The Sobering Realities of Hell and Self-Deception1
Sunday I made the comment that an unethical businessman I recently heard of would be sorry for his decsions when he entered hell. I said that intentionally to arouse a response and awaken listeners. Like a doctor who must bluntly tell her patient that he will die if he keeps smoking, pastors must remind their congregations that hell is real. Not only is it real, but it will be full of people who are shocked to be there.
In the 1980's U.S. News and World Report published a survey on religion. Roughly 50% of Americans believed in hell then, but 98% believed they were not going there. Even in high school, I remember being overwhelmed by the amount of self-deception apparent by those numbers. I asked myself, am I one of the deceived?
Jesus and his apostles make clear what this survey implies, many who will ultimately receive God's wrath will be shocked on the judgment day. Some will wonder when they passed up opportunites to show grace. Others will appeal to their spiritual gifts, their theological knowledge, or their tradition. If I am one of the deceived, would I know it?
I fear that many, maybe a majority of the people we see every day, believe that they are Christians and on the way to eternal life but are actually deceived. Many have simply given in to the flow of worldliness completely oblivious to the fact that God hates it. Many see greed not as a cancerous sin leading to eternal death but as the fundamental characteristic of how the world works. Many make decisions every day to take steps toward eternal death and have no idea they have done it.
We must all understand that eternal life and eternal condemnation are destinations, and each one of us takes a step toward one destination or the other every day. We were all headed toward destruction by our natural instincts, and unless God intervenes and does a dramatic work in our life we will end up there.
That intervention has three parts. First, we must be born again. By nature we are oblivious to sin, worldliness, God and our true selves. The Holy Spirit must awaken us so that we see our need for a savior, and we embrace Christ as he is offered to us in the gospel. Second, we must turn away from our sinful way of life, or repent. Someone who sees Christ is going to stop walking away from him, we will reject anything that takes us further from him. As we turn away from worldliness, we turn to Christ in faith, receiving his grace and trusting him to heal us from all the cancerous worldliness inside.
But some might argue, I thought Christianity is all about grace. God saves sinners. Yes, of course it is all by grace. You can do nothing to earn rebirth. You are as helpless to be born again as you were to cause your first birth. You would never turn away from a selfish lifestyle if God did not give you the gift of repentance. You could never believe in something so wonderful as God coming to Earth to live, die and be raised from the dead if the Spirit has not given you faith. Every part of salvation, from first to last is a gift of grace.
But God's amazing grace does not leave you unchanged. He makes you different, dramatically different from the world around you. The desires for money, power, status, appearance and comfort no longer rule your life. Instead you base your life decisions on two rules: love for God and love for others. If you have not been changed you may be deceived.
So how can you know? If you are deceived, how would you know it? Well don't judge by feeling, you need to find some objective standards to see if you are moving in the right direction. Here are a few ideas:
Seek objective input. Ask someone who knows you if and how they see your character improving. Ask them how you need to change. Ask how much growth you have displayed over the last few years.
Look at your spending over the last year. How much money did you spend on vacations, entertainment and toys compared to charitable giving? If you received a Christmas bonus, did you immediately think of getting stuff or of needy places you could give it away? The last time you opened the mail and saw a request for charity, how did you respond? How long has it been since you gave sacrificially?
Look at your 2013 calendar. How many days did you actually give to worship and service? If you had opportunities to serve your church or the poor on weekends did you actually go?
You can even look at your prayer life. If God answered every prayer you offered up would anyone's life be better off outside of your own family?
If you cannot give any encouraging answers to these questions, do not be afraid to confess your sin. Awareness of the presence and danger of sin is the first sign of awakening! The good news is still good. God is gracious to save all who call out to him. Maybe the best gift you receive this Christmas will be a new life.