At the Desiring God 1990 Pastor's Conference, Sinclair Ferguson gave a talk titled, "The Biblical Basis for the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment." It is, without doubt, one of the most significant treatments of the doctrine of hell that I have ever heard. At the outset of that lecture, Ferguson told the following story:
"A number of years ago, certainly within the lifetime of all of us present in this room, one of the royal princesses of the realm coming out of a cathedral service in England spoke to the dean of the chapter of the cathedral, and said to him, 'Is it true, dean, that there is a place called Hell?' To which the dean apparently replied, 'Madame, the Scriptures say so, Christian people have always believed so, and the Church of England confesses so.' To which she responded, 'Then in God's name, why do you not tell us so?'"
If the princess' sentiment was an adequate reflection on the preaching in churches in the Western world so many decades ago, it is certainly true of preaching in the church today. Despite a paucity of biblical preaching on the doctrine of eternal punishment, there remains no shortage of attacks on the idea of preaching about the doctrine of hell. Carving out a caricature of conservative Southern pastors, Andy Stanley recently sounded off
about his aversion to the idea of preaching about hell. He said:
"Have you ever heard preachers (well, you have if you grew up in the South)...have you ever heard preachers rant about sin? It's like they're angry at sinners, they're angry about sin, they're just judgmental--they're angry at sinners and happy about hell (audience laughter)? That's Old Covenant thinking that leaked in. That's mix and match. That's an Old Covenant prophet railing against the nation of Israel, "And God is going to judge you," "And God is going to get you." It's Old Testament. It's Old Covenant. In the New Covenant, do you know what we discover? That sin doesn't make God angry."
I'm not sure what's worse--the fact that Andy Stanley tagged every minister who happens to be Southern, who hates sin and who preaches about eternal punishment as an angry, judgmental bigot who loves hell or that he threw the Old Covenant prophets in the same basket.
Whatever one may think about his statement, it is clearly en vogue, in our day, for false teachers to mock the biblical teaching on eternal punishment, every chance they get. The mocking of eternal punishment became something of a trend among former evangelicals when Rob Bell responded to the insistence that Ghandi was in hell back in 2011:
"Gandhi's in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?"
The irony is that while Bell was subtly denying the idea of a place of eternal punishment altogether when he utilized his series of rhetorical questions, he was simultaneously affirming the reality of the existence of such a place. As John Lennon suggested, denying the reality of hell is "easy if you try." But that's the point, isn't it? You have to try
there isn't a place of eternal punishment in which the justice and wrath of God is displayed on the unrighteous for all of eternity, precisely because there is such a place. Which is what makes Stanley's statements so perplexing. It's as if he believes that God somehow did away with a place of eternal punishment--a place that he, at one and the same time, seems to affirm existed prior to Christ coming into the world to saved his people from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10
A few days ago, Rachel Held Evans took to Twitter to mock an important point that Tim Keller made about eternal punishment and the cross. Keller had written, "Unless you believe in Hell, you will never know how much Jesus loves you." Clearly missing the theological import of Keller's statement, Evans responded, "I will never understand a worldview in which one's security in Christ is dependent upon the eternal torture of millions of men, women, and children in hell. 'Well at least it's not me' is not a faith rooted in love, but a faith rooted in selfishness and fear.'" Though a terribly twisted misrepresentation of the intent of Keller's statement, Evans is correct about this much: the issue of the importance of the doctrine of hell is the issue of security in Christ. In other words, "From what does Jesus save us (secure us)? and "For what does Jesus save us (secure us)?" If we don't know the biblical teaching about that which Jesus saves us from, we will never adequately begin to grasp the greatness of the love that compelled him to die to secure that which he saves us for.
The other issue that Evans fails to see is that Keller, in highlighting the love of Christ, is emphasizing the conjunction of justice and mercy in the death of Christ. In Cur Deus Homo
, Anselm--the great eleventh century theologian--captured the essence of this conjunction when he He wrote:
"The mercy of God, which seemed to disappear when we considered the justice of God and the sin of man, is so great, and so consistent with justice, that we can think of nothing greater or more just. For what can be conceived more merciful, than, when the sinner has been condemned to eternal torments, and has nothing by which to redeem himself, God says, 'Take My Only-begotten Son, and give Him for yourself:' and the Son Himself says, 'Offer Me and redeem yourself?'...Again, what can be conceived more just than that He to whom is offered a Price greater than all the debt, should, if it be offered with the due disposition, forgive the whole debt?"
On the cross, the eternal Son propitiated (i.e.
removed) the eternal wrath due to those who have sinned against the eternal God by himself falling under that wrath and suffering the equivalent of eternal punishment in the place of his people. We will never begin to adequately understand Jesus' cry of dereliction on the cross, "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me" (Matt. 27:26
), until we come to terms with the fact that we deserve to be forsaken by God for all eternity on account of our sin (Matt. 25:46
). After all, one sin against an eternal being necessarily has eternal consequences. We will never understand what Jesus experienced when he said, "I thirst," until we first hear what he said about the rich man in torments in Hell (Luke 16:24
). Jesus warned repeatedly about the reality of eternal punishment under the figure of being cast into "outer darkness" where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12
). As J. Gresham Machen once noted, "These words were not spoken by Augustine, or by George Whitefield, or by Jonathan Edwards, but by Jesus of Nazareth."
If there is no hell then there is no need for the atoning sacrifice of the eternal Son of God. If there is no hell, we should draw the same conclusion that the Apostle Paul drew when he put forward the logical implications of the resurrection: "If the dead do not rise, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'" (1 Cor. 15:32
)! If there is no eternal punishment, then there is no magnification of the love of God. As the Apostle explained in Romans 5:8-10
, "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him." If there is no eternal wrath of God removed by the blood of Jesus then there is no eternal love of God demonstrated in the death of Christ.
If we are to faithfully herald the love of Christ which passes knowledge, we must faithfully and compassionately herald the wrath of God which passes comprehension. We don't help anyone see their need for the eternal life and blessedness that comes to us by faith alone in Christ alone, if we deny, downplay or disregard the reality of eternal death and destruction that we deserve on account of our sin. Far from being judgmental or selfish, preaching about eternal punishment in order to magnify the grace and mercy of God in Christ crucified and risen is the most loving, compassionate and God-honoring thing a minister can do. May God raise up a generation of pastors and preachers who will faithfully proclaim the wrath to come in order to hold up the One who died to save his people from that wrath.
*This first appeared at Reformation21.