A Strange World
The good news of Easter is that a real resurrection of Jesus from the dead, with a real tomb empty with a real glorified and recognisable body, means that the real reality of hell has been defeated. As Christians have sung, over the centuries, in the ancient Christian hymn, the Te Deum:
"when you had overcome the sharpness of death, you opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers."
And Good Friday is "good" because sin is real and leads, unless dealt with, to hell as an inevitable consequence. For God does not smile on the wickedness and evil of human sin, whether of suicide bombers killing innocent bystanders or of other sin. But on the cross Jesus Christ died in our place to free us from the judgment of being cast away from God's presence forever that we deserve. However, a headline in The Times, the Saturday before Easter Day 2016, said this: "Although heaven and hell are out of fashion, more and more people of all faiths or none believe in an afterlife," and then this comment followed:
"No one talks of hell these days. Its theological importance as the stick to the heavenly carrot, so gorily powerful in medieval art, is over. The Church of England has long steered clear of hellfire sermons. Even the US evangelical movement, famed for its brimstone preachers, has cleverly adopted a policy of 'Love Wins'."
How different all that is from the time of Hudson Taylor (1832-1905) from whom we have much to learn. Let me explain.
Hudson Taylor and Mission
Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China, once said: "I would never have thought of going out to China had I not believed that the Chinese were lost and needed Christ." That was because Hudson Taylor knew his Bible. For example, he knew that the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5.11: "knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others."
In line with the great Christian tradition, the fact of future judgment was still a motive for Hudson Taylor's evangelism. For apostolic biblical Christianity has recognised at least three main motives for mission and evangelism: first, the glory of God; secondly, obedience to the Great Commission of Jesus to go into all the world to preach the gospel; but then, thirdly, this concern for the "lost". And it is this last motive that has been underplayed in recent times and that we, surely, need to recover.
As that newspaper article indicated, many Christians are now too cautious about "hell". Undoubtedly over the centuries there will have been some extravagant and unhelpful things said about God's judgment that go beyond what the Bible teaches. Also some have been cautious because of wanting to be "relevant" to the "modern world". This makes them irrationally think that the more you accommodate to present assumptions and beliefs, the more people will be interested in what you have to say! But, of course, that is not the case. What is relevant (and interesting to the modern world) is what, rationally, critiques modern assumptions and beliefs and as you, then, say something that is true.
However, one problem people have with the doctrine of hell and the reason for wanting to revise it according to Rob Bell, a revisionist and author of the book Love Wins, is that …
"… millions of Christians secretly struggle with how to reconcile God's love and God's judgment: has God created billions of people over thousands of years only to select a few to go to heaven and everyone else to suffer forever in hell? Is this acceptable to God? How is this 'good news'?"
But Rob Bell has got it wrong. Classical Christian teaching does not teach only a tiny few are in heaven while billions are in hell.
The problem has been that some people fail to consider Jesus' teaching as a whole; and especially do they fail to realise that Jesus never answered the question, in Luke 13.23, when "someone said to him [Jesus], 'Lord, will those who are saved be few?'" with a positive "yes!" Instead he responded obliquely with a command: "Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able." But then he goes on, after referring to the possibility of hell, to say that "people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God" (Luke 13.29).
So, as John says in Revelation, in heaven there will be those "from every tribe and language and people and nation" along with "many angels, numbering myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands" (Rev 5.9,11). We must expect those numbers of internationals equally to be huge. However, it is true that some estimates of the proportions of those "saved" have been attempted and with tiny results. In the 18th century, a Scottish elder in the Parish of Mauchline, Ayrshire, estimated one "elect" to ten "non-elect"!
