Speaking Seriously and Sensitively about Hell to the Sons of this Age and the Next

Ligon Duncan

What is the preacher to do with hell and eternal punishment? In our day and age these truths strike some as comical and others as cruel. To some, hell is a joke. It's about little devils in red tights (so teach the cartoonists). 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 (before they figured out that only "nice" plays on the tube) 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 (though he has repented into agnosticism on the question latterly). Clark Pinnock and others promoted a more thoroughgoing renovations of the hard place. 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, judgment and the like) because, they say, it doesn't existentially connect with our generation and repulses 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 redemptionism in a way that will, no doubt, be very attractive to many.

So how do you address these difficult truths? How does the reality of hell and endless punishment make a difference in your preaching? How do you tackle them in a responsible and appropriate way? What do you need to avoid when treating them? How should we preach hell and eternal punishment (if at all)?

Address Hell Textually

To begin with, we need to be realistic enough to recognize 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 simply 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.

Address Hell Decisively

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 a thoughtless threat, that every time the minister speaks of it, there must be evident gravitas and mercy, else we run the risk of stoking the general cynicism of the people. "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.

Address Hell Pastorally

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, cancer or some other dread disease, murder, and the like). You want to be sensitive but frank. So often folk begin trying to cope with such a loss by denial or 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 no one is acknowledging. Strangely, this often brings great relief to the family who has already spoken with friend after friend who has not been able to speak directly about the cause of death, the manner of death, the time of death, or even the fact of death in any 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, in his audience. Speaking to the matter from the vantage point of strength and kindness enables the minister to address the subject comprehensively, probing into areas where an emotional knee-jerk reaction might otherwise function as an effective prophylactic against the truth of God's word.

Address Hell Correctively

There may be some in your congregation who have grown up in circles where Christian discipleship is viewed as little more as 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 or misdeployment 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.

Address Hell Apologetically

We also have 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 of expounding the text) will be designed to buttress evangelicals who are 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 endeavor 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 (ala John Piper, Tim Keller or C.S. Lewis), and remind 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.

You need to read, listen to and learn from the great Christian apologists and apologetic preachers of our time as they deal with these (and other) matters. Scavenge for ideas and angles with and from which you can surprise your hearers - to startle them into attention and engagement. For instance, one helpful and suggestive popular defense of hell can be found in a newspaper article by John Murray Macleod in the Glasgow Herald(!) called "Between the Hard Place and Satan's Spandau" [it can be accessed via www.fpcjackson.org - via the "Resources" page], another powerful and sobering presentation is found in Donald Macleod's A Faith to Live By (Christian Focus Publications).

Address Hell Exegetically

Most of "our" hearers (congregants of churches pastored by reformation21 readers) will 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, judgment 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 (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.

Address Hell Christologically

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 which is so despised in our day regarding hell than is 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 its 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-Savior. 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 and 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 and abandonment and forsakeness 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 place, the one person, in the universe that it has no right to strike - the incarnate and sinlessly perfect Son of God. It is 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 forgo God in this life, forgo 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 his exceeding preciousness to the Father. There are no intrinsic grounds for judgment against him. 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 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 (as do the denizens of gehenna). But grace, 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 - 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.