Why People Go to Hell: Eternal Judgment and Grace Doctrinally Considered

Theology is a “house of cards”. When one considers a certain doctrinal concept or perspective, he finds that his conclusions are important, not only because of the doctrine in question, but also because of how the doctrine in question touches many other doctrines. For example, if a man believes in original sin, that belief fundamentally influences how he understands human nature; it also fundamentally influences how he views redemption. Likewise, if a man believes in the immanent return of Jesus Christ, that belief fundamentally impacts how he understands the rapture of the church and the tribulation period. To this end, if a “higher”, more foundational truth is compromised by a “lower”, less important truth, people either recognize the inconsistency and so “tune out”, or the “house of cards” of their theological consistency comes crashing down and they must rebuild it from the ground up to conform to these lesser truths. This is how error is propagated, and even often how cults are formed. Theology is not just defined, it is built. It begins with the most basic, most foundational truths and then builds out from those definitions.

It is often preached that people “go to hell because they are sinners” and also that they “burn in hell for their sins”. Indeed, when we preach we emphasize the reality of sinfulness as the essential problem with humanity, so that Romans 3:23 tells us for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. Men are sinners, and because we are sinners we have fallen short of God’s holiness and found ourselves in the path of God’s wrath. Thus Romans 6:23 tells us, for the wages of sin is death…; because mankind is sinful, man experiences “death”, defined as separation from God.

The place of separation is called “Hell” in the Bible, an abode of torment which is eventually cast into the Lake of Fire, called by many names, including everlasting fire. The Lake of Fire was not originally created for mankind, but rather, Matthew 25:41 tells us that everlasting fire was prepared for the devil and his angels. The Bible is very clear, however, that this place of eternal torment is the end destination of all who sin. Revelation 21:8 says, But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. Sinners burn in the Lake of Fire, everlasting fire, a condition also called the second death. The “first death” being when we “die” properly and our immaterial separates from the material vessel we call our body. The second death being when the eternal spirit of a man who has sinned is finally and irrevocably separated from the presence of God forever. Everlasting fire.

This essential doctrine becomes the foundation for the message of redemption. For the wages of sin is death, we read in Romans 6:23, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. The essence of the gospel is summarized in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures. Notice why it is that Christ died: Christ died for our sins. It is because we are sinners that Jesus had to die. It is because the wages of sin is death, and without some reconciliation of this point mankind would be inevitably destined to eternal separation from God, the second death. Paul would therefore declare to Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:15, This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. If “why did Christ die” is the question, one could answer no better than to echo the words of Paul, to save sinners.

If sin separates us from God (the wages of sin is death), and Jesus died for sinners (Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners), then it would seem to naturally follow that all who burn in eternal fire one day do so because they are sinners, and so they are “burning for their sins”; as a just payment for their sinful deeds. This would be a natural assumption if the gospel were tied, in any way, to man’s merit or works; but the gospel is not tied, in any way, to man’s merit or works. While it is true that all men are sinners. While it is true that our sin has separated us from a holy God. While it is true that this separation is the state in which, if a man remains, he will end up in eternal fire. It is not true that the sins men commit are the deciding factor for whether he goes to the Lake of Fire, nor can it rightly be said that men burn in eternal fire for the sins they commit. How is this possible? This is possible because of the nature of the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. When once a person fully understands the nature of the atonement, he then can understand the nature of eternal punishment properly. In other words, we must lay the foundation for our theological “house of cards”, and then build carefully upon it Biblical truths.

The foundation of these doctrines demands a grace-oriented understanding of the gospel. What is grace? It is unmerited favor: being given something which I do not, and indeed cannot, deserve. It is favor that is entirely free from guilt, obligation, or merit. If at any time any of these three qualities enter the picture, grace is no longer grace. And understanding of grace is essential, because it is the foundation of the gospel itself. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. Once founded upon grace, the gospel can be clearly understood. Once the gospel is clearly understood, then the basis of Divine condemnation becomes merely an extension of these doctrines: a theologically consistent “house of cards”.

Back to a grace-oriented gospel. Grace is unmerited favor. What is the gospel? 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 has been quoted already, but bears quotation again: For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures. Paul taught in Romans 1:16 that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. He would teach in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that the gospel is Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. The gospel is man’s source of salvation.

How does one receive the gospel? The answer is essential to this study, for if one believes that the gospel can be received or retained by any form of human merit, be it effort, holiness, making God the “Lord of your life”, or “repenting of your sins”, then a consistent “house of cards” of redemption by grace comes crashing down. Adding to Ephesians 2:8-9 quoted above, Romans 4:4-5 says, Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Paul would write again in Romans 11:6, And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work. If one assumes that God intended His Word to be read as plain language, and understood in clarity and simplicity, then it must be admitted that the only “common denominator” that links every passage in the Bible where the gospel is taught is the “common denominator” of belief, and belief alone.

The true gospel, a gospel of grace alone, becomes the foundation to the theological “house of cards” upon which the rest of this doctrine is built. If one believes a human merit-based gospel, including any mentioned in the previous paragraph, then the subsequent arguments concerning the nature of eternal judgment in the Lake of Fire will not be acceptable, because it is built upon a different theological “house of cards”.

What happened when Jesus died on the cross? The Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. On the cross God the Father made His son to be sin for mankind. He poured out His wrath for the sin of the world upon the innocent Lamb of God, of whom John the Baptist would declare that he taketh away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Jesus paid for the sin of mankind. Paul states in Romans 4:25 that Jesus was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification. Paul quoted Psalm 69:9 when he sought to exhort the strong in faith to bear the infirmities of the weak, reminding God people of the example of our Savior, that the reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me. Both of these concepts are well summarized by Peter in 1 Peter 2:22-24, Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. This is the message of the great prophet Isaiah in his Messianic discourse of Isaiah 53, declaring in verses 4-6, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.  And again, in verse 12, Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. Perhaps all of these verses are best summed up by the Word of Jesus Himself upon the cross, And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46). Jesus was forsaken of His Father, for God cannot, in any time, be in fellowship with that which is sinful.

