“When I pastored a country church, a farmer didn’t like the sermons I preached on hell. He said, Preach about the meek and lowly Jesus. I said, That’s where I got my information about hell.” – Vance Havner
One of my favorite chapters in Why We’re Not Emergent is the one where Kevin DeYoung examines the modern tendency to soft-peddle the doctrine of eternal punishment. This is not, he says, merely a “liberal” problem – many evangelicals do it, too, “opting instead for a therapeutic God who encourages our self-esteem.”
As a result, God’s wrath and the reality of hell are downplayed, avoided, reinterpreted to suit our sensitive palates, and even outright denied. We’ve all heard people complain about hellfire-and-brimstone preaching; but considering the state of the modern church, one has to wonder how many of those complainers have actually heard a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon. My guess? Not many. If any.
“We need the doctrine of eternal punishment,” observes DeYoung. “Time and time again in the New Testament we find that understanding divine justice is essential to our santification. Believing in God’s judgment actually helps us look more like Jesus. In short, we need the doctrine of the wrath of God.”
And here’s why (pp. 198-200):
“First, we need God’s wrath to keep us honest about evangelism. Paul reasoned with Felix about righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment (Acts 24:25). We need to do the same. Without the doctrine of hell, we are prone to get involved in all sorts of important God-honoring things, but neglect the one thing that matters for all eternity, urging sinners to be reconciled to God.
Second, we need God’s wrath in order to forgive our enemies. The reason we can forego repaying evil for evil is because we trust the Lord’s promise to repay the wicked. Paul’s logic is sound. “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:19 NIV). The only way to look past our deepest hurts and betrayals is to rest assured that every sin against us has been paid for on the cross or will be punished in hell. We don’t need to seek vigilante justice, because God will be our just judge.
Third, we need God’s wrath in order to risk our lives for Jesus’ sake. The radical devotion necessary to suffer for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus comes, in part, from the assurance we have that God will vindicate us in the end. That’s why the martyrs under the throne cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6:10 NIV). They paid the ultimate price for their faith, but their blood-stained cries will be answered one day. Their innocence will be established when God finally judges their persecutors.
Fourth, we need God’s wrath in order to live holy lives. Paul warns us that God cannot be mocked. We will reap what we sow. We are spurred on to live a life of purity and good deeds by the promised reward for obedience and the promised curse for disobedience. If we live to please the flesh, we will reap destruction from God. But if we live to please the Spirit, we will reap eternal life. Sometimes ministers balk at the thought of motivating people with the threat of eternal punishment. But wasn’t this Jesus’ approach when He said, ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell’ (Matt. 10:28)? Sometimes we need to literally scare the hell out of people.
Fifth, we need God’s wrath in order to understand what mercy means. Divine mercy without divine wrath is meaningless. Only when we know that we were objects of wrath (Eph. 2:3), stood condemned already (John 3:18), and would have faced hell as God’s enemies were it not for undeserved mercy (Rom. 5:10) can we sing from the heart, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!”
Sixth, we need God’s wrath in order to grasp how wonderful heaven will be. Jonathan Edwards is famous (infamous) for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It’s still read in American literature classes, usually as a caricature of the puritanical spirit of colonial New England. But few people realize that Edwards also preached sermons like “Heaven Is a World of Love.” Unlike most of us, Edwards saw in vivid colors the terror of hell and the beauty of heaven. We can’t get a striking picture of one without the other. That’s why the depiction of the heavenly New Jerusalem also contains a warning to the cowardly, unbelieving, vile, immoral, idolators, and liars whose place is in “the fiery lake of burning sulfur” (Rev. 21:8 NIV). It’s unlikely we will long for our final salvation if we don’t know what we are saved from.
Seventh, we need the wrath of God in order to be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters. We all know the saying that Christians are so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good. The idea is that if all we think about are heaven and hell we’ll ignore ministries of compassion and social justice. But what better impetus for social justice than Jesus’ sober warning that if we fail to care for the least of our brothers we will go away to eternal punishment (Matt. 25:31-46)? The wrath of God is a motivator for us to show compassion to others, because without love, John says, we have no eternal life, and if we don’t share our material possessions with those in need, we have no love (1 John 3:17).
Eighth, we need God’s wrath in order to be ready for the Lord’s return. We must keep the lamps full, the wicks trimmed, the houses clean, the vineyard tended, the workers busy, and the talents invested lest we find ourselves unprepared for the day of reckoning. Only when we fully believe in the coming wrath of God and tremble at the thought of eternal punishment will we stay awake, keep alert, and be prepared for Jesus to come again to judge the living and the dead.”