Guest Post: What Happens When Hell is Not Preached? by Daniel Wakefield

Daniel Wakefield currently serves as a pastoral intern at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Coconut Creek Florida. 

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.

  1. The Bible will not be fully taught

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.

  1. The holiness and justice of God will be minimized

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.

  1. Christians will not be fully motivated to persevere

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.

  1. The Gospel will not be preached

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

Aesthetics and a Christian Worldview by Jeffery Smith

Francis Schaeffer in his work entitled, Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology pointed out that, “Near the end of his life, Charles Darwin”, the man who was so influential in developing the theory of evolution, “acknowledged several times in his writings that two things had become dull to him as he got older.” One was his joy in the arts and the other was his joy in nature. Schaeffer comments on the irony of this famous naturalist losing his enthusiasm for the very thing that he had made his life’s calling. He wrote, “Darwin offered his proposition that nature, including man, is based only on the impersonal plus time plus chance, and he had to acknowledge at the end of his life that it had had these adverse effects on him.” Then Schaeffer argues that what we’ve seen, and I would add continue to see, in the Western world is this same loss of joy in our total culture. We have lost the sense of sacred joy in creation because, after all, nature is nothing more than the product of impersonal chance.1 That’s what young people are being taught in our schools. Is it any wonder then that we are marked in our society by a joyless depressed generation of young people?2

One of the most striking things about the world that God has made is its order and beauty. There is an orderliness to the creation, a symmetry to it. This is evident in the creation account in Genesis 1. We have God creating beauty and structure and order out of chaos, dividing light from darkness, sea from sky, land from sea; then covering the earth with vegetation and filling the skies with heavenly bodies. Then he fills the seas and then the earth with living creatures. And it all culminates in the creation of man. The text most definitely focuses our attention upon this matter of the orderly structured nature of God’s creating work. This is telling us something about God himself. Remember, the creation itself declares his glory (Ps.191-6), Rom, 1:19-20). It is intended to reveal something about God to us and one of the things the scriptures emphasize is that our God is a God of order.
The message of the Bible is that this world we live in is not a product of meaningless chance, and chaotic randomness. No, we are told that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep but God spoke into the darkness and said, “Let there be light: and there was light.” He created a world of order in which every plant and every creature fits into its own peculiar place and role. He did not create a mass of unrelated chaotic matter but a world that operates according to the fixed and orderly laws of nature that He has established and upholds by His active providence. Everything in God’s world reflects this reality that God is a God of order, plan, and purpose.3

The scriptures also reveal God to us as the God of providence who is working all things after the counsel of His own will. Everything in history and time is moving to God’s appointed end. There is meaning to it all! Nothing is haphazard. It’s not all a bunch of meaningless confusion. God is methodically and deliberately governing all of his creatures and all of their actions.

Furthermore, we who are Christians have heard and believed the good news of the gospel. The gospel has shined into our hearts in saving power, just as God caused the light to shine out of darkness in the first creation. We have been made new creations in Christ Jesus and we have come to know the almighty God as our Heavenly Father. So the Christian has come to understand life as having positive meaning and purpose. He understands that the ups and downs of life are not the reflection of a world of chaos or the result of the whims of unknown gods, playing cat and mouse with human pawns. He understands that the ups and downs are rather the result of the wise guidance of an almighty Father in heaven who loves His people for whom He sent His Son to die; a God who is working all things together for their good. For the Christian life makes sense. There is purpose and concord and order to life and reality.

Now this is important. This is the exact opposite of the worldview that characterizes the postmodernism of our day. One of the characteristics of postmodernism is an aversion to absolute truth claims or metanarratives that purport to explain the meaning of life for all mankind. There’s no real overarching purpose and meaning. There’s nothing we can really be certain about; everything is subjective. One of the places this philosophy of life is reflected is in postmodern art and architecture. The postmodern artist seeks to reflect this worldview. For example, one characteristic is the effort to collapse the difference between what is artistic and what is not. You’ll find ordinary objects, such as coke bottles, sleds or toilets displayed as if they were art. A postmodern artist may make meticulously realistic paintings of such things. Apparently, as I’ve read, one artist displays his bowel movements. Rather than making art that is beautiful and pleasing, some post-modern artists experiment with art that is purposefully ugly and infuriating. This is done deliberately; there’s a message. The message is, “What does it matter? Who cares? What is beautiful anyhow? What is art anyhow? It’s whatever you want it to be. There’s no real objective standard or meaning to anything.” By contrast the Christian worldview is that everything is not meaningless chaos and relativity. Under God there is purpose and order and beauty to life and reality, though marred by sin.

Now the Christian worldview should be reflected by God’s people. For example, Christians ought to be concerned about aesthetics. What is aesthetics? Aesthetics is the way something looks or the way something sounds. So it’s a word that is also used to refer to the study of beauty and order and proportion. Christians are not intended to be indifferent to the matter of aesthetics. Drab and colorless is not somehow more holy. Indifference to structure and beauty is not somehow a mark of being more heavenly minded. Aesthetics matters because we have been called to reflect the glory of the God who has saved us; the God who created this orderly, structured and beautiful world. It matters in worship (1 Cor.14:40), in our music, in our place of meeting. It matters in our dress (1 Tim.2:9), in the care of our homes, in all of life. The beauty and order that God has built into creation is something to be enjoyed, celebrated and appreciated and to be reflected in God’s people.

Let me conclude these thoughts by referring to a story told by Francis Schaeffer about an occasion when he visited of a Christian school in the 1960s. Just across a ravine from the school was what they called a hippie community. Schaeffer was curious to find out about these people and perhaps to have opportunity to share his faith with them. So he crossed the ravine to learn more about it. He discovered that the community was pagan and conducted pagan earth rituals. But he was also struck with how beautiful the community was and how carefully they kept it up. The leader of the pagan community at one point looked across at the Christian school and said to him, “Look at that; isn’t that ugly?” “And it was ugly”, Schaeffer says,

“I could not deny it. It was an ugly building without any trees. It was then that I realized what a poor situation this was. When I looked at the Bohemian people’s place it was beautiful. They had even gone to the trouble of running their electric cables under the level of the trees so they couldn’t be seen. Then I stood on pagan ground and looked at the Christian community and saw ugliness.” 4

Schaeffer’s point was that it ought not to be that way. Here you have a Christianity that is failing to take into account man’s responsibility to reflect the glory of God in this area of aesthetics.

1 Francis Schaeffer , “Pollution and the Death of Man,” 1970, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaefer: A Christian Worldview Vol. 5, (Westchester Illinois: Crossway Books 1982), 4.
2 My attention was originally drawn to this work of Schaeffer , its relevance to the subject of this article and his comments mentioned here and later in the blog through a printed sermon by Geoff Thomas on Genesis 1:16-31. It may be accessed at on the internet at: http://www.alfredplacechurch.org.uk/?page_id=935.
3 Some of these thoughts and those of the two following paragraphs were first suggested to me while listening to a tape of a sermon by Lloyd-Jones on the subject of singing or songs in worship from an exposition of Eph. 5:18-19.
4 Ibid. 23-24.