I Still Believe In Hell
At first glance you'd probably think I'm resistant to change. I
don't drink Starbucks coffee. I not a big Abercrombie & Fitch
fan. I'm still not used to women having tattoos. I'm not getting
an earring any time soon. The Palm Pilot craze has passed me by.
I can't take pictures with my cell phone and I still can't
program my VCR. My wife even says I still have the same haircut
I had when I was in fifth grade. I assume she thinks that's a
By all appearances you'd think I'm someone that wants to keep
things just the way they are. But I'm not.
I love change. I love the thrill of staying current, or even
staying one step ahead. I love futurists. I love anticipating
trends. I'm usually not too concerned with running with the
pack. I love reading about, talking about, anticipating and
implementing change in the church I serve. Around here we joke,
"If the music's too loud, you're too old!" I genuinely relish
change, sometimes, if I'm honest, just for change sake. Keeping
things the way they are can be boring at times.
But there is one change that troubles me.
It's this talk about Hell. Or the lack thereof.
I'm not troubled by who is going to hell. Unfortunately for
Pittsburgh Steelers fans, this is one thing we all agree upon.
I'm troubled by the lack of talk about, writing about, preaching
about and deeply held conviction regarding the impending reality
A number of years ago at a roundtable discussion on preaching
with fellow church planters I brought up the topic of eternal
punishment and it's centrality to the Christian message of
salvation. I assumed, naively I guess, that if we are saved,
then we are saved from something...sins as well as eternal
punishment. I thought one didn't have to break much of an
exegetical sweat to find ample support for that in scripture.
Needless to say I didn't get nominated that day for church
planter of the year. I was shocked and saddened. But mostly I
left genuinely concerned. Ten years of hallway talk at
conferences with established church ministers hasn't alleviated
my apprehension either.
Why is this happening?
I've put my finger on a few reasons that seem to keep this issue
flying under the radar screen:
We Want To Appear Compassionate and Inclusive
My daughter's school puts on an annual holiday musical program.
Every year as I stand there with our camcorder I joke with my
wife that it should be renamed, "The Upper Providence Elementary
everyone from being offended holiday special." As a public
school, the lengths to which they are willing to include
everyone's traditions and beliefs appear comical, but should be
applauded. However, when that same spirit infiltrates the
church, it must be cast out. Accommodation in the kingdom of
Jesus is always the first sign of betrayal.
Too often we want to appear more moral than God. Too often in
outreach-focused churches we feel the need to acquiesce to the
avalanche of pluralistic pressure to back off of this key
doctrine. However, I believe that if you really love people, at
some point you'll compassionately tell them the truth, even if
you risk having them walk out your church doors. As important as
being compassionate and inclusive are in the context of a
growing church, the overriding virtue that should be held up is
faithfulness-both to scripture and the God who breathed it.
We've Strayed From Sound Doctrine
Two years after leaving graduate school I came to the startling
conclusion that I really didn't believe in hell anymore. I was
too smart to believe in hell. Three years sitting under the
gentle but consistent pressure of doctrinally questionable
professors quietly eroded my convictions on this key teaching.
Like so many church leaders I've met over the years, I had
bought into the lie that I could serve the God of the Bible but
not believe in the entire Bible. During a long retreat at a
local monastery I performed an exhaustive word study of the
phrase "false doctrine" in the New Testament. When I was
finished the Holy Spirit did a number on me. I felt convicted,
as I should have. I felt awful, as I should have. I came to the
conclusion that I was a liar, as I should have. I dropped to my
knees in tears. I repented before God of my duplicity. I rushed
home and called together my Leadership Team, repented, and asked
for their forgiveness as well. That Sunday I stood before my
congregation and wept, asking for their forgiveness. It was a
turning point in my calling before God.
Over and over again we are warned that church leaders must hold
to the deep truths of the faith. Hell is one of those deep
truths, albeit unpopular. Over and over again we are warned not
to be drawn away by unsound doctrine. With pain in his voice
that came from years of heading off church train wrecks, Paul
pleaded in his final words to Timothy to preach the word...every
last bit of it...regardless of how unpopular it becomes. I'm
pretty sure that warning still stands.
With this in mind, how can someone walk back into a Biblically
Orthodox position? Here are a few suggestions from my experience.
Fast From Church Growth And Business Books
One thing a person can do to reclaim a Biblically sound
foundation is to stop reading church growth and business books,
at least for a while. After my fresh theological start I
committed to stop reading church growth and business books for
two straight years. I felt I needed to go through theological
detox. One has to admit that much that passes as pastoral aids
these days is nothing short of ecclesiastical pornography.
Taking C.S. Lewis' suggestion that one should never read a new
book without reading an old one in between, I set out on a
two-year spiritual literary feast. For two years I devoured
spiritual classics, the writings of great Pastors of old, and
the reflections of people of who had died for their faith. It
was a theological breath of fresh air.
Preach From The Pauline Epistles
For two years after my theological reinstitution I preached
every week from the Pauline epistles. Every week. I bought every
commentary I could afford and immersed myself into the mind of
the greatest practical theologian/church leader the church has
ever produced. I wanted his values to become my values. I wanted
his priorities to become my own. I wanted our congregation to be
filled with the same passion and convictions and vision. Looking
back, they were the best sermons I've ever preached. Every week,
for 20 hours a week, it was as if I had a standing appointment
with my own kingdom mentor...a trusted friend in this confusing
Finally, just have plain old fashioned guts. When we moved to
Philadelphia to start the church I now serve I was in a less
trendy frame of mind. On our grand opening Sunday, I was really
tempted to try to preach something catchy, culturally relevant
and fun, but was instead led to preach the simple plan of
salvation. I figured as much as I wanted these people to come
back, the first sermon would set the stage for all that would
follow. Afterwards, a wonderful man from Indiana that came that
weekend to help with the service commented that my sermon was
really bold. "It took a lot of courage to preach that today. It
wasn't popular, but it was what they needed to hear," he
I walked away scratching my head at how times have
changed...that it would be considered bold for a minister to
preach the gospel...all of it.