People are never neutral about the subject. Either they're critical or delighted that I'm not a hellfire and brimstone preacher. Those who are delighted often say, "God is a God of love, not of judgment." Those who are critical say, "God's Word declares judgment for sinners, and you need to warn people about it." Who's right, and who's wrong?
Let me say again--I'm not a hellfire and brimstone preacher. That doesn't mean, however, that I never talk about judgment and hell, and people's need to avoid them by receiving Jesus as their Savior. I just don't believe in using scare tactics to coerce people into heaven. Today's culture doesn't respond to a screaming, pacing-up-and-down, spitting, stomping, Bible-thumping, hellfire-and-brimstone-threatening preacher the way it used to. Sixty years ago, when it might have been correctly said that we were a Christian nation, even non-Christians had spiritual assumptions that they gleaned from their believing friends and family members. So when the unchurched person came into the revival service and sat on the back row and heard a hellfire and brimstone sermon, he took it to heart. Today, most unbelievers respond to threats of damnation by getting up and leaving, muttering under their breath, "That preacher's a judgmental (you fill in the blank)." They turn the message off because of the hellfire and brimstone message.
I'm not a hellfire and brimstone preacher, it's true. But my accusers would be wrong if they said I never talk about these things. I simply don't scream about it angrily from the pulpit. Personally, I wish there were no such thing as Hell. Many authors have suggested that damnation is just a threat made by the medieval church. Yet those "scholars" have neglected God's Word itself. Today's passage in 2 Thessalonians takes the topic of Hell quite seriously. Verses 5-12 (ESV) say:
5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. 11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
You can't get much more plain than that. Hell is real, and people need to be warned. But people don't need to be screamed at. There's the difference. I do talk about Hell--but a message that's as offensive as Hell needs to be delivered with a sane and rational disposition. Otherwise, your audience might think you relish the idea of them burning for all eternity.
Of course, there are people who fall into the opposite extreme of thinking that Hell should never be mentioned. They much prefer the opening words of 2 Thessalonians 1:
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.
A gospel of grace and peace sure sounds nice to an audience that wants no personal responsibility and all the warm-fuzzies and platitudes of meaningless faith. We all want to be the kind of people that the saints brag about. Grace and peace to us from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ--these things make us grow abundantly and increase in love for one another.
We should celebrate this grace and peace...but not at the expense of real warnings about the coming judgment. We should warn people about the perils of damnation that await those who have not received Jesus as their Lord. But not at the expense of grace and peace.
The Good News isn't good news without the bad news. But the bad news is only bad news unless you also give people the Good News.
We need to remember that the same author (penned by Paul, but inspired by God) who said "grace and peace" also said "eternal destruction." Don't forget that the same author who said "flaming fire, inflicting vengeance" also wished that "Jesus may be glorified in you."
So, let's have a balanced message of the Gospel. I suggest a little Gracefire and Peacestone preaching, because only the whole message can truthfully communicate God's full plan.