Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Mail Bag: How Do I Speak with Sensitivity about Hell?

I received the following email from Alexandre, who lives in Quebec.
Dear Mr. Miano, in Christ Jesus our only Lord,

My question had to do with the proper use of the doctrine of hell in evangelism.

What if we encounter in our preaching, let's say, a man whose precious children were just murdered, and he asks us: where are my children now? Then we answer him, "It is too late for them and that they are in hell for all eternity," that he should repent lest he joins them in eternal punishment. Then that man, being horrified beyond measure by our "cruel" answer and taking it very personally, thinks and says (unjustly) the God we are preaching is worse then the murderer who killed his children, that he feels doubly victimized now. And that the preachers are psychologically abusive. Well, you see the picture. It is the question of how we should answer in our preaching to people inquiring about dead relatives, a dead spouse, dead parents, dead children, dead friends, etc., confessing the truth in love, without compromising the Gospel and being ready to suffer for it, and making a right use of the doctrine of hell.

How shall we handle that doctrine with care, to honor the Lord and suffer for the truth? How shall we exhort people not to sinfully attach themselves to dead relatives instead of returning to their Maker in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone? This is very emotional and sensitive. What says Scripture? And what is your experience about this?

Thank you very much for your time, blessings in Christ Jesus our only Lord.
Alexandre, you ask a great question, and I appreciate the spirit with which you ask the question. I also find some of what you wrote most troubling, indeed, which I will address. Ultimately, I understand your question to be this. How do we honestly, uncompromisingly, directly, and lovingly communicate the reality of Hell.

Hell-Fire Preachers

There are some open-air preachers who give the biblical discipline of open-air preaching a bad name. Their disdain for the lost, while touting their own self-righteousness is deplorable and a sinful misrepresentation of Jesus Christ. Some street preachers of the same ilk insist they are not sinners and deny the God of the Bible by denying His attributes such as His omniscience. Yes, "hell-fire" preachers like these are a blight on the open-air preaching community.

Let's not give unwarranted power to "hell-fire" preachers. Let's not assign to them any unbiblical and unreal authority. God is sovereign. The "hell-fire" preachers are not. Their lack of love for the lost, their use of God's Law as a sledge hammer instead of a mirror (1 Timothy 1:8-11), their attempts to veil their self-righteousness under the guise of serving as Christ's "humble" ambassadors will not snatch a single soul from God's hand (John 10:28-29).

No man can thwart God's plan for the Universe, for the world, or for the individual person. Nothing can separate a person from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus the Lord, if God has eternally predetermined to save that person (Romans 8:38-39). Bad preaching might serve to bolster the unbeliever's false assertion that there is no God--an assertion no unbeliever really believes (Romans 1:18)--but bad preaching will not push anyone away from God. Bad preaching may serve to provide unbelievers with excuses for their unbelief, even though they are utterly without excuse (Romans 1:20), but it will not push them into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:8). Apart from faith in Jesus Christ, the unbeliever is condemned already (John 3:18) and the wrath of God abides on them (John 3:36).

The fact that some professing Christians communicate the Doctrine of Hell to unbelievers in unbiblical ways is no excuse for genuine followers of Christ to give up such important communicative ground to false teachers, false preachers, and false prophets. If you really want people to go to Heaven, then you will warn them about Hell (Jude 1:20-23).

The Doctrine of Hell Must be Preached

Bad preachers and bad preaching aside, the Doctrine of Hell must be communicated when sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with the lost--whether in an open-air setting, in a one-to-one conversation, or in the writing and distribution of gospel tracts. No other reason, no other justification is necessary to talk about Hell and warn people about Hell than this. Jesus did it. Jesus talked about Hell. Jesus warned people about Hell (Matthew 5:22; Matthew 5:29-30; Matthew 10:28; Matthew 18:9; Matthew 23:13; Matthew 23:33).

