Speaking Soberly and Sensitively about Hell

J. Ligon Duncan III
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
May/Jun 2002

ow should preachers communicate about hell and eternal punishment? Today these truths strike some as comical and others as cruel. In conservative Christian circles, serious scholars of evangelical reputation have created significant doubts about the traditional doctrine in the minds of some of our finest young preachers. Others ignore it in reaction to its misuse in their fundamentalist youth. And some church-growth practitioners have banished hell from their evangelistic lexicon because, they say, it doesn't speak to our generation and it drives some away.

So how do we address these difficult truths? Does the reality of hell and endless punishment make a difference in our preaching? How can we tackle these difficult subjects in a responsible and appropriate way? What should we avoid when treating them? How exactly should we preach hell and eternal punishment?

Address Hell Textually

If we do not follow a systematic plan for biblical preaching, we will probably avoid this topic. Here's where lectio continua preaching helps, for this forces the minister to treat the most difficult truths even as it alleviates him of the charge of picking morbid subjects or fixating on certain issues. The minister, who preaches through Bible books chapter by chapter and verse by verse can look at his congregation and simply say: "This passage follows the one we studied last; and, as uncomfortable as its contents may be for some of you, integrity demands that we consider it." It is surprising how sympathetic nervous Christians and intelligent inquirers can be to such honesty.

Address Hell Decisively

We must also be completely convinced of this doctrine's biblical origins. If a minister steps into the pulpit with the slightest doubts about it, it will show. So if our certainty about it is undermined by academic prejudices against it, then we must study until we are thoroughly convinced of its truth. We must also begin to see unbelievers with the same kind of compassion that Jesus and his disciples demonstrated when they encountered immortal souls threatened by eternal darkness. The word hell is tossed about glibly in our culture as a low-rent swear word or a thoughtless threat. Consequently, we must always speak of it with both gravitas and mercy, or else we risk stoking the people's general cynicism. As Princeton theologian A. A. Hodge said, "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."

Address Hell Pastorally

Preachers ought to talk to people about hell like they would to a family about a tragic death. As with the loss of a child, a suicide, a murder, cancer, or some other dread disease, we must be sensitive but frank. Often people try to cope with such tragedies by denial or circumlocution or euphemism. But ministers must be neither uncaring nor tiptoe around the obvious. We must draw attention to the elephant in the room that no one is acknowledging. Strangely, this often brings great relief to those who have already spoken with friends who will not directly address the cause of death or its manner or its timing-or who even fail to acknowledge that death as a fact.

Similarly with hell, a minister's willingness to break silence and speak directly to people's hidden fears and questions-lovingly and carefully to be sure, but with courage and conviction-can breed receptiveness to and even confidence in his words. Speaking with strength and kindness enables us to address the subject comprehensively, probing into areas where less honesty might otherwise function as an effective prophylactic against the truth of God's Word.

Address Hell Correctively

Some in our congregations may have grown up in circles where Christian discipleship is viewed as little more than an escape route from hell. Their "decisions" or public professions of faith may have been made only to give them a definitive sense of relief from the prospect of eternal damnation-"fire insurance" against a future possibility. But their interest in Christ and Christianity stops right there. To be sure, they don't want to go to hell, but give them a biblical view of Christian discipleship or even of heaven as a place of endless delight in God and their hearts are not in it. To make matters worse, some preachers actually foster this error by assuring their listeners in funeral sermons and elsewhere of the absolute certainty of the salvation of some notoriously immoral and godless persons because they "walked the aisle" when they were ten. What better way is there to convince people that Christianity is all about avoiding an unpleasant end, rather than about glorifying God in this life and the next? Faithful ministers must tackle this error in their preaching on hell. While God's Spirit has used preaching about hell and everlasting punishment to shake many awake from a lethal slumber, the truly regenerate always have an accompanying set of spiritual motivations and desires. Ministers must address this error because it frequently results in a truncated view of what Christian salvation actually entails. This has been especially true for children of nominal Evangelicalism.

Address Hell Apologetically

We must also respond to popular suspicion of this doctrine as well as to intellectual contempt for it. On the one hand, we may have intelligent evangelical laypeople in our congregations who have been unsettled about the traditional doctrine by their teachers. So some of our preaching on it must be designed to buttress their belief in it, even while we must not lose sight of the main matter of faithfully expounding the text, by our responding briefly to some of the popular/academic/evangelical criticisms of the biblical doctrine.

On the other hand, we may be blessed with the attendance of open, inquiring pagans at our public services, some of whom may react very negatively to the very idea of a place of eternal torment. We must then acknowledge the existential angst that many have about this doctrine while turning the tables (as John Piper and C. S. Lewis have done) by reminding them that it is our own peculiar zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, that puts God on trial for hell and that questions his existence because of this world's suffering. In fact, however, if the moral universe depicted by the Bible is real, then the real problem is not our pain but rather our happiness. It is not God's justice and love but rather our undeserving experience of them. It is not human suffering but human sin without immediate divine reprisal. It is not the sentence of hell but the gift of the cross.

Address Hell Exegetically

Most of our listeners have high views of scriptural authority; and so if they are shown from Scripture what the Lord says about hell and eternal punishment, then that will settle it for them. Thus, we must carefully adduce the true doctrine from the New Testament's texts themselves. While doing this, we should also address some of the issues that will be on the minds of our more serious Bible students, such as: What does the Old Testament teach about hell, death, judgment, and punishment? What are the continuities and discontinuities between Old Testament and New Testament teaching? How do the ideas of Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna relate? What sort of a hope for the resurrection was entertained by old covenant believers? So we have our work cut out for us! Yet if we let the text set our agenda and speak for itself, God's Word will not return empty.

Address Hell Christologically

Most crucially, we must approach this truth with deliberate reference to the doctrine of Christ. First, we must stress that hell is an unavoidably christological doctrine, learned from Jesus' lips. Our Lord is primarily responsible for laying out the main lines of the teaching about hell that is so despised in our day. He addressed the subject more than anyone else and gave it more attention during his ministry than many other important themes. And it is no wonder he spoke of it so often and so earnestly, since he created hell and he alone of redeemed humanity has experienced its torment! In the final analysis, we believe in hell because we believe-and believe in-Jesus. Those who want to take issue with hell have a quarrel not with us but with the Creator-Savior. And that's not a quarrel anyone ought to be eager to join.

Secondly, our preaching on hell must be Christ-centered in the sense that it must be set in the context of the cross. To many, hell poses a problem for theodicy. Just as some suggest that the problem of evil calls into question either God's existence, goodness, or sovereignty, so also hell is put forward as the ultimate trump card against the love, mercy, and grace of the Christian God. These objectors demand, How can you believe in a God who sends people to hell? Well, the correct answer is: Look at the cross, and you'll have a bigger problem to think about. Christ's dereliction, abandonment, and forsakenness on the cross is a far greater philosophical-theological problem than the problem of hell.

Why? Because at the cross, the wrath of God is striking out at the one person in the universe that he seemingly has no right to strike-the incarnate and sinlessly perfect Son of God. It is a far greater injustice than we can conceive. No plight was ever less merited. Hell, on the other hand, is deserved. It makes perfect sense. Its logic is inexorable. Those who reject God in this life, reject him also in the next. Hell involves sheer justice, sheer justice that is even, to a certain extent, self-imposed. Hell is the ultimate quid pro quo, the eternal reward of all Pelagians.

The puzzle of hell, as complex as it is, cannot compete with the puzzle of grace. Hell is humanity's subconscious fear because we inherently know we deserve it, even if we grind our teeth at God about it. But grace is counterintuitive. It's the hardest thing to believe in the world.

Last Thoughts

Many of us are perfectly familiar with the oft-quoted counsel of British Baptist preacher Charles H. Spurgeon that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar. But that is no justification for ignoring the truth about hell in our preaching. Spurgeon certainly didn't ignore it. Preaching the truth about hell puts heaven-by-grace in bold relief. It proclaims to the sinner by special revelation what he already knows by general revelation and the imago Dei; namely, that one day his soul will be required, and there will be a reckoning when God's justice will be done. Then the gospel comes alongside this truth and says, Yes. God's justice will be done, but it can be done in either of two ways. You may stand before God's tribunal in your own goodness, or you may stand before it dressed in Christ's righteousness. You can receive the wages you have earned, or you can receive the wages Christ has earned. Choose you this day! For the difference is final and eternal.

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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