We need to talk about Hell more than we do

The other day, I spoke about some of our aversion to the doctrine of Hell. You can read that post here. As it happened, yesterday I saw the following quote from JC Ryle:

It seems this was as much an issue 150 years or so ago as it is today.

If you’re a believer, you shouldn’t bottle talking to people about Hell. My experience is the majority of middle class believers, even when presented with someone literally asking them a direct question about it, will fudge their answer. In my community, the answer people expect to the question ‘do you think I am going to Hell if I have no interest in Jesus?’ is ‘yes’. Anybody who has any engagement with the church will lose all respect for you if you answer any other way because they know what the Bible has to say on these things and they want a direct answer. People in my community respect honesty, not carefully couched waffle that pretends things are not as they really are.

Indeed, the doctrine of Hell is one of the issues I lead on frequently. With our Muslim neighbours, we all agree that Hell and judgement are real. We could pretend that we don’t, but that makes no sense, particularly when we both know that we do. So, we start with the doctrine of Hell. We all agree that a god exists, paradise is available, Hell and judgement are real. Those are some stakes in the ground we can agree fairly quickly. We even agree Jesus is a prophet and he’s coming again. That’s fairly handy to agree early on too. Once we start with those things, we can get round to a helpful conversation about how we avoid Hell, attain paradise and what Jesus is actually going to do when he comes back. But if we spend our time giving a load of waffle trying not to mention Hell, and we basically fudge the whole issue, we’re actually going to struggle to get onto anything helpful at all and the people we’re chatting with will think we’re unwilling to give them an honest answer (which, let’s be frank, is true if that’s what you’re doing!)

But even non-Muslims find this a reasonable place to start. Many will often come to us speaking about how they are experiencing “hell” right now. They mean it as more than a mere turn of phrase. Many believe that things can’t get any worse than they are for them now so unless Jesus is going to pay their bills and get them a permanent home, what’s the point? As hard as it may sound, people need to know that things stand to get a whole lot worse if they reject Jesus. They may think things are pretty tough now, but if they stand before God without being right with Jesus, things will get a whole lot worse.

Many people want to affirm this faulty view of Hell and insist, if you just come to Jesus, he will effectively make your life better now. That false gospel may be alluring, but it does nothing for anybody’s eternal state. Nor is it very effective. It might get people in the door for a bit, but when their life doesn’t improve, or if things get worse, Jesus will be seen in a similar vain to the long list of other potential saviours that have promised much and delivered very little. This useless, damnable message takes people further away from Jesus and even causes them to think they have ‘been there and done that’ when they encounter the true gospel of repentance and faith that leads to everlasting life.

Harsh as it may seem to some, we do people more favours by showing them that things can get much worse and Hell – as tough as their life might seem right now – is unimaginably worse. Of course, we don’t only chat about Hell. That would be grotesque. Your life may suck, but Hell is much worse… Anyway, see you later! But we need to start with the bad news before we can get to the good news. People need to know that they need a saviour, and what they need saving from, before they can respond to the saviour and actually be saved. They need to know sin is real, unrepentant sinners are destined for Hell, but God has provided a solution through his Son, the Lord Jesus.

If we fudge that, if we bottle answering direct questions, much like our Muslim friends, we’ll just be local do-gooders without honest answers. If we refuse to say it like it really is, we’ll leave people with the impression that they don’t really need Jesus. They don’t need the church, except maybe for the occasional food parcel or bit of help that they might be able to access for their immediate, urgent need of the day. We might content ourselves and feel good about this sort of ministry, but we won’t be doing anything for people in our community. We’ll be sending them away with a few tins of food, a kindly word, and no knowledge that apart from Jesus they are heading towards a lost eternity. That isn’t showing them kindness, it is comforting them all the way to destruction.

The truth is, although most people know a bastardised form of Christianity – often by way of folk-Catholicism interspersed with a bit of pagan joo-joo – most are au fait with the concepts of sin and judgement. Most people know that Christians believe there are moral matters of right and wrong and they affect our standing with God on some level. They might not know much else, but they usually know that. In my community, they’re either Muslims who believe this stuff already with a fair degree of clarity, or they’re folks who know they’ve messed up their lives or have done enough that they aren’t easily able to count on their own righteousness when faced with their maker. Speaking about Hell merely joins the dots they already know with the evident consequences they suspect are coming, if not accept already. If we bottle it when it comes to speaking about that doctrine, they will take us for dishonest chancers who aren’t worth giving the time of day. And, to be frank, they would be entirely right to do so.

Let’s not shy away from the doctrine of Hell. Scripture doesn’t, so I’m not sure why we feel the need to do so. Jesus certainly spoke about it, which makes it hard to present the biblical Jesus without reference to it. Sin inevitably has consequences, so it is hard to talk about that without mentioning Hell. Most people already know that we believe in it. They already know that we think Hell exists and God sends some people there for some reason. Fudging it doesn’t do our credibility any favours. And truth be told, I suspect your middle class mates in other communities know all this too. Perhaps, rather than fudging our answers on it, we should just own the fact that Jesus thought it was important enough to mention so we should probably talk about it too.