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Are We Proclaiming a Hell We Don’t Deserve—and a Christ We Do?

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I taught twice on the doctrine of hell recently, and both times it ended in tears—mine.

I remember the second time vividly. At the end of the class, an older woman who had walked with God for many years approached me with a somber face. She had a question about her mother, and as she spoke, she began to cry. She wanted to know whether her mother was in hell.

What could I say? I told her what most Christians say in such moments. I said that we never know what happens in the final moments of a person’s life, that I didn’t know where her mother was.

That’s true. I didn’t know. None of us does.

Then I told her something else: “But this is what I do know. I know that if she is in hell, it is just. And I know God would be just if he sent you and me there, too. Because that’s what our sin deserves.” With a gravity I won’t forget, she nodded slowly and we hugged, now both crying at the weight of it all.

How Do We Think About Hell?

I’m convinced the way we think about hell is always a reflection of how we think about sin and, in turn, how we think about Christ. Problem is, it’s all too easy for Christians to think of hell as something “out there,” something other people deserve—people who don’t think like us or vote like us or live like us. Eventually, this way of thinking makes us callous and cold to both the gospel and other people.

The way we think about hell is always a reflection of how we think about sin and, in turn, how we think about Christ.

Jonathan Edwards understood the problem well. He observed that when a person becomes convinced “that hell belongs only to other folks, and not to him, then he can easily allow the reality of hell [and] have a great zeal against that infidelity which denies it.” People find it easy to believe in a hell they don’t deserve. For too many people, Edwards recognized, their belief in hell is essentially self-serving.

It’s an observation that continues to be made today, usually in the form of an objection to the doctrine itself. New Testament scholar Dale Allison describes his reaction to the idea as a youth:

I remember reading . . . a pamphlet on Christianity and other religions. It plainly taught that all Jews, Muslims, and Hindus will burn in fire forever and ever. As proof, the author cited biblical texts. I recoiled. I can in fact recall standing up and anxiously pacing the room. The notion of postmortem torture for all unlike me was, long before I encountered liberal theology, repellant.

It is repellant, and we should recoil. Not from our belief in hell (as Allison seems to), but from the belief that hell is for people unlike us. This is, of course, profoundly untrue—in a way that directly relates to the good news of Jesus.

No one will ever be punished in hell for being unlike you in some superficial way. No, they will be punished for being so profoundly like you. That’s what is really shocking about hell. It’s shocking that we all deserve this fate, not one of us excluded. When Paul writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), this truth shatters all our pretentious self-comparisons.

No Christian avoids hell because we are different from others; we avoid hell because Christ is different from us.

No Christian avoids hell because we are different from others; we avoid hell because Christ is different from us. We avoid hell because God’s sinless Son became like us in our sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ, and Christ alone, makes the difference.

How Should We Teach It?

Here are three ways that this truth should affect our preaching and teaching on hell.

1. We should spend more effort pointing to ourselves when talking about why a loving God would send people to hell.

It’s tempting to rush to the Hitlers and Stalins of history to make the apologetic point that God is just in consigning people to hell. But who among us can identify with the concrete historical atrocities perpetrated by those evil men? Yet we can identify with the reality of festering hatreds, deep-rooted self-centeredness, and utter failure to love God with heart, mind, soul, strength. If we start with ourselves and move out, rather than the other way around, it might become more obvious to others that we hold on to our belief in hell because we believe it is true.

2. We should not be embarrassed to believe in hell.

Though some deny eternal punishment, far more believe it and never talk about it. They pay lip service on occasion, but they would rather not mention it in conversation, still less from the pulpit. Ironically, many do this because they care about others. They either don’t want to offend or don’t want to think about loved ones suffering forever. Both are understandable, but in hiding the gravity of hell we short-circuit a massive motive Jesus himself gave for truly loving others. After all, “he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47).

3. It should influence our gospel proclamation.

If we preach a hell we don’t think we deserve, we will eventually begin preaching a Christ we think we do.

If we preach a hell we don’t think we deserve, we will eventually begin preaching a Christ we think we do.

The two are inescapably tied together. Our horror at hell must go hand-in-hand with our wonder that Jesus would save even us. We should talk about both hell and him with a gravity, urgency, and awe befitting both. Then we can cry out with Paul:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Rom. 11.33).

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