“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.