Is there really such a thing as hell? A reality/state/place where people experience eternal, conscious torment as a result of their rebellion against the God who gave them life? Are there millions of rebels already experiencing some form of unrelenting suffering, while they await final judgement for their sins before being consigned to an inextinguishable lake of fire? Are there many more millions headed there, who will most certainly perish and endure eternal death, unless they turn from their sins and put their trust in Jesus to save them?
Do you really believe in this stuff?
Surely we want a Christianity that’s more about God’s love and less about “fire and brimstone”? Surely we’ve moved on from “hellfire preaching”? Don’t we want preaching that focuses on how good Jesus is and how full of grace the gospel is? Surely preaching too much about eternal punishment reinforces the negative stereotypes of Christianity and God: it’s just a bunch of rules and He’s a nasty tyrant ready to mete out punishment to anyone who He doesn’t like.
I think I’m less convinced by hell than a lot of Christians from years gone by. At different periods in church history, it has not been uncommon to find people terrified by pictures of eternal judgement and believers who were plagued for many years by fears concerning their eternal destination.
Often preachers and churches were all-too-eager to warn people that they were about to face the fiery reality of God’s wrath. They thundered their “turn or burn” style message at everyone – the kind of thing that makes many of us cringe today. Hell was a major component of their message. Many have come to the conclusion that it was too much of a focus and it was the main thing sinners heard.
Now many of us have taken quite a different approach. We may speak about sin and it’s visible effects in our broken world and mention that God is just and will judge evil – but perhaps because we assume people know we mean “hell” when we say “judgement”, we’re quick to move onto the gospel: the death and resurrection of Jesus. By ensuring we focus on Jesus, we are making sure our message comes across as Christ-centered, or gospel-centered – not about a woeful, fiery nether region.
I’m all for making sure Jesus is the explicit centre of everything we say and do. But I have a problem.
When I say I’m less convinced by hell than many Christians who lived before me – I say it as a shameful confession – not as a proud declaration. You see I know hell is real – but I wonder why it makes so little impact on my life and the lives of many Christians around me. I say I’m less convinced by hell, because the reality of eternal punishment doesn’t seem to have much of an effect upon how I live a typical day. I say you’re probably less convinced by hell too, because generally speaking I don’t see a widespread appreciation of how serious it is amongst the Christians I know.
We may eschew hellfire preaching – I don’t dispute that it’s been done pretty badly over the years. But I would contend that spelling out what God’s judgement is like, does have its place in our proclamation of a Christ-centered message. I agree that if our focus is on how bad hell is and that Jesus is just a divine lasso to pull us to safety, or a fire escape door to run through – we’ve magnified hell at the expense of the pre-eminence and wonder of our Great God and Saviour. But on the other hand, the more we make hell something that is out of mind, out of sight – the less we and others will appreciate how great a salvation we have. Because the gospel is always meant to be awesome goodness on the backdrop of awful badness. Without the juxtaposition, we lose something vital.
Without understanding hell, the Cross itself loses its context.
The message of hell
Hell is itself a message; a kind of sermon; an eternal object lesson. And it’s the failure of the 21st Century church in developed societies to truly appreciate the components of this message that explains why we may be prone to minimising hell. So what’s the message? It’s very simple.
Hell is a declaration that:
1) God’s holiness is absolute, paramount and inviolable.
2) Any sin or rebellion against God is an indescribably severe and evil insult to God’s supreme dignity and a provocation of his wrath against ungodliness.
3) God’s justice administers a punishment against such sin – the severity of which reflects the severity of the transgression committed against Him.
When we as a church lack a proper appreciation of God’s awesome majesty and what it really means for Him to be holy (i.e. He alone has a claim to being truly sacred, unique, distinguished in kind and value from all other things and regarded with an esteem and gravity that reflects who He is) we will find ourselves agreeing with our non-Christian neighbours – that hell seems an extreme punishment for people who have basically lived a good life but committed some petty wrongdoings along the way. We are less convinced by hell, when we’re less moved by God’s holiness. We are less convinced by hell when we don’t recognise sin for how serious it is.
Now I’m not saying we should spend all of our time thinking and speaking about hell. But I am saying we should spend some time thinking and speaking about it. Because hell declares a message about God, sin and justice that our generation desperately needs to hear. I don’t want people coming to church just because they want a ticket out of hell. But nor do I want the church to be lethargic about the fact that people around us are going to hell if they reject Jesus (and it’s not wrong to make that part of the conversation we have with them). Want I do want is a church that knows hell is real and is prepared to make it clear to people what they’re choosing over eternal life in Jesus if they reject God’s offer of forgiveness. And I want to see converts who know how great the grace they’ve received is, because they’ve recognised how holy God is, how deeply they’ve wronged Him and how great a punishment Jesus took on their behalf to grant them life.
I hope to do a follow up post, featuring the way some of the great Christian pastors, preachers, authors and others leaders have spoken about hell and how it fit into their understanding of the Christian life.
 Nathan Reading “Inferno” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr
 Erik Bishoff “Hate” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr