Please take a copy of God’s Word. Turn with me to the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, chapter 14; page 1036 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. Revelation chapter 14; before we read, would you pray with me please!
O God, as we’ve opened Your Word, would You now by the Holy Spirit open our hearts and our understanding. Cause us to see and sense the reality, something of the weight of eternal things pressing in upon us as we hear Your holy Word read and proclaimed. Would You then draw us, all of us, for the first time perhaps, or anew, draw us to Christ, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
A Common Objection
In a moment we’re going to read God’s Word. Before we do that I want to deal briefly with a potential objection, maybe an objection you have heard, it may even be an objection you yourself have used to the Christian doctrine of hell. It’s not a subject that I particularly enjoy speaking about. It’s actually a subject I’ve been dreading expounding this morning all week long. But before we get into the Bible’s teaching on this issue let’s talk about a potential objection. It goes something like this. “If God is love, how can you believe that He would ever send anyone to hell? Doesn’t this monstrous idea that God inflict eternal punishment on people sow the seeds actually of judgmentalism and extremism and violence in the hearts of those who believe in Him? Doesn’t believe in a violent deity who judges eternally produce in His follower’s judgmental, spiteful, violent bigotry?” It’s an important objection. Perhaps you find it persuasive, compelling. I think it is at least on the surface; a closer look, however, I think will demonstrate that it simply does not work.
Let me tell you about a theologian, not a particularly helpful theologian in many ways but insightful on this point, a man called Miroslav Volf. He comes from Yugoslavia, former Yugoslavia, and he wrote a book called Exclusion and Embrace trying to respond to, in the early 90s, respond to the dreadful scenes of ethnic cleansing and unspeakable human brutality that was then wracking his homeland and his own communities. “How do you deal with violence and the monstrosity of human evil without becoming a monster yourself?” That was his question. “How do you avoid answering violence with more violence and then descending in a spiral, ever downward into brute savagery, demanding for every wound inflicted upon us an equal and opposite wound to be inflicted on others?” His answer to those questions is startling. He argued the only way to empower people to respond to terrible evil without becoming the evil they seek to deal with themselves is actually to affirm the Christian doctrine of hell, of eternal punishment, of divine justice.
Let me quote Volf for a moment. He said, “My thesis that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I would suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a warzone,” which is actually where he delivered the paper that became the chapter in the book that I’m now quoting from, “a warzone.” He said, “Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human non-violence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die and along with it many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.” That is a devastating critique. You see what he’s saying. Only liberal, Western elites, living safely in the comfort of their affluence and security find the idea of hell abhorrent. But when you live with the daily monstrosity of human brutality and coercive violence as a great many thousands do right now and every day in our world, the only thing that can prevent us turning into the mirror image of the very monsters at whose hands we suffer is the knowledge that, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay.”
The Only Answer to Evil
The truth is, if it’s forgiving people that you want, tolerant people, people who will answer evil with love and respond to violence with mercy, if that’s what you want, then you cannot have it, not really, unless you believe in cosmic justice; unless you believe in hell. You see, we need a universe where evil doesn’t win, where righteousness triumphs, where we can refuse the impulse to take vengeance because we know that God the Lord is an almighty and just Judge. So let’s not pretend to take moral high ground quite so quickly and dismiss hell at some primitive expression of more violent days. Instead we need to recognize the only doctrine of eternal punishment that really answers the unrelenting capacity of the human heart for evil, and perversity, and brutality in the way that we all really need it to, is the doctrine of eternal judgment.
But of course all of that immediately raises a question, doesn’t it? If hell, the reality of hell, answers the present reality of evil that we all encounter and must reckon with, just what is it that we are talking about when we talk about the reality of hell? What is hell? To find that answer we need to turn to the Scriptures. So let’s look together at God’s Word, Revelation chapter 14. We’re going to read from the sixth verse. In verses 1 through 5 John has a vision of the saints rejoicing in glory around the throne of the Lamb; it’s a vision of heaven. But as we’ll see, particularly in verses 9 through 11, John hears a prophetic warning about the realities of hell. Revelation 14 at verse 6. This is the Word of Almighty God:
Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’
Another angel, a second, followed, saying, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.’
And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, ‘If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.’
Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’”
Amen! And we thank God for His holy and inerrant Word.
