Preach Hell with Agonizing Vigor

Posted on March 17, 2011

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. – A.A. Hodge

These last few weeks have generated much buzz about the doctrine of hell since Rob Bell released his promo video of his latest book, Love Wins (reviewed here by Kevin DeYoung), which hit store shelves this week.  In his creative and seductive literary abilities, Bell has roused the defenses of fundamental evangelicals and has unleashed another wave of deception to the masses of the non-discerning visible church of this age. Touting that he has written nothing new as many before him have questioned the idea of an eternal hell for sinners, Bell has firmly established himself as a Christian Universalists, or Universal Reconciliationist. What this means is that Rob Bell believes that while Jesus died for the sins of the world, His sacrifice reconciled all of humanity to God. In the end, all humanity will enter into heaven because God is merciful, and because in the end, “love wins.”

In this one-hour interview with HarperColllins Publishers, Rob Bell closes with:

Millions, and millions, and millions of people – the fundamental way they were taught about Jesus was:  “God loves you, God has a wonderful plan for your life, um, God loves you so much that God sent Jesus because God wants to have a relationship with you. And, all you have to do is accept, trust, and believe. If tonight, you reject what I’m saying to you right now, and you were hit by a car on the way home,” which is always an awkward way to start a conversation, “God would then, have no choice, but to punish you, eternally, with torment and fire and hell.” So God would in that split second would become a totally different being. Um, if there was an earthly father who is like that, this one moment, this the next, we would call the authorities. Correct? And, my experience as a pastor, answering real questions from real people, is that lots of people have really, really, toxic dangerous, psychologically devastating images of God in their head. Images of a God that is not, good. And so my experience has been that lots of people go to church and sing the songs, and tell the story, they hand out pamphlets, they really want, but to be honest, deep down, they have profound ambivalence, about God…but at its core, they have a view of a God, who’s…terrible…and can’t even imagine being loving or wanting anything to do with…

My dear friends, this can be broken down into just a few words such as those spoken by a certain serpent in the Garden of Eden – “Did God really say?”.  Rob Bell has twisted the Scriptures, and as Martin Bashir so accurately pointed out in this MSNBC interview with Bell, has created

a Christian message that’s warm, kind, and popular for contemporary culture… What you’ve done is you’re amending the gospel, the Christian message, so that it’s palatable to contemporary people who find, for example, the idea of hell and heaven very difficult to stomach. So here comes Rob Bell, he’s made a Christian gospel for you, and it’s perfectly palatable, it’s much easier to swallow. That’s what you’ve done, haven’t you?

Do not be deceived, my brethren.  Rob Bell is tickling the ears of those who have raised him up as their teacher. They desired a person to quench their theological palates and are reaping what their sinful hearts desire.  The doctrine of hell is under attack and is being trivialized or redefined as something only a monster god could create to send people to hell for eternal punishment. The reality is, however, that hell does exist, and though it was created for the devil and his angels, it will be the final abode for those who have broken God’s Law and disobeyed the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:41, Revelation 14:9-11, Revelation 20:10-15, Revelation 19:14-16, 2 Thessalonians 2:8-10, Matthew 5:29-30, Matthew 10:28, Mark 9:48).

We must, now more than ever, proclaim the reality of hell with agonizing vigor. This is to say, our evangelism must not shy away from the certainty that men and women will perish in hell, being tormented day and night forever, gnashing their teeth, having no drink, where their worm does not die, eternally burning in fire and brimstone, and suffering in the hands of an angry God should they continue in their rebellion and die in their sins.  Can the lost see desperation in our eyes? Can they see our hearts are anguished over the path of destruction they are on? Can they see the pain in our plea to persuade them to the glory of God’s grace?

In response to Rob Bell’s book, Albert Mohler states,

We dare not retreat from all that the Bible says about hell. We must never confuse the Gospel, nor offer suggestions that there may be any way of salvation outside of conscious faith in Jesus Christ. We must never believe that we can do a public relations job on the Gospel or on the character of God. We must never be unclear and subversively suggestive about what the Bible teaches.

We must not retreat! We must emphasize hell and the wrath of God so the lost can understand the wages of their sin.  We must plead with them with compassion and humility, even with tears in our eyes, that hell is no place they want to go. For the darker the hellish reality before them seems, and the darker they see their sins against a holy God, the brighter the light of the Gospel will be and the brighter the offer of grace and mercy to be justified unto life everlasting.

So do not succumb to the ploys of deceptive wolves like Rob Bell. Quite frankly, there is nothing more you need to know about Rob Bell than turning to 2 Peter 2, Galatians 1:9, 2 Timothy 4:4-5, 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, Jude 1:5-11, 1 John 2:18-19, and 2 Peter 3:16.  Instead, take this opportunity that Bell has given us to reflect on how you present hell to your hearers.

Be vigilant in how you preach the doctrine of hell.  Use every word your imagination allows you to paint a biblical picture of everlasting punishment, and in doing so, your hearers might understand how desperately they need a Savior to escape its flames and the wrath to come.

My friend, John Samson, posted an excellent article yesterday titled, A Few Hellish Thoughts. I recommend you read it in its entirety, but I want to share his portion from John Piper here. As you read Piper’s words from a message titled, “How Willingly Do People Go to Hell? Does Anyone Standing by the Lake of Fire Jump In?”, really let it sink in that hell is no place the lost want to go if they knew of its reality. As he says, “no one standing on the shore of the lake of fire jumps in.”  How could they? After seeing its horrible torments intended for them?

