Hot Theology

by Dan Kimball

Clocking in at 55 minutes, I nearly broke my personal record for the longest sermon I’ve ever preached. It was “Hell.”

In our series called “Hot Theology,” the topics were determined from surveys of the congregation. The most common question: “Would a loving God send people to hell?” That’s hard to cover in 35 minutes.

 The subject of hell and judgment is all over the New Testament. Still, we don’t hear much about hell today, at least not from the church. We tend to cover other subjects repeatedly, but ignore one that Jesus talks about all the time. There are some exceptions, but the preachers yelling “turn or burn” on street corners are rare.

There is an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine’s boyfriend, Puddy, becomes a Christian. He starts listening to Christian music and begins badgering Elaine about going to hell. At one point he asks her to steal the neighbor’s newspaper for him because she’s “the one going to hell, so [she] might as well steal it.” Elaine explodes, starts whacking him with the newspaper, and screams, “If I am going to hell, you should care that I’m going to hell!”

I think Elaine has the right perspective. We cannot approach the subject of hell merely as a doctrine and ignore the human impact. Teaching on hell is not for the sake of knowing Christian trivia or to satisfy theological curiosity. If we believe in hell, and if we believe people created in God’s image will either experience eternity in communion with him or apart from him, then we should be communicating the gospel, both the good news and the bad news.

Of course, this calls for balance. Christians have often been guilty of making hell the primary motivation for salvation. I believe this is an alteration of the holistic gospel found in 1 Corinthians 15. But if we completely ignore the reality of hell and judgment, we are forced to make one of Jesus’ frequent teachings little more than an obscure metaphor.

Because of the church’s tendency to be unbalanced about hell, and because of our cultural assumptions about the afterlife, I began my sermon by having the congregation read aloud every single New Testament passage about hell. The exercise took several minutes but it got people participating and thinking. We compared these passages with popular portrayals of hell—from The Far Side cartoons to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”—to see how we’ve had our beliefs shaped by pop culture, the red devil with horns and a pitchfork, and all that.

Then we looked at concepts of the afterlife from other cultures and religions. Christians aren’t the only ones who believe in a “hell.” Despite our culture’s growing discomfort with eternal judgment, we shouldn’t be embarrassed by a belief that’s been almost universally held throughout history and still is today.

I led the congregation through a study of the words translated “hell” in English: Jesus described Gehenna, the garbage dump outside Jerusalem where bodies were thrown, where worms ate flesh, and where fires continually burned.

Finally, we returned to Elaine on Seinfeld and what matters most—the mission.

As Charles Spurgeon said, “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our bodies. If they will perish, let them perish with our arms around their knees. Let no one go there unwarned and unprayed for.”

Dan Kimball is the pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California.

Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Winter 2008, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, Page 102
http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2008/001/2.102.html

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by biblicalfoundations on March 25, 2008 at 9:22 am

    Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate your preaching of hell. I really do. As someone who has stood on the street corner and proclaimed, as you put it, “turn or burn”, I know it is uncommon for anyone to preach hell. Yet, you really didn’t preach on hell. You preached on the church believing in hell. There is a difference. Preaching on hell requires direct application. Did anyone in your congregation relate their eternity to hell? Was your discourse strictly Biblical? No? By your own admission you danced with Seinfeld, comics, AC/DC, halloween costumes, culture, and other religions. My point is this, why did you take 55 minutes to dance with themes that have very little to do with the Bible? All you did was give some lame excuse for believing in hell! You said, “Despite our culture’s growing discomfort with eternal judgment, we shouldn’t be embarrassed by a belief that’s been almost universally held throughout history and still is today.” We shouldn’t be embarrassed because it is taught by the Son of God. Who cares what other religions and cultures believe? I don’t have to test culture’s tendencies before I proclaim the Bible. Period.

    Reply

  2. Thanks for you comment. I agree with what you’re saying, but I also think that the writer of the article was trying to point out the bigger problem here – of the lack of focus on hell in the church in general, while he notes that it was something that Jesus did speak about with some frequency.

    People shouldn’t be embarrassed, but they are – and pointing out that Jesus was the one to speak on these things first should cause people to ponder their own words and speak the truth.

    As for the author’s dilemma, what do you think a good course of action is for a preacher who realizes they have not been preaching like Jesus in their church?

    Reply

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