But that is to misunderstand Jesus in Luke 13 (above). For Jesus may well have been speaking of the situation in Palestine during his ministry when he said many were not able to "enter" through "the narrow door". For there was a great and rapid increase in the number of his followers after his death and resurrection. Within a few months from his crucifixion, the number of his followers in Palestine was ten times as great as it had been during his ministry. And certainly Paul speaks in Romans unambiguously about those who identify with Christ by faith as "the many" (Rom 5.15,19). As Professor F.F.Bruce writes of Romans 5:
"no valid exegesis can make 'the many' mean a minority, for (as Calvin [the great 16th century Reformer] reasonably puts it in his exposition of this passage) 'if Adam's fall had the effect of producing the ruin of many, the grace of God is much more efficacious in benefiting many, since admittedly Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam was to ruin.' C.H.Spurgeon, the greatest English Calvinist of the 19th century, is said to have prayed more than once, 'Lord hasten to bring in all thine elect, and then elect some more.' I cannot discover any theological objection to such a prayer, bearing in mind the sovereignty of God's grace. If one thing is more certain than another about the God of the Bible, it is this, that in his zeal to save, he will inaugurate means to bless his creatures beyond our wit to conceive or anticipate."
However, none of that positive thinking allows us to ignore the fact that Jesus spoke much about hell to his generation; and that was when there was a huge rejection of his ministry, and, indeed, the ultimate rejection of him through crucifixion. Currently in the West, at any rate, there is a similar great rejection. How, therefore, our world must face the reality that beyond death is hell as well as heaven!
So people today could, with profit, read the following paragraphs that are an (edited) version of a lecture given by Dr J.I.Packer and appeared formerly as a Coloured Supplement in 1992:
The thought that people one knows and cares for, not to mention oneself, might face a destiny that could be described as eternal punishment, will be profoundly disturbing. We scoff at hell fire as a bad dream. We write off the idea as a hangover from primitive ages long past; and when we meet someone who still believes in eternal punishment we regard them as at least quaint, and perhaps weird; we certainly do not take them seriously.
My first task now must be to point out as forcefully as I can that Jesus and the Apostles do not let us off the hook with regard to eternal punishment, as we so blithely let ourselves off it. As W.G.T.Shedd affirmed a century ago:
"The strongest support of the doctrine of Endless Punishment is the teaching of Christ, the Redeemer of men … Christ could not have warned men so frequently and earnestly as he did against 'the fire that shall never be quenched,' and 'the worm that dies not,' had he known that there is no future peril to correspond to them … Jesus Christ is the Person who is responsible for the doctrine of Eternal Perdition."
In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats Jesus says:
"Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels … And these will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matthew 25.41,46).
Of this "fire" Jesus had spoken often, using the word Gehenna, (the Greek form of "the Valley of Hinnom"). This was an area outside the wall of Jerusalem where children had once been offered as burnt sacrifices to Molech (cf 2 Chronicles 28.3; 33.6) and which had become the city's incinerator area, where the city's garbage and the corpses of the family-less were daily burned. He refers to "the hell [Greek, gehenna] of fire" (Matt 5.22; 18.9). Mark's Gospel speaks of a person going into "hell [gehenna], to the unquenchable fire" and of a person "thrown into hell [gehenna], where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9.43,48).
And with all this should be linked Jesus' picture of tares and bad fish being thrown into "the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt 13.42,50); and also the grim form of Jesus' call for courage as he sends out the twelve:
"Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell". (Matt 10.28)
The one to be feared is not the devil but the one whom Jesus called Father! We may summarize as follows: Jesus speaks of a destiny of being in the fire for all people everywhere whom he does not accept as his own. He calls the fire "Gehenna" and describes it as "eternal", part of the abiding future order of things, and as never going out. To enter or be thrown into it brings unqualified distress ("weeping and gnashing of teeth") – a condition that Jesus elsewhere ascribes, we should note, to those banished at judgment day to "the outer darkness" (Matt 8.12; 22.13; 25.30). Clearly, we are in the world of imagery – fire and darkness are both picturing the same condition; and, what is being pictured is a condition that is unimaginably dreadful, one that it is worth any labour and any cost to avoid. And the speaker is the incarnate Son of God, our divine instructor!
The Apostles' Teaching
The Apostolic writers follow in their Master's footsteps. Paul declares:
"When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in blazing fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord" (2 Thess 1.7-9).
Jude verse 7 reads,
"Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire."
