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 bad thing.
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 of hell.
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 School Christmas-Hanukah-Kwanza-Buddhist-Skeptic-Hindu-Catholic-Keep 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 pastoral journey.
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 remarked.
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.
About the Author: Brian Jones is the author of Second Guessing God: Hanging on When You Can?t See Plan (March 2006) and the founding Senior Pastor of Christ?s Church of the Valley in Collegeville, PA. More information about his writing and speaking can be found at http://www.brianjones.com.