April 21, 2014 Broadcast

The Place of God's Disfavor

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Hell is an unpopular topic among Christians and non-Christians alike.  Even those who take an inerrant view of Scripture often struggle to believe the fiery language that surrounds the Bible's teachings on hell.  Some have claimed that hell does not exist, or that it is simply a metaphor and not to be taken literally. In this message, Dr. Sproul looks to Scripture for answers.

From the series: Hell

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. question and answer

    Are those who have never heard of Christ going to hell?

  2. article

    The Disappearance of Hell

  3. article

    The Horror of Hell

Are those who have never heard of Christ going to hell?

That’s one of the most emotionally laden questions that a Christian can ever be asked. Nothing is more terrifying or more awful to contemplate than that any human being would go to hell. On the surface, when we ask a question like that, what’s lurking there is, “How could God ever possibly send some person to hell who never even had the opportunity to hear of the Savior? It just doesn’t seem right.”

I would say the most important section of Scripture to study with respect to that question is the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. The point of the book of Romans is to declare the Good News—the marvelous story of redemption that God has provided for humanity in Christ, the riches and the glory of God’s grace, the extent to which God has gone to redeem us. But when Paul introduces the gospel, he begins in the first chapter by declaring that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven and this manifestation of God’s anger is directed against a human race that has become ungodly and unrighteous. So the reason for God’s anger is anger against evil. God’s not angry with innocent people; he’s angry with guilty people. The specific point for which they are charged with evil is in the rejection of God’s self-disclosure.

Paul labors the point that from the very first day of creation and through the creation, God has plainly manifested his eternal power and being and character to every human being on this planet. In other words, every human being knows that there is a God and that he is accountable to God. Yet every human being disobeys God. Why does Paul start his exposition of the gospel at that point? What he’s trying to do, and what he develops in the book of Romans, is this: Christ is sent into a world that is already on the way to hell. Christ is sent into the world that is lost, that is guilty of rejecting the Father whom they do know.

Now, let’s go back to your original question, “Does God send people to hell who have never heard of Jesus?” God never punishes people for rejecting Jesus if they’ve never heard of Jesus. When I say that, people breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Then we’d better not tell anybody about Jesus because somebody might reject him. Then they’re really in deep trouble.” But again, there are other reasons to go to hell. To reject God the Father is a very serious thing. And no one will be able to say on the last day, “I didn’t know that you existed,” because God has revealed himself plainly. Now the Bible makes it clear that people desperately need Christ. God may grant his mercy unilaterally at some point, but I don’t have any reason to have much hope in that. I think we have to pay serious attention to the passionate command of Christ to go to the whole world, to every living creature, and tell them of Jesus.

The Disappearance of Hell

John MacArthur

According to recent polls, some 81 percent of adult Americans believe in heaven, and fully 80 percent expect to go there when they die. By comparison, about 61 percent believe in hell, but less than 1 percent think it's likely they will go there. In other words, a slight majority of Americans still believe hell exists, but genuine fear of hell is almost nonexistent.

Even the most conservative evangelicals don't seem to take hell very seriously anymore. For decades, many evangelicals have downplayed inconvenient biblical truths, neglecting any theme that seems to require somber reflection. Doctrines such as human depravity, divine wrath, the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and the reality of eternal judgment have disappeared from the evangelical message.

The trend has not escaped everyone's attention. Thirty years ago, for example, Martin Marty, religious historian, professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and critic of all things evangelical, delivered the Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality at Harvard Divinity School. The title of his message was "Hell Disappeared. No One Noticed." Marty's research had failed to turn up a single scholarly article dealing with the subject of hell in any significant theological journal over the previous century. Citing the dearth of attention being given to so large a topic, Marty suggested that if evangelicals really took seriously what Scripture says about eternal punishment, someone with a voice should notice.

Almost no one did. Eighteen years later, The Los Angeles Times featured a front-page article titled "Hold the Fire and Brimstone," pointing out that many style-conscious evangelical church leaders were purposely omitting the theme of divine retribution:

In churches across America, hell is being frozen out as clergy find themselves increasingly hesitant to sermonize on . . . a story line that no longer resonates with churchgoers. [According to] Harvey Cox Jr., an eminent author, religious historian and professor at the Harvard Divinity School, "You can go to a whole lot of churches week after week, and you'd be startled even to hear a mention of hell."

Hell's fall from fashion indicates how key portions of Christian theology have been influenced by a secular society that stresses individualism over authority and the human psyche over moral absolutes. The rise of psychology, the philosophy of existentialism, and the consumer culture have all dumped buckets of water on hell.

The article profiled an evangelical pastor who said he believes in hell, but (according to the Times) "you'd never know it listening to him preach. . . . He never mentions the topic; his flock shows little interest in it." Asked why the doctrine of hell has gone missing, this pastor replied, "It isn't sexy enough anymore."

The article also quoted a well-known seminary professor who more or less agreed. Hell, he said, is "just too negative. . . . Churches are under enormous pressure to be consumer-oriented. Churches today feel the need to be appealing rather than demanding."

The article closed with a quote from Martin Marty, almost two decades after his famous lecture on the subject. He agreed that market-driven concerns are the main reason hell is being expunged from the evangelical message:

Once pop evangelism went into market analysis, hell was just dropped. When churches go door to door and conduct a market analysis . . . they hear, "I want better parking spaces. I want guitars at services. I want to have my car greased while I'm in church."

Years of indifference finally paved the way for open hostility. In the first decade of the new millennium, certain prominent figures in the "emergent church" declared war on the biblical doctrine of hell. The groundswell seemed to crest a couple of years ago with the publication of Rob Bell's bestselling book Love Wins. Bell argued that it's absurd to think a loving God would ever damn anyone to eternal punishment. He portrayed God's love as a force that clashes with and ultimately eliminates the demands of justice. In the storyline Bell envisions, God requires no payment or punishment for sin. The divine response to evil is always remedial, never punitive. Furthermore, the wages of sin are mild, temporary, and reserved only for grossly malevolent villains—mass murderers, child rapists, tyrants who engineer genocide, and (one supposes) Christians who tell unbelievers they should fear God. When it's all over, everyone will be together in paradise.

In such a system, God's righteousness is compromised, repentance is optional, atonement is unnecessary, and the truth of God's Word is nullified. In other words, nothing of biblical Christianity is left. Once anyone sets out to tone down or tame the hard truths of Scripture, that's where the process inevitably leads.

Only a few leading voices in the evangelical movement have lobbied boldly for a more orthodox approach to the doctrine of hell. They seem to be outnumbered by those who think the disappearance of hell is a positive development.

Some have proposed alternative ways to speak of sin and judgment in gentler, toned-down, and more refined and socially acceptable terminology than Scripture uses. Sin is deemed wrong not because it is an offense against the righteousness of God, but because of the hurt it causes others. Hell is described not as a place of eternal punishment but simply as a realm apart from God. In the reimagined eschatology of stylish evangelicals, no one is ever "sent" to hell; sinners actually choose to spend eternity apart from God—and the "hell" they suffer is merely an abundance of what they loved and desired the most. Hell is necessary only because God is reluctant to overrule anyone's free will. Therefore, with a more or less benign acquiescence, He ultimately defers to the sinner's choice. God's righteous indignation has no meaningful place in such a scenario.

It is a serious mistake to imagine that we improve Scripture or enhance its effectiveness by blunting its sharp edges. Scripture is a sword, not a cotton swab, and it needs to be fully unsheathed before it can be put to its intended use. "The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb. 4:12). The gospel is supposed to be an affront to fleshly pride, offensive to human sensibilities, foolishness in the eyes of worldly wisdom, and contrary to all carnal judgments.

No Christian teaching exemplifies those characteristics more powerfully than the doctrine of hell. It is an appalling truth. We rightly recoil at the thought of it. The doctrine of hell thus stands as a warning and a reminder of what a loathsome reality sin is. No reasonable or godly person delights in the reality of eternal damnation. God Himself says, "As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked" (Ezek. 33:11).

Yet the severity of God's wrath and the woes of hell are prominent in Scripture. The New Testament speaks more vividly and more frequently about hell than the Old Testament does. In fact, Jesus Himself had more to say about the subject than any other prophet or biblical writer. Far from smoothing over the difficulties that seem to embarrass so many evangelicals today, Jesus said:

Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:4–5)
If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matt. 18:8–9)

We do no one any favors by downplaying the truth of God's wrath or neglecting to mention the severity of His judgment. We certainly don't eliminate the threat of hell by refusing to speak or think of it. If we truly believe what the Bible teaches about the eternal fate of unbelievers, it is in no sense "loving" to remain silent and refuse to sound the appropriate alarm.

What, after all, is the good news we proclaim in the gospel? It is not an announcement that no one really needs to fear God or fret about the possibility of hell. As a matter of fact, there would be no glad tidings at all if God merely intended to capitulate to the stubborn will of man and forgo the demands of His perfect righteousness.

