PROCLAIMING HELL IN A TOLERANT AGEThis article came to me somehow and it is not signed, therefore it is published here without the author's permission. However I find the message to be well-written and so important that I took the liberty of sharing. If anyone reads and knows who the author is please contact me so that I can get the proper permissions and post the credit.
A man once came to me who was impeccably dressed and articulate. He had an MBA, was successful in the business world, and had lived in three countries before the age of thirty. He had been raised in a family with only the loosest connections to a Christian church -- he had little understanding of Christianity.
It was therefore gratifying to learn of his intense spiritual interest -- recently piqued as he listened to a recent sermon. He said he was ready to embrace the gospel, but there was a final obstacle for him.
"You have said that if we do not believe in Jesus Christ," he said, "we are lost and condemned. I am sorry, but 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 do not believe in Jesus. In fact, I cannot reconcile the very idea of hell with that of a loving God -- even 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 is the problem of suffering and evil.) Many people today reject the idea of final judgment and hell.
So, it is tempting to avoid such topics in our teaching, but neglecting the unpleasant doctrines of the historic faith will bring about serious negative consequences. There is a balance to scriptural truth that must not be disturbed.
If an area is rid of its predatory or undesireable animals, the balance of that environment may be so upset that the desirable plants and animals are lost, through over breeding 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 Biblical 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 comforts -- our understanding of God's grace and love and our human dignity and value to him. To proclaim the good news, we must also proclaim the bad. But in this age of tolerance, how?
How to Proclaim Hell to Traditionalists
Before expounding on the subject of hell, one must recognize that today, a congregation is made up of two groups: traditionals and postmoderns. The two hear the message of hell completely differently.
People from traditional cultures and mindsets tend to have (1) a belief in God and (2) 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 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 cannot 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 they are shown that 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 this might be done:
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 you -- that hurts. If a good friend does the same -- the hurt is 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 (1) only a vague belief in the divine, if at all, and (2) 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 nonreligious Jewish backgrounds, from liberal mainline Protestant backgrounds, from the western and northeastern U.S., and Europeans.
When teaching hell to people of this mind set, one must make four arguments.
1. Sin is Slavery
Sin is not 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.
We need to say: "You are actually being religious, though you do not know it -- you are trying to find salvation through worshipping 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 or see the roots of our problem. Lewis wrote:
"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's thinking up punishments to inflict on disobedient people. When sin is seen as slavery and hell is the freely chosen, eternal skid row of the universe, hell becomes much more comprehensible.
Here is an example of how this might be explained:
First, sin separates us from the presence of God (Isa. 59:2), Who is the source of all joy (Psalm 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 something -- idols, pseudo-saviors -- to 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 driveness (since we must have them). Guilt, anger, and fear are like fire that destroys us. Sin is worshiping anything but Jesus -- and 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 chose 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 (Genesis 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 agnostic will certainly find God." A slightly different version is: "I do not 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 teaching about hell, we 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 own Him (Romans 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 Jesus is not necessary or you can belive 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 are not 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 does not matter who you are or what you have done. It does not matter if you have been at the gates of hell. You can be welcomed and embraced fully and instantly through Christ Jesus."3. Christianity's View of Hell is More Personal Than the Alternative View
Fairly often, people say, "I have a personal relationship with a loving God, and yet I do not believe in Jesus Christ at all."
"Why not?" one asks.
They reply, "My God is too loving to pour out infinite suffering 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, and 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 impersonal. It says, "It does not matter if you believe in the person of Jesus 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 teaching about hell, one needs to 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."
Two points here: (1) Know who is part of the community of people where God has called you to witness and proclaim the Good News, and (2) Recognize that everyone in it will always need your appropriate input and support.
4. There is No Love Without Wrath
What rankles people is the idea of judgment and the wrath of God: "I cannot believe in a God Who sends people to suffer eternally. What kind of loving God is filled with wrath?"So in teaching about hell, we must explain that a wrathless God cannot be a loving God. Here is how one might try to do that:
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 offeres a true analogy: the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor."
She conludes, "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
After one teaching session on hell, the group began discussing what had been presented. 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 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 helped me. He is not just an angry God or a weeping loving God -- He is both. He does not ony 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 did not 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 is 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.