Current Questions — Is There a Hell?

This is the fourth of a series of blog postings on modern controversial subjects. The first one one was on the subject of the authority of Scriptures. I did this one first, because I wanted to establish the foundation of all answers to modern religious questions — God’s word. When the Lord speaks, disciples should be listening, not arguing. And this is so also on the subject of Hell.

Just recently the Pope, seems to have denied Hell. Exactly what he said and what he believes still seems to be a little uncertain, but he’s not the only denier. It’s pretty popular to believe in a Heaven, but deny Hell. But regardless of what men may say about it, what the Bible has to say about Hell is really quite certain. 

Of the subjects that I’ll write about in this series, the topic of Hell is among the most frightening and sensitive. It is the proverbial “elephant in the living room” — a topic people want to know about, but nobody wants to mention, because the answer may be unpleasant. Hell, however, is a prominent Biblical doctrine that mustn’t be overlooked, whitewashed, or candy-coated. Doing so benefits absolutely no one. And waiting until we die to find anything out will be forever too late to do anything about it one way or another.

Many modern religions have persistently tried to explain away or eliminate Hell from the afterlife. The argument goes that it simply doesn’t make sense that an all-loving God could send anyone to a place of eternal punishment. Of course, it is no surprise that people would want to try to wish Hell away. It is terrible beyond words; and even worse, truth be known, we all deserve it, because of our sins. We’d prefer to believe in either a Heaven for everybody, or at worst a painless extinction — that way we can sin pretty much with impunity without too much terror in our hearts. 

However, when they argue that an all-loving God would never send anyone to a place like Hell, they forget that God is not just a God of love; there is much more to His nature and character. He is also a God of justice and righteousness (2 Thessalonians 1:6; Hebrews 2:2; etc.). If God did not exercise justice, He would cease to be a good God. 

And like it or not, the truth is that there is as much or more Biblical proof of Hell as there is of Heaven. Gehenna is used 12 times in the NT, and Hell is referred either directly or indirectly numerous other times, for example…

Isaiah 66:24 “Then they will go forth and look On the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die And their fire will not be quenched; And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind.”

Matthew 3:11, 12 “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

The essence of Hell is separation from God for all eternity. It is called eternal death, but it is not eternal extinction. As physical death is the separation of the physical body from the spirit, so spiritual death is separation of our spirit (soul) from God — the source of life, blessing, and all that is good and right. It is described as a fire that cannot be quenched and as a deep darkness (Matt. 8:12). Suffice it to say that, contrary to the popular swaggering boasts and hollow bravado about Hell being a party place, and despite the fact that it may be where the “in crowd” is, you won’t want to be there. If Jesus said that it would be better to lose hands, feet, and even eyes rather than enter Hell (Matthew 9:43-47), it must be pretty bad.

Who will be there? Satan and his angels will be there (Rev. 20:10), as well as death itself and Hades (Rev. 20:14). But the sinful of all the ages will be there, too (for example: 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Romans 1:28-32; and Rev. 21:8). Tragically, Hell will be a pretty full place, because (Matthew 7:13) “… the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.”

Whether the Pope or any other religious authority believe it or not, Hell does exist and God (Who cannot lie) has promised that many will enter it. Where will you be, when you get where you’re going? God has provided one way to escape the punishment our sins deserve, the cross of Jesus Christ. Believe and obey Him, make Heaven (not Hell) your eternal home.

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Current Questions — The Role of Women

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve dedicated this blog space to a few of the doctrinal questions of our day. The questions have arisen not from some new evidence that someone has discovered calling into question long-settled Biblical doctrines, but because of 1) social pressures to “relax” God’s commands, and 2) an alarming lack of Bible knowledge among both young and old. Today, let’s talk about the roles of men and women, especially in the church

God made men and women different. Men and women both certainly bear the image of God. In that sense there is no difference. But in many other ways they are very different starting from their genes (XX or XY) onward. There are a differences in physique (we look different), in physical abilities (strength), in brain structures, in natural motor skills, and in what our bodies can do (have babies or not). God Himself created these differences and assigned men and women roles appropriately fitted to these differences in the family and in the spiritual community of the church. 

