Skip to comments.Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age Brimstone for the broad-minded.
Posted on 06/05/2012 6:42:09 PM PDT by Gamecock
The young man in my office was impeccably dressed and articulate. He was an Ivy League MBA, successful in the financial world, and had lived in three countries before age 30. Raised in a family with only the loosest connections to a mainline church, he had little understanding of Christianity.
I was therefore gratified to learn of his intense spiritual interest, recently piqued as he attended our church. He said he was ready to embrace the gospel. But there was a final obstacle.
"You've said that if we do not believe in Christ," he said, "we are lost and condemned. I'm sorry, I just cannot buy that. I work with some fine people who are Muslim, Jewish, or agnostic. I cannot believe they are going to hell just because they don't believe in Jesus. In fact, I cannot reconcile the very idea of hell with a loving Godeven if he is holy too."
This young man expressed what may be the main objection contemporary secular people make to the Christian message. (A close second, in my experience, is the problem of suffering and evil.) Moderns reject the idea of final judgment and hell.
Thus, it's tempting to avoid such topics in our preaching. But neglecting the unpleasant doctrines of the historic faith will bring about counter-intuitive consequences. There is an ecological balance to scriptural truth that must not be disturbed.
If an area is rid of its predatory or undesirable animals, the balance of that environment may be so upset that the desirable plants and animals are lostthrough overbreeding with a limited food supply. The nasty predator that was eliminated actually kept in balance the number of other animals and plants necessary to that particular ecosystem. In the same way, if we play down "bad" or harsh doctrines within the historic Christian faith, we will find, to our shock, that we have gutted all our pleasant and comfortable beliefs, too.
The loss of the doctrine of hell and judgment and the holiness of God does irreparable damage to our deepest comfortsour understanding of God's grace and love and of our human dignity and value to him. To preach the good news, we must preach the bad.
But in this age of tolerance, how?
How to preach hell to traditionalists
Before preaching on the subject of hell, I must recognize that today, a congregation is made up of two groups: traditionalists and postmoderns. The two hear the message of hell completely differently.
People from traditional cultures and mindsets tend to have (a) a belief in God, and (b) a strong sense of moral absolutes and the obligation to be good. These people tend to be older, from strong Catholic or religious Jewish backgrounds, from conservative evangelical/Pentecostal Protestant backgrounds, from the southern U.S., and first-generation immigrants from non-European countries.
The way to show traditional persons their need for the gospel is by saying, "Your sin separates you from God! You can't be righteous enough for him." Imperfection is the duty-worshiper's horror. Traditionalists are motivated toward God by the idea of punishment in hell. They sense the seriousness of sin.
But traditionalists may respond to the gospel only out of fear of hell, unless I show them Jesus experienced not only pain in general on the cross but hell in particular. This must be held up until they are attracted to Christ for the beauty of the costly love of what he did. To the traditional person, hell must be preached as the only way to know how much Christ loved you.
Here is one way I have preached this:
"Unless we come to grips with this terrible doctrine, we will never even begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross. His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, but that was a flea bite compared to what was happening to his soul. When he cried out that his God had forsaken him, he was experiencing hell itself.
"If a mild acquaintance denounces you and rejects youthat hurts. If a good friend does the samethe hurt's far worse. However, if your spouse walks out on you, saying, 'I never want to see you again,' that is far more devastating still. The longer, deeper, and more intimate the relationship, the more torturous is any separation.
"But the Son's relationship with the Father was beginning-less and infinitely greater than the most intimate and passionate human relationship. When Jesus was cut off from God, he went into the deepest pit and most powerful furnace, beyond all imagining. And he did it voluntarily, for us."
How to preach hell to postmoderns
In contrast to the traditionalist, the postmodern person is hostile to the very idea of hell. People with more secular and postmodern mindsets tend to have (a) only a vague belief in the divine, if at all, and (b) little sense of moral absolutes, but rather a sense they need to be true to their dreams. They tend to be younger, from nominal Catholic or non-religious Jewish backgrounds, from liberal mainline Protestant backgrounds, from the western and northeastern U. S., and Europeans.
When preaching hell to people of this mindset, I've found I must make four arguments.
1. Sin is slavery. I do not define sin as just breaking the rules, but also as "making something besides God our ultimate value and worth." These good things, which become gods, will drive us relentlessly, enslaving us mentally and spiritually, even to hell forever if we let them.
I say, "You are actually being religious, though you don't know ityou are trying to find salvation through worshiping things that end up controlling you in a destructive way." Slavery is the choice-worshiper's horror.
