This post is taken from the series of meditations I have contributed this week at the Reformation 21 Reading with M'Cheyne Blog. It is in fact from yesterday, and offers some reflections on Matthew 25.
If you have ever watched the auditions stage of American Idol you will have noticed that people without any recognizable vocal talents can become quite agitated with the panel of judges in general, and with Mr. Simon Cowell in particular. Even though they are their to be assessed on the quality of their performance, when the verdict is unfavorable, they think that they have the right to judge the judges.
It is so easy to bring something of that mind-set with us when we are confronted by the hard edged, non-negotiable teaching of Jesus about the day of judgement and endless future punishment for the unrepentant in hell. Our first business is to listen carefully in full recognition that Christ has the right to judge, and we, as sinners, have not been invited to debate what the appropriate punishment for sin is.
We will never come to terms with the doctrine of hell until we realize that the Son of Man is seated upon a judgement throne in his glory (25:31).
Hell is a subject that should fill us with “traumatic awe” (to borrow a phrase from J. I. Packer). Consider the words of Jesus in this chapter. Jesus speaks of exclusion, “the door was shut” (25:10), of the “outer darkness” (25:30). This state of exclusion is marked by anguish and regret, there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30).
This exclusion will be because there has been a separation of the sheep and the goats. Those on his right will inherit the kingdom (25:34), those on his left will depart to the eternal fire (25:41). The sheep are the blessed, beneficiaries of grace (25:34), the goats are under the curse, and will bear the just punishment of their sins (25:41).
The tangible evidence that the sheep really were sheep all along, Jesus says, is found in their attitude to “the least of these my brothers.” In other words the care shown not to the poor in general but to suffering believers, was all along done to the Lord who has identified himself with his people (25:35-36).
A large part of the traumatic awe that comes from contemplating hell is its finality and eternality. Hell is forever. The solemn words of Jesus set in parallel the destinies of the sheep and the goats:
“Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. ...And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (25:41, 46)
This age will end, the age to come will not. Jonathan Edwards said that the wicked will wear out the sun in their agony and be no closer in the end.
On 22nd October 1939 C. S. Lewis preached to a group of Oxford undergraduates pre-occupied and distressed because of the war. He told them that being at university must have felt like fiddling whilst Rome was burning. But he said the real tragedy was not that Nero fiddled while Rome burned but that Nero fiddled on the brink of hell.
It is easy to be so pre-occupied with the here and now that we have no sense that we are creatures of time heading for an endless eternity.