Clara was just 18 months old when she died in the winter of 1911. Her small, unmarked grave lies forgotten in the old country cemetery in Goulburn, New South Wales. She would have been Larry’s great aunt. Larry’s grandmother seldom spoke of her, and on those rare occasions when she did, it was usually in terms of looking forward to being reunited on the day of resurrection.
The contention in the local then-quite-religious community was the belief that Clara had never been baptised, and therefore she could never be saved. Her lot, it was automatically assumed, was torment in hell, for she had never confessed faith in Jesus. The irony is, of course, she was too young to know right from wrong, and too young to comprehend God’s love for her.
Today, the pulpit is somewhat conspicuously silent on the subject of hell. Thankfully, there’s a new wave of understanding and discussion regarding God’s will and purpose. Clara’s future, and the millions like her who died, must be accounted for and not escape our heartfelt affection, as guided by God’s Spirit, if we’re to reconcile her future with a loving, merciful God.
Abraham, we read in the scriptures, believed that the Judge of the earth would do right. A lot hinges on the faith that God is righteous, that he will do what is right, and that his will is indeed that none should perish.
Jesus, interestingly, spoke more about heaven than he did about hell. Our knowledge of both is thus entirely dependent on his words. What we do have are the scriptures which, in several remarkable instances, recount where men of God were carried “in the Spirit” and given visions of the throne of God. Our curiosity is naturally piqued as we read and are gripped by their distinct and vivid accounts, whether it be Isaiah, Ezekiel or John’s extraordinary testimonies. Interestingly, little imagery is equally given for what hell might be like, other than of course being a consuming fire resulting in annihilation. Medieval paintings and folklore seem to make up the rest of popular belief.
Preachers in the past often promoted the “turn or burn” mentality through their evangelism. Thus, many religious people assume that those who die in this life without ever having encountered Jesus are automatically condemned to hell, a fiery and ongoing torture of “body and soul”. Like Clara’s predicament, they believe that they simply have no hope, never had any hope, and if we carefully think it through, Jesus’ redemptive victory over sin and death at their moment of prophesied resurrection is somewhat eclipsed and rendered ineffective!
The questions that become apparent at this point are: Is this what the Bible teaches? Is such theology qualitatively little more than acquired supposition? Do the traditions we may have accepted so readily really find their origins in the Bible? In exploring the subject of hell, let’s pay attention to what the Bible actually does say, what it doesn’t say, and then exercise care by not adding or subtracting from its message.
From the outset we know that destruction by hell fire awaits those unrepentant and wicked people who refuse Jesus. This is consistently highlighted throughout many of Jesus’ teachings. God is sovereign over life and death. Jesus explained:
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
To the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who refused and persecuted him all the way to his crucifixion, who misconstrued the scriptures, whose words and actions trod on God’s grace, Jesus said (alluding perhaps to what the serpent in the Garden of Eden represented):
“Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:33)
There is little ambiguity in Jesus’ exclamation. That’s where those professing wise men were ultimately headed! You are either a child of God, or you are not.
And yet contrasting this, to the battle-hardened Roman soldiers mocking, scourging and torturing him as well as casting lots over his clothes, Jesus’ appraisal was quite different.
Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” And they divided His garments and cast lots. (Luke 23:34)
Jesus asked his heavenly Father to forgive those callous but ignorant sinners who were violently contributing to his suffering and death. Jesus’ petition to his Father was one of forgiveness rather than that of condemnation. We cannot dismiss the heart of a loving and merciful God, expressing grace and forgiveness to those who were deceived and who lived and operated in a spiritually darkened world through little original fault of their own. The only light they may have been exposed to up until that point was Jesus’ petition for forgiveness! (Note that Jesus’ prayer and the powerful events surrounding his death resulted, interestingly, in the Roman centurion’s belief and path to conversion).