However, despite the obvious and natural differences between men and women, there seems to be in secular society an ongoing competition between the sexes. Fueled by feminist philosophy there is a pervasive gender battle captured in the phrase “Anything you can do, I can do better”. 

This gender battle has unfortunately found its way into the Lord’s church. Specifically, some want to bring women into the church’s assembly as leaders. But as our first article in this series pointed out, the first question the church must always ask is what God through the Bible says about it.

One matter that should be easy to settle Biblically is that women may lead other women, when men are not available to do so. Biblical examples of prophesying among women, praying among women, serving among women, and teaching among women can be easily found in the New Testament with apostolic approval and authority (1 Cor. 11:3-16; 1 Tim. 5:9,10; Titus 2:4)

However, the New Testament teaching is clearly different, when men are part of the assembly. 

(1 Timothy 2:11, 12) A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.

(1 Corinthians 14:34, 35) The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.

The common response is that these are old fashioned rules that were determined more by culture and male-centered custom than the Lord Himself. However, these responses ignore both the context of these verses and the actual customs of the 1st century. Paul ties his teachings to the original eternal principles set down in Eden, in which the roles of men and women are clearly set down by God Himself, (Genesis 3:16) “To the woman He [God] said, ‘I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, In pain you will bring forth children; Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.’” We should also notice that, culturally speaking, the pagan world was full of priestesses; if ever there was a time for a change in leadership roles, the first century would have been that time. Instead, the eternal principle of roles for men and women, given by God, was preached and practiced.

Others will argue that one passage of the New Testament proclaims equality of roles between the sexes, (Galatians 3:28) “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Once again, however, the problem with this argument is that the next verse is left out: (Galatians 3:29) “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.” Paul’s teaching was not about gender role equality but rather about inheritance equality — that both men and women will considered “sons” in great inheritance of Heaven (sons were the only ones who received inheritances in that culture). 

The teaching of Scripture may not be popular or cool in the modern age, but it is right nevertheless. Men and women are both made in the image of God, but there are differences. Among the differences are roles that God has assigned. Let us acknowledge the differences and obey the Lord, who always knows best.

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Current Questions — Musical Worship

Last week I began a bulletin series on contemporary questions. We began with the authority of Scripture. This was foundational to all the rest that we will discuss. These topics tend to be controversial in some places and they will remain controversial until we all commit ourselves to submit to the authority of God found in the Scriptures. I will confess that 650 words is way too brief an article to fully discuss this crucially important anchor of Christian truth, but I hope that we can all nevertheless agree that the Bible is God’s inspired word and the “last word” on all things pertaining to life and godliness.

That being said, let’s address a topic of considerable controversy these days, instrumental music in the worship of the Lord. Historically speaking, from the first days of the church (Pentecost) through about AD 1000 churches DID NOT use musical instruments in worship. This is why the phrase a cappella means to sing unaccompanied; it is really Latin for “in the manner of the church”.

The early church used NO instruments in their worship, not because of fear of persecution, not because no one knew how to play a harp, and not because instruments were too hard to carry from house to house. They chose to sing a cappella, because the teachings of the apostles was to do so. So when Paul instructs the Ephesians (5:19) and the Colossians (3:16) to sing, he used a specific Greek word that is never used with instruments (ado). In other places (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:15) where he teaches them to sing, he uses a Greek word that only means to use instruments, if the instrument is mentioned (psallo). Greek reading Christians from the first through the tenth centuries understood the words this way and obediently practiced them that way until church leaders decided they liked the sound of organs. Even so, the Greek speaking eastern churches continued to worship a cappella down the present day.

Instruments were used by the Roman church from about AD 1000 to the present, but the Reformers like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, the Wesleys, and others all rejected the instrument — being readers of the Greek language. My favor quotes from these protestant reformers include…

John Wesley (founder of the Methodist Church) said, “I have no objections to instruments of music in our chapels provided they are neither heard nor seen.” 

John Calvin (theologian behind much Baptist and Presbyterian doctrine) said, “Musical instruments, in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, the restoration of the other shadows of the Law.” 