Jude verse 13 speaks of certain immoral folk in the church as "wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever." Revelation 14.10-11 warns that anyone who worships the beast "will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever." Rev 20.10 pictures a lake of burning sulphur into which at the last judgment the devil, the beast, and the false prophet are thrown, to be "tormented day and night for ever and ever". Then, in verse 14, Death and Hades are thrown into it; and that is identified with "the second death" which, verse 6 has told us, would have no power over God's saints; and verse 15 declares: "If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."
Jesus' and Paul's Deep Sadness
But in using these ideas Jesus imparted to them a nuance, or temper of what we can only call "traumatic awe"; a passionate gladness that justice will be done for God's glory, linked with an equally passionate sadness that fellow human beings, no matter how perverse, will thereby be ruined. This traumatic awe is seen in Jesus' tearful words over Jerusalem (Luke 19.41-44) and in his compassionate admonition, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; but weep for yourselves and for your children …" (Luke 23.28-31). Similar sadness comes out in Paul's heart-cry about the Jews whose rejection by God he announces:
"I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers... ; my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved" (Rom 9.2-3; 10.1).
The same traumatic awe, or awe-filled trauma, will strike the soul of every thoughtful Christian with unconverted relatives and friends, who takes seriously the promise that Jesus, the Saviour, will one day return to judge the living and the dead. And surely we may boldly say that, though it is not in the least comfortable, yet it is healthy for us to feel that trauma and to be unable, like Paul before us, to find relief from pain save in wholehearted commitment to the ministry of spreading the gospel, in which we "become all things to all people, that by all means we may save some" (1 Cor 9.22), and so fulfil Jude's blunt summons: "save others by snatching them out of the fire" (Jude 23).
The only spiritual method of alleviating distress at the prospect of souls being lost is to take action to win them; and the theological way of stating that is this; it is to say that God enables us to live with the prospect of people we know (or know of) possibly being lost by moving us to pray and work, so that they may not be lost, and, indeed, by using that prospect in our consciences to stir us up to this mode of action. But the eternal punishment of all the ungodly, nonetheless, remains a distressing truth to discuss; which makes it vital to have at our command, for the purpose, a form of words that is conceptually clear but not emotionally loaded.
Though the language of "punishment", in the sense of God's judicial infliction, is abundantly scriptural as we have seen, I am now going to drop it. For it conjures up unhelpful suspicions. Modern thought is sceptical as to whether punishment that does not serve the purpose of reforming the offender and safeguarding others can ever be justified; and talk about God's punitive role on the last day, when neither of these further goals can enter into the reckoning, is bound to feed the suspicion that God is in truth arbitrary and vindictive in a way that is not quite admirable, because it is not quite moral. Indeed, the widespread revolt against the idea of eternal punishment during the past century has sprung from this suspicion. By the same token, I do not propose to use the word "torment", scriptural though it is. To the modern mind it suggest sadism and cruelty and torture, and what we are talking about is none of these things, but the adorable justice of a holy Creator who deals righteously with people according to their works.
I propose to speak of the divinely executed retributive process that operates in the world to come. First, the phraseology is not emotionally loaded, and it should not cloud discussion. Secondly, individual retribution as one aspect of the larger reality of divine judgment, whereby evil is stopped in its tracks and righteousness restored, is precisely what we are talking about. Punishment can be arbitrary and not proportionate to the wrongdoing. But retribution means that one's past becomes the decisive factor in determining one's present; for one gets what one deserves. And, thirdly, the language of retribution permits the blending in our minds of two thoughts that are blended in the Bible – namely, that the condemnation justly imposed by God as the Judge, vindicating righteousness, is also, and in a sense primarily, self-inflicted through our own perversity in choosing death rather than life (John 3.18-20).
We choose to retreat from God rather than repent before God; and God's judicial sentence is a ratifying for eternity of the sentence of separation from God that we, by our own choice, have already passed on ourselves. Teachers like C.S.Lewis stress the thought that no one is in hell who has not chosen to be there, in the sense of choosing to be self-absorbed and to keep God out of his or her life; and that is evidently one aspect of the grim truth.
But the good news is still that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3.16).