C. S. Lewis's depictions of hell are important for postmodern people. In The Great Divorce, Lewis describes a busload of people from hell who come to the outskirts of heaven. There they are urged to leave behind the sins that have trapped them in hell. The descriptions Lewis makes of people in hell are so striking because we recognize the denial and self-delusion of substance addictions. When addicted to alcohol, we are miserable, but we blame others and pity ourselves; we do not take responsibility for our behavior nor see the roots of our problem.
Lewis writes, "Hell begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps even criticizing it . You can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine."
Modern people struggle with the idea of God thinking up punishments to inflict on disobedient people. When sin is seen as slavery, and hell as the freely chosen, eternal skid row of the universe, hell becomes much more comprehensible.
Here is an example from a recent sermon of how I try to explain this:
"First, sin separates us from the presence of God (Isa. 59:2), which is the source of all joy (Ps. 16:11), love, wisdom, or good thing of any sort (James 1:17) .
"Second, to understand hell we must understand sin as slavery. Romans 1:21-25 tells us that we were built to live for God supremely, but instead we live for love, work, achievement, or morality to give us meaning and worth. Thus every person, religious or not, is worshiping somethingidols, pseudo-saviorsto get their worth. But these things enslave us with guilt (if we fail to attain them) or anger (if someone blocks them from us) or fear (if they are threatened) or drivenness (since we must have them). Guilt, anger, and fear are like fire that destroys us. Sin is worshiping anything but Jesusand the wages of sin is slavery."
Perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that the people on Lewis's bus from hell are enslaved because they freely choose to be. They would rather have their freedom (as they define it) than salvation. Their relentless delusion is that if they glorified God, they would lose their human greatness (Gen. 3:4-5), but their choice has really ruined their human greatness. Hell is, as Lewis says, "the greatest monument to human freedom."
2. Hell is less exclusive than so-called tolerance. Nothing is more characteristic of the modern mindset than the statement: "I think Christ is fine, but I believe a devout Muslim or Buddhist or even a good atheist will certainly find God." A slightly different version is: "I don't think God would send a person who lives a good life to hell just for holding the wrong belief." This approach is seen as more inclusive.
In preaching about hell, then, I need to counter this argument:
"The universal religion of humankind is: We develop a good record and give it to God, and then he owes us. The gospel is: God develops a good record and gives it to us, then we owe him (Rom. 1:17). In short, to say a good person, not just Christians, can find God is to say good works are enough to find God.
"You can believe that faith in Christ is not necessary or you can believe that we are saved by grace, but you cannot believe in both at once.
"So the apparently inclusive approach is really quite exclusive. It says, 'The good people can find God, and the bad people do not.'
"But what about us moral failures? We are excluded.
"The gospel says, 'The people who know they aren't good can find God, and the people who think they are good do not.'
"Then what about non-Christians, all of whom must, by definition, believe their moral efforts help them reach God? They are excluded.
"So both approaches are exclusive, but the gospel's is the more inclusive exclusivity. It says joyfully, 'It doesn't matter who you are or what you've done. It doesn't matter if you've been at the gates of hell. You can be welcomed and embraced fully and instantly through Christ.' "
3. Christianity's view of hell is more personal than the alternative view. Fairly often, I meet people who say, "I have a personal relationship with a loving God, and yet I don't believe in Jesus Christ at all."
"Why?" I ask.
They reply, "My God is too loving to pour out infinite suffering on anyone for sin."
But then a question remains: "What did it cost this kind of God to love us and embrace us? What did he endure in order to receive us? Where did this God agonize, cry out? Where were his nails and thorns?"
The only answer is: "I don't think that was necessary."
How ironic. In our effort to make God more loving, we have made God less loving. His love, in the end, needed to take no action. It was sentimentality, not love at all. The worship of a God like this will be impersonal, cognitive, ethical. There will be no joyful self-abandonment, no humble boldness, no constant sense of wonder. We would not sing to such a being, "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all."
The postmodern "sensitive" approach to the subject of hell is actually quite impersonal. It says, "It doesn't matter if you believe in the person of Christ, as long as you follow his example."
But to say that is to say the essence of religion is intellectual and ethical, not personal. If any good person can find God, then the essential core of religion is understanding and following the rules.
When preaching about hell, I try to show how impersonal this view is:
"To say that any good person can find God is to create a religion without tears, without experience, without contact.
