Earp Takes Aim | Faith, Culture, Life

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Hell Is Real

Recent events have impacted the church I serve and the after effects have proven both stunning and seismic. 

A pastor from Michigan wrote a best-selling book {released in March} decrying the existence of hell— to which the blogosphere {Christian and otherwise} responded with a firestorm of controversial postings and, at times, heated exchanges.[1]

Shortly thereafter, TIME magazine featured a cover story {during Easter week} entitled, “What If There’s No Hell?”  It was written as a response to Bell’s book and helped further enflame what was already an increasingly strident debate.

A few weeks after that, one of our pastors made some personal remarks regarding his convictions about, in his terms, “fear-based methods of evangelism.”  He neither denied Hell’s existence nor did he suggest that Christians should avoid the topic altogether.  He simply stated his personal views regarding how believers should engage the truth of everlasting punishment in our efforts to reach lost people for Christ.

The results of this unfortunate and perfect storm have included sincere misunderstanding, malicious gossip and damaging innuendo.  Only in the last few days have I become aware of just how pervasive this confusion has become.  What I find disheartening, as a pastor who invites biblical dialogue, is that not one person has approached me regarding this issue.  Instead, I’ve learned of it only as I’ve heard, third-hand, about individuals who have decided to leave our church because we “are no longer teaching the truth.” 

So let me be very clear:  Hell is real and a tangible place of everlasting torment.  That Hell exists is the very reason God sent His Son, Jesus Christ.  God sent Jesus to rescue us from the eternal consequences of Hell— “so that everyone who believes in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life” {John 3:16}. 

That Hell exists is a truth that makes me tremble.  What is at stake regarding Heaven and Hell is everlasting and exceedingly dreadful.  However, as a pastor, if I presume to speak of God, I am obligated to speak such shattering truth— and to do so with unqualified clarity.  Even so, the starkness of Hell demands from me {and all others who speak of it} both the humility of a once-condemned sinner but also the courage of a redeemed-by-grace prophet. 

Whenever I approach the words Jesus spoke, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” {Matthew 25:46}, the once-condemned sinner in me desperately wants to interpret His words in a different way.  I find my human emotions wishing that I could make them say something that’s more aligned with my limited understanding of justice and my “compassion” for those who will experience the destiny Jesus so clearly describes. 

But the redeemed-by-grace prophet in me is so committed to eternal truth that I have nothing to say but exactly what Jesus said.  Even though the specter of Hell does unnerve me, I must bow before it, accept it by faith and preach it with clarity— no matter how painful or unsettling or unpopular it may be for me to do so.

Thirteen separate passages record Jesus’ teachings about the judgment of nonbelievers and their assignment to eternal punishment.  But Matthew 13:49-50 summarizes all of them:  “This is how it will be at the end of the age.  The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 

I am deeply burdened by the implications of Jesus’ words.  So burdened that I answered God’s call into His gospel ministry.  More than thirty years later, I am still passionate as I attempt to tell as many people as I can that Jesus went through the six hours of hell with love so that we wouldn’t have to experience an eternity in hell without hope. 

Virtually every book in the New Testament includes some reference regarding Hell.  Hell, no matter how it may offend the human psyche, is a theologically inescapable albeit personally avoidable reality. 

Here’s the conundrum every believer must face:  If Hell truly exists, yet I’m unwilling to tell people how to avoid Hell because Hell’s reality might violate their sensibilities, then my unwillingness to tell them the truth is a far more appalling cruelty than the truth of Hell itself! 

C.S. Lewis said of Hell, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.  But it has the full support of Scripture and specially, of our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.”

Dorothy Sayers, another thoughtful Christian, claimed, “We cannot repudiate Hell without altogether repudiating Christ.”

Hell may not be popular— in fact, it clearly is NOT popular— not even among those who claim to believe in and follow Jesus.  But faithful followers of Christ cannot choose to believe what makes us feel good yet ignore, deny or reinterpret Scripture when it doesn’t fit our culture’s current definition of love and tolerance.

