But the response of his family is to think he has gone mad! As night is coming on they hasten to put him to bed in the hope that he might recover his senses by morning. However, the next day find him even more troubled. He wanders alone in the fields, sighing and reading from the book in his hands. Occasionally he is heard to cry out: ‘What must I do to be saved?’
In days of great spiritual darkness those called by God to preach the gospel have a sobering task. Our present world is still as Bunyan saw it. It is the City of Destruction. Mankind lies under the same certainty of coming judgement from heaven. Yet tragically, the clear note of warning in preaching has all but disappeared. The truths of final judgement and hell have long been omitted from most modern preaching. Hell has become the forgotten doctrine of the twentieth century.
This change can be traced back to the late 18th and 19th centuries and the so-called ‘age of enlightenment’. Attacks upon the inspiration of Scripture sprang from claims that human reason was above the Word of God. The outcome of this view was that anything in Scripture which seemed unreasonable or unpalatable to man’s natural mind began to be disputed and rejected.
While the Church from the beginning had taught the certainty of hell and eternal punishment view which denied this teaching began to creep in. Annihilation, conditional immortality and universalism are all deviations which fly in the face of Scripture. As J. I. Packer has pointed out, each it a variation of the theme that either ‘God is too good to damn men’, or that ‘men are too good to be damned’. Such views have made deep inroads into the Church, causing the virtual disappearance of the doctrine of hell in preaching. This omission is far more damaging than most writers realize.
General William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army, was most forthright in preaching the doctrine of hell. His sermons show how often he took up this theme and how lovingly he warned men and women to turn to the only Savior of mankind. Perhaps best known of all his sermons is ‘Who cares?’ (published in The War Cry of June 20, 1885) in which he graphically depicted his vision of a Rock in the midst of a raging sea where men, women and children were everywhere perishing.
Nearly twenty years later, when his life was nearly ended, Booth had not weakened in his preaching of this truth. In 1904 he urged his officers to:
Make people fell the truth as regards judgement, heaven and hell. All around you there is growing up a great peril of unbelief on these questions. You must fight it! … Men sleep on the verge of hell. You must fight to awaken them! You must startle them out of the fatal stupor in which they stand all unheeding on the brink of a burning hell!
Perhaps the most remarkable sermon on hell was preached by Jonathan Edwards at Enfield, North America, in 1741. The sermon was called ‘Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God’ and was based on the text: ‘Their foot shall slip in due time’ (Deut. 32:35). Using most dramatic language, Edwards pictured natural man held by life’s thin thread over the pit of hell. Although many have criticized Edwards for what they consider to be ‘exaggerated descriptions of hell’, his motivation was correct. Edwards recognized the eternal issues at stake. He concluded his sermon by saying:
This is an awful subject! May it be blessed for the awakening of unconverted souls to the conviction of their danger!… Let everyone who is out of Christ now awaken and flee from the wrath to come! The wrath of God is now undoubtedly hanging over this nation, or even over many in church congregations. Heed the angel’s message to Lot in Sodom:’Escape for your life! Do not look behind you. Escape to the mountains, lest you be destroyed.
Bunyan would have approved. Indeed, the one whose approval counts above all others was himself the most awesome preacher of this doctrine. The terrible warnings of hell given by Jesus in the gospels must be forgotten.
In this ‘enlightened age’, all who preach God’s Word are under pressure to adopt wrong attitudes towards the doctrine of final retribution. The fact that this doctrine is so rarely mentioned gives hearers the impression that hell is nothing more than a curious idea from earlier centuries now made irrelevant by modern sophistication. To most preachers, hell has become a subject of embarrassment rather than a terrible and certain reality.
This has led to the doctrine of hell being isolated from all other doctrines. Failure to recognize that Christian doctrine must be viewed as a complete and integrated unit, rather than individual, loosely-related truths, always has a debilitating effect upon preaching. Not to preach and teach the awful reality of hell progressively weakens the doctrines of sin, law, judgement, the wrath of God, and the atoning blood of Christ. Indeed, even the character of God is impugned. Does God not mean what he says?
When the doctrine of hell is omitted, it follows that the terms ‘saved’ and ‘salvation’ become meaningless. This is why modern man neither sees nor feels the slightest need to come to Christ. And why should he? He feels no danger. What has he to fear? Certainly nothing from the ‘God of love’ so blandly promised by many today. Hearers are too easily assured. Many now preach as if all in congregations are assumed to be saved, and emphasis has swung away from need for the powerful inner work of regeneration by God’s Spirit alone to calls for ‘re-dedication’.
On one occasion when George Whitefield was in America, he sat under the thorough preaching of Gilbert Tennant. Whitefield later said: ‘I never before heard such a searching sermon. Hypocrites must soon be converted or enraged at his preaching! I fear I have brought comfort too soon!’
All this is a far cry from much evangelism today. Nowadays the typical example of ‘a successful growing Community church’ boasts of worship styles described as ‘fun!’ Because the goal is numbers, those who attend must always leave feeling good about themselves. This requires that ‘negative words and concepts’, such as law, wrath, judgement and hell must be studiously avoided in the rush for success.