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that Protestant churches began to use pianos and organs. 

But someone may ask, “What about the instruments in the Old Testament? Don’t they show that God accepts them?” The answer in a nutshell is this, instruments were part of the old covenant, the Mosaic covenant and (like Calvin said above) are no more suitable for worshipping God than animal sacrifice and the rest of tabernacle worship.

Someone else might say, “But what about harps in Heaven in the book of Revelation?” These are mere symbols of musical praise; the context shows that even here the Greek word for singing is ado, the Greek version of a cappella.

Others might object by pointing out that God didn’t specifically forbid it. Actually, however, He did; by commanding a specific form of singing, ado, a cappella, He automatically eliminated other forms of musical worship. 

Still another might point out that singing in worship without instruments sounds simply awful. But this misses the point of worship. Our worship is offered to the Lord, who doesn’t care about the quality of singing from a human standpoint; He cares about the heart of the worshipper (John 4:24). It is not for human audiences

The question of whether or not to use instruments in worship isn’t really new; it is actually an old one that was decisively answered long ago. Unfortunately, many have never been taught the answer and others have forgotten it. The Biblical answer is that God desires the voices of His worshippers accompanied only by the love of their hearts (Ephesians 5:19). Let’s worship God God’s way.

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Current Questions — Authority of Scripture

There are many questions that have stirred up controversy in the religious world these days. Teachings and practices that Christianity thought were settled long ago have been brought into serious question in modern times. The sad part is not that questions have been raised, every thoughtful generation will ask them. The sad part is that leaders who should have given strong and certain answers have given either weak answers or none at all. This is not because there aren’t strong and certain answers, but because those who are leading religious groups are often 1) not familiar with the Bible or 2) afraid that they might “offend” or 3) both. 

Since the need to have sound answers is important, I thought I’d write a series of posts on some of the more important questions of our day, so that we may all obey the command: (1 Peter 3:15) “…always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” And the question that we’ll start with will be a foundational one, “Is the Bible really the authoritative word of God?” The question about the authority of Scripture is a principle that we will return to in this series again and again, so let’s start here.

The very definition of the Bible is that it is God’s word. There are some that will quickly point out that it was written by men, but the Bible itself anticipated the accusation and clarifies, (2 Peter 1:20, 21) “…no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” And the Bible alone is God’s word, not the Koran, not the Veda, and not the book of Mormon. This is not said to offend, but to simply state a fact that can be readily shown by an examination of the Bible’s 1) flawless fulfillment of prophecy and 2) accuracy of history, geography, and yes, even science. Check it out and see for yourself. Many a skeptic has taken this challenge and found faith in God and the Bible. Other so-called holy books cannot honestly claim this perfect standard; only the God-inspired Bible can.

Now, since the Bible is God’s word; we should next recognize that it is authoritative, because it is God who is in charge, not us. Jesus Christ will be the judge of all mankind: (Acts 17:31) “because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” How will he do it? John 12:48 tell us, “…the word I [Jesus] spoke is what will judge him at the last day.” Judgement won’t be on the basis of what we thought, what our opinions might be, our feelings, or what everyone else was doing. It will be on the basis of what God has said in the Bible. You see, God through the Bible, is telling us now exactly how He will judge us later. 

The Bible, therefore, is the authoritative word of God. It gives us God’s standard for right and wrong — no human guess-work required. It reveals the truth about our origins, God’s great miracles in history, the spiritual realm, sin, God’s tremendous love for mankind, God’s great promises, and the way of salvation from sin — through Jesus Christ alone. The pattern for the church, worship, and everyday Christian living is found here. And finally, the authoritative Bible gives us a glimpse of an indescribably wonderful place called Heaven for the faithful. 

Get to know God through reading His authoritative word, the Bible. Then getting to know Him, obey Him. Truth is not just for knowing, it is for doing.

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What Could God Do With You?

God took some dust from the ground and from it formed a living, breathing man, complete with God’s amazing image and a free will. Out of nothing but ordinary dirt!!

God took the rib of a man and made it into a woman, specially fitted as a proper companion for the man and able to bear children.

