"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:28, NIV)
In his 1927 essay Why I am not a Christian, philosopher Bertrand Russell claimed that: “Belief in eternal hell fire was an essential of Christian belief until pretty recent times.” It is true that - until at least the middle of the nineteenth century - hell, and how to avoid it, featured in much Christian preaching. Why, then, has it faded away?
At the ReNew conference in Leeds this week, theologian Dr Kendall Harmon addressed this very topic. He gave four reasons:
In the twentieth century, more hell on earth has been perpetrated than in all the previous centuries combined. (I think by this that Dr Harmon meant that in such contexts talk of a further hell becomes almost unbearable.)
We live in a therapeutic era, where the world wants self-fulfilment. It is hard to preach hell in such a culture.
During the nineteenth century there was a massive loss of confidence in the books of Genesis and Revelation - books which speak about the beginning and the end. (To this we might add a loss of confidence in the whole Bible: this lies behind what Bertrand Russell was referring to by “recent times”).
We are no longer nearly so personally familiar with death - previous generations saw people die, and saw dead bodies - inevitably raising the question “where are they now?”. But now, death is sanitised and removed, removing from us a personal sense of urgency about that question.
So it is that we find ourselves silent on a topic the Bible is not silent about. It was our Lord Jesus Himself who spoke most about hell, a place of terrible torment. He believed it, and had the courage, in love, to warn us about it. Paul warned about judgment to come; so did Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, John the Baptist, the Apostle Peter and others. God’s warnings about coming judgment in the Old Testament were always followed through; so why shouldn’t we believe Jesus when he warns?
We must say in the face of this that, wonderfully, our Lord Jesus came to this world and endured hell on the cross so that we should not have to go there - there is complete forgiveness for all who trust in Him. That is the good news of the gospel. But we need the warning, so that we will seek the remedy He offers, and which we most urgently need.
In a 1967 essay entitled “Hell, fact or fiction”, former Rector of St Helen’s Church Bishopsgate, Dick Lucas, concluded: “Unless this note [of warning about hell] is sounded once again, clearly, as well as compassionately, in our presentation of the Faith, we are unlikely to see any great awakening in the ranks of paganism.”
We preach good news of a Saviour - who saves from a fate we really need saving from.