Once it is established that Jesus came to save sinners, and that Jesus paid for sin on the cross, the next consideration is the nature of the atonement itself. For whose sins did Jesus atone? Whose sins were paid for on the cross? Indeed, in Isaiah 53:6 we read the words, the iniquity of us all, and John’s declaration was that this Lamb of God taketh away the sin of the world. The most poignant verse in relation to this concept is given in 1 John 2:2, And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. This verse tells us that Jesus satisfied the wrath of God for mankind, making specific note of the reality that this atonement does not simply extend to those who are in Christ, but to the whole world. If this is indeed the case, then the gospel is unnecessary, is it not? If the sins of all men were paid for on the cross of Calvary, then would we not expect that the world has been wholly reconciled unto God, that sin is no longer an issue, and that the world can breathe easy? This is, of course, not the case, and it is at this point that the clarity of the gospel itself becomes essential to our understanding.

Just because Christ’s atoning work paid for the sin of all mankind, it does not follow that all mankind will receive the benefits that this payment purchased. Though atonement was made for all men through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross, not all will be saved. John would write in John 1:11-12, He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name. Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:16, For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Most clearly, perhaps, we read the words of Paul in Galatians 3:22, But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. It is true that all men are sinners. It is true that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. It is true that on the cross Jesus was the propitiation of the sins of the whole world. It is just as true that only those who believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved. Those who are given everlasting life are those who, in the words of Hebrews 6:1, experience repentance from dead works, and…faith toward God. Indeed repentance from dead works is not repentance from sin. Repentance from sin being a work of merit which has no place in the message of grace. Rather, repentance from dead works describes those who acknowledge their sinful state, their need of salvation, their incapacity to save themselves, and the solution to be found in Christ. Outside of this, they rest in unbelief, and remain bound in their sin.

This is how the Bible describes those who are unbelieving. Paul would write in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. Paul characterizes the unbeliever by the sins he commits. He makes clear the character of those who shall not enter the kingdom of God. He states that believers were previously of this same character, but were washed…sanctified…justified. At the moment of belief a supernatural work is accomplished in the heart of a man, so that his character is changed from being defined by sin to being defined by Christ. This does not mean he will stop sinning, but rather that he is no longer “a sinner”. Paul describes it thus in Ephesians 2:1, And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins. We were dead in our sins, but have been made alive. At that moment, (called variously “the new birth”, “salvation”, “being born-again”, among others) Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that old things are passed away, behold, all things are become new.

These facts lead us to a question, and a major point of contention among many orthodox systems of Bible interpretation: when Jesus died on the cross, did He actually pay for the sins of all mankind, only some of mankind, or just offer “potential” for the sins of mankind to be paid? Several theories exist, drawn by the major theological division among denominations and theological systems.

Reformed believers assert that the blood of Jesus Christ was only shed for those who would be saved, those they define as the elect. This doctrine flows naturally out of their erroneous belief that God has predestinated men and women to heaven or hell. If this is the case that all men, from eternity past, are indeed chosen for eternal life or eternal fire, then it would be ridiculous to assume that Jesus’ death was for the whole world. Jesus would not need to die for those who had no chance of redemption, and to do so would be to waste His precious sacrifice by default. Thus, they believe that Jesus atoned only for the sins of the elect. This is not what the Bible says, for as we have stated already in 1 John 2:2, And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. Jesus is either the propitiation for the whole world, or He isn’t…and He is. It is acknowledged that this is a simplistic argument, and one which many a reformed theologian has tackled with gymnastic aplomb. Yet it is that, in the beautiful simplicity of the Word of God we find this humble truth, that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, not only for the elect.

In other circles, the nature of Jesus’ redemptive work is broader. They acknowledge that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, but would characterize it (though they may not admit this) as a provisional atonement. In other words, that Jesus made provision for all sin to be atoned, but that this provision is only applied to the hearts of those who accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. To this end, the wrath of God for one’s sinful deeds still rests upon the unbeliever. They are positioned for Hell because they are sinners, and they still bear their sin, and if they die in their sin then they will have to bear the punishment of the manifold sins they have committed for eternity. Such ideas are a natural outworking of those who believe that a person must “repent of their sins” in order to be saved. For indeed, if a man must repent of his sins to be saved, then it is at this moment of merit-based sorrow, a concept foreign to salvation in the Bible, that God chooses to apply Jesus’ work to their sins. This concept is, at its root, an offence to salvation by grace, and finds no consistent basis in the Scriptures. If one were to take every instance where some standard other than belief alone is included in the gospel message, one would be forced to acknowledge not only repentance of sin as a basis for salvation (Mark 1:15), but also baptism (Luke 3:3), confessing with your mouth (Romans 10:9), and any number of the various contextual presentations regarding the nature of belief as it related to various people groups at various times and places. Salvation thus becomes hard, inaccessible, and distant; and grace becomes a little less amazing, and significantly more like work. Yet if every presentation of the gospel is simplified down to its “common denominator”, belief alone in the gospel stands as the supreme standard by which a sinner saved. As Jesus said in John 5:24, Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.

