On Hell

Hell is all over the news right now. Between Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, and the firestorm it has started among evangelical circles, Hell-related headlines have appeared on Google News almost daily for over a month now. And rightfully so. The questions and answers which Bell presents in his book have ramifications of eternal consequence. But this is not a book review of Love Wins. To be honest, I haven’t read the book, and considering the reviews I’m seeing from those who have, I’m strongly leaning toward not wasting the time or money to do so. It would therefore be unfair for me to take pot shots at him or his work. Rather, this is a post which aims at the heart of the matter which Bell’s book has so dramatically exposed. Despite the raging firestorm, evangelicals have largely forgotten all about Hell.Of course, that’s a bit of hyperbole. I mean, we haven’t really forgotten about Hell. The vast majority of evangelicals still affirm its reality and the notion that people will end up there. But a recent article by professor and theologian Keith Drury contained anecdotal evidence of the problem when Drury told the story of an impromptu survey he did in one of his freshman undergraduate classes. Drury asked his students three questions, the first of which was how many believed in a literal hell. The vast majority of hands raised. When asked to name three people who were bound for Hell unless they repented, however, Drury reported that “less than 10% could name three living people they thought might actually go to Hell.” And in the follow-up discussion, when Drury asked how many had ever heard a sermon exploring the concept of Hell, only two raised their hands.

But again, these were only freshmen sitting in their first Bible class. How much can we really expect them to know about Hell? Certainly, not as much as a pastor, right?

Such was my assumption nearly two weeks ago, as I was preparing what I am embarrassed to admit was my first truly in-depth sermon on Hell. (That’s right, after nearly ten years in the pulpit, I had given Hell only cursory treatments in the past. I was indeed part of the problem.) As I worked to assemble enough references and resources to preach, I found myself finding all sorts of works which espoused universalism, annihilationism, and other -isms that were anything but sound Biblical doctrine. In fact, the hoops people were willing to jump through to explain away key passages of Scripture was nothing short of amazing, but the number of resources I could find that truly examined what the Bible tells us about Hell left me wanting. I had questions that remained far from answered. Key among them was how the doctrine of Hell developed from the vague concept presented in the Old Testament such that, when Jesus spoke specifically, graphically of Hell in the Gospels, his listeners simply nodded, accepting everything he said as obviously true. So I conducted a survey of my own.

To be honest, it wasn’t really intended to be a survey. As such, it was anything but scientific. But even as anecdotal evidence, the responses I received were alarming, to say the least. I sent an email to more than 30 pastors, men and women that are engaged in full-time vocational ministry. All of them are ordained ministers in The Wesleyan Church. All but four are senior pastors of their churches, but one of those four is a district superintendent, and the other three have been senior pastors in the past. And all but five have been in pastoral ministry at least as long as I have. In short, this is a list of people that I knew had been trained for ministry; surely, if anyone was going to have resources about Hell, it would be them.

And the question that I asked was simply this: “When and how did the doctrine of hell develop from the simple Sheol of the OT to the place of ruin, weeping, and gnashing of teeth of the NT?”

I guess I considered it a cornerstone question for any real consideration of Hell, but I wasn’t really expecting any concrete, definitive answers. I did, however, expect that at least a handful of these people would be able to point me in the right direction with some resources they had come across in their collective years of preaching and ministry experience. Instead, I received four emails, one phone call, and one in-person discussion. And while one of the emails did include two reading suggestions, the overall theme was this: “We got nothing, but we’d love to know what you find out.”

Please understand, I have nothing but the utmost respect for these men and women. I know that, to a one, they believe in Hell, and they are some of the finest ministers this world has ever seen. It is not my intention, therefore, to criticize or belittle them in any way. My point, rather, is this: We evangelicals know that Hell is real. We know that some people may end up there. But we are far more concerned with telling people about the gift Jesus rose to give them than the fate from which He died to save them.

And despite the fact that many of us – myself included – are probably thinking that is really not that big of a deal, I am becoming increasingly convinced that nothing could be farther from the truth. Why? Well, you can’t really appreciate a BMW unless you’ve had a run-down Dodge Omni. Oh, you might know, cognitively, that your Beamer is a great car. But you will never truly grasp just how great it is unless you’ve owned and driven something that was anything but great. Without the baseline of Hell – the fate which we all deserve – to compare it to, Heaven is just something we will take for granted.

So now I’ve opened the can. There is simply so much more to say about Hell than one can say in a sermon. So I’m going to be tapping some things out on here until I run out of things to say. After all, isn’t that what a blog is for?

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