To finish up my eschatology class yesterday, I took my students on a tour of the best articles on the Internet on the subject of Hell. Here are some of the links and lessons we drew from these posts.
Understand the nature and roots of opposition to the doctrine of Hell
As Tom Ascol highlights in the sample quotes at the beginning of this post, there is widespread virulent and vicious opposition to the idea of hell.
Bertrand Russell: “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell.” The idea of eternal punishment for sin is “a doctrine that put cruelty in the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture.”
Religious philosopher John Hick refers to hell as a “grim fantasy” that is not only “morally revolting” but also “a serious perversion of the Christian Gospel.”
“Evangelical” theologian Clark Pinnock dismissed hell with a rhetorical question: “How can one imagine for a moment that the God who gave His Son to die for sinners because of His great love for them would install a torture chamber somewhere in the new creation in order to subject those who reject Him to everlasting pain?”
In Doing Away With Hell, Al Mohler helpfully traces the roots of this opposition to a number of cultural and philosophical trends including: a radically altered view of God, the downplaying of retributive justice, humanistic psychologies that deny human responsibility, seeker-sensitive churches, etc.
Do Not Fall Into Passive Neglect of This Doctrine
OK, so we don’t speak of hell like Russell, Hick, and Pinnock. But, as Martin Downes asks, do we speak of Hell at all? As Lesslie Newbigin said in 1994: “It is one of the weaknesses of a great deal of contemporary Christianity that we do not speak of the last judgment and of the possibility of being finally lost”
In the same article Covenant Seminary professor, Robert Peterson, says: “Part of the blame should be placed at the feet of evangelical pastors, whom surveys show have been slow to teach and preach what the Bible says about hell. My study of hell in the mid-1990’s brought me to repentance because I was personally guilty of such neglect.”
Hell Does Not Convert But it Does Awaken
“The fear of Hell doesn’t convert anyone.” Agreed. But don’t let that stop you from preaching it, because, as Joe Thorn explains, it is often used to awaken people to their need for conversion: “Hell stirred me enough to pay close attention to the good news of Jesus’ atonement, forgiveness, and the sinner’s reconciliation to God–even though it seemed too far away for someone like me to grasp.”
Have Faith in God’s Word – All of it
One of the most renowned preachers of Hell, Jonathan Edwards, challenged pastors that if hell is true, “then why is it not proper for those who have the care of souls to take great pains to make men sensible of it? Why should they not be told as much of the truth as can be?”
In Preaching Hell in New England, Wes Pastor describes how following Jonathan Edward’s footsteps, he eventually saw God bless the preaching of Hell to “quintessential New Englanders.” Bob was converted under a Christmas sermon he entitled, “You’re going to Hell, Merry Christmas.” And now “is laying down his life to help plant gospel-driven churches in New England and beyond, churches with preachers who take great pains to make souls sensible of the danger, that they might fear the One who has the authority to cast into hell and, by God’s grace, have those fears relieved.”
Yes, I know it doesn’t sound like the most enjoyable use of study time but without study our preaching on Hell will become uncessarily one-dimensional and repetitively monotonous. Tom Ascol’s 4 Truths About Hell, briefly describes four ways in which Hell can be preached, and there are many more.
We also need to read scholarly books about the doctrine of hell so that we are aware of both popular and academic objections to the doctrine and preach accordingly.
For example, in How Willingly Do People go to Hell, John Piper deals with the idea popularized by C.S. Lewis that when people go to hell, God is simply giving them what they most want. As Piper argues, that makes God altogether too passive in the process. The Bible records that God not only actively sends people to hell, He “throws” them into the lake of fire.
“Hell is separation from God.” We’ve probably all said it. We’ve certainly all heard it. But is it? Martin Downes argues for much greater study and care in using this phrase. R. A. Finalyson’s quote really sums it up: “Hell is eternity in the presence of God without a mediator. Heaven is eternity in the presence of God, with a mediator.”
Hell Motivates Love for God and Man
But what possible benefits can there be in preaching hell? Tom Ascol says it ”deepens our grateful praise for the salvation we have in Jesus Christ” and “motivates us to persuade people to be reconciled to God.” He asks “How can we love people and refuse to speak plainly to them about the realities of eternal damnation and God’s gracious provision of salvation?”
In The Truth of Hell Should Fill us With Awe, Martin Downes adds: “The Bible’s message of hell is a topic worthy of study, but in addition, it has to be something that moves us to action—to repentance, when we consider what our sins deserve; to prayer, out of compassion for the lost; to worship, when we consider what Christ endured to redeem us; and certainly, to witness, when we desire for others to know our great God and Savior.”
Be Apologetic But Don’t Be Apologetic
Don’t be apologetic in the sense of apologizing for hell and always expressing regret for preaching it. David French’s post on The Perfect Justice of Hell challenges us: “Hell is nothing to apologize for or laugh about. It’s real, it’s indispensable, it’s just, and—but for the inexplicable and irresistible grace of God—it’s precisely what I deserve.”
But do be apologetic in the sense of defending the faith and combatting errors and understandable misconceptions and myths. For example, Joe Thorn has a series on Five Common Myths About Hell, while Kevin DeYoung and Sam Storms tackle some of the hardest objections, including the fate of those who have never heard the Gospel. Learn how to deal with the errors of annihilationism, universalism, and conditional immortality.
Also in the four-part series entitled Hell and the Happiness of Heaven, Storms takes on the difficulty many Christians have of conceiving of heaven as a happy place if some of their loved ones are in hell.
Learn from Others How to Preach Hell
Spurgeon calls us to preach it passionately and self-forgetfully.In an outstanding article, Speaking Seriously and Sensitively about Hell to the Sons of this Age and the Next, Ligon Duncan challenges us to preach it textually, decisively, pastorally, correctively, apologetically, exegetically, and above all Christocentrically.
9 Marks also have an excellent eJournal on Remembering the Awful Reality of Hell with the usual practical advice from experienced pastors.
But let me give the last word to Michael Patton who confesses how much he dislikes this truth and how much he wishes he could get rid of it, especially the eternality of it, but then calls us to believe it and to preach it in faith:
Concerning the doctrine of Hell, I simply must trust that God knows what he is doing. I am sure there is information and understanding that is withheld from us that might make such things more palatable, but he has obviously chosen not to reveal this to us. Belief is not always easy. Sometimes it is. Love, grace, forgiveness, hope, and the new earth are all easy to believe. Election, righteousness, judgment, and hell are not. That is why the latter is so difficult to accept and why, I believe, we have so many alternative answers continually being proposed. We simply want our faith to be more palatable rather than trust that God knows what he is doing. It is very hard to believe God sometimes.
However, I don’t have a vote in truth. My emotional disposition toward a doctrine has absolutely no effect on the truthfulness of the doctrine itself. As I have often said, the palatability of a doctrine does not determine its veracity. God is on the throne and he knows what he is doing. Whenever I begin to feel more righteous than him, I must remember who I am and who he is. “Will not the judge of the earth do what is right?”