Some of the reasoning for a position that would believe men to spend eternity burning in punishment for their sins has been considered already. Paul calls the unbelievers dead in trespasses and sins in Ephesians 2:1. He states in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God, then proceeds to a list of various sins which characterize these unrighteous. Paul says a similar thing in Galatians 5:19-21, Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. In each of these cases we find definitive statements about the character of those who will not enter the kingdom of God: that men whose character is defined by sin and wickedness shall not inherit the kingdom. To this end, these circles believe that Jesus’ death was sufficient to make provision for all men to be saved, and made provision for the wrath of God to pass over men and women who believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved; but that those who reject this salvation will go to eternal fire as a payment for their sinful deeds. Consequently, among these groups there is cause for disagreement as to how long that payment will last. Indeed, if men burn in the Lake of Fire to pay for their sins, then there is cause to admit the possibility that those who “sin less” may burn for less time than those who “sin more”.

In Romans 5 Paul teaches a very important truth. As Paul compared the first Adam to Jesus, He drew a distinct parallel between Adam’s sin, which plunged the entirely of the human race into sin, and Jesus’ obedience, which judicially atoned for the sin of mankind, thus undoing Adam’s rebellion. Paul writes in Romans 5:12-14, Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come. The whole of humanity died in Adam so that death passed upon all men. This is the very foundation of the gospel. So Paul would continue in verses 15-21, But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.) Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord. By one man sinned passed upon the whole human race, and by one man sin is atoned for the whole human race. The problem with humanity, then, is not whether or not their sin has been paid for, but rather whether or not they are willing to accept the payment by accepting the identity of the One who paid. This is the condition for heaven, and this is the condition for hell. To this end Paul would say in Romans 11:32, For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.

To follow a line of reasoning that would admit people burn in hell for their sinful deeds, then, is to admit that Jesus’ death did not actually atone for the sin of all mankind, because if a man does not accept the gift of eternal life by belief in the gospel, then he spends the rest of his eternity paying for those very sins. The line of thinking simply cannot be entertained that men will burn in the Lake of Fire for sins already atoned for by Jesus Christ, so then Jesus must not have atoned for them. Once again, however, this line of reasoning conflicts with the simple foundational truth of 1 John 2:2, And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. If Jesus had just made provision for the sin of mankind to be atoned, and if each unbeliever bears the weight of his own sin into eternity, can Jesus truly be called the Last Adam? Did Jesus really undo everything that was lost in Adam if all sin was not actually accounted for on the cross? Does this line of thinking properly account for the teaching of Paul in Romans 5:19, For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous? Does this rationale really fulfill the prophet words of Isaiah 53:6, …and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all?

Must it naturally follow that the reason why sinners do not enter the kingdom is because they do sinful things? Must it naturally follow that the reason why they experience eternal fire is because of their sin? Or does the Bible explain things differently? Can it be that Jesus did in fact atone for the sin of the whole world, but that people will still burn in the Lake of Fire for eternity? This is, in fact, what the Bible teaches.

It has been established already that the Bible teaches the condition upon which men are saved, and so the condition upon which they enter the kingdom of God, is salvation by grace, through faith, in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. What we furthermore find, however, is that the condition upon which people do not enter the kingdom of God, as presented in the Bible, is not their sinful deeds, but rather only one singular sinful deed: unbelief. John 3:16-18 says For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.  We then read in John 3:35-36, The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand. He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him. These verses state very plainly that the condition of condemnation is not a man’s sinful deeds, but rather because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. It then states that the wrath of God abides upon men, not because they are doing said sinful deeds, but because he believeth not the Son. If these verses are to be believed, not only is the exclusive condition for heaven “belief alone in the gospel of Jesus Christ”, but the opposite is also true: that the exclusive condition for the Lake of Fire is he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

In John 16 Jesus promises to His disciples that, when He goes away, He would send to them His Holy Spirit, called the Comforter. Jesus promised that this Comforter would have a role in convincing the world of the truth of the gospel. Notice how Jesus describes this convicting work of the Holy Spirit in John 16:8-11: And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: Of sin, because they believe not on me; Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged. Jesus gives three points of doctrine of which the Holy Spirit would convict the world: of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment. Jesus then defines what He means by each of these points of doctrine. Of sin, Jesus says, because they believe not on me. Jesus says that the sin of which the Holy Spirit would convict men is not their multitude of sins, but only one sin: the sin of unbelief.

Within this line of interpretation great clarity is given to Jesus’ words in Mark 3:28-29 as well. Jesus says, Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation. Jesus states here that there is an unforgiveable sin, which He says is for one to blaspheme against the Holy Ghost. Jesus states that all sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men save this one. If the 1 John 2:2 is correct, then on the cross all sins were forgiven unto the sons of men; Jesus was the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. Then, Jesus would say, there is only one unforgiven sin: one sin for which the atoning work of Jesus Christ cannot pay: namely, not believing in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. There is only one sin that stands between mankind and God: blaspheming the convicting work of the Holy Spirit in the heart when He divinely convicts a man of the sin of unbelief.

If this is true: if indeed it is not only that belief is the exclusive condition of eternal life, but also that unbelief is the exclusive condition of eternal judgment, and the exclusive sin for which men will face eternal fire, then one should expect these principles to be reflected in judgment passages. As Paul warns in 2 Thessalonians of the great falling away and the working of the mystery of iniquity and the revelation of that Wicked which we would believe to be the time of the tribulation, he describes a world which will be deeply deceived by evil. He writes in 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12, And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness. Paul says that the damned are those who believed not the truth. Revelation 20:11-15 says, And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. The Bible says that at the great white throne of judgment books were opened, and another book was opened. In the books were written the works of men, and every man is judged according to his works. While it would not seem that believers will stand before the judgment of the great white throne, the Bible makes it clear that believers too will be judged by their works. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:10, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. For the believer, our works will determine our eternal rewards. In the case of the unbeliever, we know that the day of judgment will be more tolerable for some unbelievers than others. Indeed, Jesus told the cities of Galilee, Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment, than for you. (Luke 10:13-14). In each of these judgments, however, there is another book that is opened. This book is called the book of life, and Revelation 20:15 tells us that it is this book which determines who enters into life everlasting, and who is cast into the Lake of Fire.

