Hell. It's the topic no one wants to discuss, the last-ditch threat used on the unrepentant and the word more often heard in sitcoms than in sermons. But this was not always the case, as can be seen in the above excerpt from what may be the most well-known sermon in American history.
More than 260 years have passed since Colonial-era revivalist Jonathan Edwards delivered those words to a Connecticut congregation. However, seeing the theme of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" largely neglected today, a group of pastors, evangelists and scholars tell Ministries Today it is time to sound the alarm.
Pastor Robert Jeffress, author of the recent release Hell? Yes!, says preaching on the topic has followed a cyclical pattern since Edwards' era, tracing this path:
Edwards embodied the Puritans' emphasis on hell in the 1700s, which by the end of the 19th century gave way to modernism and atheists such as Col. Robert Ingersoll who sought to discredit the idea. Skeptics like Ingersoll prompted the rise of fundamentalism, which in turn brought a resurgence in the teaching.
However, in recent decades, preaching and teaching on the topic of hell has become increasingly rare. Jeffress and others argue that this trend can be traced to what they believe is the church's quest to avoid offending unbelievers.
"In today's seeker-friendly environment it is just not politically correct to talk about the subject of hell," says Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls, Texas. "The teaching on hell is cyclical, but I think the faithful expositor of the Word of God cannot allow current trends to determine what he's going to teach God's people."
A Dallas para-church leader who works with pastors in developing nations agrees. David Shibley, president of Global Advance, thinks the concept of hell as a real place is fading from view because of a lack of attention in America's pulpits.
He contrasts that with Third World countries, where evangelists still preach on street corners about heaven and hell, warning listeners to flee God's coming wrath. While the church there is growing, the Western Hemisphere sees a decline in membership and evangelism. For Shibley, these two factors are intimately connected.
He believes various cultural factors are behind pastors' reluctance to address the subject, but that the current theological trajectory may lead to a more disconcerting end: universalism--a belief which often captures the public's imagination by default when eternal punishment is properly taught.
"I think a pervasive secularism has cowered a lot of pastors into silence," Shibley says. "There is a gaping hole in modern theology and it's having disastrous results in the American church.
Since Edwards' fiery sermon, many have experienced visions of flames and eternal damnation. In fact, former atheist Dr. Maurice Rawlings changed his mind about religion after resuscitating a patient who expressed terror over descending into hell.
In his book Beyond Death's Door, Rawlings wrote that the man screamed, "I am in hell!" each time he regained heartbeat and respiration. He pleaded with the physician to help him.
"I noticed a genuinely alarmed look on his face," Rawlings wrote. "He had a terrified look worse than the expression seen in death--a grotesque grimace expressing sheer horror! His pupils were dilated, and he was perspiring and trembling.
"Then another strange thing happened. He said: 'Don't you understand? I am in hell ... don't let me go back to hell!' ... It finally occurred to me that he was indeed in trouble. He was in a panic like I had never seen before."
One of the best-known treatises on hell is Mary K. Baxter's A Divine Revelation of Hell, which continues to be a best seller 12 years after its release. In it, the minister with the National Church of God in Washington, D.C., tells of Jesus showing her hell for 30 straight nights in 1976.
Describing her initial descent, she tells of screams filling the air as they first approached the base of a tunnel into the pit. Piercing cries filled the air. Fear, death and sin enveloped her.
"The worst odor I have ever smelled filled the air," Baxter writes. "It was the smell of decaying flesh, and it seemed to be coming from every direction. Never on earth had I felt such evil or heard such cries of despair. Soon I would find that these were the cries of the dead and that hell was filled with their wails."
Shibley contends that, behind the theories of universalism and its "close cousin" annihilationism, there is a human craving to avoid eternal judgment.
"The very clear intent of the apostle Paul to the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:31 was, '"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved,"'" Shibley says.
Jeffress thinks that in the last 20 years many people have revised their thinking in attempt to "turn down the temperature a little bit." The Southern Baptist pastor says the idea of lasting judgment is so anathema to some that they have attempted to recreate God in their image.
He insists pastors should teach and preach more about hell because to avoid it represents arrogance.
"By not doing so we are making ourselves more compassionate than Jesus was," Jeffress says. "I think we need to be as faithful to the truth as Jesus was. The reason He spoke more about hell than heaven was because hell is a real place."
How many people find the idea credible isn't clear. In his book, Jeffress cites a 1981 survey showing only 50 percent of theology faculty believe in hell, a statistic he suspects remains about the same today.
As for the public, Jeffress pegs belief in hell at around 60 percent. However, a Gallup survey in May 2004 placed it at 70 percent--up from 56 percent seven years earlier.
In the fall of 2003, demographer George Barna found that 71 percent of Americans believe in hell, while 81 percent believe in an afterlife of some sort.
Barna found no dominant view of hell, although 39 percent agreed it is "a state of eternal separation from God's presence" and 32 percent said it is "an actual place of torment and suffering where people's souls go after death." Another 13 percent believe hell just symbolizes an unknown, bad outcome after death.
Ironically, only one-half of 1 percent expect to eventually go to hell, while 64 percent of Americans believe they will go to heaven.