This morning we’ve come to the weighty subject of the Bible’s teaching about hell, and we come to it with a sense of solemnity and gravity and absolutely no enthusiasm at all. I take no pleasure in addressing this subject. Rather our stance is the stance of a friend; it’s the stance of love, who says to neighbors, “Fire! Fire!” and out of love seeks to alarm them that they may flee and find escape from the flames. And so it’s uncomfortable but it’s necessary; it’s important. So we turn our attention to God’s Word and as we do I want you to consider what we learn in the passage we’ve read under three images, three cups. The cup of sin, the cup of wrath, and the cup of mercy! The first two are right there in the text. We’ll come back to the third at the end. The cup of sin, the cup of wrath, and the cup of mercy!
I.The Cup of Sin
You can see the cup of sin in verse 8. “Another angel, a second, followed, saying, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.’” There’s a cup, the wine of Babylon’s pollution given to the nations. Babylon in the book of Revelation is simply a symbol for human society living in rebellion against the rule of God, that’s what it means. And Babylon has this cup of potent wine that makes the nations drunk with the passions of sexual sin. John’s painting a picture, really, of our society, isn’t he, where vice is now called a virtue, where wickedness is legislated for. You turn on the television screen – Babylon. You listen to the radio – Babylon. You go online and with one click, there’s Babylon, pouring out the cup of her passions and sins and immoralities. This is our society, our world. Notice the potency of the cup, the wine that Babylon offers – wine that makes passionate those who drink. Here’s the intoxicating power of sin. Notice also the universality of it! Who drinks? She makes all nations to drink. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There is no one righteous, not even one.” Not you; not me!
The Fall of Babylon
And then thirdly, notice Babylon is a defeated power. The angel declares his message not just for ages and ages to come but for the church in his own day and for the church in ours. And he says Babylon is fallen. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great.” A real power! The wine of sin is intoxicating and it is universal, but it is not absolute in its potency and power. Babylon is a fallen power. Her final fall is yet to come, of course. Babylon is alive and active all around us. One day Babylon will be dealt with and removed forever, yet Babylon’s power, the power of sin is not absolute. That is to say, there is still the possibility of deliverance from its potency, pollution, and power. Well you draw breath while it is still called today. Do not harden your hearts. Hear rather the invitation of Jesus Christ who alone can break the chains of sin and set you free. The sin of Babylon is potent, it is pervasive, almost universal, and any society that is built upon it, founded upon it, John is telling us will certainly fall.
II. The Cup of Wrath
But there’s also another cup, a second cup that answers to the cup of Babylon’s pollutions. The cup of sin! Now there’s the cup of wrath! The cup of judgment! The cup of divine anger! That’s what John begins to speak about in verses 9 through 11. It’s a picture of hell. Sobering! Horrifying even! Would you look at it with me? What is there in the cup of wrath that is poured out in hell? First of all, there is punishment. We’ve already seen, haven’t we, that the cup of wine that Babylon gives to the nations corresponds directly to the cup of wrath. The cup of wrath answers Babylon’s cup. For every drop we drink from Babylon’s cup we will drink just punishment from the cup of God’s anger. Sin will be punished with exacting correspondence and accuracy. That’s the message. Also notice in verse 9 and then in verse 11 the population of hell is described. It brackets the section. Verse 9 and again in verse 11 – who are in hell? Those who worship the beast and its image; they are made to drink the cup of wrath. Those who reject Jesus and opt instead for false worship, and empty religion, they drink the hell of divine wrath. They are those, John says, who have the mark of the beast on their forehead and on their hands, their heads and hands. Their thoughts and deeds, their intellect and their actions and activity governed by a principle and an impulse that rejects the Lordship of Christ and so they are made to suffer the wrath of the Lamb.
The Punishment of the Cup of Wrath
The point John is making is that hell is a place of precise judgment, corresponding with perfect pinpoint accuracy to the sin we have committed. The cup of wrath echoes and answers the cup of sin. The cup of wrath is for those who turn from Christ to all the empty counterfeits the world peddles instead. If God sends you to hell it will be not arbitrary. You won’t say, as you’re dispatched into the outer darkness of the eternal curse, “That’s not fair!” There will be a precise matching of divine judgment to your sin. We’ve had, I’m told the statistics are now, thirty-seven funerals in this past year at First Church, children and young adults, and the elderly. Some, you know, die after long years of hearing the Gospel, with abundant opportunity to come and trust in Christ. And I’ve buried young people, in the prime of their lives, thinking they had room enough to delay a decision to follow Jesus. “There’s time yet.” Hell is populated by people who said in life, “There’s time yet.” Hell is full of people who said in life, “Not yet,” until it was too late. Don’t think, children, because you are young, sin is indifferent to God. You do not know the day when you will stand before the judgment seat of Christ! You need Jesus to be your Savior today! Nor should you think, those of you who are aged and nearing the end of your race, that because no one in your life has ever marked it, that your secret sin has gone unnoticed before Almighty God. All sin will be punished and every last offense against God’s perfect rule will be paid in full. The cup of wrath contains punishment and outside of Christ there is no escaping such a judgment. Hell’s a place of punishment.
