For American Evangelicals, hell has become a problem. In this day of extreme cultural and social sensitivities, hell is no longer politically correct. A recent Harris poll shows that only 58% of Americans believe in the devil or hell. That, by the way, is an all-time low, down 12% in the last ten years. Here in South Florida, which is one of the most un-churched areas of the United States, the percentages would be even lower.
Quite frankly, we must take some of the blame. Many churches and pastors have intentionally ignored the topic of eternal punishment. Several years ago, then SBC President Paige Patterson said, “You can traverse the entire United States on any given Sunday morning, and you very probably will not hear a sermon on the judgment of God or eternal punishment.” He continued, “Evangelicals have voted by the silence of their voices that they either do not believe in (the doctrine of hell) or else no longer have the courage and conviction to stand and say anything about it.”
Such reluctance to speak about hell and eternal punishment has not always been the tendency of the Church. For more than 18 centuries hell has been a part of mainstream Christian theology. Almost all of the ancient Church Fathers addressed their belief in hell, literal fire and eternal damnation. Here are a few examples…
Justin Martyr – Jesus shall come from the heavens in glory with his angelic host, when he shall raise the bodies of all the men who ever lived. Then he will clothe the worthy in immortality; but the wicked, clothed in eternal sensibility, he will commit to the eternal fire, along with the evil demons. (A.D. 151)
Irenaeus – The penalty increases for those who do not believe the Word of God and despise his coming. . . . It is not merely temporal, but eternal. To whomsoever the Lord shall say, “Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire,” they will be damned forever (A.D. 189)
Those are just a few illustrations. Yet, in the past 50 years, the subject of eternal punishment has become more than just a controversial topic, it has become a problem. Why is that? Why do we shy away from addressing a topic that the Bible clearly teaches?
We have allowed Culture to affect our thinking
The timeless truths of Scripture that have defined Christian thought for so many centuries are no longer accepted by postmodern culture. Unfortunately, we live in a culture with very few absolutes. The Bible is no longer the standard for our beliefs and our practices. Society has become the ultimate judge of what is right and wrong.
Sadly, though, instead of standing up to such an affront to biblical truth, pastors have looked for ways around it. I am afraid that the Church often attempts to teach truth in a non-offensive way. We would rather avoid confrontation than hit it head on. Pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church said, “I don’t think fear, as a tactic, really moves people toward faith these days, so, tactically, I think there are better ways to interest the uninterested in the claims of Jesus Christ.”
We have become afraid to offend
We must not, though, water down the truth of the Gospel to make it palatable. Paul said that the preaching of the cross is foolish to the Greeks and offensive to the Gentiles (I Corinthians 1:22, 23). The simple truth is that the Gospel message, both positively in the work of Christ on the cross, and negatively in the judgment associated with those who do not believe, will offend. Let us not be afraid to share the truth.
As pastors and leaders, let’s not be influenced by culture or inhibited by fear. Let’s make a commitment to teach and preach the whole counsel of God. After all, sharing the whole truth about heaven and hell with love and compassion is not insensitive nor is it offensive. It is what we have been called to do.