"The gospel certainly is not less than the understanding of truths and principles, but it is infinitely more. The essence of salvation is knowing a Person (John 17:3). As with knowing any person, there is repenting and weeping and rejoicing and encountering. The gospel calls us to a wildly passionate, intimate love relationship with Jesus Christ, and calls that 'the core of true salvation.' "
4. There is no love without wrath. What rankles people is the idea of judgment and the wrath of God: "I can't believe in a God who sends people to suffer eternally. What kind of loving God is filled with wrath?"
So in preaching about hell, we must explain that a wrathless God cannot be a loving God. Here's how I tried to do that in one sermon:
"People ask, 'What kind of loving God is filled with wrath?' But any loving person is often filled with wrath. In Hope Has Its Reasons, Becky Pippert writes, 'Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it . Anger isn't the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference.'
"Pippert then quotes E. H. Gifford, 'Human love here offers a true analogy: the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor.'
"She concludes: 'If I, a flawed narcissistic sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone's condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God's wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.' "
A God like this
Following a recent sermon on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the post-service question-and-answer session was packed with more than the usual number of attenders. The questions and comments focused on the subject of eternal judgment.
My heart sank when a young college student said, "I've gone to church all my life, but I don't think I can believe in a God like this." Her tone was more sad than defiant, but her willingness to stay and talk showed that her mind was open.
Usually all the questions are pitched to me, and I respond as best I can. But on this occasion people began answering one another.
An older businesswoman said, "Well, I'm not much of a churchgoer, and I'm in some shock now. I always disliked the very idea of hell, but I never thought about it as a measure of what God was willing to endure in order to love me."
Then a mature Christian made a connection with a sermon a month ago on Jesus at Lazarus' tomb in John 11. "The text tells us that Jesus wept," he said, "yet he was also extremely angry at evil. That's helped me. He is not just an angry God or a weeping, loving Godhe's both. He doesn't only judge evil, but he also takes the hell and judgment himself for us on the cross."
The second woman nodded, "Yes. I always thought hell told me about how angry God was with us, but I didn't know it also told me about how much he was willing to suffer and weep for us. I never knew how much hell told me about Jesus' love. It's very moving."
It is only because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus' proclamation of grace and love are so brilliant and astounding.
Salvation is a life long labor of lovel, that immulates the labor of love exhibited by our loving Saviour on His Way of the Cross to hang there crucified unto death.
That labor and understanding is made clear in your own statement. I didn’t get all that until I became Catholic in 2000. I was emersed in victorious salvation already quite said, done, guaranteed, beyond the need for discussion and meditation.
As you kindly remind here, is your point that what you labor to understand, attain, you naturally will more appreciate. Thank you.
bookmark, because I am struggling.
Excellent! Ping for later!
This article explains things very well. Ping to read and really savor later.
There are a few religions out there that do not believe in a literal hell. They think that after a time, all who do not "make it" to heaven cease to exist - annihilation. It is interesting that the Hindu religion teaches that the ultimate destination is not heaven but Nirvana which is the same as nothingness or, in the same sense, annihilation. This concept makes it almost a desirable thing to finally cease to have a consciousness - cease to be - and get wrapped up into a universal consciousness. Yet, we know that this is a lie. There IS a conscious existence after death and it will either be with Almighty God in heaven or separation from His presence for eternity in the place called hell. How deceptive is the enemy of men's souls - the devil - who slyly tries to convince us that there ultimately is no consequence for rejecting God - that the worst we have to worry about is we just cease to exist and we won't care because we won't know anything anymore - there will no longer BE a me.
Jesus spoke about the place called hell numerous times. In fact, so many times that it is nonsense for anyone to assert he didn't talk about it. We know if he talked about it, then it does exist (or will) and that God does not desire for anyone to go there but wants ALL to come to repentance. But we have a choice to make - choose to follow God's way or reject His way for the myriad other ways that have been created by men and women that cannot save us from hell. God's way is through the cross. Not what we must do for God but what He has done for us and offers to us as a free gift that we accept by faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God. He made a way for us - but it is HIS way and it is the only way.
[[Thank you for posting this. I really think in the age we live in many even “religious” people shun talking about hell.]]
