Preaching Hell

Written well before any modern controversy, British commentator Bruce Milnepenned some wise words on the place of hell in Christian preaching. Worthy of reflection here are his comments on John 12:35, 36, a passage following a very rich presentation on the meaning of the cross.

So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. (John 12:35, 36)

To this Milne says:

There is an urgency in this last appeal of Jesus from which the modern church does well to learn. The days when sermons on hell and its conditions were the staple diet of the evangelical pulpit have long since departed. Their going is not wholly to be regretted. Fear of hell-fire is certainly not the primary motive for seeking Christ’s salvation. Besides, such preaching often concentrated on the damnation of the lost in a manner that left the saved smugly secure and unchallenged concerning the profound moral and ethical implications of living a ‘saved’ life. We would not turn back the clock in this respect even if we could.

Yet the warning note which Jesus strikes here is always relevant. The implications of turning away from the light of God are terrible in the extreme, and Jesus is concerned that people be clearly aware of them. We are certainly to draw men and women towards God’s salvation by all God-honouring inducements. We are certainly authorized to bear witness with full hearts to the completeness of the salvation which Christ has won for sinners, and the joys beyond compare which await those who cast themselves upon his mercy.

In addition, however, we dare not fail to warn them that the Redeemer is also a judge, that sin unrepented is sin condemned, and that it is, and will be, when the king returns, ‘a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God ‘ (Hebrews 10:31). While people have opportunity, we are to speak, and plead, as did our Saviour….

from Bruce Milne, The Message of John (Bible Speaks Today)

Census Bureau: Heaven and Hell Division

Every discussion of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins seems to include the idea that the position of historic Christianity is that heaven will be enjoyed by a select few. (My previous posts here and here include quotes containing that language.)

I am not scholarly enough to know what the majority opinion of Christianity has been. I do know that some infer from this passage that heaven is populated like Yellowstone and hell like Manhattan:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

That is a rather questionable inference from a passage not intended to address that subject at all.

I draw my heavenly census data from two related but distant passages of scripture. The first is the promise to Abraham:

And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5)

God saw fit to second that motion:

“I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.” (Genesis 22:17)

Of course, the New Testament (e.g. Romans 4) shows that these promises are intended to apply to those sharing Abraham’s faith, not his blood.

I’m of the distinct opinion that we will find heaven crowded. Very crowded. I think Abraham would have believed so. And John the apostle as well. His vision was so vast that it staggared his mind.

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:11-12)

Against this backdrop, I think both John and Abraham would have scoffed at any who would have suggested that only “a select few Christians will spend forever in heaven”. Don’t you?

More on Hell

Of all the talk that Rob Bell’s book Love Wins has generated, the most curious to me is the charge that those of us committed to historic Christianity have had so little to do with the doctrine of hell that we have thrown the door wide open for erroneous and heretical views. A Facebook friend posted this position:

The hubbub about Rob Bell is our fault. If evangelicals were not embarrassed about hell, we would not have this problem.

And with wider distribution was this on the Justin Taylor blog, Between Two Worlds, where Mr. Taylor posted with approval a longer post by Tony Payne. In this post, after deserved praise for Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (which, sadly, many may think is the only topic Edwards ever addressed because of its ubiquity, a fault Mr. Taylor corrects), Mr. Payne seems to confirm that there is a dearth of Hell preaching. Taylor suggests we are made uncomfortable by it.

This disappearance of hell is noted as well by John Wilson in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal:

Something strange has happened in evangelical churches over the past generation. Not in every congregation, but in the main, sermons devoted to the grim prospect of hell have become rare, and even talk of heaven is muted.

I, for one, have no way to measure a) how much preaching on hell there is and b) how much is ‘just right’ in the broader culture. I do measure a) how much my sheep need to hear and b) how they can best hear and c) how any doctrine they hear is to be balanced against other aspects of gospel doctrine. And though an occasional reminder regarding my responsibility to preach the ‘whole counsel of God’ and what that looks like can be healthy, generally the appeals I hear are aimed at skewing my preaching in one direction or another depending upon the controversy du jour or the narrow focus of the complainant.

But the logic that an evangelical embarrassment and neglect has opened the door for a ‘heretical’ corrective makes no sense. Corrective to what?

IF the doctrine of hell has been systematically ignored in Christian churches, how does if follow that anyone would want to write a book dismantling a doctrine that has been ignored anyway? And how then could a book challenging a neglected subject capture a best selling audience? (It is now #3 at Amazon, ‘sandwiched’ between two diet books.)

I really think the opposite is probably true. It is an OVERemphasis and a misrepresentation of hell that has created the market and environment for Bell’s book and position to fly. Hell has been so gracelessly presented over the past generations that the preaching of conservative Christianity is equated with ‘hellfire and brimstone’. There is a discomfort regarding the doctrine not because it has been ignored, but because it has been mishandled. People are not turned off to hell because it has been silenced; they are turned off because we have allowed it to become severed from the full story of grace.

