When you think about Biblical teachings that are most important, which ones come to mind? My guess is that you immediately think of doctrines such as the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the resurrection, the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and the triune nature of God. All of these are critically important. But what about the doctrine of hell? Did it come to mind?
There is perhaps no doctrine of Scripture more offensive to modern man than the doctrine of hell. The belief that a person could be tormented eternally because of their position and actions is looked down upon in society as the product of an unenlightened religious past. People who espouse such things must be on the wrong side of history. Postmodern thinking, on the other hand, has given rise to the notion that what is true for one person is not necessarily true for another. So while the Bible claims that the doctrine of hell is true, the world (like Pilate) raises its voice to cry, “What is truth?” Postmodern man has relegated hell to a cold future in the collective thought of the world.
What is far more alarming, however, is the place hell is being given in many confessing evangelical churches today. Although the doctrine of hell may not be directly denied, it often seems to be pushed to the side, softened, or completely ignored in favor of more appealing doctrines. After all, who wants to hear about eternal torment when we could be hearing about the love of God? Preaching about hell is not exactly at the top of the list for how to grow a big church. It’s not something that tends to draw a large crowd these days. We know it’s in the Bible, but do we really need to preach about it? How important could it really be?
The answer to that last question is one word: very. Think for a minute about four things that happen when hell is ignored from the pulpit.
When Paul stood before the elders of the Ephesian church, he said that he had taught them “the whole counsel of God” (Ephesians 20:27). He wrote to Timothy that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Do we believe this? Are we practicing it? It is significant to note that hell and the judgment of God are referred to over 180 times in the New Testament alone (hell, judgment, torment, fire, destruction, wrath, punishment, etc.). If we leave out the doctrine of hell from our preaching, we are ignoring a large portion of Scripture that the Holy Spirit intended for our benefit. That can’t be good for our health. If we say we are committed to the Scriptures, we need to preach all of it.
The Bible has a whole lot to say about sin. Probably because we humans are rebels by nature. But God is not like us. He is wonderfully and completely separate from sin. In a word, He is holy. “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.” (Revelation 15:4) The word “holy” is used over 600 times in the Bible. Clearly, God is concerned with holiness. His holiness also means that He cannot abide sin. “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13). God cannot turn a blind eye to sin because of His holiness. And so, because He is holy (and just), He must punish sin. He must bring justice upon every person who has rebelled against Him. “The LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies.” (Nahum 1:2) This justice is finally realized in a place of eternal, conscious torment that the Bible calls hell. “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:33) To ignore this doctrine of hell is to say that God winks at sin. It is to say that it doesn’t really matter how we live because God will accept us all in the end anyways. It is to say that the Hitlers and serial killers and child molesters and persecutors of God’s people won’t really receive the justice they deserve. It is to say that God is not holy and God is not just. In short, it is to say that most of what the Bible says about God isn’t really true after all. And without this vital element, the love of God is also greatly diminished. Apart from the holiness and justice of God, the love of God is reduced to a mushy, sentimental love, rather than the holy, breathtaking, people-redeeming, God-glorifying love that it truly is.
We live in an age when people in the pew generally want to hear nice things. Hearing about scary doctrines like hell and judgment just aren’t fashionable, especially not as a motivation for living the Christian life. After all, we Christians have fire insurance, right? Many church-goers may be surprised to find out that hell is actually used as a motivation for Christians to live as they ought to live. Though the Bible presents believers with a multitude of motivations to follow Christ faithfully (gratitude, joy, blessing, future rest, etc.), the reality of hell is certainly among them. Jesus Himself taught this when He said to His disciples, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29) He also said to His followers, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) The author of Hebrews, writing to a group of Christians, says, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” (Hebrews 10:26-27) Does this mean that a true Christian needs to be afraid that they might go to hell? In the words of the apostle Paul, certainly not! A true believer has no reason to think that they could ever be thrown into hell when Christ has already suffered in their place. However, a professing Christian who lives like the world or is turning His back on Christ has every reason to think that they may have a one-way ticket to hell. (Matthew 7:19, 21; Hebrews 10:38) That realization is one of the motivations God uses to keep true believers persevering to the end. To disregard that in the regular preaching ministry is to deprive God’s people of what is good and necessary for their souls.
