Speaking seriously and sensitively about hell
What is the preacher to do with hell and eternal punishment? In last month’s ET we noted that preachers must keep in mind several perspectives.
For example, they need to read, listen to and learn from the great Christian apologists and apologetic preachers of our time. Scavenge for ideas and angles on this subject, with and from which you can surprise your hearers — to startle them into attention and engagement.
Many of our hearers may have high views of scriptural authority, and so, if they are shown from Scripture what the Lord says about hell and eternal punishment, that will settle it for them.
So, you’ll want carefully to adduce from the text itself the doctrine that you want them to embrace. Furthermore, as you do, you’ll want to address some connected issues that will be on the minds of your more serious students of the Bible.
What did the Old Testament teach about hell, death, judgement and punishment? What are the continuities and discontinuities between Old Testament and New Testament teaching on these matters?
How do the ideas of Sheol, Hades and Gehenna relate? They’ll want to know what sort of a hope for the resurrection was entertained by old covenant believers (Derek Kidner is great on this). And, bless their hearts, if they’ve been wading through N. T. Wright, they’ll be totally confused about the early Christian conception of the afterlife!
You’ve got your work cut out for you, but, if you let the text set the agenda and speak for itself, God’s Word will not bring an empty return.
Perhaps most importantly of all, there is an urgent need for us to approach this truth christologically, that is, in conscious relation to the doctrine of Christ. I mean that in at least two ways.
First, we need to stress that hell is an unavoidably dominical doctrine. We have learned it from the lips of Jesus. No one is more responsible for laying out the main lines of the teaching regarding hell, which is so despised in our day, than our Lord himself.
He addressed the subject more than anyone else and gave it more attention in the scope of his ministry than many other important themes. And it’s no wonder he spoke of it so often in deadly earnest.
He created it and he alone of redeemed humanity has experienced its torment. So, in the final analysis, we believe in hell, because we believe — and believe in — Jesus. That means that if someone wants to take issue with hell, their argument is not with the preacher but with the Creator-Saviour. That’s not a quarrel one ought to be anxious to join.
Second, our preaching on hell must be christological in the sense that it must be set in the context of the cross. To many, hell poses a problem for theodicy. Just as some suggest that the problem of evil calls into question either the goodness or existence of the sovereign God, so also hell is trucked out as the ultimate trump card against the love, mercy and grace of the Christian God.
How can you believe, they ask, in a God who sends people to hell? Well, the answer is, look at the cross and I’ll give you a bigger problem to think about. Christ’s dereliction, abandonment and forsakenness on the cross is a far greater philosophical-theological problem than hell.
Why do I say this? Because, at the cross, the wrath of God is striking out at the one person in the universe that it has no right to strike — the incarnate and sinlessly perfect Son of God.
That was a far greater injustice than we can conceive. No plight was ever less merited. Hell, on the other hand, is deserved. It makes perfect sense. Its logic is inexorable. Those who forego God in this life, forego him also in the next; sheer justice, even in a certain way inadvertently chosen and self-imposed. Hell is the ultimate quid pro quo — the eternal reward of all Pelagians.
But the cross — now there’s a labyrinth! When we contemplate the cross adequately, we have to account not only for its brutality, but also for its injustice, in light of the Son’s complete moral perfection and exceeding preciousness to the Father. There were no intrinsic grounds for judgement against Christ.
Considered in this context, the cross seems to contradict and call into question the very justice of God. And yet, the central message of the Pauline gospel is that this plan, which seemed at first to undercut the justice of God, was in fact the divine strategy to establish the justice of God in the dispensation of his grace.
How can this be? Because though there were no intrinsic grounds for Christ’s condemnation, yet there were, by God’s grace, extrinsic grounds located in his federal union with his people.
Because of this covenantal relation with them, he was rendered liable and vulnerable to the sin and punishment of all his sheep, in his vicarious substitution. Thus the cross is redeemed from injustice and, indeed, is the divine instrument to reveal ‘the righteousness of God’ (Romans 1:17).
The puzzles of hell, deep as they are, can’t compete with the puzzle of grace. Hell is the subconscious fear of humanity, because we inherently know we deserve it, even though we grind our teeth at God about it. But grace is counter-intuitive; it’s the hardest thing to believe in the world.
Now we are perfectly familiar with the oft-quoted counsel of Spurgeon that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar. But this should not be advanced as a justification for ignoring the truth of hell in our preaching. Spurgeon certainly didn’t.
No, hell is a reality that puts heaven-by-grace in bold relief. It says to the sinner via special revelation what he knows via general revelation and the imago dei, that one day his soul will be required; there will be a reckoning. God’s justice will be done. He will merit damnation.
Then, alongside this truth of hell, the gospel comes and says, yes, the justice of God will be done — but one way or another. One may stand before the tribunal in one’s own goodness, or dressed in Christ’s. One can receive the wages he has earned, or receive the wages Christ has earned. The difference is final and eternal.
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)