By Lee Webb
Even 30, 40 and 50-years ago years ago, sermons that addressed the consequences of dying apart from Christ were commonly heard.
Most Americans don't believe in Hell. The latest research from Barna Associates shows that only 31 percent of adults see Hell as "a place of physical torment where people may be sent."
Even among Christians, there appears to be some confusion about Hell and who goes there when they die. But why is that? Some say it is because the church has been ominously silent about the subject.
Stroll the streets of America today and you will find that eternal destiny is not a subject most people even want to talk about. And when they do, their thoughts on the matter are quite diverse.
CBN News asked one man, "Do you believe there is a place called Hell?" He replied, "Yes, sir. My belief in Christianity has taught me that."
We asked another man, "Do you believe that all people, when they die, would go to heaven?" After taking a moment to think it over, he said, "Hmmm, good question. Yes."
One woman responded, "I don't know, I think it would have to be something very, very, extremely bad to go to Hell."
Another man said, "Honest belief? This is Hell. We are in Hell now. It has to be better in the next life."
That confusion does not surprise the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he lays the blame squarely on the church. Dr. Paige Patterson said, "You can traverse the entire United States on any given Sunday morning, and you very probably will not hear a sermon on the judgement of God or eternal punishment."
Patterson added, "Evangelicals have voted by the silence of their voices that they either do not believe in [the doctrine of Hell] or else no longer have the courage and conviction to stand and say anything about it."
Author and theologian R.C. Sproul is even more direct. "I think what we face in the church today is a virtual eclipse of the character of God," he said.
The irony is that evangelicals consider one sermon about Godís judgment to be among the greatest evangelistic messages ever preached. It was delivered by Jonathan Edwards in 1741 during the height of the Great Awakening. The title: "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
Edwards proclaimed, "O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: 'tis a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in Hell."
Why don't preachers preach like this today? Sproul said, "I can't think of anything more politically incorrect to preach in 21st century America than the wrath of God, or the justice of God, or the doctrine of Hell."
Even 30, 40 and 50-years ago years ago, sermons that addressed the consequences of dying apart from Christ were commonly heard. But in recent years, many evangelical pastors have bristled at the thought of being labeled a "fire and brimstone" preacher, and turned to a kinder, gentler approach.
"I don't think fear, as a tactic, really moves people toward faith these days. So, tactically, I think there are better ways to interest the uninterested in the claims of Jesus Christ," said Pastor Bill Hybels who is considered to be the leader of the "seeker friendly" church movement.
Hybelsí Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago has drawn thousands over the years and generated hundreds of similar churches. One of them is Spring Branch Community Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The church's website declares that one of the reasons people don't like church is that "pastors make people feel ignorant and guilty."
Spring Branch Pastor Michael Simone said, "How do they make people feel guilty? I think pastors can sometimes do that very inadvertently by saying, 'You don't do this,' or 'You're doing this and this behavior is against everything that is in the Bible.'"
Simone believes the people who come to his church want to know how improve their lives and their marriages. He has even done a sermon called, "Sex and the City." He says preaching a sermon like "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" wouldn't work today, when most Americans seemingly have it all.
"Today, I think the title of that sermon would be, 'I Went on Vacation and Felt Empty Inside,í" Simone said.
Hybels points out that Jesus did not use the same evangelistic approach with everyone he met.
"When He was with the woman at the well, He just started talking about water. He didn't start talking about Hell, He started talking about water. When He was with the rich, young ruler he talked about money. When He was with Nicodemus, he talked about matters of the Law. He always knew how to establish rapport first, and guide them into a discussion that would lead to the unfolding of the truth. We must do the same," Hybels said.
Critics agree, but they add that the discussion at some point must include the truth about the eternal destiny of those who reject the gospel.
Sproul said, "The power of the Gospel is the Word of God. It's not these methods and techniques whereby we hide the Gospel. But there's no need of a Gospel...nobody needs a Gospel if there's no judgement, if there's no law, if God is not a God of judgement. If there's no such thing as Hell, what good is the Gospel? The Gospel tells us that we're saved from the wrath that is to come."
Hybels said, "Are we responsible for teaching the whole message of the Gospel of Christ? Absolutely. Anybody who doesn't, I think the Scriptures are clear, will stand accountable before God someday."
But even Hybels admits the subject of God's divine wrath is not preached from evangelical pulpits like it once was. So how can pastors deliver what is referred to as "the whole counsel of God" without being offensive?
"If you are their pastor, not just their preacher, but their pastor, and they know that you're for them, then it's amazing how many of these hard sayings they're willing to listen to," Sproul said. "I mean, we're not supposed to add offense to the Gospel. But if we try to take out the offense that is already there, then we're offending God, and we're offending Christ, and we're not proclaiming the whole counsel of God."
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