Surely if we can agree on anything as evangelicals, it is the Gospel. We recognize and affirm that it is the preaching of the Gospel that God uses to bring salvation to needy sinners. But if we do not include God’s judgment as a part of our presentation of the gospel, something is terribly missing. Consider these three things. Firstly, we need to preach about hell so people will know why the Gospel is necessary. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and have turned aside and gone our own way (Isaiah 53:6). And as a result, God stands ready to bring judgment upon all such people who scorn Him (2 Thessalonians 1:8). His holiness and justice demand it. He will by no means clear the guilty (Exodus 34:7). This is indeed bad news. But it is bad news that leads somewhere. Only against this dark backdrop will the Gospel truly be understood as the good news it really is.
Secondly, what Jesus was doing on the cross will not be understood apart from the judgment of God. What was going on as Jesus hung on a Roman cross between heaven and earth? The Bible uses a powerful and important word to describe it: propitiation. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) Good Bible translations don’t replace that word with an easier one because it is so important. Propitiation is a sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath from us to itself. In other words, although we justly deserve God’s wrath because of our sin, something takes our place and suffers our punishment for us so that we can be forgiven and made right with God. You can surely see where I’m going with this. Jesus is the sacrifice. He is the one who took our place and suffered the wrath of God on our behalf. (Galatians 3:13) He wasn’t just setting us an example of sacrificial love on the cross. He was offering Himself as a divinely appointed substitute for our salvation. (1 Peter 3:18) In short, He suffered the full weight of hell for His people. To never mention hell or the wrath of God is to never mention the very heart of what Jesus was accomplishing for our salvation.
Thirdly, the lost will not be warned about the danger they face if hell is not preached. Surely part of the Gospel message is warning people about what will happen if they do not come to Christ. God uses means to bring people to Christ, and one of the means He uses is to warn lost people of the danger they are in. God himself says in Ezekiel 33:11, “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” Jesus calls men to “Remember Lot’s wife” and the judgment that God poured out upon her (Luke 17:32). It’s only when people see their great need to be saved from such punishment that they run to Christ for salvation. As Iain Murray says, “No one was converted without knowing that he needed to be.” Are there unconverted visitors coming to your church? Are there children growing up in the church who are still not saved? They need to hear about hell because they need to see how much they need Christ.
If you are reading this article and you are a pastor, let me encourage you to give attention to this vital subject in your preaching ministry. Maybe you haven’t denied the doctrine like Rob Bell has. But perhaps you are pushing it to the side because you want to see lots of people come to your church. Maybe you are tempted to tone it down because you don’t want people to leave. But you ignore it to your own peril and the peril of the people under your ministry. J.C. Ryle wrote, in his classic work, Holiness:
“I believe the time is come when it is a positive duty to speak plainly about the reality and eternity of hell…The watchman who keeps silence, when he sees a fire, is guilty of gross neglect…and the minister who keeps back hell from his people in his sermons is neither a faithful nor a charitable man…He is the kindest friend who tells me the whole extent of my danger.”
Listen also to A.W. Pink:
“Brethren, do we in our oral ministry preach on this solemn subject as much as we ought? The Old Testament prophets frequently told their hearers that their wicked lives…were treasuring up to themselves wrath…And conditions in the world are no better now than they were then!…Faithfulness demands that we speak as plainly about hell as about heaven.”
Do we preach hell because it is pleasant or because we like threatening people? No. We preach about hell because we must. We preach it because the Bible is true, because God is holy, because the Gospel is good news, and because we love sinners. Hell is real and to ignore it would be the most unloving thing we could do.
Am I saying that every sermon needs to be about hell? Absolutely not. Not every chapter or verse in the Bible is about hell. There are many other aspects of God’s revelation that need to be considered. What I am saying is that if this doctrine is not coming up in the preaching on a regular basis, people will be deprived of teaching that can lead them to Christ, prepare them for the last day, and bring glory to God. That sounds to me like something to be concerned