Many people have many different things in mind whenever the topic of hell is brought up. Some may think of a man in red tights with two horns on top of his head holding a pitchfork. Others may think of a place geographically located underneath the earth. So in the name of clarity, what I mean by the doctrine of hell is God’s just and eternal punishment of sinners. It is the complete pouring out of His wrath on those guilty in their sin and not covered through the atoning work of Christ. (See, for example: Isaiah 26:21, Ezekiel 25:17, Romans 1:18, John 3:36, Revelation 20:15, Romans 6:23, Matthew 7:13-14, Psalm 7:11, 1 Thessalonians 1:10, and many more).
But besides how we describe it, is it really all that important? I mean, wouldn’t it seem logical that if we emphasize God’s wrath toward the unrepentant it would harm our “missional” efforts? Really, who wants to hear that they are sinful and worthy of eternal punishment? It’s just not pleasant. Yet despite these attitudes, I think we can answer affirmatively that the doctrine of hell is all that important and is indeed vital to the health and mission of the Church. Here’s a few reasons why…
1. The Doctrine Of Hell Points Us Toward God’s Holiness
Hell reminds us that God is a holy and righteous Judge. He will not withhold His wrath from sinners forever. If you find yourself living under the illusion that He might, I’d simply invite you to please read your Bible. When we honestly look at what the Scriptures have to say about this topic, barring some exegetical back-flips, we will see that God actually, really does plan to hold each person accountable for their sin.
2. The Doctrine Of Hell Reminds Us Of Our Sinfulness
God WILL NOT punish innocent people in hell. Whew… What a relief that God only punishes the guilty, right?
But… the testimony of the Bible is that none of us are without guilt before His perfect holiness (Romans 3:9-20). Contrary to what the culture tells us, we are not just happy-go-lucky folks who occasionally make mistakes (who doesn’t, right?). According to the Bible we are born with a heart inclined toward evil (Jeremiah 17:9). We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. Many today are appalled by the idea that God really would pour out His wrath on them if they refuse to trust in Jesus. But what this reveals is a lack of understanding of their own hearts. To be sure, God does not arbitrarily release His wrath in a moment of fitful rage (much like the human anger we’re so accustomed too). Rather, wrath is God’s steady and consistent response to all who are guilty in their sin. In other words, God’s wrath is aimed toward those who deserve it.
3. The Doctrine Of Hell Unveils The Beauty Of The Gospel
I simply can’t understand how a universalist finds Jesus appealing at all. If everyone will be saved regardless of how they respond to Jesus, then why not deal with the temporary punishment later and pursue all manner of pleasurable debauchery now? The simple fact is, not everyone will be saved in the end. Hebrews 9:27 teaches that it is appointed for man to die once and after that to face judgement. But here comes the glory…. God sent His Son to bear His wrath in our place. In this way, our sin has received its appropriate punishment. Jesus absorbed God’s wrath against sin, yours and mine. Just let that sink in for a moment. All your guilt was placed on the God-man, Jesus. The wrath which was aimed at you was diverted to the perfect Son of God who willingly died in your place… so that you would not have to. This truth gives refreshed power to the words “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son…” (John 3:16).
But if God has no wrath against sin and if there is no hell, then the gospel is quickly emptied of its power and beauty.
I realize that some of us have sat under “hell, fire, and brimstone” sermons in which a preacher emphasized God’s judgement, but made no mention of God’s gracious provision to escape said judgement. This is a failure to preach the whole counsel of God. Reminding us of our sin without pointing us toward our Sin-bearer, Jesus, only leads to despair. But likewise, it is also a failure to only speak of God’s love for us without ever mentioning His coming “day of wrath” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). This leads to a church where God’s love is reduced to a nice little sentiment, void of anything deep and meaningful. It is relegated to the “Smile God Loves You… Bumper Sticker” variety. No thank you.
Reader, I want you to know that God has so loved you that He has not spared His own Son to rescue you from the wrath your sin deserves. Yes, your sin is that bad. But God’s grace is also that good. This Thanksgiving we indeed have a lot to be thankful for!