The good news is even better than most believers understand: God made a way for His righteousness and His love to be fully reconciled. In His incarnation, Christ fulfilled all righteousness (satisfying, not nullifying, the demands of His law). In His death on the cross, He paid the price of His people's sin in full (assuring the triumph of perfect justice). And in His resurrection from the dead, He put a powerful exclamation mark on His own perfect, finished work of atonement (thus sealing the promise of justification forever for those who trust Him as Lord and Savior).

That is the message we must declare to a worldly culture utterly lacking any real fear of God. We cannot do it faithfully or effectively if from the very outset we have omitted the harsh truth Scripture declares about "the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty" (Rev. 19:15).

The Horror of Hell

Tom Ascol

“There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell.” So wrote the agnostic British philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1967. The idea of eternal punishment for sin, he further notes, is “a doctrine that put cruelty in the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture.”

His views are at least more consistent than religious philosopher John Hick, who refers to hell as a “grim fantasy” that is not only “morally revolting” but also “a serious perversion of the Christian Gospel.” Worse yet is theologian Clark Pinnock who, despite still regarding himself as an evangelical, dismisses hell with a rhetorical question: “How can one imagine for a moment that the God who gave His Son to die for sinners because of His great love for them would install a torture chamber somewhere in the new creation in order to subject those who reject Him to everlasting pain?”

So, what should we think of hell? Is the idea of it really responsible for all the cruelty and torture in the world? Is the doctrine of hell incompatible with the way of Jesus Christ? Hardly. In fact, the most prolific teacher of hell in the Bible is Jesus, and He spoke more about it than He did about heaven. In Matthew 25:41–46 He teaches us four truths about hell that should cause us to grieve over the prospect of anyone experiencing its horrors.

First, hell is a state of separation from God. On the day of judgment, Jesus will say to all unbelievers, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (v. 41). This is the same sort of language that Jesus uses elsewhere to describe the final judgment of unbelievers (see 7:23). 

To be separated from God is to be separated from anything and everything good. That is hard to conceive because even the most miserable person enjoys some of God’s blessings. We breathe His air, are nourished by food that He supplies, and experience many other aspects of His common grace. 

On earth even atheists enjoy the benefits of God’s goodness. But in hell, these blessings will be nonexistent. Those consigned there will remember God’s goodness, and will even have some awareness of the unending pleasures of heaven, but they will have no access to them.

This does not mean that God will be completely absent from hell. He is and will remain omnipresent (Ps. 139:7–8). To be separated from the Lord and cast into hell does not mean that a person will finally be free of God. That person will remain eternally accountable to Him. He will remain Lord over the person’s existence. But in hell, a person will be forever separated from God in His kindness, mercy, grace, and goodness. He will be consigned to deal with Him in His holy wrath.

Secondly, hell is a state of association. Jesus says that the eternal fire of hell was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). People were made for God. Hell was made for the Devil. Yet people who die in their sin, without Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, will spend eternity in hell with the one being who is most unlike God. It is a tragic irony that many who do not believe in the Devil in this life will wind up spending eternity being tormented with him in hell. 

The third truth is that it is a state of punishment. Jesus describes it as “fire” (v. 41) and a place of “punishment” (v. 46). Hell is a place of retribution where justice is served through the payment for crimes. 

The punishment must fit the crime. The misery and torment of hell point to the wickedness and seriousness of sin. Those who protest the biblical doctrine of hell as being excessive betray their inadequate comprehension of the sinfulness of sin. For sinners to be consigned to anything less than the horrors of eternal punishment would be a miscarriage of justice.

And that brings us to the fourth truth — hell is an everlasting state. Though some would like to shorten the duration of this state, Jesus’ words are very clear. He uses the same adjective to describe both punishment and life in verse 46. If hell is not eternal, neither is the new heaven and earth. 

How can God exact infinite punishment for a finite sin? First, because the person against whom all sin is committed is infinite. Crimes against the infinitely holy, infinitely kind, infinitely good, and infinitely supreme Ruler of the world deserve unending punishment. In addition to that, those condemned to hell will go on sinning for eternity. There is no repentance in hell. So the punishment will continue as long as the sinning does.

The dreadfulness of hell deepens our grateful praise for the salvation we have in Jesus Christ. Hell is what we deserve. And hell is what He experienced on the cross in our place. 

Believing the truth about hell also motivates us to persuade people to be reconciled to God. By God’s grace those of us who are trusting Christ have been rescued from this horrible destiny. How can we love people and refuse to speak plainly to them about the realities of eternal damnation and God’s gracious provision of salvation? 

Clearer visions of hell will give us greater love for both God and people.

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