What Jesus emphasised and taught was quite contrary to the selfish and dismissive tendencies of human nature. He admonished his disciples when he said:
“But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven;…” (Matthew 5:44-45)
This is radical teaching! Elsewhere in scripture, we’re consistently told by Jesus not to judge, not to condemn, for only God is a righteous Judge. Instead, our mandate as his children is to extend grace – unmerited favour – to those who persecute us. We are to love those who hurt us; to do good to them and to pray for them. By so doing we are then truly children of God. In other words, if we are to really be like our heavenly Father, our first and only response must be that of love. Our judgment towards others is rigorously limited to Godly righteousness in the form of grace.
That’s the kind of judgment Jesus passed towards those who did not know any better, and so he wants us to do likewise. Ultimately, judgment is Jesus’ to execute. He is a merciful, righteous Judge who, as the Creator of the world, redeemed it from destruction by his own blood. No one else is worthy of that honour and responsibility.
For those who presume that the second resurrection is a total and automatic wholesale assignment to the fires of hell, think again. The finality of hell is reserved for the wicked, who, although knowing better, by their defiance and wickedness “crucify the Son of God” all over again. This is evident in the following passage:
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
Now we’re narrowing down those whom scripture defines as having gone beyond the grace of repentance and forgiveness, and for whom there no longer remains any hope. They are those who knowingly and stubbornly refuse Jesus. They are those who have experienced God’s grace, who have tasted the goodness of God, who have experienced the Spirit of God, and yet have chosen a darker path. King Saul, the first Israelite king, might be an example. Anointed with the Holy Spirit at his coronation, he soon despised its counsel, and thus lived the rest of his life tormented by demonic influences. In his demise, he desperately consulted the occult before being killed in battle.
In Jesus’ day, there were people who followed a similar path, and sadly there are those who tread that same way of life today. This was illustrated when Jesus’ ministry was consistently refuted and discredited by those he reached out to. He said to those disbelieving religious leaders who opposed him:
“But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11:24)
What did Jesus mean by that? How could it be “more tolerable” for anyone in the day of judgment? Did Jesus’ pronouncement, directed towards his audience, then amount to a judgment of condemnation?
Those who never knew God, never saw the light, never tasted the Holy Spirit, but instead lived their entire lives blinded and deluded in the grip of a Satanic deception, will awaken in the second resurrection when God will judge them.
Today, when we think of Sodom, we think of wickedness and depravity. Sodom is synonymous with heinous acts of treachery, homosexuality, and mob rule. God passed judgment on those wicked people, and they perished in a fiery blaze. But, one day, those same people will rise from their graves to face their ultimate judgment. So why will it be “more tolerable” for the Sodomites than it will be for the peoples of Jesus’ day? The answer lies in Jesus’ words.
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” (John 5:24)
Those in Sodom, going on what Jesus is saying, perhaps had never heard of the true God. We can wonder whether they ever had the opportunity to believe in the One who became Jesus. And, if not, then how can they be accused of refusing the Son of God? But to the Jews of Jesus’ day who opposed him, according to Jesus, it seems they’ll be judged with a less-than-favourable outcome. For them the prospect of annihilation in hell is dauntingly real!
The Sodomites faced their punishment a long time ago. And yet, it would appear from Jesus’ own words, that it will be “more tolerable” for them on the day of judgment. That is, (please excuse the humour) will it be slightly less hot for them in hell than it is for others? Of course not! Does it mean that they may ultimately be given the opportunity for salvation in Jesus Christ? Think about it.
God is a righteous Judge. He is a God of mercy, and according to Jesus’ own brother James:
“Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)
We must exercise care when we examine the scriptures. If we’ve assumed that the second resurrection is an automatic and indiscriminate condemnation to an eternal and fiery obliteration, think again. That’s not what Jesus said.
There are, however, certain characters in the Bible whose lives serve as examples, aiding our understanding of those who remain defiant despite being offered salvation in Jesus. One such man was Judas. He was one of the twelve disciples who, in the end, availed himself as an instrument of Satan. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus seems more of a deliberate and premeditated action than something conceived “on the spur of the moment”. Judas was a thief, helping himself to the disciples’ collective funds. A study of his life reveals a certain ongoing disgruntlement.
