Preach about hell…but think it through first!

By Gary Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

I have no sympathy with those who eliminate the hard teachings of the Bible. A Christian has made a prior commitment to follow Jesus and to speak and act as Jesus would.

I have little sympathy with those who affirm right and left that they stand true to the hard teachings of the Bible, but who seldom touch on them…or who apologize profusely for bringing them up…or who when they speak on them, shout the truth as if to pump themselves up with confidence (I think of them as the “grenade tossers”).

I have plenty of sympathy with those who want to express the biblical truths in a clear, confident and understandable way but who struggle to do so. Struggle is a sign of vitality; living things struggle, complacent things lie still.

Hell is surely one of those hard teachings. I have no special insight on how to communicate it, but I’ve spent a lot of time recently on 2 Thess 1:5-10 and other passages and thought through what needs to be said, and how.

I will simply share one anecdote. The other day I preached on the resurrection of Lazarus from John 11 (see the full text in this blog under “Jesus Christ, Destroyer of Death”; I also speak about eternal judgment in the article about Brian McLaren). My main focus was on our future resurrection and how John 12:1-2 foreshadows the eternal messianic banquet. My secondary point was that for those who reject Christ there is hell, and that the opposite of banquet fellowship was the “outer darkness”. I mentioned that “hell as fire” was likewise important, [as is the image of the place “where the worm – that is, the corpse eating worm – doesn’t die”] but that Jesus, Paul, Peter and Jude also spoke of the fate of the damned as being “cut off from the presence of the Lord” or “outer” or “eternal darkness”.

I particularly wanted to speak to young people in the congregation, because I am alarmed by recent statistics showing that the church is losing people in their late teens and early 20s.  I felt that they might be armored against a “hell-talk” about flames. I decided that John 11-12 pointed in another direction: a talk about hell as isolation. I wanted to, as it were, catch them off-balance. I wanted to show the relevance of the outer darkness for them. [I saw, “show” its relevance, not “make it relevant” – the Scripture is always relevant, but the lazy preacher doesn’t always dig deep enough to “show” how].

I spoke with young people, including my children, and rather than talk about hell, I prodded and then listened. They gave me enough feedback for a couple of sermons, and I had to work hard to cut it down to a manageable amount, especially given that hell was only my secondary point. They spoke to me about how young people are driven to get and remain connected with others. How? Well, by texting, principally. Followed by chatrooms, cellphone, Facebook, and at the end of the line, email. One of them mentioned the phrase “Kurt Cobain Lives!” I’m not that old, I do know who Kurt Cobain was, but I did my homework anyways and listened to some of his music. I would have thought that a reference to Cobain would be a bit dated if I was addressing people in their 20s, but from what I’ve seen that’s not necessarily so.

Very well. Here, piecemeal, were some of my points that were especially directed to younger people:

Kurt Cobain was a musician: a writer, singer, guitarist of a ground-breaking band Nirvana. He struggled with depression and heroin addiction. In 1994, at age 27, full of heroin, he killed himself with a shotgun… I’ve listened to a bit of Nirvana this week. One song he wrote included these lyrics: “I’m going to hell, I’m gonna die, Who wants to stay?” For many today, usually people younger than I, Kurt Cobain is a symbol. He lived hard, played his music, scoffed at death, was going to hell and he didn’t care, wow! and went out in a blaze of glory. For some he’s a tragic hero. Search on the internet for the phrase “Kurt Cobain lives”, it’ll surprise you. How does he live? Well, they say: in his music, in his fame…

No, Kurt Cobain does not live. He had been dead for three days when an electrician came by to do stuff on his house and found the body. That’s not heroic.

[I spoke about a man who killed himself in a freak car accident while running from the police] Of course, someone could try to make a Hollywood movie out of him: he’s a loner who plays by his own rules. But that’s not reality: his death was more like a bad Warner Brothers cartoon than a Hollywood ending.

Some people think that death is nothing, you just click off and you’re done. No – for person without Christ, it’s darkness, but you’re conscious forever. Imagine going down to a dark basement with a flashlight and then there is no flashlight, and your eyes never get adjusted…but you’re still there. There are worse things than ceasing to exist.

And living in the outer darkness is not in a nice sense of “I’d like some down time by myself”. Rather it’s “I’ll never be in touch with anyone again”. Whatever Kurt Cobain is doing now, he’s not keeping in touch with his friends. You think our church is picky about turning off your cellphones? Well, being in hell means you check your devices at the door: no texting, no cell-phone, not even email, not even Facebooking, no face-to-face, no sharing a cappuccino and comparing notes on the afterlife!!! “See you in hell”? No you won’t…

I joked that my subtitle was going to be “Will there be texting in hell?”

It’s hard for some of us to imagine, but for some people being disconnected/forgotten is infinitely more horrifying than the lake of fire.

2 thoughts on “Preach about hell…but think it through first!

  1. It is true there is life after life, resurrection or hell, but nowadays people don´t think so and we must ask ourselves why? I think the main problem belongs to the way we teach this truth. I also don´t like preacher with light gospel teachings, I do believe we need to “upgrade” the way we teach this truth. The analogy of “being disconnected/forgotten” seems to be a good approach.

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