The Potency of the Cup of Wrath
Secondly, there is potency in the cup of wrath. We said Babylon’s cup, the cup of sin, was potent, intoxicating, overwhelming. Sin can be like that, but not as potent, not nearly so potent, as the wrath of God in hell. Look at verse 10. “He will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger.” The word, “full strength,” there is literally, “unmixed.” Here is the wrath of God undiluted, undiluted, unmixed, unrestrained, unmitigated fury, blazing in white-hot holy judgment against every sin. Certainly Babylon’s cup is potent; sin is powerful, intoxicating, and yet while we live there remains the possibility of escape. There’s time for you to turn to Jesus today. Babylon’s cup is potent but it’s not absolutely potent but there is no escape; there is no escape from the wrath of God whose power is absolute. The cup of wrath contains punishment and potency!
The Pain of the Cup of Wrath
Thirdly, the cup of wrath contains pain. Verse 10 – this is hard to face. Look at verse 10. “He will be tormented with fire and sulfur.” And verse 11; “The smoke of their torment.” The Bible teaches us that hell is a place of pain, a place of unbroken torment. Have you ever endured – it’s almost the worst pain imaginable – a burn from a naked flame. Hell, John says, is a place of fire; a place of fire. “Oh, but that’s just a metaphor, right? Fire and sulfur – those are mere images. There are no literal flames in hell, are there?” Well if they are images and metaphors, the reality to which they point transcends and exceeds them in a way for which we do not have the vocabulary. If the best we can do to describe the pain of hell is to talk about fire, what must the reality be? What a horror hell will be! But look at verse 11 again. There’s another kind of pain and suffering there. To be sure it’s physical, but it’s more, isn’t it? Emotional, psychological, spiritual! You see that little phrase; you have “no rest, day or night.” There’s no peace in hell! There’s no respite! There’s no hiatus, no relenting in the wrath of God!
You know when we endure bodily pain of any kind here, psychological trauma, emotional anguish, and then you can’t sleep, everything is so much worse, every pain amplified, every trial doubled. The slightest failure seems like a catastrophe; the brightest day looks dull when you can’t rest. You’ve experienced that, right? You just can’t sleep! Everything is so much worse! You see, what John is telling us about hell, if you do not know Jesus Christ what exhaustion! What fatigue! will plague your body and your soul and your mind. You will toss and turn and writhe in unrelenting restlessness, day and night!
The Presence of the Cup of Wrath
The cup of wrath contains punishment and potency and pain and fourthly the cup of wrath contains presence, presence. What is it that will make hell’s torments so terribly acute? What is the real spiritual reality behind all the images and metaphors? It is this! If you are not a Christian when you are cast at last into hell, it won’t be like extended time alone – alone with your thoughts hidden in the warm darkness. No, verse 10, “He will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” You will see the Lamb of God! You will see Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified to save sinners! You’ll see His hands and His feet and the emblems of His self-giving love for sinners. You refused Him, and you will see Him now, and never ever be able to reach Him! He will be present to you not in mercy but only in the white-hot purity of divine holiness. You’ll see Him there surrounded, we’re told here, by the heavenly court. The holy angels, presumably also the whole company of the redeemed, at last dwelling in light and rest and joy in the presence of their Savior. Perhaps your wife will be there, your child will be there, your husband, your neighbor, your dearest friend, that one that has sat with you in the pew day after day, Sabbath after Sabbath, year after year – they’re there in the presence of their Redeemer, but not you. You preferred to drink from Babylon’s cup in life. You would not come to Christ though He pled with you in the Gospel to receive freely offered mercy. You said, “Not yet. Not now.” And all that remains for you is the cup of wrath in the presence of the Lamb. And as the gates of hell have closed over your head the most searing regret, the most profound anguish that will torment your soul will be the utter antithesis now made permanent and irrevocable, fixed between you and Christ. He will be everything you are not, everything that wounds and is agonizing to sin. There will be the searing brilliance of holiness and it will be painful to behold having chosen only rebellion in life and now plunged into darkness and death.
