By Lee Webb
Even 30, 40 and
50-years ago years ago, sermons that addressed the consequences of dying
apart from Christ were commonly heard.
Most Americans don't
believe in Hell. The latest research from Barna Associates shows that
only 31 percent of adults see Hell as "a place of physical torment
where people may be sent."
Even among Christians,
there appears to be some confusion about Hell and who goes there when
they die. But why is that? Some say it is because the church has been
ominously silent about the subject.
Stroll the streets of
America today and you will find that eternal destiny is not a subject
most people even want to talk about. And when they do, their thoughts on
the matter are quite diverse.
CBN News asked one man,
"Do you believe there is a place called Hell?" He replied,
"Yes, sir. My belief in Christianity has taught me that."
We asked another man,
"Do you believe that all people, when they die, would go to
heaven?" After taking a moment to think it over, he said,
"Hmmm, good question. Yes."
One woman responded,
"I don't know, I think it would have to be something very, very,
extremely bad to go to Hell."
Another man said,
"Honest belief? This is Hell. We are in Hell now. It has to be
better in the next life."
That confusion does not
surprise the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and
he lays the blame squarely on the church. Dr. Paige Patterson said,
"You can traverse the entire United States on any given Sunday
morning, and you very probably will not hear a sermon on the judgement
of God or eternal punishment."
"Evangelicals have voted by the silence of their voices that they
either do not believe in [the doctrine of Hell] or else no longer have
the courage and conviction to stand and say anything about it."
Author and theologian
R.C. Sproul is even more direct. "I think what we face in the
church today is a virtual eclipse of the character of God," he
The irony is that
evangelicals consider one sermon about Gods judgment to be among the
greatest evangelistic messages ever preached. It was delivered by
Jonathan Edwards in 1741 during the height of the Great Awakening. The
title: "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
"O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: 'tis a great
furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath,
that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked
and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in
Why don't preachers
preach like this today? Sproul said, "I can't think of anything
more politically incorrect to preach in 21st century America than the
wrath of God, or the justice of God, or the doctrine of Hell."
Even 30, 40 and 50-years
ago years ago, sermons that addressed the consequences of dying apart
from Christ were commonly heard. But in recent years, many evangelical
pastors have bristled at the thought of being labeled a "fire and
brimstone" preacher, and turned to a kinder, gentler approach.
"I don't think fear,
as a tactic, really moves people toward faith these days. So,
tactically, I think there are better ways to interest the uninterested
in the claims of Jesus Christ," said Pastor Bill Hybels who is
considered to be the leader of the "seeker friendly" church
Hybels Willow Creek
Community Church outside Chicago has drawn thousands over the years and
generated hundreds of similar churches. One of them is Spring Branch
Community Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The church's website
declares that one of the reasons people don't like church is that
"pastors make people feel ignorant and guilty."
Spring Branch Pastor
Michael Simone said, "How do they make people feel guilty? I think
pastors can sometimes do that very inadvertently by saying, 'You don't
do this,' or 'You're doing this and this behavior is against everything
that is in the Bible.'"
Simone believes the
people who come to his church want to know how improve their lives and
their marriages. He has even done a sermon called, "Sex and the
City." He says preaching a sermon like "Sinners in the Hands
of an Angry God" wouldn't work today, when most Americans seemingly
have it all.
"Today, I think the
title of that sermon would be, 'I Went on Vacation and Felt Empty
Inside," Simone said.
Hybels points out that
Jesus did not use the same evangelistic approach with everyone he met.
"When He was with
the woman at the well, He just started talking about water. He didn't
start talking about Hell, He started talking about water. When He was
with the rich, young ruler he talked about money. When He was with
Nicodemus, he talked about matters of the Law. He always knew how to
establish rapport first, and guide them into a discussion that would
lead to the unfolding of the truth. We must do the same," Hybels
Critics agree, but they
add that the discussion at some point must include the truth about the
eternal destiny of those who reject the gospel.
Sproul said, "The
power of the Gospel is the Word of God. It's not these methods and
techniques whereby we hide the Gospel. But there's no need of a
Gospel...nobody needs a Gospel if there's no judgement, if there's no
law, if God is not a God of judgement. If there's no such thing as Hell,
what good is the Gospel? The Gospel tells us that we're saved from the
wrath that is to come."
Hybels said, "Are we
responsible for teaching the whole message of the Gospel of Christ?
Absolutely. Anybody who doesn't, I think the Scriptures are clear, will
stand accountable before God someday."
But even Hybels admits
the subject of God's divine wrath is not preached from evangelical
pulpits like it once was. So how can pastors deliver what is referred to
as "the whole counsel of God" without being offensive?
"If you are their
pastor, not just their preacher, but their pastor, and they know that
you're for them, then it's amazing how many of these hard sayings
they're willing to listen to," Sproul said. "I mean, we're not
supposed to add offense to the Gospel. But if we try to take out the
offense that is already there, then we're offending God, and we're
offending Christ, and we're not proclaiming the whole counsel of