Such findings aren't surprising to Jeffress, whose research indicated that only 4 percent of people expect to wind up there.
He thinks many rationalize that hell is necessary to take care of evildoers such as Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein or Charles Manson. But Jeffress says they draw the line at swallowing the idea someone should go there just for not believing in Christ as Savior.
Yet, refusing to accept this biblical doctrine leads to lethargy of the soul, Shibley says.
"There's an inference that people aren't perishing without Christ," he says. "But an earlier generation very much believed that people were perishing. As a result, they urged the church to act."
However, this isn't to say that hell is a clear-cut issue. Jeffress acknowledges that such noted early church leaders as Martin Luther and John Calvin, and contemporaries such as Francis A. Schaeffer and J.I. Packer, had doubts about literal fire.
Jeffress says they viewed fiery descriptions of hell as symbolic of eternal condemnation, since fire seems to contradict the utter darkness Christ mentioned in Matthew 22:13.
As pastors contend for the truth, they should be aware that relativism's popularity leads many to want to believe that everyone will be saved, says New Testament studies professor Craig S. Keener.
Keener sees such views slipping into the church, such as the friend from Bible college who recently mentioned that he finds universalism an attractive doctrine.
However, the faculty member at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary says Christians should work toward the goal of presenting everyone with the message of salvation, not pretend it will automatically occur.
"It's like saying we want everyone in the world to have enough food to eat," says Keener, who comes from a charismatic background. "We work toward that by acknowledging the problem and trying to do something about it, not by saying everyone should have enough to eat and pretending they do."
A young atheist, Keener converted in high school after hearing an unsettling message on hell. The professor thinks more Christians need to be aware of its truth, because it will motivate them to want everyone to hear the gospel.
Historian Vinson Synan of Regent University reminds pastors that for 2,000 years the church (including Pentecostals and charismatics) has taught the idea that hell is a real place.
For those like Pentecostal pioneer Charles Parham, who espoused annihilationism or the more recent embrace of universalism by Tulsa pastor Carlton Pearson, Synan says few followed in their footsteps.
"The historic position is there's a heaven for those who die in the Lord and a hell for the wicked and evil people who refuse to serve the Lord," says Synan, dean of Regent's School of Divinity.
"I think in the last 20 to 30 years you don't hear much about it--at least I haven't. The more positive messages of being filled with the Holy Spirit and getting to heaven are what you hear. But there aren't too many warnings about torment and perdition."
One reason may be the disappearance of one- to two-weeklong revivals. Synan points out one night would commonly be devoted to the topic, although he notes that hell doesn't hold the grip it used to on the public's imagination.
Still, Synan thinks it should be on every pastor's sermon list, with Sunday night teaching services a good time to address the topic. Nor are unbelievers the only ones who need the message; Synan calls an appreciation of hell a good antidote to backsliding.
However, Jeffress adds one advisory to preaching about the subject: Don't smile during the sermon. He says some pastors seem to almost take a fiendish delight in describing people who will burn forever, when they should embrace Christ's outlook.
"I think we ought to have the same attitude and compassion Jesus exhibited when He wept over the lost-ness of Jerusalem," Jeffress says. "It ought to be with a sense of sobriety that we teach about hell, making it very clear that God does not delight in sending evildoers to hell. He is compassionate and loving, not willing that any should perish."
Three Views of the Afterlife
The sheer weight of Scripture supports a literal view of hell, including the graphic descriptions of the "lake of fire" burning with fire and brimstone reserved for the beast, the false prophet and those who worshiped them (see Rev. 19:20).
Jesus spoke vividly about the reality of hell, portraying a "furnace of fire" as the final abode of those who practice lawlessness (see Matt. 13:41-43) and encouraging His hearers that it would be better to enter heaven missing one eye than to enter hell possessing both (see Mark 9:45-46).
A literal view of hell is further supported by the numerous scriptures extending the opportunity for salvation from judgment both in this life and the next--a choice that would be meaningless without the reality of punishment.
Views that question a literal interpretation of hell often spring from the difficulty of accepting that those who never hear the gospel will be punished for eternity.
The first solution is annihilationism--the suggestion that the soul of an unbeliever is destroyed after the judgment, leaving them unable to enjoy the pleasures of heaven or the pain of hell.
Annihilationists argue that hell is a place of destruction, not punishment, citing passages such as Matthew 10:28: "'And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell'" (NKJV).
Often, annihilationists either suggest that passages describing a literal hell are metaphorical or question the plausibility that God would keep a soul alive for eternity just for the purpose of tormenting it in hell.
Universalists contend that, in the end God will save everyone, because of His love and mercy. They often point to passages that speak of the universal nature of salvation.
"He ... is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world" (1 John 2:2); "Therefore, as through one man's offense judgment came to all men ... so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life (Rom. 5:18); "The Lord is ... not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9).
While the prospect of universal salvation is enticing to many believers--and unbelievers--it removes the mystery surrounding the judgment and mercy of God. Opponents of this view argue that passages like those above speak not of the universal application of salvation, but of its universal availability to those who believe and accept it.
"There is a gaping hole in modern theology, and it's having disastrous results in the American church."