Have We Forgotten Hell?
Rev. Tony Cooke
I’m all for “positive preaching.” I believe people need to be lifted up and encouraged as they walk through a world that is constantly beating them up and dragging them down. But does preaching a positive, encouraging message mean that we never bring up anything that could be considered “negative?”
While we should be kind and encouraging as we point people to a God who loves them, I believe we are greatly remiss if we never address the truths of Scripture concerning the realities of judgment and hell as part of our overall content.
Do you want to minister as Jesus did? Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) noted, “It is a very remarkable fact that no inspired preacher of whom we have any record ever uttered such terrible words concerning the destiny of the lost as our Lord Jesus Christ.”
J.I. Packer (1926-2020), a respected Evangelical theologian, notes the reluctance of the modern church to address what Scripture says about the wrath of God.
“The modern habit throughout the Christian church is to play this subject down. Those who still believe in the wrath of God (not all do) say little about it; perhaps they do not think much about it. To an age which has unashamedly sold itself to the gods of greed, pride, sex, and self-will, the church mumbles on about God’s kindness, but says virtually nothing about His judgment… The fact is that the subject of divine wrath has become taboo in modern society, and Christians by and large have accepted the taboo and conditioned themselves never to raise the subject.”
Earlier than Packer, Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) noted that essential themes of the Christian faith were being stripped from Christianity through liberal theology. He summarizes (in 1937) an anemic, neutralized “gospel” with these words:
“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
I think that Niebuhr encapsulates the four areas to omit if you want to be popular with everyone. In other words, don’t mention wrath, sin, judgment, or the cross.
The world has no problem if a preacher says, “God is love” (and it’s true—God is love as 1 John 4:8 and 16 joyfully declares). As a matter of fact, they may even applaud this wonderful fact. As foundational, imperative, and vital as God’s love is, that is not all the New Testament teaches. Consider the following:
- “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).
- Romans 2:5 addresses “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”
- “Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience” (Col 3:6).
- Paul writes that when Jesus returns, he will come “in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9).
If the above Scriptures don’t convince you of the reality of God’s wrath, I encourage you to do a word study on “wrath” in the book of Revelation.
The message of the gospel is not that God is incapable of or possesses no wrath, but that “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).
The Good News we have because of Jesus is expressed in the type of Scriptures below:
- “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Romans 5:9).
- “Jesus, whom God raised from the dead… is the one who has rescued us from the terrors of the coming judgment” (1 Thessalonians 1:10, NLT).
- “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:0).
- In John 3:16, Jesus declares, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
But how often do we quote what Jesus said two verses later in John 3:18? There he states, “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
A. B. Simpson (1843-1919) spoke of so-called Christians who really don’t believe the Bible, who believe “that the heathen are really in no great danger after all, for God is too merciful to let them perish through the neglect of others in sending them the Gospel, and that there really is some other hope for them apart from the cross of Christ and God’s plan of redemption. This is really an insult to the precious blood and the loving heart of Jesus Christ. If any less costly way of saving men would have sufficed, God would never have allowed His only begotten Son to be crucified. ‘There is no other name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved.’”
Insights from Other Great Ministers
George Whitefield (1714-1717)
“You blame me for weeping, but how can I help it when you will not weep for yourselves, though your immortal souls are on the verge of destruction.”
James McGready (1763–1817)
“Ministers must use every means to alarm and waken Christ-less sinners from their security, though the world scorn us. Do this we must, or the blood of sinners will be required of our hands—their damnation will lie at our door.”
Hudson Taylor (1832-1905)
“I would never have thought of going out to China had I not believed that the Chinese were lost and needed Christ.”
“Would that God would make hell so real to us that we cannot rest; heaven so real that we must have men there, Christ so real that our supreme motive and aim shall be to make the Man of Sorrows the Man of Joy by the conversion to him of many.”
William Booth (1829-1912)
“Most Christians would like to send their recruits to Bible college for five years. I would like to send them to hell for five minutes. That would do more than anything else to prepare them for a lifetime of compassionate ministry.”
Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015)
“May we who know Christ hear the cry of the damned as they hurtle headlong into the Christless night without ever a chance…. May we shed tears of repentance for those we have failed to bring out of darkness.”
But I’m Not an Evangelist
You don’t need to stand in the fivefold ministry of the Evangelist to have a heart for the lost. Paul told Timothy, a pastor, to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5).
F. F. Bosworth is remembered as a minister who taught healing and prayed for the sick, but consider what his son said about him.
“The saving of souls was paramount, and every other consideration, including the healing of the body, was secondary. Early in Dad’s ministry, he discovered that the healing side of the Gospel had been given to the Church as its greatest evangelizing agency. This discovery guided him through more than fifty years of ministry.”
Bosworth himself said that the inner working of God in a person’s soul was far more significant than the outward healing that he often witnessed:
“While we rejoice in these miracles, we remember that they are only external manifestations of a thousand times greater and more precious miracle that has transpired within the sacred chamber of the inner soul. The inner cause is so much more precious than the outward effect. External results from prayer are like figures in a bank book that show that you have gold deposited in the bank. The gold is more valuable than the figures.”
How to Preach without Converting Anybody
Charles Finney shares some great insights in an article entitled, “How to Preach without Converting Anybody.” Some of his points include:
- Preach on every doctrine that centers the attention on man rather than Jesus. Teach every doctrine that makes man the center of God’s attention rather than God the center of man’s devotion. Tell people only what God will do for them.
- Avoid preaching about the necessity of a radical change of heart, through the truth revealed to the heart by the agency of the Holy Spirit.
- Let your supreme motive be to be popular with all people, then, of course, your preaching will be suited for that purpose, and not to convert souls to Christ.
- Make appeals to the emotions, and not the conscience, of your hearers.
- Preach salvation by grace; but ignore the condemned and lost condition of the sinner so that he never should understand what you mean by grace, and know his need of it.
- Preach Christ as an infinitely friendly and good-natured being. Ignore those scathing rebukes of sinners and hypocrites which so often made his hearers tremble.
- Say so little of hell that your people will think that you do not believe in its existence yourself.
George Whitefield, said, “The devil loves to represent God as all mercy, or all justice.” This reminds us that we must present the full picture that Scripture paints. I pray that I will be able to say what Paul said when I stand before the Lord to give account for my life and ministry. He told the Ephesian elders, “…I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27).
Note: Some of this article is excerpted from my book, In Search of Paul.