–May of 1997
Has the Pulpit Gone Silent on Hell?
“The biggest problem facing the modern age is what to do about the doctrine of hell.” I wish that had been the wise observation and assessment of a holiness preacher or scholar. Unfortunately, though, it wasn’t. It is the assessment of the eminent historian Paul Johnson, author of Modern Times. While a secular historian has enough insight to see an important issue and speak to that issue, many pulpits have gone underground or become totally silent on the subject of hell.
When is the last time your local pulpit reminded you that there is a hell for sinners who remain rebels to the end? Several years ago while preaching in a large youth camp, I asked the kids when they had heard a sermon on Hell. Out of approximately only 300 young people, only three had heard a sermon on Hell in the last two years. None had heard a sermon on hell within the last year. As I penned this article, a returned missionary stopped by my office; and I asked her the same question. Her answer was, “I’ve only heard one sermon on Hell in the five years that we’ve been back in the States.”
When the church does not clearly teach the doctrine of hell, society loses an important anchor. In a real sense, it is the doctrine of hell that gives meaning to our lives. When men and women understand the doctrine of hell they also understand that behavior has eternal consequences that daily moral choices have spiritual significance, and that God takes our choices seriously.
Failure to believe in hell is often the by-product of a silent pulpit. Whatever doctrine the pulpit ceases to preach, the people cease to believe. When people cease to believe in a final judgment and everlasting punishment, they feel no accountability for their actions and any sense of moral obligation soon dissolves.
Why the silence? Many preachers have been hushed by the objections of laity and the scorn of higher critics. Both dislike the frightful intensity of the pains of Hell as suggested by many sermon illustrations and indeed by certain passages of Scripture. Jesus spoke about Hell under three symbols: First, that of “everlasting punishment”; second, that of destruction; and third, that of separation or banishment. Connected to each of these is the “fire that is not quenched.” Each of these ideas convey something unspeakably horrible; and, although many object, any interpretation which does not face that fact is clearly not Biblical.
To be fair, there has been at times more emphasis on the imagery of hell than on the doctrine. But one abuse doesn’t justify another. Pulpit silence on the subject of hell is treason against God and heresy to the church. One old divine said it like this, “If a man has a mind to get a head start and be in hell before other sinners, he need do no more than open the sails of his soul to the pulpit winds of a preacher whose silence loudly denies hell.”