Within the perspective presented here is theological and doctrinal consistency. It explains how Jesus could be the Last Adam, regaining all that was lost in Adam. It explains how Jesus could simultaneously be the propitiation for the sins of the whole world and still condemn the unbeliever to eternal judgment. It properly refutes those who would try to argue that men can graduate out of judgment through enough years of “burning off their impurities”. It explains how Jesus’ blood could be shed for the lost without being wasted. Much more than this, however, the doctrinal “house of cards” that can be built on top of this truth is, in a word, liberating. It highlights the reality of grace, magnifies the truth that the redeemed will have no basis for which to boast in his own merit, and even establishes the deepest foundations for arguments of eternal security; for if indeed salvation is truly by grace alone, earned or held by no merit of my own, then the claim that I could somehow lose it, or fall short of it, is nonsensical.

These truths can change the way we understand evangelism. Many believers (particularly outside of reformed circles) feel tremendous guilt over the amount that they evangelize, and more specifically tremendous pressure regarding how to evangelize. Many believers suffer under the guilt of not “knowing enough”, of not having “convincing arguments” to prove people are sinful enough, or that they need to be saved. They feel as though it is their job to be “compelling” and so “win people to Christ”. Now, there is nothing wrong with being compelling, or having good arguments. But when we build our understanding of evangelism upon a proper doctrinal “house of cards”, we are reminded that the condition for heaven or hell is belief on Christ alone. The message is simple, and is indeed the best of news: Jesus has already done the work, your sin is paid for, and it is for you simply to receive the gift. This is a message we can all give, and then trust the Holy Spirit to convict their hearts, and help guide them into the fullness of these truths. Furthermore, it strongly rebuts any argument that “all roads lead to heaven”. Jesus is, and indeed must be, the only way, for indeed, His atonement is the only sufficient payment for sin, and all who rest under God’s judgment for eternity do so, not because they were “bad people”, but because they have not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

These truths can also change the way we live as believers. Many believers struggle with feeling “released” from their sins when they confess them. They know that they are forgiven, but they still rest under the guilt and the condemnation of their sinful tendencies and deficiencies. Paul tells us, however, in Romans 8:1, There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. It may be that the reason why believers still rest under self-condemnation for their sinful choices, even after confessing them, is because they misunderstand redemption. If Jesus atoned for every sin – past, present, and future – of every man on the cross, then the wrath of God was fully, utterly, and completely satisfied against the sin of the world on the cross. To this end Jesus taught in John 5:21-27, For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will. For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son: That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself; And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man. God has transferred all judgment to the Son, because the wrath of the Father against the world has been assuaged. Jesus’ wrath rests upon those who have rejected Him. At the moment of salvation, the Great Judge of all the earth becomes the One who calls us my friends (John 15:14), and the Father Who committed all judgment into our Friend’s hands is called our Father. Paul would go on to ask in Romans 8:31-39, What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  This power, while it most certainly can be understood regardless of one’s direct perspective on the nature of eternal punishment, is consistently established and deeply magnified as it is built upon the “house of cards” of the complete atoning work of Jesus on the cross. This liberates us to serve the Lord, not in bondage, not in obligation; but to serve Him the way we were designed to serve Him: in abject love.

Finally, these truths help us reject judgmentalism and magnify grace. We are reminded by the condition of “belief alone” that eternal life and eternal judgment are not constructed based on moral aptitude. Just as no man will be in heaven for his own righteousness, the Lake of Fire is not about “evil men”, it is about rejection of Christ. Will evil men be in the Lake of Fire? Absolutely. Will many moral men be there as well? Jesus said in Matthew 7:22-23, Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. When we look at the unbelieving world, we are tempted to resent them for their sinfulness. We then remember that we too are sinful, that the only thing standing between us and the death we deserve is the grace of Christ, and that this grace is extended to other evil men as well, for indeed, 1 Timothy 2 tells us that Jesus will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. It is an unfortunate reality of the heart of men that we comfort ourselves in trouble and tribulation by considering the reality that people will burn in the Lake of Fire “for their evil”. That a man like Adolf Hitler is now “burning in Hell for His evil”. That evil men alive right now will one day “burn in Hell for their offenses”. Yet when we gain a perspective of the complete atonement of Jesus Christ, we are reminded that Jesus was already punished for the evil of Adolf Hitler. That the evil of men was poured out on Christ. That our Savior was stricken for their misdeeds already. To this end, Adolf Hitler will burn in eternal fire for the same reason anyone else will: because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. Such a perspective is able to melt the heart of stone and give us the compassion necessary to obey the commission of our Lord in Matthew 5:43-48, Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. It becomes much easier to love the unlovely when we realize Jesus bore the wrath for their evil choices, and that the Lake of Fire is not reserved for their misdeeds, but for their unbelief.

