As our team prepared to hike through remote Himalayan villages, we knew we would come face to face with urgent spiritual and physical need. However, on Day 3, as we wound down the side of a mountain toward a particular “holy” river, nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to witness. The scene is still stuck in my mind.
We see a group of young men carrying what looks like a dead body wrapped in a white sheet. Stunned, we watch as they lay the body on a platform situated about twenty feet above the water. People are wailing around what we now recognize is a funeral pyre. After the body is placed on the pyre, an older man lights a torch and starts a fire at the body’s feet, hands, and head. The white sheets turn dark, the dead body catches fire, yellow flames fly into the air, and black smoke mars the blue sky.
Aaron, a member of our team who has ministered in these mountains for years, explains that this is a Hindu ritual. Hindus in this area believe this river is holy. So whenever a family member or friend dies, within twenty-four hours they bring the body to the river and set it ablaze. They believe that the body’s ashes falling into the river helps the deceased in the process of reincarnation.
Others start to ask questions, but I just step away and sit down. I can’t stop staring. As I look into these flames, I think about what I believe. About what I preach from the Bible—that all who do not trust in Jesus to save them from their sin will experience the payment for their sin in an eternal hell.
A Physical Picture of a Spiritual Reality
Jesus describes hell as conscious torment (Lk 16:23), outer darkness (Matt 8:12), and fiery agony (Matt 13:42). Revelation 20:10 describes hell as a lake of fire that people will never, ever leave. Even if these are a symbols, as some people claim, the purpose of a symbol is to represent something that is real. These particular symbols express a reality greater than what can be expressed in words, so it should bring no solace to think that the Bible’s descriptions of hell might be symbolic.
So there I sit on the bank of the river, realizing that if what I believe is true, I am looking now at a physical picture of a spiritual reality. This person whose body is burning was alive twenty-four hours before and now is in hell, an eternal fire from which he or she will never be rescued.
Then, as if that realization is not heavy enough, it hits me. This person, like most every other person whose body is burned on one of these funeral pyres, not only is in hell, but he or she likely never even had a chance to hear about how to go to heaven. This person never heard how Jesus could save people from their sin.
Is this right? Is this reality? Do people who never even have a chance to hear about heaven on earth really go to hell for eternity?
I’ve preached on this hundreds of times, and I’ve written chapters in books on how the destiny of people who don’t hear the gospel is eternal damnation. Yet in this moment, the weight of what I believe about “those people” feels a thousand pounds heavier as I look at “this person” whose body is now being devoured by the fire.
I believe everything the Bible teaches about heaven and hell. I stand by everything I’ve preached and written about what happens to those who’ve never heard the gospel when they die. So why am I struggling to believe what I’m seeing?
“Why,” I say as if it’s the first time I’ve ever really asked the question, “if the gospel is true, are there so many people in the world who have never even heard about it?”
“That,” Aaron says, “is the mystery to me.”
We walk on for a while in silence; then he shares, “Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to about hell. You and I and every person who comes into this place has two options for how we think and live based on what we see here.”
“Okay, I’m listening.”
“The first option is to disbelieve the Bible—to stare at burning bodies and decide that hell just isn’t real. Or maybe just to decide that Jesus is not necessary to gain heaven. That people can go to heaven apart from faith in Jesus. But the only way to believe that is to disbelieve the Bible, so that’s one option.”
The more I think about this option, the more I realize it is the essence of sin. Way back in Genesis, sin entered the world when the created ones thought they knew better than the Creator. Sin entered the world when man and woman convinced themselves they were right about what was good and God was wrong.
“And the second option?” I ask.
“The second option is to believe the Bible and to show that belief by spending your life sharing God’s truth and love in a world of urgent spiritual need.”
Without question, this second option includes working to meet urgent physical needs through mercy ministry aimed at social justice. But water filters, medical kits, sanitation systems, and scores of other resources, though critical for life on earth, won’t get anyone to heaven. And temporary earthly suffering, however severe, pales in comparison to eternal suffering, which lasts forever.
Hope Beyond Death
As I make my way back to the place where we’re staying for the night, I remember the stories from Luke 7–8 that I had read at the beginning of the day, the miracles of people raised from the dead.
Indeed, I realize this is the greatest need in every one of our lives, including every life in the Himalayas and throughout the earth: to have hope beyond physical death. All of us will die, because all of us have sinned. And that means all people need to hear and believe in the One who has loving authority over death.
After dinner with the team, as always we are ready for some warmth and bed. So as I settle in for the night, I pray and plead as I fall asleep,
O God, I choose to believe your Word. I don’t claim to understand it, but I choose to believe it. I choose to believe that Jesus alone has power over death and authority to bring life. And, O God, I pray that if this is true, then more than anything else, the people here need to know about Jesus! You know this! And I am realizing this in a way I never have before
So I am pleading like I never have before! Please show your mercy in these mountains! Please show your mercy now, O God! Before another sky burial! Before more people are born, live, and die with all their hope in burning incense to a statue! Before more people are put on funeral pyres! It has been too long—far too long, O Lord—that the love and power and compassion and authority and name of Jesus have not been known here. Please, please, please show your salvation here! And please, O God, use my life however you want, spreading this gospel as the answer to every person in the world’s most urgent need: eternal life with you.
–This excerpt is adapted from David Platt’s latest book titled Something Needs to Change: A Call to Make Your Life Count in a World of Urgent Need.