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"The evangelistic consequences of Evangelicalism's aversion to the doctrine of eternal punishment"

I want you to turn with me in your Bibles to 1 Corinthians chapter 9 please, 1 Corinthians chapter 9 - just one verse - 1 Corinthians 9 verse 16. The Apostle Paul, of course, is speaking, and he writes: "For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!". Then over to 2 Corinthians chapter 5 verse 11, again Paul - to the same group of Christians in Corinth - says: "Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences". Then down to verse 14, the last verse we will read: "For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead".

I believe that evangelicalism in general today has an aversion to the doctrine of eternal punishment...

Let us bow in a moment's prayer please: Father, we have been deeply challenged tonight - what Tanya shared with us, and her baring her heart to us of the burden that she has for children and adults who are lost; and Lord, for this great work of Every Home Crusade, and what Samuel brought to us, again we see on such a large scale what You are doing in the lives of Your people to enable them to provide the Word of God for lost sinners right across the globe. Lord, we thank You for this, we have already sensed in a very real way Your presence - and, O God, as we come now to Your word, O Lord may that two-edged sword take a dealing with all our hearts tonight, preacher included. How much we need You, Lord; how much we need for a real sense of the divine presence with us now. O Lord, we need to be moved, we need to be challenged, we need to be revived - and so we ask: Lord, come, meet with us now. In the Saviour's name we pray, Amen.

I've taken for my title tonight 'When Hell Freezes Over'. I believe that evangelicalism in general today has an aversion to the doctrine of eternal punishment, and because of that the fallout has been evangelistic consequences: a lack of evangelism in local churches, and a lack of missionary vision that will take the gospel to the four corners of the earth. I think, today, being Evangelical is not the same as being evangelistic. I don't know whether you've considered that or not, but there is a difference between being Evangelical in doctrine - that is, you espouse the fundamentals of the faith, and you can tick the boxes over what you believe - and actually, in a practical sense, being evangelistic.

Let me illustrate it to you like this: often we go to funerals from time to time, and someone in any given church might say to you: 'Well, the man here, he's Evangelical' - but when he gets up to preach, especially in a funeral situation, you realise: well, he might be Evangelical, but he's not being evangelistic. As he preaches the message, he is not seeking to win souls. I heard someone describe themselves recently as 'an evangelical atheist' - that's true! They saw themselves within the Evangelical camp in Christianity, but they had come to the position of being an atheist. Now I know that seems ridiculous, but that's what they claimed - and it does seem to be today that you can be Evangelical, in broad terms, but almost believe anything.

The fallout has been evangelistic consequences: a lack of evangelism in local churches, and a lack of missionary vision that will take the gospel to the four corners of the earth...

Steve Chalke is a gentleman many of you may not know, but he came to fame for being a sort of celebrity Christian who appeared on breakfast television, sometimes daytime television I think - but he's also a Christian writer in magazines. In recent days he published a book, 'The Lost Message of Jesus', in which he cast doubt on the Evangelical doctrine of penal substitution - that is that our Lord Jesus Christ, when He died on the cross, was in our place, that He was our substitute and He bore the wrath of God for us and exhausted it there, and because of that we are saved. Indeed he says in that book, he infers that the doctrine of penal substitution is 'a form of cosmic child abuse, a vengeful Father punishing His Son for an offence He has not even committed' - staggering, isn't it? A person like Steve Chalke can class themselves 'an Evangelical', and yet not believe that our Lord Jesus, when He died on the cross, was taking our judgement, the wrath of God for our sins.

Now hell is no exception to this rule. For many in Evangelicalism, hell has frozen over. Now it should be no surprise to us that unbelievers no longer believe in hell, indeed some social commentator has said that 'hell ceased to exist somewhere after the 1960's' - and it doesn't take you long to work out why that was, the great excesses that were taking place around that time, various social and sexual revolutions, and people didn't want to be responsible any more to a just and holy God for the behaviour that was marking their lives. But it appears that within the church of Jesus Christ now, hell is freezing over.

Now this is manifest in doctrinal terms through the doctrine of annihilationism - now don't be afraid of that word, it simply means: the belief that lost people who have not believed the gospel, trusted in Christ, when they die are incinerated into non-existence - they cease to be. A variant of that belief of annihilationism is called 'conditional immortality', it's a little bit different: it just believes that when you are born as a soul, you're not immortal but you have to get immortality through belief in the gospel - and the gift of God is eternal life, and so you live forever. So people who never trust in Christ just die and cease to be, and people who believe the gospel, well, they go to heaven and live forever. Now whichever particular favour - whether it's annihilationism or conditional immortality - you espouse, both of those beliefs are a denial of eternal punishment, the eternal conscious punishment of lost souls.

I have a great regard for the writings of John Stott - some of his commentaries are, it has to be said, second to none - but he was one of the first major evangelical figures to comment on this issue, whether or not hell is eternal. It was in 1988 in his book 'Essentials', which was a liberal evangelical dialogue with a liberal Christian, David Edwards, it was in that book that he cast doubt on whether or not hell was eternal torment. In 1993 he said that he had held that view for around 50 years or so, though he had only made it public in 1988. Stott wrote these words: 'Well, emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it', the concept, 'without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain'. Now I can sympathise with what he says there. Stott, however, supports annihilationism, and yet he cautions - again I quote - 'I do not dogmatise about the position to which I have come. I hold it tentatively...I believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment'. He believes we should consider this possibility.