The “house of cards” we have built today, in summary, looks something like this: At its foundation is the conviction that Jesus’ death on the cross secures full and complete atonement for the sins of all the world – every sin of every man past, present, and future. On top of this truth we build an understanding that God the Father has decreed that faith in His Son is the exclusive qualification for eternal life, and any man who rejects faith in His Son is thus condemned to eternal torment for the blasphemy of rejecting the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, commissioned to convince the world of the sin of unbelief in Jesus Christ’s atoning work. This level of doctrine emboldens us to reject the idea that men can eventually get out of the Lake of Fire when they have been punished sufficiently “for their sins”. We rest in the reality that all judgment has been given unto the Son, who is our friend, and who will avenge us against all wrongs committed by those who have rejected Him as their Savior. On top of this truth we build the conviction that we dare not judge men based on pure moralism, for indeed all such legal expectations are fulfilled in Christ. It enables us to love those we would be predisposed to hate. We are blessed with the joy of “full release”, delighting in the power of the atonement to provide for us, not only atonement from sin, but absolute release from the wrath of God and the joy of living in complete fellowship with the Creator God. Finally, it helps us remember the context within which we evangelize: we tell a message of joy to those who do not have it. It is a simple message, backed by the convincing power of the Holy Spirit to show men that they need to believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved.

In this case, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. What is created here is a consistent doctrinal and theological position that emphasized what the Bible emphasizes, and avoids many of the pitfalls that often accompany other theological viewpoints. It is a liberating point of view which magnifies the atoning work of Christ, the overwhelming grace of God, and the preeminence of Jesus as the only way to heaven.

— Jamen Wikler —

Heaven Is For Real – A Book Review

A review of Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo. Nashville, Tennessee: W Publishing Group, 2010. Print.

Heaven is for real is a compelling narrative of Colin Burpo, a young man who supposedly went to heaven while he was on the operating table being treated for a burst appendix. The story retells this difficult event in the family’s life, then traces the next several years of their lives as, slowly, Colin reveals bits and pieces of his heavenly experience. The narrative itself is compelling, enjoyable, and engaging.

This is certainly not the first account in recent years of someone going to heaven and coming back. In fact, one could safely say that there has been an unusually high number of reports lately of this same supernatural phenomenon. Published in 2004, Don Piper wrote a book entitled 90 Minutes in Heaven and later Heaven is Real: Lessons on Earthly Joy, about his “90 minute experience in heaven” following a terrible car crash. Don Piper describes pearly gates, golden streets, and “incredible music in quality and quantity”. Published in 2012, Eben Alexander wrote the book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, recounting his transformation from a religion-denying neurosurgeon to a believer through an other-worldly encounter with an angelic being during a coma. Also published in 2012, Dr. Mary C. Neal wrote To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again. Her account describes a heavenly visit following a kayaking accident where she was pinned under water for at least 15 minutes. These are three of several accounts over the past decade where people were absolutely sure they had gone into the afterlife and sent back to tell their stories to the world.

What is going on here? It is not beyond God’s power to do such a thing, nor is it beyond God’s grace to use men and women as voices to call the world unto Him. But is this how God operates in the New Testament Church? Do the accounts, lives, and actions of these individuals bear the fruit of ones who are genuine, Spirit-filled believers in the Lord Jesus Christ? Or is it all smoke and mirrors?

We cannot fully know the extent of the truth surrounding these claims, and that is part of the problem. Many of these accounts are just as amazing as Colin Burpo’s story. These men and women seem sure of their experiences, and not only that, but some return with doctrinally accurate declarations of God’s love and man’s need for saving faith in Jesus Christ by believing upon His name to be saved. Jesus Christ gives us clear teaching in the Scriptures regarding the nature of truth and error. 1 John 4:1-3 tells us, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

We, as Bible-believing Christians, must judge every spiritual claim against the doctrinal realities of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If the supernatural experience of any man or woman does not line up accurately with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the revelation of the Word of God, then it must be rejected immediately. If the testimony of the individual is overshadowed by their declaration of the true gospel of Jesus Christ, and furthermore their account does not conflict with clear teachings of Scripture, then perhaps we as Bible-believing Christians should not be principally opposed to their message, even if we retain some skepticism as pertaining to its veracity.

In Mark 9:38-40 the disciples came to a similar impasse. Jesus had not committed Himself unto men to testify of the gospel, because “he knew all men, And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). Yet in Mark 9 Jesus’ disciples approach Him about a man, one not following Jesus, who was casting out devils in Jesus’ name. The disciples told Christ that they forbade him to do so on the grounds that he was not in the company of Christ. From a doctrinal standpoint, this makes sense. Jesus could not verify the clarity of this man’s message, and perhaps would not want this man representing Him. This makes Jesus’ response all the more startling when He said in Mark 9:39-40, “Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is on our part.” Thus Jesus called for the disciples to allow the man to testify, because through his work people were receiving a proper understanding of Jesus’ power and authority.

Such a tale stands in direct contrast to that of the “vagabond Jews” in Acts 19, who had no love for Christ or the gospel, and yet sought to invoke the authority of both Jesus and Paul to exorcise demons for their own purposes. Thus the Scriptures tell us in verse 13 that these men “took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth.” The demons response is almost comical in verse 15-16, “And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye? And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.”

In conclusion, my position on these supernatural occurrence is one of skepticism, but also one in which I would desire to align with the example we see in Scriptures regarding those who preach and teach concerning God. I believe it very important that we do not get caught up in the “emotionalism” of any one experience or encounter, nor should we focus upon the experience at the expense of the Truth that there is a God, that we are morally accountable to this God, and that only those who come to God through the finished work of His Son Jesus Christ by “repentance from dead works, and faith toward God” (Hebrews 6:1) may receive remission of sins and enter into the eternal life that these men and women claim to have witnessed.

