Some subjects should never be discussed from the pulpit. Hell can be one of them—but allow me to explain what I mean by “never.”
If we’re going to preach the whole counsel of God, we must preach on hell. After all, Jesus Christ spoke about hell more than any other man in the Bible. A pastor who had a small country church was approached by a farmer who didn’t like his sermons on hell. The farmer said, “Preach about the meek and lowly Jesus.” The pastor answered, “That’s where I got my information about hell.”
Many have observed that, although there was a day when all one seemed to hear was “fire and brimstone” sermons, we’ve now gone to the opposite extreme. There is so much preaching on love, grace, and forgiveness, but little or nothing is said about hell. If hell is real (and it is), it needs to be mentioned. A chaplain who did not believe in hell was one time dismissed. Those responsible for his dismissal explained, “If there is no hell, we don’t need you. If there is a hell, we don’t want you to deceive us anymore.”
There are times, though, when hell should never be mentioned in our preaching. I would go so far as to say that when hell is mentioned during these times, it may dishonor Christ more than honor Him and do more disservice to the gospel than service. When, what, and where are those times?
I. When we show no remorse for those who are going there
D.L. Moody reportedly said, “I must not preach hell unless I preach it with tears.” One could question whether there must be actual tears, but one would find it hard to disagree with the point he was undoubtedly making. Hell is a horrible place, and remorse must be felt for anyone going there. Hell is certainly no light matter and should not be taken as such by the one speaking.
Sometimes the reason that remorse is not there is that hell is preached with the attitude, “That’s what you deserve, so that’s what you get, and to hell is where you’ll go.” True, anyone in hell is there of their own choosing. Christ has not rejected them, but they’ve rejected Him. But if we can’t find remorse for those who are going there, we’d better ask why we are speaking on the subject.
A preacher was asked why he didn’t preach hell fire. Soon afterward, the preacher tried it, and the message fell flat. A kind listener advised him that if he wanted to preach about hell, he should preach in love, not hatred. He cautioned the preacher not to preach about hell as if that’s where he wanted his listeners to go, but rather as if it were a place he wanted to save them from.
I’ve personally spoken on hell, but I can sincerely say it’s never been without remorse. I’m not applauding myself. The reason I cannot do it without remorse is very personal.
Raised on a dairy farm, I came to Christ through the sport of hunting. As I contemplated the outdoors, I was convinced there had to be a God. Design and nature meant love, and love meant presence. So my question became, “Where is He, and how can you touch Him, know Him, feel Him, etc.?”
I decided to study the Bible. At first I thought it was the most boring and confusing book I’d ever read. But I kept reading, until one night I knelt by my bed on the dairy farm and said, “God, the best I know how, I’m trusting Christ to save me.” My life exploded. As I grew as a Christian, I then realized what God had done. He had taken me from the creation, to the Creator, to Christ. (This is one reason I relish speaking at Wild Game Feasts. After showing more than 90 hunting slides through a PowerPoint presentation, I give my testimony. Since these meetings average 80% lost people in attendance, you can imagine how excited I get as an evangelist!)
While I was doing all this searching for God, though, something very dramatic happened one night. I had a dream. It was as real as this article I’m writing. I stood at the very edge of hell about to be cast in by—guess who? Jesus Christ Himself. It was terrifying.
I do not believe in interpreting everything that happens in life by our dreams—God forbid—but that dream played a real part in bringing me to Jesus. I thank God for that dream, because the reality of going to hell was so severe that I can’t even talk about hell without a sense of remorse. I pray to God that never changes.
When I see Jesus speak of hell in the Scriptures, I can’t find one place where He did it with a sense of satisfaction and glee. Instead, it was with remorse, as if hell were the last place He wanted to send someone. We ought to feel that same remorse, and if we don’t, speaking on hell would be best left for other preachers.
II. When we do it to fight particular sins
Preachers love to speak with authority, and they should, especially if they’re preaching the Word. But sometimes that authority is misused. I’ve heard preachers say, “Do you want to know where abortionists go? Do you want to know where rapists go? Do you want to know where God sends homosexuals?” When I hear that, I often want to step up and say, “And do you want to know where Larry Moyer deserves to go?” I’m not an abortionist, rapist, or homosexual, but I have unkind thoughts and selfish attitudes. My Savior put all those in the same group. He said, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies …” (Matthew 15:19).
Allow me to be transparent. To me, homosexuality is one of the most disgusting things imaginable. How two people of the same sex could even claim to have sexual relations—even enjoy fondling one another—is more than mind-boggling. I cannot even grasp it. One day, I was speaking about the subject with a friend, who couldn’t agree with me more. Then he said something I’ve never recovered from—thankfully. His comment was, “The way you and I feel about homosexuality in particular is the way God feels about our sin in general.”
