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Why Is Hell Seldom Mentioned From The Pulpits Today?

Category Articles
Date June 7, 2005

According to a recent article in “The Los Angeles Times,” the mention of hell from pulpits is at “an all-time low.” The article quotes Dr. Harvey Cox Jr., professor of Religion at Harvard Divinity School as saying that, “There has been a shift in religion from focusing on what happens in the next life to asking, ‘What is the quality of life we’re leading now?’ . . . You can go to a whole lot of churches week after week, and you’d be startled even to hear a mention of hell.”

A Landmark Shift

A Landmark shift has taken place in recent years as far as content and emphasis in preaching is concerned. The trend in evangelical churches is definitely away from the biblical notion of judgment and eternal punishment. Preaching on such solemn themes has largely been replaced by a steady stream of sermons on everyday issues such as child rearing, husband-wife relations and similar “practical” topics. These are very much in demand today and preachers by and large have caved in to this demand. As a result unpleasant subjects such as divine wrath and eternal fire are put on the back burner. Churches today are under enormous pressure to be consumer-oriented. They feel the need to be appealing rather than demanding.

There is, of course, a legitimate place for preaching on practical subjects such as child rearing and the roles and responsibilities of spouses and parents. Scripture itself sets forth clear principles and directives regarding these and similar issues. Especially at a time when marriage and the family are under vicious and relentless attack we need biblical instruction from the pulpit on these vital matters.

But something is very wrong when such preaching takes place at the expense of other biblical themes for fear that these might not be welcome. What Jesus said to the Pharisees with reference to their practice of tithing mint, anise and cummin, while neglecting the more important duties of loving God and exercising mercy, applies also here, namely: “these ought ye to have done and not to leave the other undone” (Matt.23:23; Luke 11:42).

Consequences Of Not Mentioning Hell

It is precisely because many are leaving the preaching about hell undone that fear of God is largely absent from both church and society. The most appalling crimes are being committed by people who show no emotion and appear to have no qualms of conscience whatsoever. Even in church we meet many, especially young people (but older ones as well), who show little or no concern about death and eternity. They don’t feel attracted to heaven, nor are they afraid of hell. The here-and-now is all they seem to think about. The biblical statement, “there is no fear of God before their eyes,” accurately describes the thoughts and attitude of many in the present generation, both in and outside the church.

A Voice From The Past

A while ago I read an account of an execution of a murderer in Boston, Massachusetts in 1686 where the convict, before mounting the gallows, preached a sermon to the spectators. Looking at the coffin, which he was soon to fill, the man said these words:

“I pray God that I may be a warning to you all… I beg of God, as I am a dying man, and to appear before Him within a few minutes, that you take notice of what I say to you… Don’t turn your back upon the Word of God, as I have done. When I have been at meeting [church], I have gone from the meetinghouse to commit sin and to please the lust of my flesh… O, that I may make improvement of this little, little time, before I go hence and be no more! O, let all mind what I am saying, now I am going out of this world! O, take warning by me, and beg of God to keep you from this sin, which has been my ruin” (Daniel J. Boorstin, The American The Colonial Experience, pp. 13-14).

Who Is To Blame?

That was a different time and age, you will say! Yes, but man still has to die, whether he is a criminal, an upright citizen, or a respectable church member. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Therefore, all are under condemnation and must face the judgment of God. The tragedy is that today hardly anyone seems to be worried about this awesome prospect any more. Why is that? Why is it that the fear of God, so clearly evident in the last words spoken by the condemned man mentioned above, has almost vanished from society and church alike?

To a large degree the blame must be laid at the door of the churches. People have been told so long and so emphatically that God loves them that no one is afraid of the “Man Upstairs” any more. They either dismiss this God-is-love talk as so much nonsense or they take it seriously, but the result is the same: both are quite sure they have nothing to fear from this gentle, celestial Being who would not think of sentencing anyone to hell, if indeed such a place exists.

What About Free Reformed Preaching?

How is that in our churches, I wonder? The subject of hell comes up every once in a while, for instance when preaching on the Heidelberg Catechism, Questions and Answers, 10, 37, 52 and 84. For the rest we preachers are free to choose any Bible passage we wish to preach on according to what we perceive to be the need of the congregation. But this freedom also makes it possible for us to avoid those passages of Scripture that we know will be viewed by many as negative. This is a temptation facing all God’s servants and few can truthfully say that they have never been caught in this snare of Satan.

We May Not Apologize For Hell

But even if we make an honest attempt to be faithful in preaching the whole counsel of God, which includes warning sinners to flee from the wrath of God, there is still the possibility of doing it in the wrong way and from the wrong motive. I mean this: one can preach about hell in such a way that the hearers sense that the preacher is embarrassed by the subject. He may even apologize to the congregation before getting into this topic because he knows it is unpopular. He may say something like this: “I wish I didn’t have to say this, but faithfulness to Scripture demands that I warn you who are outside of Christ,” etc.

