What Happened to Hell?

By Leroy Forlines

The two most awesome thoughts that have ever crossed my mind are the thoughts of Hell and atonement. lt is awesome that God takes sin so seriously that He pronounced on sinners the sentence of spending eternity in Hell.

It is even more awesome to think that the holiness of God takes sin so seriously that if Jesus Christ was going to be our Savior, God’s justice required Him to suffer the full wrath of God for our sins. The justice of God would take no less from Jesus Christ than was required of us if He was going to take our place. That is awesome!

In answering the question: What has happened to Hell? the answer is, “Nothing.” Hell was established by an immutable decree of God. Jesus tells us that the day is coming when He will say to sinners, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:4lb).

The real question is: What happened to preaching about Hell?There may be some exceptions, but I do not think anyone will question that there is not as much preaching about Hell as there was a generation ago. Why?

If you gave pastors and evangelists a questionnaire to fill out, those whom we know would check the right answers. If anyone among us would dare question the doctrine of an eternal Hell, we would have holy war about it.

But there does not seem to be any problem not preaching about Hell as long as you say you believe in it. If my observations are correct, the question is: Why does preaching on Hell receive such little attention in today’s conservative pulpits?

The answer is found, not in what people say they believe, but in how they feel (When I speak of “feeling,” I am thinking of feeling as informed by thinking) about it. When preachers have deep feelings about a matter, it shows up in their preaching.

The shortage, and almost absence, of preaching on Hell tells us that preachers do not feel as deeply about Hell as they once did. The shortage of deep feelings about Hell is also seen in the pew. In the general population, feelings go anywhere from weak feelings about Hell to hostility toward the whole idea.

The big question is: Why has there been such a shift in the way people feel about Hell? The answer is that there has been a shift in worldview thinking.

A person’s world view is the way he answers what I call the inescapable questions of life. These are questions like: Is there a God? If so, what is He like? How can I learn about Him? How do I know what is right and what is wrong? Is there life after death? If so, how can I get ready for it?

It is obvious that the way a person answers these questions will seriously affect the way he feels about sin and Hell. I like to talk about the way things were in the 1930s and 1940s. The reason is that when you go back that far there was, for the most part, a Christian consensus.

Most unsaved people would have answered the inescapable questions the same way Christians would have. In that society people had deep feelings about sin, and they were concerned about dying and going to Hell. Preachers preached regularly about Hell.

A significant shift away from Christian world-view thinking started about 1960. Secular world-view thinking has been gaining ground ever since. That change in society’s thinking has strongly influenced the way people feel about sin.

Christian thought believes there is ultimate truth that judges things to be right or wrong, that truth has its authority in God and is revealed to us in the Bible. Secular thought either denies or ignores God. There is no ultimate authority that makes things right or wrong. There are no moral absolutes.

With no God to be accountable to and no moral absolutes, there is no place for Hell and no need of atonement. I am not accusing conservative preachers of being guilty of secular world view. I am saying that the impact of secular thinking has greatly diminished people’s feelings about sin, and that this loss of feeling about sin has invaded the clergy.

The culture that I was brought up in had more impact on the way people felt about sin than the church does now. The culture helped people develop the feelings about sin that made the doctrine of Hell make sense.

Secular thought permeates the media. A constant onslaught against Christian values is channeled into our homes by television. Even in cases where this does not succeed in robbing people of their position on morals, it succeeds in diminishing the way they feel about morals.

Weakened feelings about sin translate into less preaching about Hell. If we do not recapture deep feelings about sin, the time will come when there will be an open challenge to the doctrine of Hell. The need of Hell in our thinking will be gone.

The one thing that folks seem to be agreed on about today’s society is that it is a troubled society. That certainly means that they need the help that Christ offers in facing life in the here and now, but being troubled and mixed up is not what made it necessary for Jesus to die for our sins. It was the fact that we were guilty.

In the last 25 years or more, I have said a lot about helping hurting people. I am all for it. But if, in our Preaching, we do not keep Christianity in the context of meeting eternal needs, what we preach will cease to be Christianity. People need a Redeemer from the guilt of their sin, not just help in meeting their here-and-now needs.

I am not suggesting that we go to an extreme in preaching about Hell. There is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. I am saying that enough needs to be said about sin and Hell that will keep People reminded of what God says about these awful subjects.

About the Writer: Revered Leroy Forlines is a professor emeritus of Bible and theology at Welch College. He chaired the Commission for Theological Integrity for more than 50 years. Article adapted from Contact magazine, March 1995.