[Matthew 25:1-13] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Hell & Heaven
Sometimes life is said to be a living hell. Sometimes a place is called ‘hell on earth’. Is that true? Quite seriously, and wrongly – incorrectly – I’ve heard people claim that hell is in this life, believing therefore that it ends when this life ends.
Though this life is really bad sometimes, people suffer terribly – in heartbreaking ways – though this life is broken by sin and mankind lives without true knowledge of God, without true fear of God, and without love for God – nevertheless, this life is not hell.
This came up in the book we’re using for our Wednesday morning Bible Study, Lutheranism 101. In that book, the point is made that in this life – even though, in our sinful nature, we are broken and blind to God’s goodness – God’s goodness is there, in this life.
Even the person who doesn’t know God is cared for by Him every day. Every day he receives his daily bread from God. Every day we see beauty in God’s creation – in the fields or the trees or in a sunrise or sunset. Every day we might experience beauty in a piece of music or a piece of art.
Every day we experience goodness in somebody’s kind smile or friendly ‘hello’. In friendly conversation from a cashier or passerby. So often, we receive intense care and help from caregivers, doctors, nurses, etc. People who don’t know God receive care from caregivers who don’t know God – yet it is God’s help. This is His world. He is Father. His care extends to all creation.
In this creation – though the creation is fallen and broken in sin – God’s love, beauty, care, and goodness extend throughout. This is God’s general care and grace. It exists in His creation not because of us – but because of Him – therefore God still continues to show forth His beauty and love and care through the created things and through the people and institutions which He established for that good purpose, whether mankind desires it or is aware of it or not.
In other words, the sunset, trees, and piano all produce God’s beauty even if those playing it or looking at them don’t acknowledge where the beauty comes from. Doctors still heal patients, even if neither knows God to be the true Healer. Parents still provide daily bread for children, even if neither knows the Heavenly Father as the source. God works through all these things. The fact that mankind neither fears Him, acknowledges Him, nor thanks Him, doesn’t stop Him from doing what He does.
Therefore, this life is never fully hell. In this life, there is always God’s goodness. In hell, there is none of God’s goodness. Hell is the place where God’s goodness is absent. None of it is there. Hell is the place where the door is shut, and it doesn’t open again. No goodness, no beauty, no friendship, no care, no love, no fellowship – existence without any of these things – only yourself, loneliness, eternal anguish.
Hell is sometimes said to be the place where a man or woman finally gets what they really want – life without God. But existence without God’s goodness is existence with His wrath.
God desires that for no one. It is not His will for anyone. But it is what happens to many.
Consider these passages of Scripture: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” [2 Peter 3:9]. “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” [Ezekiel 33:11]. “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” [1 John 2:2].
Sin is forgiven through the death of Jesus who died in place of the world. On the cross, Jesus suffered that place of no goodness, no beauty, no care – and full of God’s wrath, judgment, and anguish of soul. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, He cried [Matthew 27:46].
On the cross, Jesus suffered hell for your sins and for the sins of all mankind so that you need not suffer even a day – and not an eternity – without God’s goodness. Jesus traded places with you and with the world – because it’s not His will, nor His Father’s will, that any of you, nor anyone, would perish.
Heaven is the place where there is only God’s goodness – where there is only God’s beauty – where there is only and fully God’s love for you. In heaven, there is no more death, nor is there remembrance of the hellish things of this life, nor is there sin – not your sin nor anyone else’s; it’s all gone there. There is only God’s goodness, His goodness in full. Complete.
Heaven is the place of God’s celebration banquet – like an eternal wedding reception – where we know God fully, love Him fully, are loved by Him completely, and eternally celebrate all He has done for us through Jesus.
(Here on earth, God faces a world for which He has done all good, but which doesn’t want Him. Nevertheless, God creates and preserves for Himself a flock of believers – more than can be numbered – which is His and which will make it home. Our Lord calls His own by name, and His own do hear His voice [John 10:14,27-29].)
Our Lord’s Parable today, for this Last Sunday of the Church Year, is a reminder of the Last Day of this life’s existence – the day of Christ’s return, when He comes to gather us up, body and soul, into heaven. The day of the resurrection, when He calls us out of the graves and death will be no more.
On that day, those who have fallen asleep in the Lord with their flame of faith in Christ still lit will rise to eternal life and everlasting goodness with God. Those who forgot the Lord, drifted from Him, became distracted by the joys and pleasures and cares of this world – even as they still had the words, ‘Lord, Lord’, on their lips in the church, but their hearts drifted far from Him – these will rise with unlit flame and will be shut out in darkness.
The end of the world, and for most, before that, the end of our earthly life, marks the end of our time for faith and repentance. The door does shut and doesn’t open again [vv. 10-11].
Our Savior Jesus therefore warns us in this parable to be receiving in our lifetime those things which supply our flame of faith in Christ – those things which work faith in Christ into our hearts and sustain it. Those things – the oil for our lamp – are the Word of God and the Sacraments.
Hearing God’s Word preached works faith in Christ into your heart so that you remain in the faith [Romans 10:17 – “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ”]. The Word of God turns you from your sin and turns you from the ease and pleasures of this world which rob your hearts from Christ.
In the Church, through the ministry of preaching God’s Word and administering His sacraments, God supplies you with what you need. His Law is preached and shows your sin, your need for the Savior. His Gospel is preached and shows you your Savior and supplies the faith for believing.
When we come to Church expecting to hear a sermon relevant to this world’s cares and concerns, we are not coming for what we truly need. The real issue in each of our lives is heaven and hell. God desires, for each of you, heaven. Here He supplies you with the oil of His Word for the flame of your lamps.
Jesus comes suddenly; yet you are of the day and are not surprised by His coming. In fact, you eagerly wait for it. Though God’s goodness exists in this world, it is far from complete. Sin, death, and the devil have their fingers reaching into this life still. Thanks be to God for the life of the world to come – the life waiting for you – in which there is God’s goodness only and fully. Amen.