For an exhaustive list of resources on hell and Universalism, please see Monergism.

John Piper:

C.S. Lewis is one of the top 5 dead people who have shaped the way I see and respond to the world. But he is not a reliable guide on a number of important theological matters. Hell is one of them. His stress is relentlessly that people are not “sent” to hell but become their own hell. His emphasis is that we should think of “a bad man’s perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what he is.” (For all the relevant quotes, see Martindale and Root, The Quotable Lewis, 288-295.)

This inclines him to say, “All that are in hell choose it.” And this leads some who follow Lewis in this emphasis to say things like, “All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want.”

I come from the words of Jesus to this way of talking and find myself in a different world of discourse and sentiment. I think it is misleading to say that hell is giving people what they most want. I’m not saying you can’t find a meaning for that statement that’s true, perhaps in Romans 1:24-28. I’m saying that it’s not a meaning that most people would give to it in light of what hell really is. I’m saying that the way Lewis deals with hell and the way Jesus deals with it are very different. And we would do well to follow Jesus.

The misery of hell will be so great that no one will want to be there. They will be weeping and gnashing their teeth (Matthew 8:12). Between their sobs, they will not speak the words, “I want this.” They will not be able to say amid the flames of the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14), “I want this.” “The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Revelation 14:11). No one wants this.

When there are only two choices, and you choose against one, it does not mean that you want the other, if you are ignorant of the outcome of both. Unbelieving people know neither God nor hell. This ignorance is not innocent. Apart from regenerating grace, all people “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18).

The person who rejects God does not know the real horrors of hell. This may be because he does not believe hell exists, or it may be because he convinces himself that it would be tolerably preferable to heaven.

But whatever he believes or does not believe, when he chooses against God, he is wrong about God and about hell. He is not, at that point, preferring the real hell over the real God. He is blind to both. He does not perceive the true glories of God, and he does not perceive the true horrors of hell.

So when a person chooses against God and, therefore, de facto chooses hell—or when he jokes about preferring hell with his friends over heaven with boring religious people—he does not know what he is doing. What he rejects is not the real heaven (nobody will be boring in heaven), and what he “wants” is not the real hell, but the tolerable hell of his imagination.

When he dies, he will be shocked beyond words. The miseries are so great he would do anything in his power to escape. That it is not in his power to repent does not mean he wants to be there. Esau wept bitterly that he could not repent (Hebrew 12:17). The hell he was entering into he found to be totally miserable, and he wanted out. The meaning of hell is the scream: “I hate this, and I want out.”

What sinners want is not hell but sin. That hell is the inevitable consequence of unforgiven sin does not make the consequence desirable. It is not what people want—certainly not what they “most want.” Wanting sin is no more equal to wanting hell than wanting chocolate is equal to wanting obesity. Or wanting cigarettes is equal to wanting cancer.

Beneath this misleading emphasis on hell being what people “most want” is the notion that God does not “send” people to hell. But this is simply unbiblical. God certainly does send people to hell. He does pass sentence, and he executes it. Indeed, worse than that. God does not just “send,” he “throws.” “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown (Greek eblethe) into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15; cf. Mark 9:47; Matthew 13:42; 25:30).

The reason the Bible speaks of people being “thrown” into hell is that no one will willingly go there, once they see what it really is. No one standing on the shore of the lake of fire jumps in. They do not choose it, and they will not want it. They have chosen sin. They have wanted sin. They do not want the punishment. When they come to the shore of this fiery lake, they must be thrown in.

When someone says that no one is in hell who doesn’t want to be there, they give the false impression that hell is within the limits of what humans can tolerate. It inevitably gives the impression that hell is less horrible than Jesus says it is.

We should ask: How did Jesus expect his audience to think and feel about the way he spoke of hell? The words he chose were not chosen to soften the horror by being accommodating to cultural sensibilities. He spoke of a “fiery furnace” (Matthew 13:42), and “weeping and gnashing teeth” (Luke 13:28), and “outer darkness” (Matthew 25:30), and “their worm [that] does not die” (Mark 9:48), and “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), and “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43), and being “cut in pieces” (Matthew 24:51).

These words are chosen to portray hell as an eternal, conscious experience that no one would or could ever “want” if they knew what they were choosing. Therefore, if someone is going to emphasize that people freely “choose” hell, or that no one is there who doesn’t “want” to be there, surely he should make every effort to clarify that, when they get there, they will not want this.

Surely the pattern of Jesus—who used blazing words to blast the hell-bent blindness out of everyone— should be followed. Surely, we will grope for words that show no one, no one, no one will want to be in hell when they experience what it really is. Surely everyone who desires to save people from hell will not mainly stress that it is “wantable” or “chooseable,” but that it is horrible beyond description—weeping, gnashing teeth, darkness, worm-eaten, fiery, furnace-like, dismembering, eternal, punishment, “an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24).

I thank God, as a hell-deserving sinner, for Jesus Christ my Savior, who became a curse for me and suffered hellish pain that he might deliver me from the wrath to come. While there is time, he will do that for anyone who turns from sin and treasures him and his work above all.

Trembling before such realities, and trusting Jesus,

Pastor John Piper