You know the feeling of having been in a darkened room in complete darkness and then suddenly someone turns the lights on or shines a flashlight in your eyes – it hurts! Now imagine, if you can, dwelling in the utter darkness of hell, in the utter darkness of hell but always seeing the light of Christ but never being engulfed by its warmth but only ever sensing its wounding, blazing, painful purity, dazzling and searing. Sometimes we say that hell is separation from God; in a sense that’s quite right, of course. But John is saying hell is seeing glory but never reaching it. Hell is seeing grace poured out upon the people of God in great celebration and never yourself receiving it. Hell is knowing there’s light outside your darkness, and never being able to step into it.
The Permanence of the Cup of Wrath
The cup of wrath contains punishment and potency and pain and presence and then finally the cup of wrath contains permanence; verse 11, “The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.” Hell does not end. It does not end. God’s righteousness, you know, is infinite. His holiness has no boundaries, and so sin meets an eternal curse. And a finite creature like me, like you, can never hope to pay such a debt. Maybe you think sin is an inconsequential thing. Sleeping with your boyfriend, your girlfriend; everybody does it. Lying to your boss; what’s the big deal. Your pride, your arrogance; “I’m just looking out for number one.” The doctrine of hell reminds us, doesn’t it, that God is infinitely holy, infinitely holy, and every sin incurs an infinite debt. Sin is not a toy; it will damn you forever in the end. You can’t play with it. You cannot play with it! And so John says, unending pain, that’s hell; unending restlessness, that’s hell. The days and the weeks shall pass into months and years. The years will become decades, and the decades centuries, and millennia and eons will pass and you have not yet begun to endure the horror of hell. “The smoke of their torment,” John says, “goes up forever and ever.” There’s punishment and potency and pain and presence and permanence in the cup of wrath, a cup of wrath that will be poured out on all who choose to drink in life from the cup of Babylon’s sin.
III. The Cup of Mercy
But there is a third cup. There’s a cup of mercy. We get a hint of it in verse 6, don’t we? “Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’” There is good news! An eternal Gospel! The angel doesn’t tell us its content; he merely presses its implications – Fear God. Worship Him. Turn to Him. What is the eternal Gospel that must go to every nation? We get a hint of it in Matthew chapter 26 at verse 39 on the eve of Jesus’ arrest and betrayal. He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. There He spoke about another cup, didn’t He? “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, yet not my will but Yours be done.” He’s talking about the cup of wrath, unmixed, the cup of judgment that He would shortly be made to drink at Calvary. Should we be given that cup to drink we will never drink it to the bottom, and so we will be there suffering in the horrors of hell forever. But Jesus Christ, the man who is God, He can drink our cup as our substitute. He is man and He can drink it to the dregs. He can exhaust it, an infinite debt, infinite guilt, because He is infinite God. So there, nailed to the cross, the horror of hell etched itself into our Savior’s soul and there He quenched the flames for all who trust Him. There He drank the cup of wrath without mercy that all who trust Him might drink the cup of mercy without wrath. There is an eternal Gospel.
John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan, Professor of Hebrew at New College, the Free Church of Scotland in the 19th century once said, “You have no right to go to hell. God has every right to your worship. Jesus has every right to your faith. You have no right to go to hell. There is a sufficient Savior for you in Jesus Christ, able to save you! Hell need not be your place if you would but trust in Christ.” You know, today we have an example, don’t we, right now, an example of God’s forbearance and patience and love, not willing that any should perish. You’ve heard the Gospel one more time; you’ve been warned about the wrath to come one more time. Who knows what that it will be your last! Eternity hangs in the balance, pivots on your answer to this question: What will you do with Jesus Christ? A perfect Savior who endured horrors, hell’s torment, at the cross, that you may enjoy heaven’s bliss forever. What will you do with Jesus Christ? Will you bend your knee to Him and find in Him a perfect Redeemer, or will you continue to drink of Babylon’s bitter cup and say to Him, “Not yet”? Be warned and flee the wrath to come!
Let’s pray together.
Our Father, our prayer now is for those in this room who do not know Jesus. Help them to see the brink of the precipice upon which they stand. Show them their danger, but also show them the love of God in Jesus Christ to deliver them and more to embrace them and make them Your child. Would You please now, by Your mercy and grace, grant saving faith to covenant children, to visitors who don’t know Christ, to anyone here who has said, “Not yet” to the Gospel offer. Let today be the day when they bend the knee and bow before the Lordship of Christ. For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.