran out through the fine holes in the floor and ran in rivers through channels and into vats where it was collected.

Here it is angels harvesting the earth, and it is not grapes but people, and they are tipped into the press, thousands of people, and there why face the wrath of God. And it is so vast and terrible that the blood rises to a height of 6ft for nearly 200 miles all around.

The treading of the winepress is meant to convey the violent thoroughness of God's wrath when it is finally poured out. It's only an image. But it is an image that is meant to convey a reality that is beyond our imagining. It is utterly terrible.

Here is the ultimate horror of Hell, the presence of an angry God. And still there is more.

God's wrath means an Awful Prospect
It will never end.

Revelation 14:11 And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name."

"Hell is as eternal as Heaven. In life, even in the darkest moments, there is always the hope that things will get better. There is no such hope in Hell." (Jeffery)

"Oh eternity! If all the body of the earth and sea were turned to sand, and all the air up to the starry heaven were nothing but sand, and a little bird should come every thousand years, and fetch away in her bill but the tenth part of a grain of all that heap of sand, what numberless years would be spent before that vast heap of sand would be fetched away! Yet, if at the end of all that time, the sinner might come out of hell, there would be some hope; but that word 'Ever' breaks the heart. The smoke of their torment ascendeth up 'for ever and ever.' "

There will be no rest. What an awful phrase - no rest for the wicked. We use it in jest. But behind it lies an awful truth. Wanting with every fibre of your being to stop, to slow down to rest, but not able to.

God's wrath will never let up. The wicked have trampled over the Eternal Son, and his sacrifice planned in eternity, they have offended the eternal God. And therefore their punishment will be eternal.

Lessons we need to learn
Turn to Jesus Christ now, while you have time
The Bible labours to point out that God is good to those who trust in him, and terrible to those who do not. If you haven't turned from living life your way and turned to following Jesus, and trusted in him to take you punishment, then you will find out how terrible he is.

Come now. Then it will be too late. Why would you risk all. Don't think for a moment that you can come to him later. Each day you continue in sin you slap Almighty God in the face. And then some day you expect to be able to turn to him and say, "I'm ready now, please forgive me now". God doesn't respond to demands like that. He says, "Come to me today, while there is time. The offer is on the table now - It may well be withdrawn tomorrow."

How thankful we should be to Jesus
If you have put your trust in Jesus, then this wrath has been faced. You don't have to face it. Jesus took the eternity of your deserved wrath on himself when he hung on the cross. Oh thank you Lord Jesus. Oh how we should praise him and love him and delight to serve him.

How this should draw our soul into fervent praise to Jesus.

There is nothing more important than Heaven and Hell
This vision establishes what it important - there is nothing more important than Heaven and Hell. People are going to Hell. Your friends and neighbours and family members are going to Hell. Nothing is more important than that fact.

Not our reputations, not our comfort, not our standing in the community.

Those nice people you look at day-by-day sitting in cars, walking on the pavement, drinking coffee - God is as angry with them at this moment as he is with the damned in Hell. Does it bother you? Does it bring tears to your eyes? There can be no glee or pleasure in this. We can only think of these truths with tears in our eyes.

God sends us out to beseech, to plead to urge them to turn from their rejection of him and turn to Jesus.

2 Corinthians 5:20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Too often we are afraid of what people will think of us, we might offend, we might insult them, we might irritate them. Now I'm not suggesting that you stop everyone you meet and announce that they are going to Hell. Everyone is not your responsibility. But there are those whom God has placed in your circle of contacts - family, neighbours, friends - that are your responsibility.

We need to help them see the awful danger that they are in.

There can be no delight, only sorrow
Nor am I suggesting that you have to announce to them in a self righteous voice that they are going to Hell. But it has to bother us that they are. It has to trouble us that they are under the almighty eternal wrath of God. And when it really starts to bother us we will find ways of telling them, and they will see that nothing matters more to us than their eternal welfare. They will see that we love them. They will see that we are only doing this because we care.

And here is where it starts by grasping the immensity of God's wrath, and seeing that it is directed at real people, that we know. And pleading on our knees before God for them.

Tomorrow, someone may ask you what you did at the weekend. What will you say? You could say, "I went to church and the minister spoke to us about the fearful wrath of God." And see where it leads you. They might then say, "You don't believe all that do you?" And you could ask, "why did Jesus come to die then?".

We need to help people see that our greatest problem in life is God because of our sin, and he is the only solution to our sin.

Some people think that it isn't loving to talk about these things. But it is the most loving thing we can do.

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