The Comprehensive and Eternal Retributive View of Hell: Chapter 5 – Applying the Doctrine of Hell

So Hell exists, what difference does it make in our lives, why does it matter? If Hell is eternal and conscious punishment consisting of the wrath of God poured out on physical and spiritual beings, then what difference does it make in our lives? Looking at the Biblical evidence for the Doctrine of Hell, systemizing it, and defending it provided the Comprehensive and Eternal Retributive view of Hell as the position that most fully encompasses the various strands of the Bible’s teaching on Hell. We cannot simply leave the doctrine here; in holding an abstract piece of doctrine we can know that we have been faithful to Scripture’s teaching on Hell but we fail to bring it into the sphere of our daily lives and be changed by it. We neglect the very reasons why Jesus and the Apostles preached and wrote about Hell in the first place. To finish our investigation we must proceed with our final task; we must engage in the discipline of Practical Theology. Practical Theology attempts to honour the very reason why God placed a teaching in the Bible, why He has revealed a truth to us; in undertaking the task of Practical Theology one seeks to apply an abstract doctrine to the church and the lives of those who will learn about it; it answers the question “so what?” that accompanies theological inquiry. In the case of the Doctrine of Hell we must ask: If Hell is real, if it is eternal, and if it is the outpouring of the wrath of God on those who do not accept His free offer of salvation; how are we to respond, how do our lives change? Understanding the doctrine of Hell has an effect on three distinctive spheres of life; it calls for application in the life of the individual believer, the life of a believer in relation to the unbeliever, and the life of Church—the ministry, teaching, and mission that characterize the local church.

 

Understanding what Scripture teaches about Hell should have a profound effect on the way we live our lives. A clear understanding of the consequences of God’s wrath, of the reckoning of His justice in Hell, brings the beauty of His grace and mercy into focus. Knowing that Hell is the consequence of our sins should give us a profound understanding of what it truly means to be saved by the blood of Jesus. Without an understanding of the terrible consequences of our sins, without knowing what God’s holiness and righteousness demands in relation to the crimes we have committed against Him, we will never fully understand what it means to be saved from the wrath of God. If our hearts don’t truly understand Hell then the Gospel is not so much good news—good news that Jesus Christ came and died so that we can be saved from the wrath of God—as it is simply news.[1]The truth of Hell should drive us deeper into worship; by understanding the awful severity of our God and the lengths He went so as to display His mercy by saving us from His justice that had to be appeased we should be struck with a profound sense of gratitude for His grace. After writing the book Erasing Hell author Francis Chan experienced a new sense of gratitude for Christ’s work on the cross, one Sunday in worship he found himself belting at the top of his lungs the lyrics to a worship song; “TILL ON THAT CROSS AS JESUS DIED, THE WRATH OF GOD WAS SATISFIED!”[2] This is the effect that the terrible truth of Hell should find in our hearts.

An understanding of the Doctrine of Hell should also drive us to holiness. Repeatedly throughout Scripture there is a call for us to be conformed to Christ, to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16); we do not do this in order to earn our salvation, for we are saved by faith and not works (Romans 4:4-5), but with the knowledge of who God is and what He has done for us we should respond to His grace by pursuing obedience to His commands and actively striving for holiness in our lives. The doctrine of Hell is also used by Jesus to teach His followers that they should take sin seriously and be drastic in their battle with sin; in Matt 5:29-30 Jesus is recorded as saying,

29 If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.[3]

This is an important application of the doctrine of Hell; having been saved from Hell by Christ’s sacrifice for our sins and with the knowledge that the consequences of sin is death (James 1:12-18)[4] we should strive for obedience to God by fighting sin in our lives.

The applications of the doctrine of Hell to our lives have the potential for abuse, we need to be careful. When we praise God in light of Hell we are not reveling in the eternal damnation of sinful man, we are praising God for saving us from His terrible wrath. In encouraging the knowledge of Hell as a stimulus for righteousness we need to be careful that we are not pursuing obedience to God out of a legalistic idea that God’s wrath is continually burning against us and that any one mistake will put us over the edge and fix our destiny on Hell. We are not to live in continual fear but to know that Christ has once and for all appeased the wrath of God towards us and taken the penalty of our sins; we are to pursue obedience out of gratitude for God’s grace. It is important to be careful in our application, but we cannot neglect it. Understanding Hell drives us to make important changes to our attitudes towards God and sin in our lives, but its application to our lives cannot stop there; it needs to also drive us to change the way we interact with those around us.