I would call upon us to do that which Gamaliel, the Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, called upon the council to do concerning the Apostles of Jesus Christ in Acts 5:38-39, when the wise man stated, “And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.” If these men and women speak out for the gospel of Jesus Christ and maintain sound doctrine, they are doing good, not ill. And as we speak concerning them, it is our opportunity to keep the focus upon the objective realities of the gospel, and not the subjectivities of supernatural experiences. If we all can maintain these determinations of patient evangelism and care, we may not ever need to bicker among ourselves as to whether or not these experiences actually happened.

With this foundation laid, there are 3 particular concerns that I have with Heaven Is for Real specifically that I would like to address:

The first problem is the biggest problem: what I would call the “gospel problem”. There is not one instance in the book where the gospel is clearly articulated. Furthermore, when Colin is asked in his movie interview “what [he wanted] people to take away from Heaven Is for Real the movie”, His response was, “I hope they find healing and that they can get wisdom from it, so that they know no matter what happens, God is always there helping you. And no matter what Satan may put you through, God can overcome it.” True words, as long as his intended audience for the movie is the born-again Church of God, and not unbelievers. Unbelievers may walk away (at least from the book) more convinced of heaven, but they won’t necessarily be closer to understanding why they should care, or how they can get there. This is a major problem, and strongly speaks against the spiritual value and authenticity of this book.

The second problem is the “experience” problem. I referenced this in the general comments above, but there is something very unsettling in our age about “Christian experiences”. We are well aware that “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), and so we cannot inherently trust those things of which our physical senses would seek to convince us. We furthermore know from Hebrews 11:1 that “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Thus we know by its very definition that these people are not claiming God on the ground of faith, but on the grounds of “experience”. Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Hebrews 11:6 reminds us, “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Thus we must understand that any physical or material “experience” that we might have as believers is only as good as the role it plays in leading us into faith in the unseen. Supernatural experiences have no ability to stand alone in their spiritual efficacy. I am concerned with this book and movie that the experience is attempting to stand alone, and that is a problem indeed.

The final problem is that of association. It was very troubling to me when I saw, in my “Special Movie Edition” of the book, a picture of the Burpo family with Producer T.D. Jakes. T.D. Jakes is a man who is ambiguous at best concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, and had close associations with “Oneness Pentecostalism” or “Modalism”, which openly denies the doctrine of the Trinity in favor of an old heresy taking another turn around the block which teaches that God is a single person who manifests Himself in three different ways (or modes), as opposed to God being three distinct persons as the Bible teaches. Furthermore, Jakes has revealed himself to be a false teacher on many occasions, preaching a “prosperity gospel” of health and wealth through several blatant Scriptural misinterpretations. Finally, Jakes revealed during the 2008 Presidential election of Barak Obama that he is a man willing to forgo Biblical principles and spiritual discernment in favor of superficial social issues. His open support for President Obama simply because he is a black man, in spite of Obama’s support for facilitating the murder of children, is absolutely disgusting. For the Burpo family to align with a man of such dubious spiritual fruit is to reveal a lack of discernment at best, and deception at worst.

It is for these reasons that I cannot endorse Heaven Is for Real in any of its forms. The spiritual intent of the message is confused, the spiritual associations of the message are dangerous, and the spiritual fruit of the message is unclear. These are not evident manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s work, and we as believers should seek “higher ground” in our declarations of the truth both in the Church, and to a lost and dying world.

The Doubts of Christ’s Herald

Matthew 11:1-11
And it came to pass, when Jesus had made an end of commanding his twelve disciples, he departed thence to teach and to preach in their cities. Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Luke 7:19-23
And John calling unto him two of his disciples sent them to Jesus, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another? When the men were come unto him, they said, John Baptist hath sent us unto thee, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another? And in that same hour he cured many of their infirmities and plagues, and of evil spirits; and unto many that were blind he gave sight. Then Jesus answering said unto them, Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.

As one reads this passage with understanding, the question arises: how is it that John the Baptizer, the man who was announced by the angel Gabriel to go before Messiah in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17), have doubted the ministry of the very man whom he had announced?

The circumstance of John the Baptizer’s life and ministry are best known through the gospel of Mark. It is in this gospel, by means of retrospection, that Mark recounts the events surrounding the imprisonment and eventual execution of John at the hands of Herod the tetrarch. The account is also briefly mentioned in the gospel of Luke.

History informs us that the woman Herodias had previously been married to Philip, but had at some point left him in favor of his brother, Herod Antipas.[1] Not only was this woman the wife of his brother, but she was also Herod’s niece, the daughter of his half-brother Aristobulus. While Herod was not Jewish, being half Idumean and half Samaritan by birth, he was a leader in Israel, and thus assumed some manner of personal responsibility before the nation of Israel for his actions. His gross immortality with Herodias caught the attention of John the Baptizer, who had at some point spoken against Herod’s sinful behavior, stating plainly that it was not lawful for Herod to have his brother’s wife (Mark 6:18).

It was Herodias, not Herod, who was particularly angry against John for these words. The Scriptures tell us that she sought to have him killed, but Herod was a particularly superstitious man, and had some level of respect for John’s authority, hearing John’s messages readily and observing John’s sayings. Thus Herod was not willing to kill him, but only to imprison him as a means of pacifying the wrath of Herodias.

The amount of time John spent in prison was unknown, but the text seems to indicate that once he had been arrested, he was never again released. Mark 6:27 reveals that, in the process of time, Herodias was successful in her demand that John be killed. It is the interlude, however, that we are most interested in: the time between when John was arrested and when Herod had him beheaded.

The Scriptures tell us that, following several events in the ministry of Jesus Christ, John the Baptized sent two of his disciples to Jesus to inquire whether or not He was the Messiah, the one who should come. How strange it is that the very man who was chosen by God to herald the Messiah, and the man who had seen the Spirit descend like a dove upon him, and the man who had heard the words, “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17); would also be the man who now questions whether or not Jesus is the One who was to come.

