And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:47-48 ESV)
As Mark progresses his gospel account, the disciples and the readers gain more and more insight about what it means to follow Jesus and live in his kingdom. Up to this point, we’ve learned that Christ’s followers must realize they are in a war with the kingdoms of this world, that they are expected to carry the same message of Jesus to the world, that they are to take up their crosses to follow him, and that they must humble themselves as little children. These expectations are among Christ’s positive commands. But in this passage, Jesus will offer the alternative. And it’s not a minor detail.
No, there is a price to pay if one rejects Jesus. If a person does not combat this world, if he does not take up his cross, if he does not fight sin with his might, then his eternal fate will not be pleasurable. Jesus says, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” The “little ones” Jesus refers to are not all persons under a certain age, but his disciples. You may recall that Jesus had just taught that his followers must become as little children.
Clearly, this allusion to such severe punishment is meant to convey the horror of making such a choice. No one with a millstone around his neck will survive the plunge. And yet Jesus says that the one who rejects his disciples – and ultimately him – would be better off if they received this penalty. Better than what? Better than hell.
Veres 43-50 provide the only time in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus speaks about hell. But it is certainly not insignificant. Together with the other gospel accounts, Jesus spoke about hell more than any other figure in the Bible. In this passage, we learn that hell’s punishment is awful, that its duration is eternal, and that its flame is unquenchable!
These images are unpalatable. Especially in today’s inclusivist, tolerant, and politically correct culture, the thought of a place of eternal torment is unfathomable. Christians are often timid to discuss it. Talking about hell to unbelievers might make us queasy – and it should. Hell is not a delight, not trivial, not to be taken lightly. Jesus didn’t take it lightly and neither should we. But, as we can see from this passage, he displayed both his love and truth by warning us about it!
If hell is real, warn we must! The thought of hell makes us uneasy. But if anything, hell should point us to the absolute, uncompromised holiness of God and the horrible, depraved nature of sin. The late R.C. Sproul said, “Sin is cosmic treason.” God is so holy, and sin is so wicked, that hell is the natural consequence of offending an eternally holy God.
This Sunday, we’ll consider this passage on hell. We won’t skip it. Rather, let us come and approach this text with holy fear, examining ourselves and our love for others. But of course, let us also look forward to the assurance of pardon that we have in Christ, who not only warns us about hell, but took our punishment for us so we can live with him eternally.