There was a time when one of the criticisms of the church, and of preachers in general, was that there was too much hellfire-and-brimstone preaching. If this was referring to some guy getting worked up as he talked about judgment all the time with a twinkle in his eye, then I’m with the critics.
Here is my concern, however. Where are the hellfire-and-brimstone preachers today? When I turn on Christian radio or Christian television, I rarely hear a mention of hell, much less a sermon on the topic of hell. What I do hear is a lot of preaching on how to be successful, see your dreams fulfilled and be prosperous. But I don’t hear any sermons anymore about the subject of hell.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to start preaching or writing about hell every week. On the other hand, I’m not going to skip it because it is awkward or difficult or makes people uncomfortable. Jesus spent more time talking about hell than anyone else in all of the Bible.
It isn’t unloving to address this subject. Rather, it’s the most loving thing I could do. If you were asleep in a house that was on fire, and I walked by and did absolutely nothing to get you out of that potential disaster, what kind of neighbor or friend would I be? I would want you to wake up. I would want you to get out. And if Jesus, the very author of grace, spoke about hell more often than anyone else, then it must be a crucial truth. If Jesus took the time to elaborate on it, then certainly we need to know more about it.
One thing we can all agree on is that death will come to every person. The book of Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die” (3:1–2 NIV).
That time to die may come much later than you expected. Then again, maybe your life will be shorter than you had hoped for. We don’t know when our lives will end, but we do know this: Death is coming. Every second, three people in the world die. Every minute, 180 people die. And every hour, 11,000 people die. This means that every single day, 250,000 people enter into eternity.
Steve Jobs once said, “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.”
After death we go to one of two destinations. Either we go to heaven, or we go to hell. Conventional wisdom is that most people are going to go to heaven, and very few people are going to go to hell. Yet that is the very opposite of what the Bible says. Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14–14).
A lot of people use the word hell as a way to punctuate a sentence. And in 1841, some people in southeast Michigan chose to name their town Hell. A lot of people think hell is a big joke. But it’s no laughing matter. Hell is a real place in the afterlife that, tragically, is the future destination of far too many people. My desire is to point more people in the other direction, to point them to heaven and into God’s presence.
People criticize Christianity because we believe in hell. The late Christopher Hitchens stated, “Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead.” Actually, Jesus was not the first to speak on hell, though he elaborated on it. It is in both the Old and the New Testaments.
Bertrand Russell, an atheist, wrote, “I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as His chronicles represent Him, would actually have to be considered partly responsible for that.”
I beg to differ. Those would be compelling arguments if you were to ignore history, which shows that a lack of belief in God and the afterlife is the root of atrocity.
If the atheistic Stalin had believed in a future judgment for the wicked things he did, do you think he would have slaughtered so many people? If Adolf Hitler believed there was a final court of judgment, do you think he would have sent 6 million Jewish people to concentration camps?
Hell could be viewed as a restraint on cruelty. Dostoyevsky’s statement that “if God is not, everything is permitted” makes sense.
If there is no God, there is no afterlife, there is no future judgment, there is no right and wrong, there is no purpose … and there is no hope.
As pastor and author Timothy Keller has pointed out, “It is the lack of belief in a God of vengeance that ‘secretly nourishes violence.'”
Take, for example, the estimated deaths at the hands of atheistic, communistic regimes: China, 65 million; the U.S.S.R., 20 million; Vietnam, 1 million; Cambodia, 2 million.
It comes down to this: Belief in the afterlife, belief in God, as well as a heaven and a hell, affects the way we live this life.
You are on one of two roads today: You are on the broad way that leads to judgment, or you are on the narrow way that leads to life.
Which road are you on? If you are on the wrong one, then it’s time to hang a U-turn.