 

The terrifying truth of Hell is that all who do not put their faith in Jesus will not be saved from their sins and will face the indignation of God poured out on them for eternity. This has to change something in us; the doctrine of Hell means that some of those we love may face eternal damnation. The apostles and prophets in Scripture understood the doctrine of Hell and felt its impact in their hearts. Paul had great sorrow and unceasing grief in his heart over those in Israel who rejected Jesus; he could wish that he was accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of his lost brothers (Rom 9:1-4). So much was his heart broken over those of his kinsmen who refused their savior that he wished that he could take their place that they may know Jesus. Jeremiah, when he witnessed and prophesied of God’s temporal judgment on Israel, wept for the slain of his people (Jer. 9:1). He wept over their physical death in this life, how much more would he weep over the eternal fate of his kinsmen? These men were broken over the reality of God’s judgment, both temporal and eternal, and felt the truth that their people would face this judgment. As a result of the doctrine of Hell we should have a burning passion to reach the lost, those who do not yet know Jesus; both our relatives and the strangers we meet on the streets and at work.[5] Jesus has other sheep which are not yet in His fold, they are not in the church, but he will bring them and they will hear his voice (John 10:13-16). He has chosen to use us as His call to His sheep spread throughout every tribe, tongue, and nation in this world. He has given us the mission of going out into all the world and making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:16-20). The truth of Hell should drive this call home and gives us a powerful motivator for reaching the lost in our homes, communities, and in the rest of the world.

The reality of Hell should also give us a sense of urgency in our proclamation of the Gospel. Christ is coming soon and in life we never know when an accident will happen; we need to have a sense of urgency that the choices we make in this life do matter, that the choices of every man affect their eternal destiny. Because of the uncertainty with human life and the truth that Christ could come at any day we need to have a sense of urgency in our proclamation of the Gospel and in our pursuit of evangelism and outreach.

The doctrine of Hell will also have an effect on the hearts of those that we are preaching to, those that do not yet know Jesus Christ. An understanding of Hell and knowledge of the sinfulness of each man should reveal to those who do not yet believe their need for a savior. Hell is terrifying news, but when paired with the knowledge that Jesus Christ died and paid the consequences of our sins the Gospel becomes the greatest news known to man. Their contemplation of the free offer of God’s grace will be accompanied by the urgency that comes with a choice which determines ones eternal fate.[6]

As with the application of Hell to our relationship with God, the application to our relationships with those around us can also be abused, maybe even more so; we need to be careful. In our evangelism we are not to shove the Gospel down the throats of unbelievers in such a way that turns them forever away from God, but we are to be smart and spread the Gospel in a responsible way that shows true concern for the souls of those in our communities. In our realization of the urgency of the doctrine of Hell we are not to force a decision upon an unbeliever. It is important for someone to choose God without delay but it is more harmful to push them into saying a prayer as fire insurance and leave them with the illusion that they are saved when they really have not trusted their life to God and believed in His Son. The use of the doctrine of Hell to convince unbelievers to be saved has been an area where the application of the doctrine of Hell has witnessed the most abuse. The preaching of Hell has sometimes been all about the wrath of God without the true good news of the Gospel; being saved was an offer of fire insurance to keep you from being burned eternally, it was a way of avoiding the mean God upstairs. It is a good thing to preach the entire Bible and this includes Hell, but when we preach Hell we cannot forget to share why Hell makes the Gospel good news; we cannot forget to share the Truth of God’s love and mercy given to mankind through His Son. One of the most maligned sermons on Hell, Jonathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God, illustrates the proper use of the preaching of Hell quite well. Edward’s was preaching to a congregation of nominal Christians, people who sat through church but were not actually saved. He cared for their souls, for their eternal destinies, so he preached the wrath of God in a vivid way to snap them out of apathy, but he ended his sermon with the truth of God’s grace;

And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God. How awful is it to be left behind at such a day! To see so many others feasting, while you are pining and perishing! To see so many rejoicing and singing for joy of heart, while you have cause to mourn for sorrow of heart, and howl for vexation of spirit! How can you rest one moment in such a condition? Are not your soul as precious as the souls of the people at Suffield, where they are flocking from day to day to Christ?[7]

When guarded against abuses the doctrine of Hell has a powerful application to our relationships with those around us and to our own lives. Along with these applications, the doctrine of Hell also has powerful application to the life of the local church.