Charles Spurgeon wrote:
"Our dear Redeemer, whose lips are as lilies dropping sweet-smelling myrrh, in great tenderness of heart warned men of the sure result of their sins; and none used stronger or more alarming language than he did concerning the future of ungodly men. He knew nothing of that pretended sympathy which will rather let men perish than warn them against perishing. Such tenderness is merely selfishness excusing itself from a distasteful duty." 1914.433
Since the days of God the Son's preaching on earth the apostles, church fathers, great heralds of old, and today's generation of faithful open-air preachers have spoken the truth in love--all of God's truth. They did not and they do not shy away from warning people of God's eternal prison of torment--Hell. For example, John Wesley posited these words regarding the reality of Hell. Wesley was not a man who shied away from preaching this important and terrifying doctrine.
"Fierce and poisonous animals were created for terrifying man, in order that he might be made aware of the final judgment in hell."
The Doctrine of Hell must be preached. Any Christian who denies the Doctrine of Hell denies the truth of God's Word and therefore should examine themselves to see if they are really in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). And any Christian who believes Christians should not talk to and warn lost people about Hell put themselves at odds with the Lord and Savior they profess to adore.

A Concern

Alexandre, you wrote:
"What if we encounter in our preaching, let's say, a man whose precious children were just murdered, and he asks us: where are my children now? Then we answer him, 'It is too late for them and that they are in hell for all eternity,' that he should repent lest he joins them in eternal punishment."
Alexandre, I hope this "what if" scenario is purely hypothetical. If you know of anyone out on the streets making statements like this, then the first order of the business is repentance--not the repentance of the unbeliever whose children were murdered, but rather the repentance of whoever said or would say the above to anyone, let alone the father of murdered children.

Nowhere in the Word of God are Christians commanded or even encouraged to dogmatically assert, with any level of personal certainty, where an individual is going to spend eternity or where a deceased individual is spending eternity. Christians are to warn people of God's impending wrath and the just punishment for sin, call people to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, inspect the visible fruit in the lives of professing Christians, and call the same to repentance when they are caught in sin. The Christian should never say, "I know so-and-so is in Heaven." Or, "I know so-and-so is in Hell." There is only one Lawgiver and Judge; there is only One who is able to save and destroy (James 4:12).

While Jesus knows the minds and hearts of every human being, no mere human being possesses such omniscience. While a Christian can look at the preponderance of the physical and spiritual evidence in a person's life and say, "I believe that person is a Christian," or say, "I don't believe that person is saved," no one but God can declare with infallible certainty that a person is either saved or unsaved. Salvation is a monergistic work of God, and not a synergistic work between God and man. My point, of course, has no bearing on the assurance of salvation God promises to those who are truly saved. What I'm addressing here is how Christians consider the salvation of other people, and not whether or not a person can be assured of their own salvation. Christians can and should be assured of their salvation--a salvation not wrought by the will or work of man, but preordained, given, and secured by God alone.

Words of Comfort

To declare to the father of murdered, young children (and again I pray, Alexandre, what you shared was merely a bad hypothetical situation and not something that actually happened) that his children are in Hell is unbiblical, unloving, uncharitable, and arrogant.

Let's change the scenario just a bit. How should an open-air preacher answer a man who angrily approaches him and says, "My two children were murdered last year. Where do you say my kids are, today? Are they in Heaven or Hell?"

The first words out of the open-air preacher's mouth should be: "I'm so very sorry for your loss, sir." The next words out of the open-air preacher's mouth should be: "Sir, I don't know where your children are. My hope, a hope I'm sure you share, is that your children are in Heaven."

People will ask questions like this for several reasons:
1. They're lying to the open-air preacher and simply want to try to back the preacher into a corner in an effort to lure him into making a definitive statement about where the dead children are. Note: Always be very careful about drawing this conclusion. Err on the side of caution and give the person the benefit of the doubt until such time (a time that may not present itself) the person makes it clear they are not telling the truth.

