Q: In your book, you describe an unexpected confrontation with the idea of Hell. What happened, and how did it change your view?
A: I was in the habit of going to a monastery roughly once a month for a spiritual retreat. On one such retreat I sensed that something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. For the better part of the day, I locked myself into a cold, cement-block room and asked God to show me the source of my consternation. By noon I felt like I was starting to make a connection with God, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened next, when I felt God’s Spirit impress upon my heart, “Brian, this charade has to end. You’re a pastor and your job is to teach people the Bible, but you don’t believe in hell.”
I was startled, so I picked up my Bible and did something I had discouraged people in my church from doing—I played what I call “Bible Roulette.” In his book Formula for a Burning Heart, A. W. Tozer said, “An honest man with an open Bible and a pad and pencil is sure to find out what is wrong with him very quickly.” I can attest to the truth of that statement.
I closed my eyes, wildly fanned the pages back and forth, and randomly pointed to passages and read them. The first passage was about eternal punishment. I looked up at the ceiling and said, “That’s a coincidence.” The second passage was about God’s wrath. This time I felt a little uneasy. Then I did it a third time and couldn’t believe my eyes—eternal punishment again. I’m not usually the most mystical person in the world, but I slowly closed the pages of my Bible, put it down on the table next to me, and said, “I get the message.”
I spent the next five hours reading and underlining every passage about hell in the New Testament, and as I did, I felt an overwhelming sense of conviction. What I discovered shocked me. I had always assumed that the Bible contained only a few scattered references to hell. I was wrong; hell is taught everywhere.
As the weight of it all finally set in, I dropped to my knees, and fell prostrate on the unfinished concrete monastery floor. I buried my face in the silence and wept.
Q: What are some of the objections you had to the concept of Hell? Why did you feel it was best to hide these objections from others?
A: My objections to the idea of hell, included the fact that the punishment of enduring torture for all eternity didn’t seem to fit the crime—it didn’t seem fair. In fact, it seemed to me to be hateful and absurd. Who would propose such a punishment on anyone for anything done in this life?
Another objection came from good friends of mine who weren’t Christians. The vast majority of people on this planet think that believing anyone would go to hell—except for people like Hitler who commit heinous crimes against humanity—is simply arrogant, insensitive, ignorant, and hateful.
Finally, truth be told, the need to be liked was a real factor in my personal struggle. I hated the fact that I could have friendships with people, but if I stayed true to my Christian beliefs, I felt like I had to spend all my time and energy trying to convert them. I wanted to embrace them, cherish their uniqueness, understand their beliefs, and celebrate our diverse cultural and religious upbringings. Hell was an affront to all of this. I didn’t want to be thought of as the nutty, intolerant guy who was always trying to get people to admit that they were sinners in need of a Savior.
The combined weight of the attacks by my professors and the sheer immorality of the idea itself finally broke the theological dam open for me. Over time I simply gave up on the idea, proudly. The problem was that believing the Bible is God’s Word is, well, up near the top of any pastor’s job description, at least in an evangelical church. I needed a job, so I came up with what seemed like a simple solution: I would never tell anyone about my disbelief. In fact, I carried my secret around for four years after graduate school without ever telling anyone, not the people who went to my church, not the staff with whom I worked, not my friends, not even my wife. The secret was so well hidden that sometimes I was able to forget about it.
Q: Describe what it means to have “apocalyptic urgency.” How can Christians develop such a thing?
A: The heart of my book Hell Is Real is about this one simple idea of apocalyptic urgency. Apocalyptic urgency is the all-consuming conviction that overtakes you when you realize that hell is real, and that it is within your power to help people avoid going there.
Apocalypse is a word usually reserved to describe the cataclysmic events associated with the end of the world. In my mind, Christians focus on the wrong apocalypse. The only “apocalypse” that we can really understand and change in any way is the apocalypse awaiting every unsaved individual when he or she dies. The last time I checked, the death rate for the average person was still near 100 percent. If that rate holds up, you and I can be sure that every non-Christian we lock eyes with will experience his or her own personal apocalypse.
Urgency comes as a result of what we believe about the end of human life. Hebrews 9:27 tells us, “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” The Bible teaches that when people die, their eternal destiny is determined by the choice either to accept Christ as the payment for their sins, or to reject Him. Knowing this, and knowing that people within our sphere of influence need us to give them this information, creates an alarming sense of urgency.
Practically speaking, if everyone goes to heaven, why bother with Jesus at all? Why attend church? Why serve? Why tithe? Why share our faith with others? None of this makes any sense. Why would we do anything beyond that which makes us feel good? If there is no hell, then giving less than our best to our faith makes perfect sense.
But if hell is real, it changes everything. I’m convinced that if we were to truly believe in hell, there would be no cost too high, no sacrifice too great, no pain too unbearable to keep us from doing everything in our power to convince people of this reality and show them the way out. To live any other way would be unthinkable. It would be beyond immoral. It would be heinous.
Q: Is the Bible really full of passages about Hell, or is that just something preachers say to try and scare people?
A: The Bible is full of passages about hell. Take the book of Matthew, for instance, just one book among twenty-seven in the entire New Testament. Here is what we learn about hell from that book alone:
Twelve separate passages record Jesus’ teachings about the judgment of nonbelievers and their assignment to eternal punishment. Matthew 13:49–50 summarizes them all: “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Jesus employed the most graphic language to describe what hell is like: fire (Matt. 5:22; 18:9); eternal fire (18:8); destruction (7:13); away from his presence (7:23); thrown outside (8:12; 22:13; 25:30); blazing furnace (13:42); darkness (22:13; 25:30); eternal punishment (25:46); weeping and gnashing of teeth (8:12; 13:42; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51).
Moving from the Gospels into the rest of the New Testament, I am always struck by the lack of hesitancy or apology in their words. The basic tone is, “This is a reality. Now let’s get out there and tell people how to avoid it.” Second Thessalonians 1:7–9 summarizes what the other New Testament authors taught:
“This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 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.”
I discovered that the New Testament’s teaching about hell is not an ambiguous topic supported by a few hard-to-understand passages. It is inescapable: Virtually every book in the New Testament underscores some aspect of the reality of hell. Jesus taught it; Paul, Peter, and every early church leader taught it.
Q: In your opinion, what is the number one reason that the modern church has been so strangely silent on the issue of Hell?
A: I think the church has been silent for some of the reasons I listed above—primarily, that we like to be liked—and telling others about hell is difficult!
In addition to that it can be confusing, especially when everywhere we turn, noted Christian scholars and leaders confirm our inner struggles with hell. For instance, evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock wrote in “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent”,
“I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine.... How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God.”
Statements like this used to make sense to me. Before my experience, just knowing that highly educated people like Pinnock and others thought this way, gave me more confidence that it might be okay to veer away from my traditional Christian beliefs if I chose to do so. If they veered from clear biblical teachings, why couldn’t I?