God took an old man and an old woman (Abram and Sarai), far too old to possess the ability to have children (Romans 4:19 and Hebrews 11:12 says they were “as good as dead”), and made a great physical and spiritual nation out of them by giving them a son from their own bodies.

God took a murderous criminal on the lam, working as a shepherd in the middle of nowhere (Moses), and through him led His people out of slavery to the most power nation on earth at the time — among other miracles, leading them through the Red Sea on dry ground.

God took a fearful and shy farm boy, Gideon, and pulled off the rout of 120,000 Midianites with a mere 300 Israelites.

God took a shepherd boy out of the sheep pasture (David) to defeat a giant, defeat every one of Israel’s enemies, become king all Israel, and become a type of the Messiah to come.

God took Israelite hostages (Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) and helped shape two pagan empires by showing them the power and superiority of the one true God through their inspired interpretations of dreams and visions and courageous resistance to compromise with the pagan culture.

God took young Jewish orphan (Esther) and made her not only queen of Persia but a savior of her people.

God took fishermen, tax men, and political extremists (the 12 apostles) and turned the world upside down with them as they witnessed to everyone what they had seen and preached a simple message, the Gospel.

God took a misguided enemy of His people (Saul of Tarsus) and turned him into the greatest church planter that we know of in the first century (Paul).

And God has been taking ordinary, otherwise unremarkable men and women down through the centuries to bring others to Christ — over and over again. He has been taking ordinary Christian parents and raising up teachers, preachers, elders, deacons, servants, and missionaries for His Kingdom. He’s taken ordinary words, ordinary finances, ordinary talents, ordinary education, and ordinary circumstances and made them something extraordinary for centuries. 

God specializes in taking the common and unremarkable and making it into something marvelous. It’s His favorite way to work; (2 Corinthians 12:9) “And [God] has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” 

He even specializes in taking discouraging and tragic circumstances and making something good, significant, and eternal out of them. We are assured (Romans 8:28), “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

The key? Faith, a willingness of the ordinary man or woman to walk through the doors He opens.

Who are you? Nobody? No one special? You might just the very person God is looking for! Look for the doors He’s opening for you; believe and pray that God will help your unbelief (Mark 9:24); and walk through the door.

What could God do with you?

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Something of How Much I Owe

As many of you know, Linda and I went to France this summer. One of the highlights of the trip for me was going to the Normandy beaches and the American cemetery, where well over 9000 WWII dead are buried. The cemetery itself is very well kept and beautiful, and the memorial there is stately and impressive. 

As part of the tour, we all gathered at the memorial overlooking the cemetery; listened to a brief talk about the thousands buried there and their sacrifice; and then turned toward the cemetery to sing the Star Spangled Banner. It’s difficult to describe how moving this short ceremony was for everyone in attendance; there was truly not a dry eye in the place (mine included) at the conclusion. 

I’ve heard patriotic sentiments often expressed on Memorial Day weekends, but on that day the real, enormous price was graphically displayed before my eyes in a way I had never known. The sight of uniform row after row of white crosses and stars of David that just went on and on brought home the enormity of the price in young lives that was paid for our (my) freedom — their lives given in defense of ours. And there was a unity found in the singing of the national anthem. It was sobering, humbling, and thought provoking (to say the least). I had heard, as we all have, that “freedom is not free”; but had not fathomed just how expensive it had been — and in just this one place. 

This has made me reflect anew how expensive my salvation is. Yes, like every sincere Christian, I’ve known the cross, have tried to wrap my mind around the costliness of man’s redemption, and have cringed seeing the movie “The Passion of the Christ”. I still tear up, still after over 50 years of being a Christian, as some hymns movingly speak of Christ’s sacrifice for me; I thought (I hoped) that I “got it”. But now I’m not so sure, and the words of an old hymn (When this Passing World is Done) come back to me with fresh power…

When I stand before the throne,
Dressed in beauty not my own,
When I see Thee as Thou art,
Love Thee with unsinning heart,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know,
Not till then, how much I owe.