Richard Mouw, quoted in Geoff Henderson’s blog, reveals the unfortunate bent attached to so much teaching on hell when he asks

Why don’t folks who criticize Rob Bell for wanting to let too many people in also go after people…who want to keep too many people out? Why are we rougher on salvific generosity than on salvific stinginess?

Rob Bell is nothing if not a guide to sensing what a broad swath of American culture is feeling. And to this we should listen.

Some would have us respond by speaking more and more about hell. If we do it well, good could come. But I fear we will only perpetuate the caricature and harden, not soften, hearts. But we need not follow the lead of others like Rob Bell in recasting the doctrine in a way that makes it unrecognizable to the historic Christian soil it is such a rich part of.

The response should be for preachers to continue to preach carefully and faithfully a Christianity that is full of grace and truth, and for congregants to stick closely to faithful shepherds who evidence those twin passions. The shepherds should know what their sheep need to hear, and the sheep should trust their shepherds.

Bell’s Hell

The buzz in theological culture has been about Pastor Rob Bell‘s take on the future in his recently published Love Wins.

But it seems that the buzz in the broader culture has been Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo’s take on the future titled Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.

Judging from his released promotional video, Pastor Bell’s concern is hell. Judging from the title, Pastor Burpo’s concern is heaven. So far, according Amazon.com stats, heaven is winning. It is #1 in sales by the online service. Hell is lagging behind at #4, but is no doubt creeping slowly upwards.

I have read neither book, and tend to avoid investing precious reading time in books that prove, when the dust settles, to have been fads. In this regard, Rob Bell will prove to be the least faddish. His following is tremendous and his influence substantial.

But apart from the similarity in content, I wonder if both books are drawing their communicative power from caricature. Caricature sells better than truth.

Heaven Is for Real is the account of a little boy who recovers from surgery with stories of having been to heaven. The family claims that he emerged with details of family members of which he should have had no knowledge, proving to them that he had really met these people in heaven. (How did they know, by the way, that it was heaven? Perhaps “Purgatory Is for Real”.)

According to the publisher’s blurb,

“He describes the horse that only Jesus could ride, about how ‘reaaally big’ God and his chair are, and how the Holy Spirit ‘shoots down power’ from heaven to help us….[the insights show that] Jesus really loves children, and be ready, there is a coming last battle.”

Caricature? Sure. Whether the little boy simply projected onto his memory palette the imagery from his Sunday school classes infused with a vivid imagination or not we cannot say. But it is curious that what he sees corresponds to popular religious imagination.

The popularity of this suggests that for many of us, the revelation of Scripture, with its breadth and depth and, yes, ambiguity regarding the future is insufficient. My experience as a pastor tells me that there are those, perhaps many, who read such books to confirm their stereotype of the future and are then unable to hear a more nuanced and carefully constructed vision taken from the pages of Scripture and rooted in solid theological tradition.

We often prefer caricature to truth.

And that may explain the popularity of Rob Bell’s presentation. Bell has been charged with challenging the historic Christian teachings on hell and judgment and eternity. He has been accused of universalism, a charge he has denied. I can’t interact with the charges, not having read the book, though Martin Bashir of MSNBC does a standout job of challenging him to be specific about what he believes.

In Bell’s online promotional video of his book, he raises intriguing questions, beginning with this one:

“Will only a few select people make it to heaven and will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?”

He presents the question in such a way that we are led to imagine that he is indeed presenting the orthodox, historic, Christian position. If that is what he means, it is a caricature. And caricatures are easy to deflate and overcome.

Just as there are those who promote the simple view of heaven ‘seen’ by Pastor Burpo’s son, there are Christians who teach that the central Christian message is that God sends people to hell. There are Christians who insist that heaven will be populated by only a few, rather than a number greater than the sands on the sea shore or the stars in the sky.

Such caricatures are to be lamented, confronted, and corrected.

I understand Bell’s desire as a pastor to present a message that can be heard and comprehended in a culture which seriously questions Christianity. This past Sunday I preached on a subject which required me to address the subjects of sin and wrath and judgment and hell. We had a number of visitors. I have wondered since, “Is there another way I could have said what I said which would have communicated to the unbeliever or to the jaded in a more effective way.” And I have wondered whether those who were there would be back and, if not, if the specific message preached would keep them from returning. But I have not been asking whether the message I was communicating needed to be re-imagined.

The jury is out as to whether I’ll pick up Bell’s book and read it. I probably will. But one question he asks in the promotional video is one that I can endorse enthusiastically and with great passion:

“What we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about what God is and what God is like.”

That is precisely what makes these questions so critical, and makes any misrepresentation or caricature, whether innocently by four year old boys or knowingly by fifty year old pastors, so troubling.