I have become increasingly concerned about a very important task facing the church – a challenge which the modern church often fails to meet. The challenge is this:
It cannot be loving for the church to fail to warn people (as gently as possible and in the context of a positive gospel message) that we shall all stand before God as our judge one day.
If we know that people are heading towards disaster we are duty bound to warn them as effectively as we can.
We need to remember that Jesus spoke frequently of judgment as did the Apostles (to Gentiles as well as Jews) – see below.
Our message must always be positive, including when referring to judgment, but judgment must be part of the message, especially today when few even think about it.
In fact, many people rarely think about death, let alone what lies beyond it. A ComRes survey for the National Council for Palliative Care in May 2015 asked “Thinking of death, dying, bereavement, please rank the following in order of how important they are to you to ensure a ‘good death.’ It listed several factors including “Having your spiritual/religious needs met.” It recorded that only 5% of British people put this in first position while 60% placed it last. 72% said that British people “are uncomfortable discussing, death, dying, bereavement.” Yet preparing for death and beyond is one of the most important factors in life. We owe it to the general population to encourage them to think about it.
The problem is that the prospect of judgment is only effective if it may result in eternal separation from God i.e. hell. Yet much of the modern church either doesn’t believe in hell or simply fails to think and teach about it. That surely has to be profoundly irresponsible and deeply unloving because Jesus and the Apostles clearly taught about it.
The failure of the church to include the message of judgment encourages and confirms society in increasingly regarding the faith as irrelevant. They may not listen if we do include it but at least we will have done the loving thing – to draw their attention to it.
I have no interest in “roasting people over hell.” It is counterproductive to warn people harshly – they are likely to conclude that we are unbalanced extremists. It is unhelpful to warn people without the positive message of the Gospel. The message is:
We will all stand before God as our judge one day and Jesus alone has provided a way of avoiding condemnation and being welcomed into the presence of God in heaven.
From the point of view of effectiveness in evangelism:
· The message of judgment (and particularly of hell) must always be surrounded by the truth about God’s love shown in the cross, his forgiveness and the promise of eternal life to those who believe.
· The message of judgment (and particularly of hell) should not be the most prominent aspect.
· The message of judgment (and particularly of hell) must be conveyed with great sensitivity.
We must follow the example of Jesus and the Apostles – see below.
Jesus teaching on judgment and hell
Jesus’ teaching was mainly addressed to the Jewish people who were knowledgeable about the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures and who were at least nominal believers. In the UK we are dealing with a generation who are largely ignorant of Scripture and do not profess faith. It would therefore be inappropriate to address Jesus’ strongest passages about judgment and Hell to them but it is very important to convey the subject as sensitively as possible in the context of the positive message about salvation through Christ. Matthew is generally regarded as writing more for Jewish people and records many of Jesus’ sayings about judgment and hell. Luke is generally regarded as writing more for Gentiles but he also speaks of judgment and Hell, particularly the graphic story of the rich man and Lazarus. In summary:
Jesus’ message is summed up as “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
· He stresses the need of repentance and not only the benefits of coming to faith in him (Mt 4:7; Mk 1:15). He adds that those who don’t repent will “perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
· He warns of behaviour (including anger, judgmentalism) which will make a person subject to judgment and be in danger of hell (Mt 5:20-22, 30; 7:1-2).
· He says “everyone will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every empty word they have spoken” (Mt 12:36-37).
· He warns that those who have done evil and reject him will rise from the dead to be condemned (John 5:29; 12:48-49). He (or it might be John) says that those who don’t believe in him will be condemned and God’s wrath will remain on them (John 3:16-18, 36).
· He warns that many people take the way leading to destruction rather than the narrow way of salvation (Mt 7:13-14). He adds that he will turn away those who do not obey him (Mt 7:21-23 cf Luke 13:23-30).
· He speaks of people who mistakenly assume they will be accepted by God being thrown “into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Mt 8:11-12 cf 10:14-15; 11:20-24; 12:41; Mk 6:11; Lk 10:12-15). He warns religious hypocrites that they will be condemned to hell (Mt 23:33 cf Mt 24:48-51).
