We should also recognize that our present world has de-sensitized itself against the terrors of hell by creating horrors of its own, both real and in the name of entertainment. Death and violence are shown on television and in films in such horrific ways as to become unreal, particularly to the young. Terrors must become even more shocking to have any impact at all. Those who live in the twentieth century are tending to become increasingly more blase and fearless towards all authority, law and order. In turn this breeds attitudes toward God of either total apathy or open rebellion.
This is not to suggest that we should ‘play the world at its own game’ and try to shock by drawing lurid word-pictures of what we may conceive hell to be like. Nothing less than the powerful conviction of the Holy Spirit working through faithful preaching of his Word will shake men from their present false sense of security. Our preaching needs to regain a proper balance between God’s law, judgement and eternal retribution for sin with the loving offer of God’s gracious pardon through Jesus Christ to hell deserving sinners.
Just as the joys of heaven are quite beyond our present imagination, so hell must be infinitely worse then our minds can grasp. The images of fire, darkness, chains, separation from God, are all suggestive of terrible prospects. Who among us can begin to fathom what an eternity of conscious remorse for sin and refusing Christ must mean? Truly Jesus says: ‘There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matt. 13.50). He warns, ‘ What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’ (Mark 8:37). In hell there is simply no respite. The occasional ‘glimpses’ we may catch of it are enough to convince us that this is a place of utter despair.
Thomas Boston, the 18th century Scottish divine, deals movingly with the awful tragedy of those who are still unregenerate, spiritually blind and hell-bent. In his book Human Nature in its Four-Fold State he writes:
If you knew your case, you would cry out: ‘Oh! darkness! darkness! darkness! The face covering is upon you already as condemned persons, so near are you to everlasting darkness. It is only Jesus Christ who can stop the execution, pull the napkin off the face of the condemned malefactor, and put a pardon in his hand.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne felt the urgency of this doctrine. On one occasion when journeying on his pony he took shelter from the rain in an engine house of a quarry. He simply pointed to the fire of the furnace, and said: What does that remind you of?’ Some time later the man who had been tending the furnace came and told M’Cheyne how God had used that ‘word in season’ to his own salvation.
M’Cheyne would often visit dying parishioners on Saturday afternoons. He said that before preaching he ‘liked to look over the verge!’ He was like Richard Baxter of Kidderminster of whom it was said that ‘he preached as a dying man to dying men’. We need this urgency in preaching today!
Yet what immense difficulties we confront. How may we preach this terrible truth to men? For a start, does the world we live in not seem remote from all this? Do not so many people around us today live in nice homes, wear fashionable clothes, hold educational qualifications and enjoy respectable positions in life? We may more easily envisage heaven. Are we therefore fools to feel concerned that hell is real and judgement will come?
We must remember that Jesus said: ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away’ (Matt. 24:37-39). It is only faith that sees beyond this present world and only faith in God’s Word that holds us in the knowledge that these things are irresistibly certain and will come to pass in the end.
Of all truths we must first preach this to our own hearts. We need to feel and see the utter tragedy of countless multitudes who rush blindly on to perdition. Never will we preach it unless we first believe it ourselves.
But believe it we must, and preach it we must! Not as ranters, but earnestly, lovingly, persuasively, calling young and old alike to escape from God’s righteous anger against sin and to flee to Christ whose blood was spilled to save all who in faith will call upon his name. We must study how we may restore this note of warning into our regular evangelical preaching and to correct the distortion and imbalance brought upon the preaching of the gospel over this past century.
John Bunyan is still true to life in our day and age when he has the family and neighbors of Pilgrim mock his warnings to escape from the City of Destruction. ‘He is mad! Put him to bed’ is the only response they can make. We are likely to receive similar ridicule from many quarters today if we speak of hell.
Yet we should remember that we stand in the best of company — alongside Enoch and Noah, John the Baptist, the apostles — yes, and even in company with our Lord himself. May God raise up faithful preachers of his Word who will courageously and graciously declare this difficult but necessary truth to a careless, dying world.
– Howard Davies