Yet, many choose not. A particular church body teaches that hell does not exist. Those who reject Jesus will merely cease to be. (https://www.adventist.org/fileadmin/adventist.org/files/articles/official-statements/28Beliefs-Web.pdf). The president of the largest Lutheran church body in America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] (a liberal branch of Lutherans) went on record to say: If hell exists, I think it’s empty. (https://chicago.suntimes.com/chicago-politics/elizabeth-eaton-presiding-bishop-evangelical-lutheran-church-in-america-chicago-if-hell-exists-i-think-its-empty-face-to-faith-podcast/) Even the pope questioned the existence of hell! (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/03/29/did-pope-francis-say-there-no-hell-not-quite-vatican-insists/470442002/)
What is it that leads people (including churches!) to deny what Jesus so clearly says? Why do many stay out of church, content to be in the fishing boats and campers, to be in home or out with friends? Why may we(!) grow cold about the full implication of what Jesus says?
The reality of life apart from God in hell weaves throughout all of Scripture. You find in Hebrews (a New Testament book written about 30-years after Jesus entered heaven) whisking you into the Old Testament and dropping you at Mount Sinai. This is not some setting among the pines and crystal-clear waters of a Rocky Mountain getaway. No. Gray, overcast skies blot out sunlight. Billowing smoke pours from heaven, engulfing the mountain. A dreadful, moaning trumpet blares its eerie wail across the desert floor. Audible tones, as if God’s thunderous voice thumps: ‘More.’ ‘Better.’ ‘Try harder.’ Animals snort and tug on ropes. Children shriek. You carry this haunting feeling that whatever is about to happen is serious. The Israelites begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
Even though trembling, God commands Moses to hike up Sinai. There, etched into two stony tablets, are God’s expectations. You shall have no other gods… You shall not misuse God’s name… You shall make time for me… You shall… You shall… You shall… (Exodus 20:1-21) Understand, what makes this scene terrifying is not the fact that God appears. What makes this sight blood-draining horrifying is that a holy God comes to people who are not holy— and God knows that and they know that. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere run.
Who can stand? God demands: “Be holy, just as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) and then threatens: “The soul who sins is the soul who will die” (Ezekiel 18:4). Do you grasp just how serious God is? Still, there may be a little part inside us that considers this nothing more than a bluff. Fake. Not real. After all, you have not seen hell; it’s not on map or YouTube videos. It also just sounds so harsh. I mean, Sinai feels like God is like an angry parent venting, but will eventually simmer down.
Maybe you have not actually said those words, you may not have thought them, but what does your behavior say? Do you stuff God’s mouth with your words? “God, I’m skipping worship today. That’s acceptable because I said so.” “God, I can break my marriage vows because it feels right… God, I can live committed without marriage because nothing bad happens…” “God, I deliberately disobeyed my teacher… my police officer… my township supervisor because I do not like what they say.” How often we take God’s commands and apply them only when we determine it convenient! Or, what does your behavior say about care for the souls of others? Perhaps your daughter promised to God before the congregation on her Confirmation Day: “I will be faithful in the use of Word and sacrament as long as I live”— but she is not here. In fact, she never worships, but still calls herself a Christian. Does that spiritual laziness alarm you? You worship every Sunday; your neighbor has no church. He watches you pull out of the driveway and you wave back. Have you ever offered him to join you? Or, do your actions somehow suggest that only you need to be connected to Christ— that this is only important for you personally, but is not necessary for everyone? Maybe it’s your friend who is battling cancer. She says, “I have faith”— but faith in what? Faith that the chemo will work? Faith that even if she dies the family will be fine? Or, the faith that Jesus Christ wiped clean her spiritual illness? Do you ask in what that faith is placed?
On Mount Sinai God booms: “Be holy, just as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). That applies not just to you (and me), but also to the other 7-billion people on earth! Do you (and I) treat this threatening expectation something less than God makes it? I wonder if sometimes we try to soften God’s commands because no one measures up. So, we create reasons for God to love us, and think by painting this scene as different, it becomes different in reality.
Yet, right now, you can wish to be in perfect health— pain-free, ache-free, cancer-free—but that does not actually cure ailments. Thinking differently of Sinai does not change God’s expectations. It just makes you the fool for believing something not true.