That’s right. People we label as abortionists, murderers, and homosexuals deserve to go to hell—but so do adulterers, liars, prideful people, and in fact every single person, including even preachers, who live good religious lives but have never come to Christ.
Hell should never be used to strike back at particular sins, but it should be used to declare the justified punishment for all who have sinned and not received His forgiveness. After all, one sin is all it takes to separate a person from God, and that sin may be a simple “white lie.”
It’s not those who commit a particular sin who deserve to go to hell; it’s those who have sinned—period—and have rejected the Son’s payment for their sin problem.
III. When we emphasize the bad news and de-emphasize the good news
Hell is not merely bad news; it’s the worst news there is to hear. D.L. Moody reportedly shared Christ with a young man. The man had trouble grasping his need of Christ. At one point, he said to D.L. Moody, “If I could see heaven for five minutes, I would believe.” D.L. Moody’s response was, “If you could see hell for five seconds, you would believe.”
Hell is more than bad; it’s horrible. But hell being so horrible is one thing that makes heaven so bright. Jesus does not want anyone to go to hell. So what did He do? He died as a substitute for everyone. Because a perfect man took our punishment and rose victoriously on the third day, what does God ask us to do? Come as a sinner, recognize Christ died for us and rose again, and place our trust in Christ alone to save us. Imagine that: We’re not saved by trusting Christ plus our church attendance, or Christ plus our good life, or Christ plus our baptism, or Christ plus the sacraments. We’re saved by trusting Christ alone to save us! The moment we trust Christ, God gives heaven to us completely free.
Have you ever heard anything better? I haven’t, and I’m convinced I never will. That’s what I love about being an evangelist. I’m the bearer of the best news people ever hear! That’s also why it doesn’t matter if it’s one in the audience or one thousand; I get excited about sharing it.
It’s also why, if I preach on hell, I can’t step out of the pulpit without having explained the good news as much or more than I did the bad. I don’t want the audience to leave merely knowing that apart from Christ they’re going to hell. I want them to leave knowing and understanding that, as bad as the bad news is, there’s good news as equally hard to fathom: a God who so loved hell-bound sinners that He’s designing a place for those who choose not to go to hell. His promise excites me. “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2–3).
It’s a moral obligation before men and women—and more importantly before God—that in emphasizing the bad news, we emphasize equally or even more the good news. To not do so is to be an unfaithful steward of the message God has for us to give to people.
IV. When we take the Scriptures out of context
As my mentor and friend Haddon Robinson says, “When you say ‘thus saith the Lord,’ you’d better be right. That is an awesome claim.” Unfortunately, though, there are those who read the word “hell” in Scripture and then take off in their speaking, never examining the context. In so doing, they often preach their words, not the Word.
Mark 9:43–48 is a very effective passage from which to speak on hell. Unfortunately, there are those who use it to preach a false gospel. Three verses of that paragraph say, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched. ...And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched. …And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire” (Mark 9: 43, 45, 47). Some have used this passage to explain that unless you surrender your life to Christ, you cannot be saved and an eternal hell awaits you. In other words, God wants your hands, your feet, your eyes, your everything.
There are three problems with this explanation. First, eternal life is a free gift with no strings attached. Surrendering our lives to Christ is part of discipleship, not salvation. Second, if we had to completely surrender our lives to Christ to be saved, as a noted Bible teacher says, “There wouldn’t be a Christian upon the face of the earth.” Any honest Christian would tell you there are days and places we hold back.
Third, this is not the true meaning of the passage. The simple point Christ was making is there is nothing worth going to hell over. If what the hand touches, where the feet take us, or what the eyes see is keeping us from coming to Christ, we’d be highly intelligent people to cut off the hand, cut off the foot, or pluck out the eye. We’d be better off with one of each than to be separated from God with two. What a powerful word! A performer of the past was once asked, “When you started, you said you wanted to be rich, you wanted to be famous, and you wanted to be happy. You’re rich and you’re famous—are you happy?” The performer immediately confessed that he was the loneliest he had ever been. After he died, his stepmother, who should have known him as well as anyone, reportedly made the comment, “He never found the one thing he really wanted: God.”
Hell needs to be preached, but never in a way that takes Scripture out of context. If we preach on hell, it has to be the same way we preach on everything else—not preaching our words but His Word.
There are times to preach on hell, but there are also times not to preach on hell. Let’s be sure we’re preaching on hell in the right way and at the right times. We have a responsibility before God to explain to people how awful that place of torment is. Let’s make sure that—as our listeners see our expressions, hear our voices, look at our demeanors and everything else about us—they see a God who pleads to us with the greatest love He can extend: “Come to Jesus.”