· He warns people to be afraid of God who can “destroy body and soul in hell.” (Mt 10:28; Lk 12:4-5). He speaks of the wicked being separated from the righteous on the Day of Judgment and “thrown into the blazing furnace” (Mt 13:30; 40-43; 49-50).
· He tells the story of the rich man who ignored Lazarus and ended up in agony in the fire of Hell (Luke 16:19-31).
· He warns us to take radical action against any cause of temptation such as hand, foot, eye and says it is better to take that radical action than to be thrown into the eternal fire of Hell (Matt 18:7-9; Mark 9:43-48).
· He warns that those who are ashamed of him or who disown him will be disowned by him at the Day of Judgment (Mt 10:32-33; Mk 8:38; Lk 9:26; 12:9-10).
· He uses the metaphor of the sheep who serve him by serving others and the goats who do the opposite and finish up going away to eternal punishment (Matt 25:41-46).
The Preaching of the Apostles on Judgment and Hell
It is important to distinguish between the apostles’ preaching to the Jewish people who were well-informed about the Hebrew Scriptures and their preaching to the Gentiles who were not. The latter is more relevant to the current post-Christian generation in the West. It is clear that the message of God’s judgment is not a secondary issue. It is frequently mentioned throughout the NT. In addition to the accounts in Acts of the apostles preaching to Jews and Gentiles, quite a number of passages addressed to the church refer to the judgment of non-Christians
Preaching to the Jewish people
The apostles in their early preaching made it clear that the Jews had committed the most serious sin of crucifying the Messiah (Acts 2:22-24, 36-38, 40; 3:13-15, 19, 23; 5:27-31; 7:51-53; 13:27-30). So repentance in the light of the wrath of God (which was amply demonstrated in the Old Testament) was a clear strand even if not always explicitly drawn out. Peter’s preaching was a warning cf. “With many other words he warned them” (Acts 2:40). He also said that anyone who does not listen to the Lord over this “will be completely cut off from their people” (Acts 3:23).
Preaching to Gentiles
In his sermon to Cornelius, his relatives and close friends Peter said: “[Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).
Preaching to the Greeks in Athens, Paul said that God “commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:29-31). He also preached to the Roman governor Felix about “the judgment to come” and Felix was afraid (Acts 24:25).
Teaching the Church
In Rom 1:16-32 immediately after Paul says he’s not ashamed of the gospel he goes into a long section about the wrath of God. He is clearly including Gentiles in his thinking because he speaks of general revelation being ignored and of idolatry:
Then in Rom 2:1-16 Paul majors on the Jews, many of whom are disobeying God’s law and are heading for judgment on what he calls “the day of God’s wrath.” On that day “God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.”
He continues throughout Romans to speak of God’s judgment and wrath (Rom 3:5-6; 5:9, 16, 18; 9:1-4, 22-24; 12:19; 13:4; 14:10-12).
Writing to the Corinthians he speaks of ‘fire’ testing the quality of each believer’s work and “If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Cor 3:10-15). He speaks of God’s judgment in 1 Cor 4:3-5; 5:12-13; 11:28-34).
Similarly he warns that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:9-10). He warns that those relying on the works of the law for salvation being under a curse (Gal 3:10 cf 1:6-9) and that those persisting in sin “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19-21 cf 6:7-8; Eph 5:5-7) but will experience the wrath of God (Col 3:5-6 cf 1 Thess 1:9; 2:15-16; 4:3-6.
He describes Jesus as “revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels” and “he will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess 1:5-10).
The writer to the Hebrews asks “how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?” (Heb 2:3 cf 6:4-8). Everyone is “destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb 9:27). He writes of “a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb 10:26-31, 39). “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God … for ‘our God is a consuming fire’” (Heb 10:31; 12:29).
James also speaks of judgment (James 2:12-13; 3:1; 4:12; 5:12) and says “The Judge is standing at the door!” (James 5:9). So does Peter (1 Peter 1:17; 4:3-5, 16-18) also 2 Peter 2:4-13. It speaks of “the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Peter 3:7).
John writes of the Day of Judgment (1 John 4:16-17). So does Jude (Jude 3-16). Then, of course, John who wrote the Book of Revelation speaks of the Day of Judgment (Rev 6:9-10; 14:6-7). He describes that day: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:11-15).
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction