This week our friends Daniel McCarley and Bryan Alderman are presenting their differing opinions on the doctrine of hell and how it should be preached.
Bryan Alderman is a student at Beeson Divinity School and a worship leader at a Baptist church. He loves music, sports, and friends, and misses his home state of Florida. He stands as the only Miami Hurricanes fan in Alabama.
Read Daniel's article here.
What is the Good News?
Jesus of Nazareth announced his earthly ministry with these words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Fairly summarized, this gospel declared by Jesus is the nearness of the Kingdom of God, and the fulfillment of the Messianic expectation. Jesus’ life was the inauguration God’s kingdom, proclaimed by the church, and yet to be fully established at Christ’s impending second coming.
But Jesus makes clear, and so do his followers, that this good news is not good for everyone.
There are some who believe that the great quality of the good news, in tandem with the Bible’s lack of elaboration on the doctrine of eternal damnation (the bad news, per se) should encourage us to leave the doctrine of hell unmentioned in our preaching.
As an aside: Though important, this is a secondary issue and not one that determines salvation for either party, ironically enough. So to the person I say, “Very well,” and we go on teaching, evangelizing, serving, and worshiping.
But to the point: au contraire!
The doctrine of an eternal hell, though certainly hairy and perhaps somewhat hidden, is presented and elaborated well enough canonically and historically in Christian testimony to be preached.
The difficulty of a hopeless eternity is painful to stomach, but if it’s what the Bible teaches, or even suggests, wouldn’t you want to know? For analogy: How many people would have remained on the shores of Southampton had they received believable insight that Titanic were to sink on her maiden voyage?
I am certainly not saying that Hell’s “preachability” hails from man’s ought-to-be-afraid of it. No, what makes Hell preachable is its reality in Scripture, if such can be demonstrated.
But before we go on, we need to be careful to define hell. In a contrary article, Daniel McCarley rightly points out that the New Testament witness for hell is shady. Hades, Gehenna, a lake of fire and burning sulfur that is somehow dark… this is the language of Jesus’ Hell. Many, frustrated by an inability to grasp the nature and practical outworking of Hell, believe we are thus to leave it unmentioned.
But Scripture’s descriptions of “Heaven” are no different. (1) There’s a street made of gold that is see-through, one tree that sits at the same time on two sides of a river, and oh, the city (not the buildings in the city) is 1,380 miles high. For reference, the world’s tallest building right now stands just over half a mile high.
Well then, that’s rather nonsensible! Let’s just not preach Heaven, either, shall we?
Of course not. Language of Heaven is meant to inspire our imagination out of our heads; to help us realize that God’s eternal city, where he dwells among mankind without a temple, is far beyond our wildest dreams.
Perhaps the fantastic language of Hell is meant to do the exact opposite. Language of Hell is meant to depress our imagination out of our heads; to help us realize that eternity apart from God is far beyond our worst nightmare.
This is where Jesus’ teaching becomes our critical turning point. The Christ did not proclaim only, “The kingdom is near!” but also “Repent!” Why?
“Repent, for (or because) the kingdom of Heaven is near.”
Listen: Kingdom come is not good news for everyone. There is no need for the imperative if the announcement is only good news. No, only those who heed the order, “Repent!” can enjoy the goodness of the Kingdom’s nearness.
See, the grave was conquered, but only for you if you repent. Death was swallowed up in victory, but only for you if you repent. Life everlasting awaits, but only for you if you repent. Upon the cross, Jesus bore the full measure of God’s wrath and provided a sacrifice that certainly could provide every sinful human being’s right to enter the Kingdom.
But rejecting him is not the way of entry, and many have and will reject him.
And for these people, the urgency of our service, love, and evangelism must be relentless. There is work to be done, not only liberating slaves, supporting social justice, and tearing down the strongholds of inhumane oppression, but also preaching the reality of an eternity without God. No other message makes sense.
Let’s just take the point to its extreme. If Jesus came and preached the good news, took the cross and bore humanity’s sin, offered salvation and enlightenment to every man, woman, and child who has ever lived, and every single person ignored him… what would be the quality of such news? I could scarce call it “good.”
Jürgen Moltmann argued that the logic of hell is inhumane and atheistic, and I must say I am sympathetic to his reasoning. However, if the “logic” of hell comes from the Bible, it is neither inhumane nor atheistic, but the natural outworking of the reality that some can—and have, and will—reject the blood shed for them. We were all hell-bound without the atonement. Believing that he should save everybody, we must not deny that he is merciful to save anybody.
What is God to do with those who reject him? Does the Bible say? Let’s begin with the worst: In Revelation 14, real people who worship the beast and bear his mark are “tormented with fire and sulfur in the sight of the holy angels and the Lamb,” the “smoke of their torment ascends forever,” as they “have no rest day or night.”
This is awful. It’s grisly and seems wildly inconsistent with the God who is love. But it is written.
And I admit, Revelation is a confusing and troublesome document. But it is Scripture. And it is remarkably consistent with the rest of the Bible. Daniel 12:2 says, “Many who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, and some to disgrace and eternal contempt.” Paul speaks often of a group of people whose “end is destruction” (Phil. 3:19, among others). Peter speaks of these people as well, whose “condemnation, pronounced long ago is not idle, and their destruction does not sleep” (2 Pet. 2:3). Hebrews warns believers about the danger of not entering God’s rest (4:1).
So even if we axe Revelation from the canon of Scripture (which we should not) or turn from its striking language under the banner of confusion or apocalyptic exaggeration, we must understand, a dark reality of destruction for those who reject God’s good word is plenty elsewhere in the Bible.
No more elsewhere than from the lips of gentle-Jesus, who some argue would never believe in, much less teach, a doctrine of hell. This is false.
At least twenty times, Jesus likened hell to fire. He says there will be weeping, gnashing of teeth, bitterness and tears there. The soul and body are destroyed in hell. There is blazing fire and at the same time utter darkness. It’s an eternal fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels. The point is clear: no one should desire to go where Jesus describes.
In his teachings there are two camps: righteous and unrighteous. By Jesus’ words, the righteous will go to life eternal, the unrighteous will go to punishment eternal. So even if they will be destroyed, not consciously tormented (annihilationism), or even if they will be eventually saved, not tormented forever (hopeful universalism), the reality is that they will go away from God and no one should want this.
The question makes sense, if we are not to preach eternal death alongside life…why did Jesus?
Daniel’s words about Hell are well-conceived and bear good intentions. He is no Rob Bell. And neither is Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, or any of the many who have proclaimed the good news to the exclusion of the bad news. Love has indeed won and will win, as they say.
But even if Hell is really a place of eternal conscious torment, love still wins because God is love and God wins. Winning is not synonymous with getting whatever one wants. What happens to those who foolishly continue to unswervingly reject God cannot be philosophically, rationally or even theologically deduced. It must be believed.
Hell, like all difficult topics of Scripture, is a matter of faith. But it is one we do well to believe, teach, and yes, even preach.
We preach hell because, as Spurgeon said, “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies. If they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees.”
(1) Heaven and Hell are not the eternal destinations themselves, but modernity’s monikers for the New Jerusalem and the Lake of Fire. I use these terms to refer to them throughout.