Many people who call themselves Christians (who never really accepted Christ as Savior, but who like to be seen as ‘Christian’) don’t liek hte mention of Hell- Hell, they even try to make it a ‘hate crime’ to tell peopel they are4 lost and goign to hell
A study of ‘Soverienty’ and Righteousness’ Show that God HATES sin- and the verse i nthe bible taklking about ‘for God ‘so loved the world’ might infact not mean EVERYONE but rather ‘so loved His own in the World’- If this is the case, Then God MUST infact hate sinners as well as the sin- and an all knowing God who knows who will and won’t be saved might infact never love those who don’t, not becasue He isn’t a God of love, He is, but because He hates sin with a righteous anger toward it and those who live in it-
Another point you make abotu Christ talking about hell- He not only talked about it, but He infact went there in death to preach the Word of God to those in Hell’s eternal captivity so that they would udnerstand that He is infact The Christ and that God’s word is Truth
[[It is interesting that the Hindu religion teaches that the ultimate destination is not heaven but Nirvana which is the same as nothingness or, in the same sense, annihilation.]]
Lemme tell ya folks- I had peritinitus when I was 17, and I had an NDE (near death experiuence) only I didn’t ascend into heaven toward a bright light- Nope- IO went the other way- into hell (whether tghis was an actual experience or just a trick of a dying mind I can’t tell you- but it was VERY vivid and I stil lrecal it to this day as though it just happened)
Well, while ‘in hell’ I was given a test- I had to count these sounds (I think it was the Docs asking me to count something while I waqs convulsing) and I tried to count htem, but htey got too fast- I began to weep- then this voice said “Don’t worry, you don’t exist- nothign exists” (I beleive thgsi was a trick of the evil one because none of it was biblical, I beleive the evil one may have caused these visions to try to shake my faith whoudl I surive, which I did of course)
Why am I recountign htis? Becasue the Hindus call ‘nothingness’ ‘Nirvana’? Nope- When I heard that voice tell me ‘don’t worry, you don’t exist’ I felt absolute nothingness (yet soemhow I was conscious of being in this state of nothingness’ and it was OVERWHELMINGLY frightening and lonely
Imagine being compeltely alone- forever, not able to see anything- feel, hear, experience anything- forever- not good folks- I only experienced perhaps a few seconds of it and it shook me to my core when I was revived- so much so I grabbed the Docs’ coat and tried to relate the whole experince to her- I was shaking- it was very unnerving
[[This concept makes it almost a desirable thing to finally cease to have a consciousness - cease to be - and get wrapped up into a universal consciousness.]]
My experience was wholly unbiblical, and it was most likely due to a dying brain burning with fever, however, again, it was a very vivid experience, and one that I think the evil one meant for evil (to shake my faith should i survive [I’m not sure if Satan has access to the thoughts of Christians or not, I don’;t beleive he does, but something caused some faith shaking vision of nothingness]) but perhaps some good can come from the fact that I experienced ‘nothingness’ or a ‘cosmic consciousness’ (which apparently a lot of peopel htink we might slip into after death) and it was NOT the Nirvana that many seem to think it would be-
Being a ‘consciousness in nothingness’ is a frightening fearful thing- to know you are compeltely alone, with no hope of meeting with others for eternity, is NOT the Nirvana many seem to think it will be- Being conscious of your complete aloneness is a very heavy burden to bear for eternity- it will drive the consciousness to insanity it would seem
sorry for carrying on- but what you wrote kinda struck me because I have had an experience similiar to what you described
Many liek ot think of God loving everyone, and just kinda winking and nodding at sin with an ‘understanding’ attitude- however, God’s word makes it clear there are infact those He does hate
Psalm 5:5, “The boastful shall not stand before Thine eyes; Thou dost hate all who do iniquity,”
Psalm 11:5, “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence His soul hates.”
Lev. 20:23, “Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I shall drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them.”
Prov. 6:16-19, “There are six things which the Lord hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: 17 Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 A heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, 19 A false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers.”
Hosea 9:15, “All their evil is at Gilgal; indeed, I came to hate them there! Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of My house! I will love them no more; All their princes are rebels.”
People are fond of saying ‘God hates the sin, but loves the sinner, but the above verses show that that simply isn’t true- And while some mgiht be offended at ‘hell-fire and brimstone’ messages, the FACT is that eternity in hell is a fearful thing that should be avoided at all costs, and if it takesw shaking someoen up by showing them the reality of the consequenses of their sin to shake them out of their sinful state to fall at the feet of Christ and ask forgiveness, then the hell-fire and brimstones messages are what’s needed today-
The Evil One wants folks to feel as though God is ‘very tolorant’ and understanding and will allow them into heaven becasue they ‘weren’t so bad’ in life, however, that is NOT what the bible teaches- The bible teraches a Soveriegn Righteous God who MUST punish Unsaved sinners and who MUST seperate thsoe unsaved sinners from Himself and Heaven becasue where God is, where Truth is, sin can NOT be present
[[and the final form of hate is indifference.]]
