By Dr. James Emery White, Crosswalk.com
Last summer, as part of a trip to San Francisco, my wife and I took the ferry to the infamous prison Alcatraz. It was fascinating and chilling at the same time. Under the best of conditions, it would have been a brutal place to be incarcerated.
And no prisoner sent there was ever under the best of conditions.
Many of its inmates are familiar names: famed Chicago mobster Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), Arthur “Doc” Barker, James “Whitey” Bulger and Mickey Cohen to name but a few. But it was the reflections of Inmate #117, better known as George “Machine Gun” Kelly, that stuck with me:
“These five words seem written on the walls of my cell: Nothing can be worth this!”
When the consequences of certain actions become clear, too often this is our final life lesson: no matter what I thought, no matter what I felt, I now realize “nothing can be worth this.”
Imagine how much more true those words will seem written on the walls of Hell itself.
I know we don’t like to think about Hell. We don’t like to talk about Hell. But if Hell is real how much would you have to hate someone not to talk to them about it? How much would I have to hate you – believing to the core of my being that Heaven and Hell are real places and real people go there – to not try to keep you out of it? That would be off-the-charts hate.
When Jesus talked about Hell, He wasn’t trying to beat people up with it, or tell everybody they were going to go there because they were bad people. Jesus talked about Hell to try to keep people out of it. I’ve always been taken by a story Jesus told when He was trying to impress upon His followers how real this is. It’s about what happened to a man five minutes after he died, after a five-minute taste of hell.
Here it is:
“[Jesus said] there was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘... between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’” (Luke 16:19-28, NIV)
Jesus told that story for four very important reasons. First and foremost, Jesus wanted to drive home the fact that everybody dies. The rich man was full of life and had what anyone would call a good life. In the story, Jesus tells us that he was clothed in purple and fine linen, code in that day for the highest end of wealth. Death was the furthest thing from the rich man’s mind, and nobody would have even thought about bringing the end of his life to his attention. But then he died. Jesus’ point? No matter who you are, or what your life is like, death is inevitable.
Jesus also told this story because he wanted to make it absolutely clear that when we die, it’s not the end. It’s just the beginning of an eternity spent in either Heaven or Hell.
But that’s still not all. Jesus also wanted to make it clear that where we go for eternity will be based on the decisions we make in this life. There are no second chances after we die.
And finally, did you notice the last thing Jesus brought out in His story? The reality that Hell should immediately make everyone a flaming evangelist. When the rich man realizes his state, his heart is suddenly full of rabid concern for those still alive whom he cared about. He never cared about them spiritually before for a single moment of his life.Suddenly he realizes that telling them was everything! Once he knew Hell was real, nothing else mattered more than saving people from it. The need for a rescue was absolutely overwhelming.
Why? Because nothing can be worth this.
Nobody should understand more the stakes of deciding on where you stand with Jesus in this, our one and only life, than Christ followers. We already know that nothing our friends and family are living for, or in rejection of, is worth an eternity in Hell.
So having that knowledge already,
… should make flaming evangelists out of us.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.