By now most of you are probably aware of the controversy Rob Bell has ignited with the advance publicity for his new book. Bloggers and preachers are accusing him of rejecting the Bible’s teaching about hell and of being a Universalist.
I don’t know whether Rob is a Universalist or not. But I do know that hell is one of the most “awkward truths” of the Christian faith. Indeed, I suspect that many of us are practical Universalists when it comes to our reluctance to talk about this subject. I can count on one hand the number of sermons I’ve heard about hell in the last ten years. Perhaps more telling is the fact that I can probably do the same for the number of times I have preached about it. I am not saying that I have never mentioned it. But it has rarely been the focal point of my message.
Well, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus speaks about hell more than anyone else in the New Testament and even he doesn’t mention it all the time. In fact, comparatively speaking, he hardly mentions it at all. But he does talk about it. When Jesus refers to hell, he talks as if it is a real place where people go. That is to say, he talks about hell as if it were an actual location. It is a place where the “whole body” can go (Matt. 10:28). A place where both the soul and the body suffer. Many would prefer to think of hell as a state of mind. Or as a metaphor for annihilation. The kind of particular language that Jesus uses when referring to hell sounds archaic to the sophisticated ear.
Hell is not the only theme that has fallen out of favor in our preaching. We used to sing, “Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace.” But these days Evangelicals are more likely to speak of the kingdom than of heaven. To many the notion that heaven might be an actual place seems just as awkward as the thought of a literal Hell. N. T. Wright is typical of this thinking when he asks what the ultimate Christian hope is and what hope there is for change, rescue, transformation and new possibilities within the world in the present. “As long as we see Christian hope in terms of going to heaven,” Wright claims, “of a salvation that is essentially away from this world the two questions are bound to appear unrelated.” No, Christians today don’t want to go to heaven. We want our heaven on earth and we want it now.
My contention is that the church’s neglect of the doctrine of hell springs from the same root that prompts us to marginalize heaven. It is a result of being worldly-minded. We are primarily interested in the comforts of earthly life and troubled by earthly sorrows. We have forgotten Jesus’ warning that there may be other worse sorrows yet to come. Moreover, our tendency to substitute kingdom for heaven reflects a one-sided view of God’s dominion. We want to preach a gospel without an edge to it-a gospel that is all comfort and no threat. In our eagerness to put our listeners at ease, we preach about God’s love at the expense of His justice. Ironically, at the same time we are chiding our listeners for having too little regard for justice in their ethics and politics.
When Jesus told us to fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell in Matthew 10:28, he was not referring to the devil. He was making a statement about divine authority and justice. Heaven is the realm of God’s dominion, but so is hell. Indeed, it is not in heaven that justice reigns supreme but in hell. That is because hell is the realm of God’s unmitigated justice. The justice that rules in heaven is a justice tempered by grace.
When the church has no appetite for heaven it loses its fear of Hell. But then, Jesus never told us to fear hell. Rather, we are to fear the One who has the power who cast both soul and body into hell. Heaven is a wonderful place. Hell is a place too, one that is unspeakably worse. But we are not to fear hell any more than we are to love heaven. It is God alone that we are to love and fear and Jesus Christ is Lord of both heaven and hell.