2. They are telling the truth, are brokenhearted, and are desperately trying to find solace in the aftermath of tragedy and in the midst of mourning.

3. They are telling the truth, are angry with God, and are hoping the open-air preacher will say something seemingly offensive that will help him to justify his sinful anger toward God.
In any case, the answer "I don't know" is appropriate. But it's not appropriate to leave it at that.

In the scenario given, I would say...
"Sir, I don't know where your children are, today. My hope is that they are in Heaven. But sir, what about you? You are alive and standing in front of me. What about you? Where will you spend eternity? While I don't know where your children are today, I can be certain of this. If they could say anything to you right now it would be, "Daddy, don't miss Heaven."
Whether the children are in Heaven or in Hell, I believe the children would want someone to plead with their father, just as the rich man pleaded with Abraham (Luke 16:19-31). In a situation like this, the goal should be to take the attention off of the deceased children and focus the attention on the living sinner standing in front of the preacher. By putting it this way, you are not crushing the man's spirits by wrongly assigning his deceased children to Hell, and you are not giving false hope by assuring him his deceased children are in Heaven. Again, you are taking the attention off the deceased and putting it on the living person who needs Christ.

Hard Truth with a Soft Heart

Even in a situation like the one you describe, Alexandre, the Doctrine of Hell should not and cannot be avoided. No matter how broken the man's heart might be at the loss of his children, he's still bound for Hell, apart from repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He still needs to hear the truth--all of it.

If you listen to/watch my open-airs, you will often hear me saying something after I've talked about sin, righteousness, and the coming judgment (John 16:18).

"I don't want that for you. I don't want you to perish in your sin."

If you listen to some so-called "hell-fire" preachers, they often sound like the Pharisee in Jesus's parable, The Pharisee and the Tax-Collector. Some of them, in sin for ascribing to and teaching the Pelagian heresy, insist they are not sinners. If one can delude themselves into thinking they are perfect, such hypocritical self-righteousness won't take long to manifest itself in the form of talking to people in such a way as to communicate that they see themselves not simply as "better off" because of salvation through Jesus Christ, but as "better than" the people with whom they are communicating.

Like the Pharisee in Jesus's parable, the rhetoric and tone of voice of some "hell-fire" preachers doesn't communicate love for the lost, but a distinctly different message. "The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector'" (Luke 18:11). Since some "hell-fire" preachers see themselves as righteous, the difference they see between themselves and the lost is not the grace of God in their lives, but their perceived ability to obey God. The Pharisees did the exact same thing to the people.
"So for the second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, 'Give glory to God. We know that this man is a sinner.' He answered, 'Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.' They said to him, 'What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?' He answered them, 'I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?' And they reviled him, saying, 'You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.' The man answered, 'Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.' They answered him, 'You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?' And they cast him out" (John 9:24-34).
Some "hell-fire" preachers have a seemingly easy time calling people sinners and telling them they are going to Hell. The reason: they don't see themselves as sinners saved by grace. Some see themselves as righteous people who don't need the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, provided through His vicarious, penal, subsitutionary atonement on the cross. For them, Jesus is little more than a spiritual doorman who simply holds the door to Heaven open to them, as they walk into Heaven, powered by their own will and righteousness.

Open-air preachers who love the lost will communicate the reality of eternal torment in Hell, as the just punishment for any and all sin against God, with tears in their eyes and love in their voices. No, I'm not making a call for emotionalism. The call is a biblical call for compassion. "When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36). "And when he [Jesus] drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, 'Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes'" (Luke 19:41-42).

Open-air preachers, as well as any Christian who desires to communicate the gospel with the lost, must communicate the terrifying reality of the Doctrine of Hell. But such a hard truth must be communicated with a soft heart. After all, the open-air preacher is no better than the Hell-bound sinner. He is only better off. But for God's grace (and not his own righteousness), the open-air preacher would still be a child of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1-3).

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