And that is precisely the condition this world is in as of late because we have gotten AWAY from the knowledge that God is a jealous and vengeful God Who HATES sin and sinners, and instead we’ve created God ijn our own image and now think He is a very tolorant God who excuses sin readily- The Evil one has managed to pull this off quite effectively unfortunately
[[It is only because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus’ proclamation of grace and love are so brilliant and astounding.]]
Sadly, due to ‘piolitical correctness’ This concept has been discarded in favor of preaching an ‘aqll loving’ God apaprently in an attempt to make God more ‘palatable’ to people lost in sin.
I am particularly drawn to this thread becasue I was born again under a hell-fire and brimstone message, and I thank God that the pastor had integrity enough to actually preach God’s word isntead of sugar coating His word to make it more desireable to hte unsaved-
I don’t know if you’ve ever read Pink’s ‘A Soverign God’ or not, but you can find it online- it’s kindaq hardcore calvanism (I think)it’s definately old School, and it really woke me up to just how much God hates sin. It’s a rugged read- and like I said, I think it trends toward Calvanism a bit, but not too severely, it focuses mainly on God’s righteous soveriengty- I’ll see if I can find the link to online version if you’re itnerested
meh- I had the title wrong it was “THE SOVEREIGNTY
Hee’s the link if you’re itnerested- It’s a real ‘smakc you in the face’ read, but it’s also a wakeup call too- A W Pink is a good writer, and fairly spot on Here’s the link
Excellent. Thanks for posting. The doctrine of hell is not taught as it should be in many churches today.
: "I don't think God would send a person who lives a good life to hell just for holding the wrong belief."
"I can't believe in a God who sends people to suffer eternally. What kind of loving God is filled with wrath?"
The answer to these kinds of statements is that they have a defective view of God. It is a view of God that is too low. All sin is against God (Psalm 51), and God is an infinite person, therefore, sin is an infinite crime and is, therefore, fully deserving of an infinite punishment--eternity in hell.
Another point I would address is that in this article, which is good, by the way, is that it seems to describe sin as simply an action that men and women do. A better understanding of it is that sin is action that results from a sinful nature. Everyone who possesses this sinful, or fallen, nature can do nothing else but commit acts of sin. The postmodern man or woman needs to go back to the doctrines of God, man, and sin (theology, anthropology, and harmartiology) and get straight on these things; then they will easily understand the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment.
But once we correctly understand God, we embrace the idea of hell as well as the fact of hell with full endorsement with no mental reservation. It has pleased God to punish unbelievers in hell for eternity. This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. Divine retributive justice is a glorious attribute of God.
Oh, it trends a lot towards Calvinism. You were right in your previous statement its kinda hardcore calvanism. But Calvinism is not something to run away from or avoid, especially on matters of the sovereignty of God and the Doctrines of Grace.
Theologian RC Sproul often says, and his quote was used in some vampire movie: "We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners."
Ping to the list, if you like.
You make some great points.
I live in upstate NY and attend a Dutch reformed Church, they don’t know what to do with a Presbyterian like me. ;-)
Anyway, I was discussing Keller with a couple of the Elders and they expressed some concerns over his preaching. They couldn’t quite put their finger on the cause for concern. I asked if it was fair to say that Tim Keller was the right guy to preach to those in the big city, but he would not be right for our church. Conversly our pastor is the perfect preacher for our congregation, but not for the city. I appealed to Paul’s charge to be all things to all people.
They seemed satisfied with that picture.
As is typical of Sproul, that is very well put. It is so true. I had not heard that the line was in a movie before. Thanks for mentioning it.
hmmm..... we are 'good' because of God's grace, i.e. while our nature is fallen, it is fallen from the 'good' because it was created by God and from God is only good. While you are grammatically correct, I would say that there are people who strive to be good at various levels.
Thanks for posting BibChr. I had the same feeling as Pyro; I thought this approach was a bit too analytical. But then I’m not an evangelist or preacher nor do I have that gift. In the end I suppose God created us with different ways of expressing His gospel so that all will be saved.
I defiuantely don’tr run away from calvanism, I concider myself partly calvanist, mostly baptist- Calvanism is spot on onm some subjects liek you mentioned, as well as few other subjects as well-