There are several important considerations as we seek to understand John’s motivations in sending his disciples. The first consideration was his temporal state at the time of his question. The second consideration was the near universal expectation of the Jews concerning the appearance of their Messiah. The final consideration is that of Jesus’ words and actions to that point in His ministry, and how they would have been received by His audience.

I don’t know about you, but there are certain days in my life – certain seasons even – when it seems as though the promises of God just aren’t comforting me the way that they should. This isn’t God’s fault: the promises have not failed, nor has God faltered; but rather it is my faith in those promises that has faltered, even when I know them to be true. Such an attitude is not unheard of, even in the material world. I know my wife loves me, but there are days when emotions or circumstances attempt to override fact, and my confidence falters. I know that I have been called to be a Pastor, but there are seasons in my life where circumstances or emotions override this knowledge and cause me to doubt my vocation. I know just as well that “all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us” (2 Corinthians 1:20), yet my resolve in God’s promises is not always as consistent as it ought to be.

John was sitting in a prison cell; his life could end at any moment. He had spent years knowing that he would be Prophet of the Most High. He had baptized the Lord, and had heard the blessed declaration of Sonship delivered by God in heaven. The higher a man rises, spiritually and emotionally, the harder the fall if circumstances change for the worse. This is the reality of the human condition.

It is not this author’s intent to justify faithlessness, nor to defend John’s wrong actions or motives on the basis of his unrelated spiritual successes; yet it is our tendency to elevate men of greatness to extra-human status, thus assuming that his every recorded action must be righteous by default. In doing so, we do these men (and women) and disservice, and run the risk of stripping Glory from God and directing it in ignorance toward the vessels of honor that God graciously used to fulfill His sovereign purposes. We would do well to remember, as well, that while Jesus never justified John’s doubt, he did go on to defend John’s character, and declare him to be the greatest of men born to woman. High praise indeed!

So it is that we first consider John’s personal emotions, spiritual temptations, and level of personal discouragement as possible factors that may have motivated his doubt.

The second consideration we will address concerns the almost universal expectation of the Jews concerning the advent of their Messiah. If the gospels teach us anything concerning the Jewish mind, it was their myopic expectation of the kingdom that Messiah would usher in. The restored Kingdom was the very essence of all Jewish expectation. For hundreds of years the proud people of Israel had been the doormat of every world power. The Babylonians, the Medo-Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Syrians, and finally the Romans. Just when they thought they had cast off one oppressor, the next was waiting at the door. Some of these overlords were benevolent, others were excessively cruel, but either way Israel was not sovereign! Everything that the Jews longed for religiously was directed towards God’s promises throughout the law and the prophets of the Messiah, the One who would come and cast off all heathen oppressors, re-gather and unite the nation of Israel, and lead them into a perpetual peace and prosperity under the direct shepherding of Jehovah God.

The gospels are filled with Jewish remarks concerning this expectation. There was a large number of Jews who refused to believe on Jesus until the day that they saw Him throw off their oppressors and claim His right as King. And was this not, even in the ministry of Jesus Christ, seemingly a reasonable expectation. Matthew 4:17 tells us Jesus’ gospel message: “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John proclaimed the nearness of the Kingdom, Jesus proclaimed the nearness of the Kingdom…the Jews expected the Kingdom to come.

The problem, then, was not this expectation, but rather the logical outworking of their expectation. The Jews heard the promise of the Kingdom, and so rationalized in their minds the order of events that would be required to see this Kingdom brought about. That order would be something like this: the King is revealed, the people get behind Him, He overthrows the Roman oppressors, He sets up His throne, and Israel lives happily ever after. John the Baptizer recognized another important step: repentance. John rightly recognized that the people’s hearts need to be prepared, and so preached this repentance.

But there was something that even John had not anticipated: the possibility that the people would reject repentance, and thus reject their Messiah. So unanticipated was this scenario that as John witnessed the nation divide between the believers and unbelievers, and as John witnessed Jesus continue to preach spiritual repentance rather than national deliverance, his confidence began to waiver as to whether or not this was the King who would unite the nation.

Even the inner twelve, the men who had followed Jesus and been taught by Him for several years, were not able to overcome their false understand of God’s Messianic plan until the 50 days after Jesus’ death, when the Holy Spirit fell upon them at Pentecost. In Matthew 18:1 the disciples spent their time debating over which of them would be the greatest in the Kingdom. In Matthew 20:21 the mother of James and John asked Jesus to allow her boys to sit beside Him in the Kingdom. Even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, after Jesus had opened the eyes of His disciples’ understanding to recognize God’s divine salvific purpose, they asked Jesus in Acts 1:6, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” The Jewish mind was myopic in its expectation that Messiah’s appearance would inherently bring about the Kingdom.

The reason for this overwhelming Jewish expectation is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is sufficient to mention that the nature of Old Testament prophecy, when read at face value and in a linear and chronological fashion, does indeed present the Kingdom as appearing immediately following Messiah’s advent. It is not until the writings of Paul that it is made clear that the church age was a “prophetic mystery”: that there is no indication of the church in any Old Testament prophecy.

John was no different in his expectation. Though he, like many in Israel, were able to see past the apparent contradictions between Jesus’ ministry and their understanding of Old Testament prophecy through faith, this did not alter the fact that in their minds they still had a strong expectation of the nearness of the physical Kingdom. Yet with each passing day, as Jesus’ teaching went forth, His words would serve only do further alienate Jesus’ ministry from Jewish Messianic expectation. John being in prison, and unable to see Jesus’ miracles and hear His word first-hand, would perhaps suffer a deeper faith crisis than most in Israel.

