When I hear the phrase “hell-fire preaching,” an image comes to mind of a man preaching in a tent sometime in the 1920s. Frenetically waving his arms in the air, the preacher shouts and exhorts his listeners to “turn or burn.” This sort of image gives the impression that preaching on hell was a cultural fad of that time.
However, in Matthew 10:28 we read: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” This warning comes from the first century, not the twentieth. It did not come from a man preaching in a tent in the American countryside. Jesus spoke these words.
Jesus often warned His followers to prepare themselves for an eternal judgment that would consign each person either to heaven or to hell. This teaching is found in many of our Lord’s parables. (Such as the parables of the unrighteous steward; the pounds; the talents; the wheat and the tares; the evil servant; the marriage of the King’s Son, and the ten virgins.) This warning pervades the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
Jesus repeatedly and clearly taught an eternal division of humanity either into eternal blessing or into eternal torment. In the succinct words of Matthew 25:46, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The reality of God sending people to eternal punishment was an essential part of what Jesus taught precisely because the reality of hell is essential to understand Jesus as Savior. For Jesus to be the Savior He has to save us from something. Moreover, that from which Jesus has saved us is eternal damnation. Our salvation in Christ is so wonderful precisely because the alternative is so terrible. If we do not really believe in hell, we cannot really believe in Jesus as Savior.
Jesus also repeatedly used the warning of damnation to encourage right behavior. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29, ESV).
If the church is going to be faithful to the Master, we must also be willing to follow His lead in teaching the truth about Hell.
Much contemporary religion with its feel-good approach has abandoned teaching about the eternal damnation of the unconverted. Religion of this sort teaches a hollow gospel in which God’s grace and God’s love are robbed of true power. God’s grace and love are so profound because our need is so great. Authentically presenting the grace of God necessitates bringing people to fear.
Faithful Christians, themselves, must fear God. Not a fearful expectation of an eternity in hell, but a fearful realization of what would come were we not in Christ. Without such fear, there can be no appreciation for God’s love and grace given in Christ.
There are things we are not to fear. Jesus commands us to fear God alone. Having the proper fear of God delivers us from all other fear. While it is true that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), authentic Christian love only comes through the experience of God’s love is saving us from Hell. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10, ESV).
Understanding the truth of God’s judgment is essential to the presentation of the gospel. As the apostle Paul states, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Corinthians 5:11, ESV). As John Newton wrote,
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appeared
the hour I first believed.
Without fear there can be no real knowledge of the gospel of salvation, but with the teaching of God’s truth people not only learn appropriate fear, they also find the ultimate solution to all fear in the love of God.