We are inveterate plea-bargainers. We are adept at the art of the deal. Romans 1 tells us that in our fallen condition, we all deny the God we know exists. We know we stand guilty before Him, but we suppress that truth in unrighteousness. But, we do not want to be utterly and completely selfish, absolutely unrestrained. So we submit to sundry creatures, gods of our own making. We are willing to have, for instance, “god-to-me” in our lives, if it will keep the living God at bay. We are willing to admit some level of guilt—”nobody’s perfect”—in order to avoid entering into the fullness of our wretchedness. And we are willing to fear some minor inconveniences, if it will keep terror away.
When Jesus delivered His Sermon on the Mount, He treated His audience as though they were believers. He told those who had gathered that they were the light of the world and the salt that preserves the world. Unbelievers, however, do not go unaddressed. In calling on believers to set aside their petty fears and to embrace a single-minded passion for the kingdom of God, in chastening those assembled for worrying about what they will eat and what they will wear, He says, “For the Gentiles seek after all these things” (Matt. 6:32).
This worrying, too, is plea-bargaining. It is an attempt to squelch one dreadful fear by replacing it with a merely annoying fear. It is a great win to be able to sigh in relief after honestly assessing, “What’s the worst that could happen?” If I don’t have enough to eat, that could be bad, from a certain perspective. If I have nothing to wear, that too could be bad, from a certain perspective. Either of these deprivations could, at worst, lead to my death, through starvation or exposure. That, it seems in our day, is at the root of our fears. We live in a culture where death is looked upon as an option to be delayed. Exercise, diets, surgeries, cosmetics, and Photoshop are the tools of our trade by which we avert our eyes from the truth that we are dying.
We have not, however, reached the end of our bargaining. We prefer worrying about what we will eat or wear to worrying about dying. But we prefer to worry about dying rather than worry about hell. Dying, after all, happens only once, and then it is over. Hell, on the other hand, is forever. I would argue that far more terrifying than the pain of hell is its duration. A great deal of pain for even a relatively brief time is less than a pain that lasts forever. What unbelievers ought to be worrying about is not he who can kill the body, but He who can kill both body and soul (Matt. 10:28).
This, in turn, ought to tell us for what we should be most grateful. This great fear is no longer on the table for those who trust in the finished work of Christ alone. What are we doing spending our time worrying about the plea-bargained fears of the Gentiles when we are free of their ultimate fear? Why should we worry about what we will eat when we feast on the body and blood of our Lord? Why should we worry about what we will wear when we are clothed in His righteousness?
Hell should not, however, fall off our radar even though we need no longer fear it. First, we are called to constant thanks and gratitude that we will never experience hell. We are called to remember that on the cross Christ descended into hell for us, that He received the full wrath and fury of the Father due to us for our sins. But second, hell did not disappear. Why are we worrying about what we will eat or what we will wear while there are people out there who will end up in hell unless they repent, but are instead worrying only about what they will eat or what they will wear? It is bad enough that they who want to deny that hell exists worry about petty things. How much worse is it that we who affirm the reality of hell worry about petty things?
When we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, we are not merely seeking to get in before the gates close. It is not merely our own entrance that we seek as we seek the kingdom. Rather, we are about the business of seeing the glory of the reign of Christ over all things made known all across the globe. Which means we seek the kingdom as we seek to be used of the King to bring in the elect from the four corners of the world. We seek the kingdom when we proclaim the good news to a lost and dying world. We seek the kingdom when the Spirit uses us to snatch brands not just from the fire, but from the fire that never dies.
We are none of us conscious enough of hell. Were we so, we would be marked by both gratitude and urgency, gratitude for our own rescue, urgently laboring for the rescue of others. Hell is real, and hell is forever.