It wasn’t just a really good man whose life was given for our own. It wasn’t 9000 plus lives of courageous young men who were sacrificed for our salvation. It wasn’t an angel, an archangel, or the whole angelic host that was offered. It was much, much greater than all of them combined. It was the exquisitely and supremely high price of the very Son of God, offered up only because nothing less could do what needed to be done. That’s why the sky darkened and the earth quaked in aguish as the breath-taking, heart-stopping, agony-filled “impossible” happened; God (2 Corinthians 5:21) “…made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” 

Now, much more, my prayer is…

E’en on earth, as through a glass,
Darkly let Thy glory pass;
Make forgiveness feel so sweet;
Make Thy Spirit’s help so meet;
E’en on earth, Lord, make me know
Something of how much I owe.

Won’t you make it your prayer, too? As we together take the bread and cup this Lord’s Day and every Lord’s Day, let us together try to fathom anew something of how much we owe.

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What If?

A couple of Sunday evenings ago our Bible class began a new study on 1 Peter. As we were discussing the general circumstances and purpose of this letter, we naturally started talking about the terrible persecution of Peter’s day under the Roman emperor Nero. We compared those times with the much much milder persecution we face today; and that led us to wonder how we might fare under the kind of pressure (including martyrdom) that early Christians faced, and what it would do to the church.

Of course, how we each might fare in the fire (sometimes literal) of serious persecution would be an individual answer in each case. However, one thing for sure, it would certainly cause us to “count the cost” and get “black and white”, “hot or cold”, “all in or all out” about faith in a hurry. Gone would be the deceptive “gray areas” in which so many modern Christians live. Priorities in life would be sharpened in stark relief; spiritual things would come first or not at all. Worship of the Savior, because it could cost you your life, would not be taken lightly. Fellowship would be stronger and more dear. Scriptures would be highly valued, devotedly read or not owned at all, because owning a copy could be a capital crime. The confession of Christ would be courageously made, or not made at all — no maybes about it. Which way do you think you’d fall?

Most of the “fringe” folks in the church, who now tend to be sporadic in attendance, would disappear overnight from any assembly (Matthew 13:20, 21). Some might even betray the church’s meeting places and the identity of members. The average Christian would have to make some life-changing decisions about confession or denial, commitment or abandonment, loyalty or betrayal. Some would leave, some would try to compromise, and others would try to be “secret disciples”; but others would gather courage, “step across the line”, and become much stronger spiritually. Even those in the core of the church (its leadership and most involved members) would be tempted to shrink back (for example, Peter); concerns about their family’s safety would test them (1 Cor. 7:26-35) as they quickly became prime targets for persecution. Most of the church’s core would stand strong, but even some of these might leave. The folks who would be left would be the “real deal”. Which would you be, if serious persecution broke out?

What would be left of such a “whittled down” form of the church? It would be the “true believers”, the committed, the determined, the courageous, and the pious (in the good sense of the word). The fire of persecution, you see, burns away the dross and refines the gold (1 Cor. 3:11-15). Persecution boils away that which waters down the potency of the church, leaving only the virile, distilled essence of real Christian faith. Can you imagine such a church? What would the songs and prayers of their worship be like? How likely would they be to boldly step out on faith, no matter the earthly penalty, no matter the impossibility, no matter the size of the giant? How earnest and convicted would they be about the truth of the Bible? How close and genuine would their fellowship be? How much would they be emphasizing the hope of eternal life? How loving, active, evangelistic, courageous, and focused on the Lord would they be? And paradoxically, how great would their joy be, even as they suffered for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41; James 1:2; Matthew 5:12). No wonder the church grew so quickly in the early centuries — even under persecution! The certainty of their faith combined with the persecution they endured produced world changers!! 

But you know, we needn’t wait for persecution to have a world changing church. We can personally stop straddling the fence now, get serious about our faith now, move from lukewarm to hot now — and urgently encourage others to do the same. Starting now, we can all swear-off ever getting seduced again by “good enough”, when it comes to the Lord’s business; we can set our eyes on the things above and never look back. Consider what it will do for the Lord’s church! Even more, consider what it will do for your eternity!

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