Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Apologizing for hell or an apology of hell?

So far this blog has been devoted to the eternal state. We will now continue this subject but from the other side. I am not by any means done with the positive angle. I am sure I will return to it often in the coming weeks.

This post will not serve as my 'apology for hell' but more as an introduction to my thoughts and feelings about hell and why I believe what I believe about it. This foundation will help (hopefully) as we look more deeply into the subject and I introduce the novel I've been toying with writing. Your comments and interaction would be appreciated as I write. (Many of you have made comments on facebook or in person about my blogs but are not subscribers! Shame on you! Subscribe and interact! I need more feedback!!)

The short blurb about my least favorite verses has some bearing here. Of all of the Bible's difficult teachings the one I dislike the most, the one I am most embarrassed to mention, most terrified to preach about, most eager to renounce, and (perhaps) least understand, is the doctrine of the eternal, conscious, torture of the unsaved in the place we know of as hell.

Many preachers have been accused of being hellfire and damnation preachers. These guys make preaching about hell a central theme of their message. When they preach the gospel they do not focus upon the beauty of a renewed fellowship with God or even (sometimes) the death and resurrection of Christ. Instead they tell of the terrors of a lake of literal fire. Imagine, they urge you, to imagine a place of complete darkness. They ask you if you have ever been burnt, ever felt what being burned with fire feels like. Now imagine that all over your whole body, but not for an instant, forever and ever and ever. This is what is coming to you if you do not say these magic words and receive Jesus into your heart (whatever the heck that means). Take out a policy from Jesus' Premium Fire Insurance and you'll never get burned. Escape hell with the repetition of these simple words. Its so easy to escape and the consequences so frightening that it makes no sense not to repeat the simplistic phrases he gives you to repeat. When you're done, he tells you that your coverage is good forever and you don't have to worry about it anymore. You can go through life now and never have to think about it again.

Although this may be something of an exaggerated depiction of a certain stripe of preachers, the picture is not really very extreme. Not only have I heard these guys many times (not only in fundamentalist baptist circles btw) but an inordinate amount of peoples' testimonies that I hear will point to a fear of hell being the motivating factor in their 'praying the sinners prayer' and 'receiving Jesus into their heart'. I'll lay off my hatred of these phrases for now.

The problems with this approach are too many to list, but I'll attempt it anyway. 1) This approach is the raping of the gospel by abandoning the central focus. 2) It takes the focus off of sin and places it upon punishment, consequently causing the hearer to focus upon God's wrath and anger instead of his mercy and grace. 3)This approach motivates people by a fear of punishment without the requirement of a real commitment to following Jesus Christ. 4) This approach results in a huge population of insincere and uncommitted Christians (or supposed Christians) who have little or no understanding of the gospel and little or no intention of living out the implications of a gospel to which they've never been exposed. 5) This approach misses the real point of hell and makes it a place of primarily physical torment. 6) This approach simplifies the Bible's teaching on hell and does not think deeply about some of the more complex issues.

I'm not this guy. I don't often (if ever) mention hell when I present the gospel. I heavily emphasize sin and the need for grace, but I make no attempt to scare people to Jesus or sell them fire insurance. I avoid the issue in conversation, witnessing, and teaching whenever possible. I am ashamed of hell. My discussion of hell tends to be an attempt to apologize for hell. I too am out of balance. If God made hell, then it is just. If Scripture teaches us about hell, then I ought to teach it. If hell is real, I ought not to pretend it doesn't exist. Subsequent blogs will be an attempt to quit apologizing for hell with an apology (defense) of hell.

This issue is important to me for some very personal reasons. I have struggled with accepting and understanding this doctrine. I have had a very close friend abandon Christ, in large part, because of what Scripture teaches on the subject. I have close friends and relatives who are, according to my understanding of the doctrine, bound for eternity in this place. I pray that my writing will be beneficial and corrective not only to whoever reads, but to my own life and ministry.

Interspersed throughout my discussions on this topic will be more on the New Jerusalem and the blessings of an eternity with the Savior. This subject is too dark to embark upon without an occasional sunbreak.

3 comments:

Crista said...

I can't stomach the "fire insurance" approach either; following Christ is a lifelong commitment described as "taking up your cross". "Now I'm safe; I can live however I want" just doesn't fly. And don't you hate it when people try to explain the gospel in a single sentence?! It reduces it to a magic formula that you can't understand anyway without having studied the gospel beforehand.

I enjoyed your post, as always ;)

unendingmercies said...

Matt,
I've been teaching Acts (as I think you know) and I don't think hell is mentioned there. Of course, this doesn't mean it's not to be discussed, but the apostles were clearly focused on explaining the "things that happened in Judea and Galilee" in their presentation.
We talked this week in soteriology about belief and I was reminded of the obvious truth that belief is more than just mental assent, but it is a wholehearted commitment to Jesus ("Lordship Salvation" seems to be another way to refer to it...). Can't we call for such commitments from people without appealing to the fires of judgment? Isn't the gospel glorious enough to draw someone to faith in Him?

faithbornfromdoubt said...

Austin, (so I''m assuming)

Thanks. Good point about Acts and as far as witnessing goes, I agree with you. I do not think that hell needs to be even a side dish in a presentation of the gospel, much less the centerpiece. I think it's the centerpiece so often because people think it works. BUT IT'S NOT THE CENTERPIECE OF THE GOSPEL!

But of course it is a topic dealt with in the Bible (though not as thoroughly as people seem to think) so it is something that should be a part of out theological discussion and teaching, right? We cannot completely ignore it....

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Tacoma, Washington, United States
"It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt." Fyodor Dostoevsky. I'm a Northwest Baptist Seminary graduate (MDiv) and current student (ThM). I plan on someday going to Africa and teach Bible and Theology at a Bible College or Seminary level. I hope to continue my studies and earn a PhD, either after I go to overseas for a few years or before. I'm a theological conservative, but I like to think outside of the box and challenge conventional thinking and consider myself a free thinker. I am currently serving in my fourth year as a Youth Pastor at Prairie Baptist Fellowship in Yelm Washington. My blogs will reflect my thoughts on both seminary and ministry life, though not (of course) exclusively. I enjoy literature and occasionally try my hand at writing stories and poems. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes..." Paul

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