But clearly this is wrong. Why? Because if I introduce the subject of hell this way, I am really implying that I am more merciful than the infinite God, more kind, more loving, more gracious than He is. But how can I possibly be more gracious than He Who sent His only begotten Son to the cross to endure the agonies of hell in the place of sinners? Surely, I am less holy, less just, less righteous than He is. There is something very right about sentencing all Christ-rejecters to hell. What an insult to the Redeemer that men would rather keep their sins than having them pardoned and washed away in His blood! God would not be just if He allowed such ungrateful wretches to get away with their unbelief and rebellion.

Therefore I must be on His side and concur with His wise and His righteous decisions. I may not apologize for any of God’s attributes, including His retributive justice that calls for unrepentant sinners to perish forever. David understood the seriousness of sin and acknowledged that God would be just in punishing him for his crimes (Ps, 51:4). In the Day of Judgment not one voice will be raised to question God’s fairness in assigning men to their eternal destiny according to how they have lived on this earth and especially how they have reacted to the Gospel of His Son. He will judge according to His infinite knowledge of every act, word, thought and motivation. Nothing about that judgment will be unfair, for shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Gen.18:25)

We Must Not Soften The Severity Of Hell

But there is another wrong way to preach about hell. I am referring to the tendency today to soften the awfulness of hell by suggesting that the biblical statements referring to eternal punishment should be interpreted figuratively rather than literally. Now it is true that Scripture uses figurative language both in describing hell and heaven. But that does not mean that such language does not reflect reality. What the Bible tells us about heaven is meant to give us an idea of how unimaginably wonderful it will be there. But the same thing applies to the words and expressions used to describe hell. It will be unimaginably terrible.

Some theologians define hell as the place where sinners are separated from God. The idea is to warn sinners that by not repenting of sin and believing in Christ, they run the risk of spending eternity alone, without God and even His common grace blessings. But as Dr. R.C. Sproul points out, this is a misleading interpretation. He writes:

A breath of relief is usually heard when someone declares, “Hell is a symbol for separation from God.” To be separated from God for eternity is no great threat to the impenitent person. The ungodly want nothing more than to be separated from God. Their problem in hell will not be separation from God; it will be the presence of God that will torment them. In hell, God will be present in the fullness of His divine wrath. He will be there to exercise His just punishment of the damned. They will know Him as an all-consuming fire. (R.C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, p. 286)

We Must Speak Tenderly Of Hell

One other wrong way of preaching on hell needs to be mentioned. It is possible to do so faithfully without apologizing for it or minimizing its seriousness, while yet it comes across as harsh and unfeeling. Robert Murray M’Cheyne was asked once by a fellow minister what he had preached on the previous Sabbath. “On the text, the wicked shall be turned into hell,” was the reply. Upon hearing this, his wise colleague said, “Were you able to preach it with tenderness?” Reflecting on this searching question, M’Cheyne wrote in his diary: Certain it is that the tone of reproach and upbraiding is widely different from the voice of solemn warning. It is not saying hard things that pierce the consciences of our people; it is the voice of divine love heard amid the thunder. The sharpest point of the two-edged sword is not death, but life; and against self-righteous souls this latter ought to be more used than the former. For such souls can hear us tell of the open gates of hell and the unquenchable fire far more unconcernedly than of the gates of heaven wide open for their immediate return. (Andrew A. Bonar, A Memoir and Remains of R.M. M’Cheyne, p.43, Banner of Truth)

To have any effect, solemn warnings to flee from the wrath to come, must be delivered with feeling, with pathos, urgency and above all with love. “We are ambassadors for Christ,” Paul writes, “as though God did beseech you by us; we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God” (2 Cor.5:20). From Acts, chapter 20, we learn how Paul did this and how emotionally engaged he was in his preaching and teaching, for there he testifies: “by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears” (v.3 ). That is why he could also say: “I take you to record this day that I am pure from the blood of all men” (v.26).

God declares in His Word that He has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11). It is our calling to preach the whole gospel to the whole world, beginning at “Jerusalem.” Such preaching must include solemn, yet loving warnings to unrepentant sinners that hell is their destiny if they die in that state. But equally important is that those same sinners be assured that if they sincerely repent and turn to Christ, they will be received in mercy, for He has promised: “him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37).

[This editorial by Cornelius Pronk (pronk@frcna.org) appeared in The Messenger, April 2005, the official publication of the Free Reformed Churches in Canada. http://www.frcna.org It appears here by kind permission]

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