Speaking seriously and sensitively about hell
What is the preacher to do with hell and eternal punishment? In our day and age these particular truths strike some as comical and others as cruel.
To some, hell is a joke. It’s about little devils in red tights. It’s a place where illicit pleasures are indulged (if we believe the entertainment media, not to mention the porn industry). It conjures up images of old-fashioned, red-faced TV preachers preaching the disdained ‘hellfire and brimstone’ sermon.
On the other hand, in more thoughtful settings — major universities, mainline seminaries, serious print media — the mere admission of one’s belief in such a destination for the unredeemed evokes sheer horror from the enlightened.
How could you possibly believe something so primitive, so backwards, so mean, so exclusive, so intolerant? A rampant relativism and universalism makes hell the only heresy.
Meanwhile, we’ve got our own problems with hell in the conservative Christian sub-culture. There are serious scholars of evangelical reputation who have created significant doubts in the minds of some of our finest young preachers.
The traditional church teaching is not biblical, they’ve argued. Godly and brilliant John Stott was part of a group of British evangelicals that suggested conditional immortality as an alternative to the historic view. Clark Pinnock and others promoted more thoroughgoing renovations.
Then, there are those who are in reaction against the abuse of this teaching in the days of their fundamentalist youth. They seek to ignore it out of existence. For the last few decades, some practitioners of the church growth movement have banished the doctrine from their evangelistic lexicon (along with ‘sin’, ‘judgement’ and the like) because, they say, it doesn’t existentially connect with our generation and repels some from the gospel.
And, of course, now Rob Bell has kicked up a controversy with his new book Love wins, in which he makes a case for something like universalism or universal redemption-ism in a way that is very attractive to many.
So how do we address these difficult truths? How do we tackle them in a responsible and appropriate way?
To begin with, we need to be realistic enough to recognise that unless we follow a systematic plan for biblical preaching, we will likely avoid this topic. Here’s where lectio continua preaching (working through Bible books, chapter by chapter, verse by verse) or teaching through the great catechisms helps.
Such an approach forces the minister to treat even the hard truths, and also alleviates him of the charge of picking morbid subjects or fixing on pet issues.
The minister who consecutively preaches Scripture can look at his congregation and say, ‘This passage follows on the one we last studied and, as uncomfortable as it contents may be for some of you, integrity demands that we consider it’.
You may be surprised how sympathetic nervous Christians and intelligent inquirers can be to such a frank announcement.
Then, we need to be completely convinced of the biblical origins and contours of this doctrine. If we step into the pulpit with the slightest doubt, it will show. When certainty has been undermined by academic strictures against this teaching, then the truth must be studied until a thorough conviction obtains.
Furthermore, one must begin to look at unbelievers with the same kind of pathos and compassion that Jesus and his disciples evinced when they contemplated an immortal soul and the reality of eternal darkness.
‘Hell’ is taken up so glibly in our culture, as a low-rent swear word or thoughtless threat, that every time the minister speaks of it there must be evident gravitas and mercy, or else we run the risk of stoking the general cynicism.
‘A man who realizes in any measure the awful force of the words eternal hell won’t shut up about it, but will speak with all tenderness’, said A. A. Hodge.
In this connection, let me suggest that the preacher talk to people like he would to a family about death in extraordinary circumstances (the loss of a child, suicide, murder, etc.).
You want to be sensitive, but frank. So often, folk try to cope with such a loss by denial, circumlocution or euphemism. The minister in such a situation must neither be uncaring nor tiptoe around the obvious.
He must draw attention to the elephant in the room that no one is acknowledging. Strangely, this often brings great relief to the family that has already spoken with friend after friend unable to speak directly about the cause, manner, time, or even fact of death, in a straightforward way. The minister’s sensitive explicitness breaks the ice and enables the bereft to voice the unspeakable.
So also with hell, the minister’s willingness to break silence and speak directly to hidden fears and questions, lovingly and carefully to be sure, but with manliness and conviction, can breed a certain receptivity, and even confidence in his words.
There may be some in your congregation who have grown up in circles where Christian discipleship is viewed as little more than an escape route from hell. Their public professions of faith (or often, ‘decisions’) are sometimes made only to give them a definitive sense of relief from the prospect of eternal damnation (a so-called ‘fire insurance’ view of Christian profession).
But their interest in Christ and Christianity seems to stop just about there. They don’t want to go to hell, to be sure, but describe to them a biblical view of Christian discipleship or even heaven (as a place of endless delight in God) and their heart’s not in it.
To make matters worse, some preachers have actually fostered this fallacy by assuring their congregations (in funeral sermons and elsewhere) of the absolute certainty of the salvation of some notoriously immoral and godless person because he ‘walked the aisle’ when he was ten.
What better way to convince people that Christianity is all about avoiding an unpleasant end, rather than glorifying God in this life and the next?
The faithful minister must be aware of and tackle this problem in his teaching on hell. While the reality of hell and everlasting punishment has been used of the Spirit to shake many awake from a lethal slumber, there is always in the truly regenerate an accompanying set of spiritual motivations and desires.
Hence, there will be times when the minister must address the misuse of this doctrine, because it has frequently resulted (especially among covenant children in the environs of nominal evangelicalism) in a truncated view of what Christian salvation actually entails.
We also need to respond to popular suspicion of and intellectual contempt for this doctrine.
On the one hand, you may have intelligent laypeople in your congregation, with evangelical convictions, who have come under the influence of teachers who have unsettled them about this biblical doctrine.
If so, some of your preaching on the subject (while not losing sight of the main matter in expounding a text) will be designed to buttress evangelicals rattled by criticisms of the doctrine. This may require you briefly to respond to some of the popular/academic/’evangelical’ criticisms of the traditional doctrine.
The Westminster Divines themselves acknowledged this need. They said that the minister ‘if the people be in danger of an error’, should ‘confute it soundly, and endeavour to satisfy their judgments and consciences against all objections’.
Furthermore they added: ‘If any doubt obvious from Scripture, reason, or prejudice of the hearers, seem to arise, it is very requisite to remove it, by . . . answering the reasons, and discovering and taking away the causes of prejudice and mistake’.
On the other hand, you may be blessed with the attendance of open, inquiring pagans at your public services. Some of them may have major problems with the very idea of a place of eternal torment.
You will want, in this circumstance, to acknowledge the existential angst that many have about this doctrine and then turn the tables on them by reminding them that it is our own peculiar zeitgeist that puts God on trial for hell and questions his existence because of pain and suffering in this world.
The fact is, however, if the moral universe depicted by the Bible is the reality in which we actually live, then the real problem is not our pain but rather our happiness; not God’s justice and love but rather our undeserving experience of them; not human suffering but human sin without immediate divine reprisal; not the sentence of hell but the gift of the cross of Jesus Christ.
To be continued
J. Ligon Duncan
The author is senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi
This is edited from an article on Reformation 21, a web site of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (www.reformation21.org/blog/ligon-duncan)