In John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, the story begins with Christian discovering news which causes him great alarm. Clothed in rags and with a burden upon his back, he is distressed to learn from a book he has been reading that the city he lives in is soon to be destroyed by fire from heaven. He tells his wife and children of their terrible danger. They must immediately try to escape.
But the response of his family is to think he has gone mad! As night is coming on, they hasten to put him to bed in the hope that he might recover his senses by morning. However, the next day they find him even more troubled. He wanders alone in the fields, sighing and reading from the book in his hands. Occasionally he is heard to cry out: ‘What must I do to be saved?’
In days of great spiritual darkness those called by God to preach the gospel have a sobering task. Our present world is still as Bunyan saw it. It is the City of Destruction. Mankind lies under the same certainty of coming judgement from heaven. Yet tragically, the clear note of warning in preaching has all but disappeared. The truths of final judgement and hell have long been omitted from most modern preaching. Hell has become the forgotten doctrine of the twentieth century.
This change can be traced back to the late 18th and 19th centuries and the so-called ‘age of enlightenment’. Attacks upon the inspiration of Scripture sprang from claims that human reason was above the Word of God. The outcome of this view was that anything in Scripture which seemed unreasonable or unpalatable to man’s natural mind began to be disputed and rejected.
While the Church from the beginning had taught the certainty of hell and eternal punishment view which denied this teaching began to creep in. Annihilation, conditional immortality and universalism are all deviations which fly in the face of Scripture. As J. I. Packer has pointed out, each it a variation of the theme that either ‘God is too good to damn men’, or that ‘men are too good to be damned’. Such views have made deep inroads into the Church, causing the virtual disappearance of the doctrine of hell in preaching. This omission is far more damaging than most writers realize.
General William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army, was most forthright in preaching the doctrine of hell. His sermons show how often he took up this theme and how lovingly he warned men and women to turn to the only Savior of mankind. Perhaps best known of all his sermons is ‘Who cares?’ (published in The War Cry of June 20, 1885) in which he graphically depicted his vision of a Rock in the midst of a raging sea where men, women and children were everywhere perishing. Nearly twenty years later, when his life was nearly ended, Booth had not weakened in his preaching of this truth. In 1904 he urged his officers to–
“Make people fell the truth as regards judgement, heaven and hell. All around you there is growing up a great peril of unbelief on these questions. You must fight it! … Men sleep on the verge of hell. You must fight to awaken them! You must startle them out of the fatal stupor in which they stand all unheeding on the brink of a burning hell!”
Perhaps the most remarkable sermon on hell was preached by Jonathan Edwards at Enfield, North America, in 1741. The sermon was called ‘Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God’ and was based on the text: ‘Their foot shall slip in due time’ (Deut. 32:35). Using most dramatic language, Edwards pictured natural man held by life’s thin thread over the pit of hell. Although many have criticized Edwards for what they consider to be ‘exaggerated descriptions of hell’, his motivation was correct. Edwards recognized the eternal issues at stake. He concluded his sermon by saying–
“This is an awful subject! May it be blessed for the awakening of unconverted souls to the conviction of their danger!… Let everyone who is out of Christ now awaken and flee from the wrath to come! The wrath of God is now undoubtedly hanging over this nation, or even over many in church congregations. Heed the angel’s message to Lot in Sodom:’Escape for your life! Do not look behind you. Escape to the mountains, lest you be destroyed.”
Bunyan would have approved. Indeed, the one whose approval counts above all others was himself the most awesome preacher of this doctrine. The terrible warnings of hell given by Jesus in the gospels must be forgotten.
In this ‘enlightened age’, all who preach God’s Word are under pressure to adopt wrong attitudes towards the doctrine of final retribution. The fact that this doctrine is so rarely mentioned gives hearers the impression that hell is nothing more than a curious idea from earlier centuries now made irrelevant by modern sophistication. To most preachers, hell has become a subject of embarrassment rather than a terrible and certain reality.
This has led to the doctrine of hell being isolated from all other doctrines. Failure to recognize that Christian doctrine must be viewed as a complete and integrated unit, rather than individual, loosely-related truths, always has a debilitating effect upon preaching. Not to preach and teach the awful reality of hell progressively weakens the doctrines of sin, law, judgement, the wrath of God, and the atoning blood of Christ. Indeed, even the character of God is impugned. Does God not mean what he says?
When the doctrine of hell is omitted, it follows that the terms ‘saved’ and ‘salvation’ become meaningless. This is why modern man neither sees nor feels the slightest need to come to Christ. And why should he? He feels no danger. What has he to fear? Certainly nothing from the ‘God of love’ so blandly promised by many today. Hearers are too easily assured. Many now preach as if all in congregations are assumed to be saved, and emphasis has swung away from need for the powerful inner work of regeneration by God’s Spirit alone to calls for ‘re-dedication’.
On one occasion when George Whitefield was in America, he sat under the thorough preaching of Gilbert Tennent. Whitefield later said: “I never before heard such a searching sermon. Hypocrites must soon be converted or enraged at his preaching! I fear I have brought comfort too soon!”
All this is a far cry from much evangelism today. Nowadays the typical example of ‘a successful growing Community church’ boasts of worship styles described as ‘fun!’ Because the goal is numbers, those who attend must always leave feeling good about themselves. This requires that ‘negative words and concepts’, such as law, wrath, judgement and hell must be studiously avoided in the rush for success.
Not surprisingly, modern-day conversions too often lack evidence of deep heart-conviction or mourning over sin. Many now vaguely speak of being ‘saved from their sins’ or even of ‘what Jesus has added to their lifestyle’. Most have no consciousness at all of having been saved from judgement and the awesome finality of eternal hell. It never seems to enter their head. And little wonder, for who has bothered to tell them? If the doctrine of hell is no longer part of the gospel, then surely we must question what the term ‘salvation’ means.
Should God graciously permit true revival to come again in these last days, there is one characteristic we may expect to find. It is that men, women and children will all receive a deep sense of the awe and greatness of God. In revival, men realize how dreadful is the nature of sin and how righteous is God. In revival, men begin to see how terrible it is to be eternally lost and how certain is divine judgement. A study of revivals show that ‘the fear of God’ is always present. That there is so little fear and awe of God in the churches today is sobering evidence against the claims of some who seem to confuse revival with noise and numbers.