Such can also be the case in the church today. When we, as God’s people, allow logical inferences based upon God’s Word to place undue expectations upon God and His sovereign plan, we can falter in our understanding of Scripture and thus blind ourselves to the weightier matters of the law. We run the risk of becoming so loyal to our inferences regarding God’s plan that we fail to see the realities of God’s plan. Such is the case in every area of theology, from salvation to Christian liberty to prophecy, when we allow our logical expectations to override God’s Word, such error can blind us to Truth, and lead others into our blindness as well.

This brings us to our final consideration, one which is closely related to the previous thought. The Jews’ expectation was heavily prejudiced toward an immediate revelation of the physical Kingdom. At the point of John’s question, Jesus’ teaching had focused upon the Jews’ repentance, but had presented a decidedly unique understanding of the Kingdom, its purpose, and its timetable. We reference particularly the gospel of Luke, as it would seem Luke’s account is likely the most chronological in nature.

Jesus had performed great miracles among the Jews. In Luke 4:38-41 Jesus healed Simon’s mother and preached in the synagogues of Galilee. In Luke 5 Jesus called Jewish disciples, healed leprosy and commanded the man to declare his cleansing according to the Mosaic law; he also healed a paralytic. These were all signs of the Kingdom, consistent with the Old Testament declarations of the Kingdom being a place of near perfection: a reversal of the curse and the restoration of Israel. It was here, however, that things began to be…unexpected. When Jesus healed the paralytic, Luke 5:20 tells us He said this to the man, “Man, thy sins are forgiven thee.” This was very significant, and the Jews took notice. Their response in verse 21 was, “Who is this which speaketh blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?

Here it was the public perception began to diverge strongly between believers and unbelievers. Though the nation began to split, however, to the believers this was not surprising; Messianic prophecy announced that the Christ would be God, and those who truly believed knew this to be true. Then things became even more strange. In Luke 5:29 Jesus is seen eating and drinking, not with just and devout Jews, but with publicans, a group of Jews that were seen as traitors to national pride for their work with Rome to collect taxes. When the scribes and Pharisee confronted Jesus, His response in verse 32 was simply, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

This concept was somewhat unique to much of the nation. The Jews had worked tirelessly to keep themselves ritualistically clean, so much so that the Mosaic law became the lifeblood of the nation. In the minds of the devout, this loyalty was done with the intent that they would be ready for Messiah, and now this man Jesus, claiming to be Messiah, was not rallying the pious around Him, but rather consorting with the unfaithful. In the mind of any Jew, this would be a shock, to say the least. Thing get even more strange, however.

In Luke 5:33 the scribes and Pharisees questioned Jesus’ commitment to the law, noting that His disciples did not fast as was customary in Jewish culture. Jesus’ response in verses 34-35 was thus: “Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.” Jesus then went on to give a parable, one which they would not understand but which, to the modern believer, is very significant.

Jesus said in Luke 5:36-39, “No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old; if otherwise, then both the new maketh a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the new agreeth not with the old. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better.” In this parable Jesus announced something new, something so new that it would not possibly fit into the “old bottle” of the law. This would be new wine, and necessitate a new bottle.

We find more of the same in Luke 6:1-5. The disciples are in the corn fields on the Sabbath, plucking ears of corn and eating them. Again, such action was contrary to Jewish tradition concerning the expectations of the Mosaic law, and thus overtly offensive to the sensibilities of the Jewish leaders. Likewise, in Luke 6:6-11, Jesus heals a withered hand on the Sabbath, offending the traditional restriction imposed by Jewish leaders according to their interpretation of the Mosaic law.

Following such open and clear manifestations of the Jews’ false loyalties to the law above even their loyalty to the God who gave them the law, Jesus gives what is commonly referred to as The Sermon on the Mount, teaching that the blessings of God are bestowed, not simply upon a man with the proper blood line, but rather upon the man whose heart follows after the True and Living God. He tells them to love their neighbors, but also to love their enemies. Not only to bear persecution for righteousness, but also to allow oneself to be defrauded in the name of righteousness. He tells them that a good disciple is known, not by lip-service, but by action in the service of his master. All of this was a direct confrontation against all that the Jewish system had become. There would be no Jew, regardless of how devout, that would not cringe at Jesus’ words concerning the traditions that they had spent their lives following.

In Luke 7:1-11 Jesus goes one step further. Yes, He had spoken against the Jewish religious establishment. Yes, He had defied the false traditions of the elders as they heaped unnecessary weights upon the keeping of the law. Yet in the first several verses of Luke 7, Jesus ministers to the needs of a Roman Centurion, one who was very kind to the Jews, and yet nonetheless a Gentile. Among a nation of men and women who had grown to despise and separate from all things that were not Jewish, the man claiming to be Messiah, the King of Israel, was ministering to their enemies.

Such was the string of events that preceded the day when John sent his disciples to ask Jesus concerning His Messianic identity. It was not that John, like the other disciples of Jesus, did not believe that Jesus was who He claimed to be. Yet Jesus’ action defied what the Jews had taught and understood for hundreds of years, and were so new and different that might cause any Jew conflict and confusion at His actions.

Introspection would cause us to ask the same questions of ourselves. Do we, as God’s people, read the Bible with such stubborn per-conceived notions of its intent and meaning that we fail to see what is really there? Are we so caught up in our traditions that, when confronted with Biblical truth that contradicts our understanding, we reject the True in deference to the familiar and comfortable? What “blind spots” do we have, and when we stand before God one day, what elements of our religious devotion will be seen in His eyes as misguided idolatry rather than humble devotion?

[1] International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Herodias”. Digital Edition through theWord.net