 

The doctrine of Hell can have a profound application to the mission and teaching of a church as well as the individual lives of those who make up the Church. The application of Hell to the Church is much the same as its application to the life of an individual, just on a corporate level. The great commission is a call to the believers that make up the body of Christ, for them to reach the whole world for the name of Jesus. The way this commission is fulfilled is most often through the direct ministry, or through the support of, the local church. It is a powerful thing for the individuals in a church to be filled with a fiery passion for the lost on account of the eternal destiny that awaits them, but it is more so if the very mission of our churches reflects this as well. The doctrine of the Hell needs to imbue our churches with a passion for the lost in their immediate vicinity and in the farthest ends of the earth. The mission and vision of our churches should reflect this passion; should reflect an unquenchable desire to be the ones who bring the free offer of salvation through Jesus to all.

The life of the church should also reflect the urgency that accompanies knowledge of the doctrine of Hell. Knowing that the Mormon’s down the road, many in the high school a few blocks away, and probably a fair amount of people in the local nightclub do not know Jesus and face eternal damnation if they do not believe should drive us to reach out to these people with urgency. The doctrine of Hell should not leave us content to evangelize the community by propping our church doors open on Sunday and letting the sounds of our worship set permeate the community. The urgency given to us by the understanding that Hell is eternal conscious torment against unbelievers should drive us to reach out those in our communities in every possible way.

Lastly, the doctrine of Hell should affect our worship services. Every sermon on a Sunday morning is not going to be about Hell, nor should they be, but we cannot neglect to teach this doctrine. It is common to avoid teaching from the pulpit the reality of Hell because it hurts, because it is not easy. Many preachers don’t want to offend unbelievers or cause painful memories for those with deceased relatives, so they may avoid the preaching of this doctrine. This is not an acceptable position; the Biblical mandate is to preach the whole Gospel, the whole of Scripture, knowing that it will offend many and that there will be seasons when it is the last thing that the church wants to hear (2 Tim. 4:1-4; 1 Cor. 1:18-25). The truth of Hell needs to be preached in such a way that it points straight to the heart of the Gospel, to Christ’s death and resurrection which saves us from the horrendous consequences of being sinful men and women. The doctrine of Hell should affect the teaching in our churches by actually being taught and used to bring the good news of the Gospel into focus, by showing the immensity of what it means for the Gospel to be good news. The doctrine of Hell should affect the praise in our churches by impressing on the congregation the profound work of Christ in saving them and by giving them a sense of gratitude at the free gift of God’s grace by which they have been saved from the horror of Hell; this will consequently be reflected in the passion and intensity of praise as the congregation pours their gratitude out in praise to their sovereign and merciful God.

As with the application of Hell in the lives of individuals, the application of Hell to the life of the church can be abused. These abuses are much the same as what they would be for the lives of an individual, so they have already been looked at; as with applying the doctrine of Hell to our lives, we need to be careful to guard against these abuses when we apply this doctrine to our church.

 

The doctrine of Hell is a hard doctrine to wrestle with; it hurts us and is not something that we would want to think about. But once we have wrestled with it and come to an understanding of what the Bible teaches about Hell, the doctrine yields rich application to our lives and to the lives of our churches. We cannot simply study this doctrine and leave it is as an abstract principle; the reality of Hell demands application in our lives. Hell is a terrifying reality that should shake us to the core and change the ways we think; we must be changed by the truth that those we love, even those we have never met, face an eternity in Hell if they do not turn to Jesus Christ for salvation. Jesus in the Gospels and the Apostles throughout the NT will not allow us leave Hell as an abstract idea. Their use of this doctrine is evangelistic and motivational; they use it to show the lost their need for a savior and to encourage the saved to reach out to those who do not yet know Christ. If Hell is in the Bible for the reason of causing change in the lives of the original audience that read it, how can we not let it change us?

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[1]John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, Updated & Expanded. (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2013), 134.

[2]Francis Chan, Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity and the Things We Made Up, 1st ed (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2011), 147.

[3] All Scriptures in this chapter are taken from the NASB.

[4] John Owen writes of the application of the danger of Hell to a believer’s mortification of Sin; he argues that God gives many warnings to those who continue in sin and as these warnings against continual sin are given we would do well to heed them. John Owen, On the Mortification of Sin in John Owen, Overcoming Sin & Temptation (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2006), 100–101.

[5]Lewis and Demarest, Integrative Theology, 498.

[6]Erickson, Christian Theology, 1248.

[7]Jonathan Edwards, Sermons of Jonathan Edwards (Peabody, Ma.: Hendrickson Pub., 2005), 412.

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