I don’t know when the modern Church in the West abandoned talking about hell, but I do know that nothing’s been right since.
If what we preach in the Protestant Church accurately reflects reality, people are damned from the second they draw their first breath. We talk about eternal life starting when a person comes to Christ, but eternal damnation starts a lot earlier.
Yet do any of us live with that truth in mind?
I remember a conversation I had with a Seventh Day Adventist about the reality of hell. Adventists ascribe to annihilationism, meaning the unsaved cease to exist at their deaths. In other words, hell isn’t real. One of my arguments against that viewpoint comes from the following:
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers–so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'”
—Luke 16:19-31 ESV
The Adventist immediately shot back that this was a parable and could not be taken literally. However, Jesus never uses illustrations in His parables that have no basis in reality. Every element in His parables is true to life.
But even as I write this (or you read it), little of the reality of the place sinks in, does it? We’ve made hell a kind of mystical plane of existence where only the truly abominable wind up. It’s not for anyone in our family, or for our neighbor, or for the guy who empties our trash, or for the call center woman in Bangalore. It’s always for someone else.
Though “Denial isn’t a river in Egypt” is a mantra in the skewed world of pop-psychotherapy, too many of us Christians in America are in that same denial over the eternal futures of people around us. We go about our days as if no one will ever roast in a lake of fire for all eternity.
Too graphic. Too disturbing. Too in your face.
Leonard Ravenhill wrote in Why Revival Tarries (p.32):
Charlie Peace was a criminal. Laws of God or man curbed him not. Finally the law caught up with him, and he was condemned to death. On the fatal morning in Armley Jail, Leeds, England, he was taken on the death-walk. Before him went the prison chaplain, routinely and sleepily reading some Bible verses. The criminal touched the preacher and asked what he was reading. “The Consolations of Religion,” was the replay. Charlie Peace was shocked at the way he professionally read about hell. Could a man be so unmoved under the very shadow of the scaffold as to lead a fellow-human there and yet, dry-eyed, read of a pit that has no bottom into which this fellow must fall? Could this preacher believe the words that there is an eternal fire that never consumes its victims, and yet slide over the phrase with a tremor? Is a man human at all who can say with no tears, “You will be eternally dying and yet never know the relief that death brings”? All this was too much for Charlie Peace. So he preached. Listen to his on-the-eve-of-hell sermon:
“Sir,” addressing the preacher, “if I believed what you and the church of God say that you believe, even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it, if need be, on hands and knees and think it worthwhile living, just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that!
How can it be that a condemned criminal who probably did not know Christ can be more concerned about people going into eternal torment than you or I? How many of us would scramble across the length of this country, torn to shreds by the shards of glass beneath us, to save one soul?
John Knox beseeched God: “Great God, give me Scotland, or I die!” Yet my own heart reveals little of that same concern to prefer my own death over the damnation of even one soul. And I know my heart is not the only one bereft of that evangelistic fire.
I don’t think we have a lot of time left. I’m no prophet or eschatology guru, but I can’t escape the Holy Spirit saying that we’ve got to start living like we really believe the Lord. That belief means we’ll do whatever it takes to ensure that no one ends up in hell. Maybe we better stop wasting time comparing iPod prices online.
Where is our zeal for evangelizing the lost? Why are we so dead to the reality that people we know are cruising toward an eternity filled with weeping and gnashing of teeth?
Hell is a real place. Time for us to start living like we believe it.