Judas lived a double life, right there among the brotherhood of disciples. Jesus knew this, John perhaps had an inkling of it, but to the others he effectively, it seems, travelled undetected. Judas sought and waited for an opportunity to “do his treacherous business”.
At a certain crucial point during Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, we read where “Satan entered Judas”, whereupon he hurriedly left their fellowship to venture out into the night. What did Jesus say of Judas?
“It would have been good for that man if he had never been born.” (Mark 14:21)
Judas was a man who experienced the fullest extent of God’s light and love in the person and ministry of Jesus, and yet he chose a contrary, dark path. Jesus alluded that Judas’ life was worth nothing. For all that Jesus had invested in him, Judas still yielded to the devil to motivate his actions and attitudes. The tragedy of Judas’ life ended in suicide.
The lake of fire exists for those who reject Jesus, the same destiny that awaits the devil and his cohorts.
“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels…’” (Matthew 25:41)
The religious leaders of 2000 years ago also refused Jesus. They saw the miracles, heard the preaching, witnessed changed lives, were confronted by God’s grace, and, in denying the presence of the Holy Spirit, they blasphemed Jesus, who said to them:
“You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)
It seems from scripture that there will be those who, at their resurrection judgment and resulting condemnation, will exhibit a false display of sorriness at their imminent demise. Jesus illustrated this by using the recurring phrase of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. With teaching directed at those pseudo-religious folk of his day who lived a lie, Jesus said:
“But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out.” (Luke 13:27-28)
“Weeping and gnashing of teeth” seems to convey an agonising mental anguish, a too-late-regret tinged with anger, a state of mind perhaps much like the peoples of Noah’s day when they finally saw the rising flood waters. For years they had mocked God’s faithful herald, as they witnessed Noah building a big, wooden ship. They sneered at the idea of a global storm. God was the butt of their jokes and derision. But when the flood came, it was by then too late! The door had closed. The ark was sealed. And those wicked outside perished at God’s visitation. The account of Noah’s experience is almost a metaphor of what is set to occur again.
There is no room in God’s Kingdom for the unrighteous. God’s ultimate judgment is reflected in the closing words of the revelation given to John:
“He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son. But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:7-8)
The finality of hell fire is total and final death, from which there is no longer any hope of redemption. God offers everyone extraordinary hope in the saving work of Jesus Christ. The rich tapestry of salvation history throughout the scriptures, in the lives of those who have lived before us, forms and defines this thread of hope. And while we do not have all the answers, we do have the sure and adequate words of scripture, echoing Jesus’ very own thoughts, for which we would do well to take to heart:
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:2)
The truth is that God is not willing that any should perish, and thus the journey to hell only begins when the Holy Spirit is scorned through the unrepentant sinful things those who hate God intentionally say and do. Jesus reminded his listeners of the ultimate price that awaits those who don’t take him seriously:
“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” (Matthew 5:30)
Of course, as an infant, all this was beyond infant Clara. She sleeps in her innocence, awaiting the voice and justice of Jesus. The tears her parents cried way back in 1911 will be more than recompensed when they see and again embrace their little girl. She will be judged by what she had done in her short and innocent life. God’s goodness will be overwhelmingly evident and convincing!
Those who may have doubted God’s grace in this resurrection to judgment will finally be gladdened to witness the fathomless depth of God’s love and redemptive power.
Today, Clara’s grave site is unmarked and forgotten. But not in God’s mind. Not far from where she lies sleeping in that old Goulburn cemetery is a weather-beaten tombstone from an earlier generation. Dated 1889, it remembers the tragic and untimely death of a fifty year old man named David; for all intents and purposes, however, it equally speaks of Clara’s hope. David was a goodly man, and apparently deeply missed. The final words his friends and family left with him feature on his curious but hope-filled epitaph.
Earth to earth and dust to dust
Calmly now the words we say
Leaving him to sleep in trust
Till the resurrection day
Father in thy gracious keeping
Leave we how thy servant sleeping.
Written by John Klassek, as a new chapter for his book Hope of the Resurrection, the 4th edition currently being edited.