Instead, when we allow ourselves such a luxurious position?  Culture and each individual reader of Scripture become the authority— rather than Scripture itself.  Faith then becomes a collection of fleeting opinions, always subject to generational revision.  And the Christian faith becomes something far different from historic, true-to-the-Bible Christianity. 

Francis Chan has written an amazing response to the aforementioned book entitled, Erasing Hell.  In it, he suggests that rather than apologize for God {by softening the implications of eternal punishment}, we modern Christians should apologize to God for presuming to be wise and more loving than Him. 

I couldn’t agree more.

My heart breaks when I consider the existence of Hell.  Yet Hell is clearly a central Christian doctrine.  I’m not suggesting that we dare not raise our questions.  Nor would I imply that equally sincere Christians will never disagree over how we engage the reality of Hell in our evangelistic pursuits. 

In my humanity, I must confess that I still wrestle, intellectually and emotionally, with how God can be thoroughly loving AND that there is also such a thing as eternal punishment.  But ultimately, my intellect and my emotions MUST bow before the truth of Scripture.  I can still ask, probe and wrestle with Hell’s implications— I learned long ago that God is never diminished by my searching questions— but in the end, I MUST accept what the Bible teaches. 

 Though universalism isn’t the only issue at stake, universalism is a lie.  And since Jesus Himself said that He is “the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me” {John 14:6}— whether I like it or not, that is what the church must preach.  Even if it offends cultural sensibilities, the gospel is nonetheless true:  Only through faith in Jesus Christ alone, as the Son of God Who made the complete and sufficient payment for our sins— only through Christ alone can we be successfully ushered into the courts of everlasting life and delivered from the flames of eternal fire. 

Beyond universalism, is this compelling issue:  Today’s current generation of believers lays no inherent claim to the rights of editorial control when it comes to the Christian faith.  Divine truth is not ours to revise.  God’s Word was never meant to be deconstructed into various categories available for our selection.  Such behavior would leave future generations with nothing but our handpicked leftovers— and the church, would become a hollowed-out and empty version of our former selves.  Think about it like this: 

If we 21st century believers abandon the very truths our courageous predecessors gave their lives to preserve— what will be left that is still worth living {and dying} for?

Hell isn’t up for a vote and we have no right to dismantle doctrines we conclude make God look bad in our eyes or our culture’s eyes.  If God is good, but culture doesn’t see Him as good— it’s not up to us to give God a facelift or airbrush his image.  It is not our task to help people see God favorably, but to see Him accurately. 

I believe that God has the power, through the gospel, to touch hearts and to draw people to His love and grace.  As the Apostle rightly said, it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance {See Romans 2:4}.  But His kindness is driven by an awareness of what is at stake.  He shows His love toward us, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” {II Peter 3:9}.

So in that sense, Rob Bell is right:  Love DOES win.  But the true hope of the gospel is more than mere love.  Love wins simply because Jesus saves!  But from what does He save us?  He saves us out of sin and into His Body and from eternal judgment. 

And it is that gospel that our church {and every other church where Jesus is Lord} was founded upon, and not merely the more favorable gospel selections.  It is also that gospel that this pastor has given his entire life to preach, no matter whether its various parts are in season or out of season {See II Timothy 4:2}. 

And although elements of the gospel of Jesus Christ are clearly no longer in season, I will neither recant nor retreat from them.  Whether in the face of scorn, ridicule or derision— or even a far greater price— I choose to firmly stand. 

I will do nothing else. 

I can do nothing less. 

 My heart is grieved by the aforementioned events and I have written this brief position letter accompanied by many tears.  This is not an exhaustive theological treatise.  It’s simply the heart of a pastor who wants, more than anything else, to be found faithful in his handling of the word of God’s truth. 

So I “sow” this letter “with tears” in hopes that, one day, I will “reap” {great and wonderful} “songs of joy” {Psalm 126:5}.  As I’ve said so many times before, when I die I want to take as many people to heaven with me as I possibly can. 

Why do I want that so badly? 

Because Hell is real.  And Hell is the destiny of all who do not make Jesus their treasure.  But how can they know believe in Him— and how can they know what is truly at stake— “without someone preaching to them” {See Romans 10:14}? 

 

I submit this with deep humility and with many tears.


[1] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, March, 2011.

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