The Place of Hell

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken January 28, 1996

I had intended to speak tonight about idolatry and the Super Bowl, about the way in which sport has become a religion in American culture… but the paparazzi have intervened. As some of you may know, I was quoted at some length in last Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer, in an article entitled “Anglican's take on the netherworld stirs fiery debate” [1/21/96, p. A19].

Just over a week ago there was a note in my mail box when I arrived at church, saying that the paper had telephoned for Dr. Boice, but that since he was out of town, would I be interested in granting them an interview on the doctrine of hell? Well, of course I would, although I had some feelings of trepidation about it.

On the one hand, we are always available to speak to the religious issues of our day. That is part of our calling: to proclaim the Word of God to the City of Philadelphia. In fact, I had already been thinking that it might be good for me to make myself available for just this sort of interview. (I later discovered that my mother had awakened in the middle of the night some weeks earlier with a strong sense that I needed to talk to the religion editor of a Philadelphia paper. She did the only sensible thing for a Christian to do: she committed the matter to the Lord in prayer.)

On the other hand, there were other topics I would have preferred to discuss. When the media actually want to cover religion, they don't want to know what they must do to be saved, they want to know if demons really carry pitchforks. Furthermore, to give an interview is to put oneself at the mercy of the interviewer. Even if a journalist is not hostile towards biblical Christianity, it is easy for things to be misquoted or taken out of context in such a way that dishonor is brought to the church of Jesus Christ. Because this was such an intensely spiritual matter, we quickly mobilized members of the church staff and others to pray, both for the interview and for the article.

On Sunday morning, before church, Pastor Marion Clark cheerfully telephoned to say that my name was all over the papers. I didn't have a chance to see a copy of the paper, so I spent the rest of the morning struggling to trust the Lord about the article, worrying about having said something stupid or controversial. My fears were laid to rest when Dr. Boice triumphantly told the elders, “The Anglicans abolished hell, but Phil Ryken reinstated it!”

What prompted the article in the first place was the decision by a Doctrine Commission of the Church of England to abandon the orthodox doctrine of hell. Here's what they said: “Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being.”

The Anglican pronouncement was not surprising. What one scholar has called The Decline of Hell was already a notable feature of English theology in the 17th century [see D. P. Walker, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964]. Even in evangelical circles in England, hell has been decidedly on the defensive in the 20th century. The Doctrine Commission was simply ratifying what many Anglican clergy and parishioners already believe—or don't believe—about hell.

What concerns us is not so much the place of hell in the Church of England, but the place of hell in the Bible. Is hell just non-existence? Well, that's what some people would like to believe. Some people wouldn't mind just being blotted out of existence altogether. But that's not what the Bible teaches. The Bible describes hell as a place of darkness, a place of misery, a place of conscious anguish, a place of fire. To be in hell is to be separated from the presence, and the grace, and the compassion of God. There is no need to speculate about what else might be included in hell, or to add to its miseries. It is enough to know that hell is a horrible place. [See Matthew 5:22, 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31; Revelation 20:10-15]

Now the single most striking feature of the doctrine of hell is that the biggest proportion of what the Bible has to say about hell is found in the gospels. The chief proponent of the doctrine of hell is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the one who said: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” [Matthew 25:41]. Jesus Christ is the one who said: They will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life [Matthew 25:46].

Hell is a topic that most people want to avoid. When hell is mentioned, most people either joke about it or say something like this: “That sounds horrible; let's not talk about it.” Secular people don't want to talk about it because they have just enough of a guilty conscience to suspect that if there is a hell, they belong in it. Christians don't want to talk about it because they have plenty of friends who don't know Christ, but seem nice enough not to deserve eternal punishment.

If it's true that most people don't want to think about hell, then why do you suppose that Jesus did talk about hell? It must have been because he did not want his disciples to be ignorant about hell. If hell is a place, then the last thing Jesus would want to do is pretend that it doesn't exist. Instead, he would teach them the truth about hell in the most explicit terms. And that is just what he did. Jesus taught that sin is so evil in the sight of a holy God that it deserves eternal punishment. At the same time, he chose to endure the judgment of God against sin in his own body, so that everyone who comes to him in faith and repentance will not have to endure hell. Jesus gave his disciples a clear view of hell so that they would have a clear view of salvation.

In this respect, as in all others, a minister should follow the example of his Lord. One of the things I was interviewed about that didn't make it into the article, was the place of hell in our preaching at Tenth Presbyterian Church. I pointed out that evangelicals preach about hell much less often than they used to. Partly that's because some Puritans (not all of them) preached more about hell altogether more often than they should have. What we do with the doctrine of hell here at Tenth is what we do with virtually every other doctrine found in Scripture: we preach it about as often as it comes up in the Bible. In the case of hell, that's not all that often, but often enough to remind us how much God hates sin, and how crucial it is to trust in Jesus Christ to save us from hell. This is one of the great advantages of expository preaching: it gives a congregation the theological and practical diet the Lord intends for it to have.

There is one other thing that's worth saying about hell, something that would have been worth saying to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Hell is not humorous. Hell has a place in serious discussions about eternity. But it shouldn't have much of a place in joking around. I suppose one sign that our culture has a guilty conscience is the frequency with which hell is used in either profanity or comedy in America.

The religion editor of the Inquirer began his article by mentioning that there is a place called Hell: Hell, Michigan, where you can buy T-shirts that say “I've been to Hell and back.” He ended his piece like this: “OK. Maybe hell is a place of torment. Maybe it's a non-place of annihilation. One thing seems certain. You probably can't buy funny T-shirts there.” No, I suppose you can't. But since hell is a place, that is hardly a laughing matter.

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