Not surprisingly, modern-day conversions too often lack evidence of deep heart-conviction or mourning over sin. Many now vaguely speak of being ‘saved from their sins’ or even of ‘what Jesus has added to their lifestyle’. Most have no consciousness at all of having been saved from judgement and the awesome finality of eternal hell. It never seems to enter their head. And little wonder, for who has bothered to tell them? If the doctrine of hell is no longer part of the gospel, then surely we must question what the term ‘salvation’ means.
Should God graciously permit true revival to come again in these last days there is one characteristic we may expect to find. It is that men, women and children will all receive a deep sense of the awe and greatness of God. In revival, men realize how dreadful is the nature of sin and how righteous is God. In revival, men begin to see how terrible it is to be eternally lost and how certain is divine judgement. A study of revivals show that ‘the fear of God’ is always present. That there is so little fear and awe of God in the churches today is sobering evidence against the claims of some who seem to confuse revival with noise and numbers.
Entertained by Violence
We should also recognize that our present world has de-sensitized itself against the terrors of hell by creating horrors of its own, both real and in the name of entertainment. Death and violence are shown on television and in films in such horrific ways as to become unreal, particularly to the young. Terrors must become even more shocking to have any impact at all. Those who live in the twentieth century are tending to become increasingly more blase and fearless towards all authority, law and order. In turn this breeds attitudes toward God of either total apathy or open rebellion.
This is not to suggest that we should ‘play the world at its own game’ and try to shock by drawing lurid word-pictures of what we may conceive hell to be like. Nothing less than the powerful conviction of the Holy Spirit working through faithful preaching of his Word will shake men from their present false sense of security. Our preaching needs to regain a proper balance between God’s law, judgement and eternal retribution for sin with the loving offer of God’s gracious pardon through Jesus Christ to hell deserving sinners.
Just as the joys of heaven are quite beyond our present imagination, so hell must be infinitely worse then our minds can grasp. The images of fire, darkness, chains, separation from God, are all suggestive of terrible prospects. Who among us can begin to fathom what an eternity of conscious remorse for sin and refusing Christ must mean? Truly Jesus says: ‘There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matt. 13.50). He warns, ‘ What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’ (Mark 8:37). In hell there is simply no respite. The occasional ‘glimpses’ we may catch of it are enough to convince us that this is a place of utter despair.
Thomas Boston, the 18th century Scottish divine, deals movingly with the awful tragedy of those who are still unregenerate, spiritually blind and hell-bent. In his book Human Nature in its Four-Fold State he writes:
If you knew your case, you would cry out: ‘Oh! darkness! darkness! darkness! The face covering is upon you already as condemned persons, so near are you to everlasting darkness. It is only Jesus Christ who can stop the execution, pull the napkin off the face of the condemned malefactor, and put a pardon in his hand.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne felt the urgency of this doctrine. On one occasion when journeying on his pony he took shelter from the rain in an engine house of a quarry. He simply pointed to the fire of the furnace, and said: What does that remind you of?’ Some time later the man who had been tending the furnace came and told M’Cheyne how God had used that ‘word in season’ to his own salvation.
M’Cheyne would often visit dying parishioners on Saturday afternoons. He said that before preaching he ‘liked to look over the verge!’ He was like Richard Baxter of Kidderminster of whom it was said that ‘he preached as a dying man to dying men’. We need this urgency in preaching today!
A Message for Us Today
Yet what immense difficulties we confront. How may we preach this terrible truth to men? For a start, does the world we live in not seem remote from all this? Do not so many people around us today live in nice homes, wear fashionable clothes, hold educational qualifications and enjoy respectable positions in life? We may more easily envisage heaven. Are we therefore fools to feel concerned that hell is real and judgement will come?
We must remember that Jesus said: ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away’ (Matt. 24:37-39). It is only faith that sees beyond this present world and only faith in God’s Word that holds us in the knowledge that these things are irresistibly certain and will come to pass in the end.
Of all truths we must first preach this to our own hearts. We need to feel and see the utter tragedy of countless multitudes who rush blindly on to perdition. Never will we preach it unless we first believe it ourselves.
But believe it we must, and preach it we must! Not as ranters, but earnestly, lovingly, persuasively, calling young and old alike to escape from God’s righteous anger against sin and to flee to Christ whose blood was spilled to save all who in faith will call upon his name. We must study how we may restore this note of warning into our regular evangelical preaching and to correct the distortion and imbalance brought upon the preaching of the gospel over this past century.
John Bunyan is still true to life in our day and age when he has the family and neighbors of Pilgrim mock his warnings to escape from the City of Destruction. ‘He is mad! Put him to bed’ is the only response they can make. We are likely to receive similar ridicule from many quarters today if we speak of hell.
Yet we should remember that we stand in the best of company — alongside Enoch and Noah, John the Baptist, the apostles — yes, and even in company with our Lord himself. May God raise up faithful preachers of his Word who will courageously and graciously declare this difficult but necessary truth to a careless, dying world.
This article first appeared in the January 1994 edition of the Banner of Truth Magazine.