If Sinai makes your heart tremble, then look down and see where you stand. Only One Mountain Brings Life. Do not stand on Sinai because no one can ever measure up. Instead, Keep standing on Zion.
Mount Zion rests [in the city of] Jerusalem. God’s temple stood there. People could bring offerings and praise to God; God came to his people with his Old Testament words, with the forgiveness spoken through the priest, and with messages sent through his prophets. Yet, when God says: [Y]ou have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God… he does not suggest hiking up this mountain. No. God calls heaven ‘Mount Zion,’ the place where God is with believers. Notice how verse 22 begins: [Y]ou have come to Mount Zion; you already stand in God’s presence. That did not happen because you changed God’s expectations; it happened because Jesus removed the terror of Sinai.
Jesus is born to walk up Mount Sinai— to receive those same Ten Commandments God has set on us (Galatians 4:4-5). Throughout his entire life he locks his sight on the one thing God demands: Love for God (Matthew 22:37-39). That means, Jesus never lowers God’s standards. He keeps them. He worships every single week— not as a rule, but because he wants to. He preaches to the masses, not suggesting that a Christian God is one of many different ways to the same place, but clearly teaching eternal life comes only through God’s forgiveness (Acts 4:12). He even deals with those crushed by regret and shame— and does not tell them to fix their wrong, but rather says: “Trust that my life will make God happy with you” (John 14:6). Yes, Jesus not only obeys God’s commandments for himself, but also obeys in our place.
He walks down Mount Sinai without fear, without trembling because he is guiltless— and he walks up another mount, Mount Calvary. That Good Friday scene echoes an awful sound: ‘Death for sin.’ God’s wrath consumes his only Son. It swarms him. It engulfs him— and Jesus absorbs it all. Three days later, Jesus steps foot onto Easter morning’s peaceful dew. He freely walks out of his grave— alive and without fear. He immediately finds his disciples, the women, and says, “Peace to you!” (John 20:19).
Peace to you! Jesus has taken his innocence and set it next to your name. When you were baptized, the Holy Spirit took you by the hand and brought you to God, saying, “Here’s another one! Take this one too!” And God the Father says, “Yes. I have written down your name.” You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect… You stand before God, the Judge of the universe, not to hear condemnation, but rather a favorable judgment: ‘You are righteous. Jesus made you perfect, completely forgave you.’
Dear friends, you stand now on Zion— at peace with God. [You have come] to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and [are] sprinkled [with the] blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. You are walking through that narrow door into heaven because Jesus is mediator. You get “in” because Jesus covered your with his perfection and that perfection is far better than anything you, like Abel, could offer.
You know that and so we live that. [Grand]Parents, God has handed you the responsibility of raising your child to know Jesus. To see Jesus in the Bible stories at Sunday School. To learn God’s complete love in catechism class and in Bible class. To gather in worship, admit wickedness, and bask in God’s forgiveness. Maybe you watch over children now; maybe your children no longer live under your watch. Whatever the case might be, still live concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of your child. Your child will not enter heaven because his name is in a church book. Your child will not enter heaven because she got ‘checkmarks’ beside her name: (1) Baptized? Check. (2) Confirmed? Check. God wants the heart. Specifically, what is their view towards Jesus? Your neighbor may stand on Sinai— completely unsure of what God wants. Point him to Jesus. Invite her to worship. Share what you know about the Bible. Faith needs an object. The only faith that saves is a ‘trust in Jesus as Savior.’ We who stand on Zion stand in a position to care. We stand in a position to lead others to the Only Mountain that Brings Life.
You do not need to fear what Jesus so clearly says in our gospel lesson: Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to (Luke 13:24). You do not need to somehow remove the teaching of hell in order to avoid it. You do not need to change God’s expectations in order to soften it. You need do nothing— because Jesus removes all fear of death forever.
Do not stand on Sinai. Do not try to carry the crushing burden of guilt alone. Instead, Keep standing on Zion. Keep clinging to Jesus, the One who removes the weight of death and puts you on that narrow path! Keep pointing others to this splendid mountain! Only One Mountain Brings Life. Do not stand on Sinai. Keep standing on Zion.