Whatever is propagated in the halls of our universities, it's not long until it becomes the conviction of the common man on the street - and for that matter, that applies to the church...

F. F. Bruce is another name who would be known to some of you, he was in what has become known as the Brethren movement, and he was a Professor of New Testament in Manchester University. He wrote a letter to John Stott in 1989, he wrote these words: 'Annihilation is certainly an acceptable interpretation of the relevant New Testament passages. For myself, I remain agnostic', that means he doesn't know, 'eternal conscious torment is incompatible with the revealed character of God'. I'll repeat that, he says: 'eternal conscious torment is incompatible with the revealed character of God'.

The British Evangelical Alliance produced an 'acute report', they called it, and they stated within that that this doctrine, annihilationism, is - again I quote - 'a significant minority evangelical view that has grown within Evangelicalism in recent years'. The Church Of England's Doctrine Commission reported in February 1995 that 'hell is not eternal torment'. The report entitled 'The Mystery of Salvation' states, again I quote, 'Christians have professed appalling theologies which made God into a sadistic monster. Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely, that the only end is total non-being'.

Someone said many years ago that whatever is propagated in the halls of our universities, it's not long until it becomes the conviction of the common man on the street - and for that matter, that applies to the church. When American church historian Martin Marty, who was a professor at a University of Chicago Divinity School, was at Harvard University he was preparing for a lecture on the subject of hell. He consulted the various indexes, scholarly journals dating back over a period of 100 years to 1889, and he failed to find one single entry on the subject of hell - and his conclusion was this: hell disappeared, and no one noticed. Someone has said that the 19th-century tried to conceal the facts of life, but the 20th century has attempted to conceal the facts of death.

Now, whether you are a theologian who consciously believes that hell is not eternal torment, or whether you are a Christian who unconsciously is what we could call 'a practical atheist' regarding hell - that is, you espouse to the doctrine as it is found in the Bible, but deep down in your heart you don't want to believe it - I have to give you my conviction tonight. I have come to the conclusion that most Christians today don't really believe that people who have not believed the gospel are lost, and going to hell for ever. I don't care what creed you claim to be your confession, in your heart of hearts, in my heart of hearts the real question is: do we believe that the alternative to believing in the gospel is hell? Now the answer to that question will have a profound effect on our evangelism - it will!

Charles Peace was a gentleman who was condemned to death row in the United States. As is the practice there, the clergyman led a condemned man to his execution. He would, as he was going, read the Prayer Book liturgy, and as he was reciting it word for word he mentioned 'hell'. Charles Peace tapped him on the shoulder and said: 'Sir, do you mind me asking a question? Do you believe what you're reading?'. He said: 'Of course I believe what I'm reading'. He said: 'If I believed what you believe, I would crawl on my hands and knees to the four corners of the world across broken glass to warn people of such an eternity'. He was right, wasn't he?

It is true that the easiest thing in the world to do is to deny its reality, it makes us feel better to deny hell - as it does, incidentally, for us to deny the existence of death...

John Stott said: 'Well, emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings', many have done that, tried to block out the reality of hell - and maybe the intoxicating influences of materialism and affluence in our society, the pleasure craze that is all around us, has numbed us to the reality of eternities truths. There's very few cracking under the strain, that's for sure - but is there an alternative, between cauterising your feelings and cracking under the strain? Yes, there is, and that is taking the gospel! That is meant to be the outlet of the heart that is broken over an eternity of lost souls in hell.

So I want to bring two things to you this evening. The first is: we must rediscover the truth of hell, we must. Dick Dowsett was a gentleman who wrote a book several years ago entitled 'God, That's Not Fair!'. It was done in a certain format, as a correspondence between he, the author, and a young man who was a Christian, professedly, but was starting to doubt whether or not people who didn't believe the gospel would be lost forever. In that book he makes this statement: 'When people in the Old Testament times said that they could not conceive of a God who would do this or that, the prophetic reply was Isaiah 55 verse 8, God says 'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD'. In other words', Dowsett says, 'human hunches do not give us right answers about God, neither can we learn how God would behave by looking at the way that nice people do things'. It's true, isn't it? 'Judge not the Lord by feeble sense', yet we do it. If we're all honest, and we're all human - and I trust we are - we do have a natural recoil of emotions when we think of this great eternity of lostness that will exist for those without Christ. It is true that the easiest thing in the world to do is to deny its reality, it makes us feel better to deny hell - as it does, incidentally, for us to deny the existence of death, to ignore it, to joke about it. Yet it is real, and it is true.

Now of course we must go back to basics. Much of the agony of the prophets of the Old Testament, the apostles of the New Testament, was the lostness, the utter lostness of so many people. The Lord Jesus Christ, we must take His words seriously, 'Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal'. Do you know that there is more material in the gospel writings about hell than anywhere else in the whole of the Scriptures? The Lord Jesus Christ, it's from His lips that much, the majority of that material comes from. We've got to face what our Lord Jesus - gentle Jesus, meek and mild - said about unbelievers and God.

There are approximately 1870 verses recording the words of our Lord Jesus - 13% of those are about judgement and hell. One of the great New Testament pictures that our Lord gives us of this awful eternal place is that of Gehenna. It originally was a place of pagan sacrifice - then good King Josiah sacrificed the pagan priests on it, made it the rubbish dump, the refuse dump of the city of Jerusalem - it became a flaming pit of refuse and decay. The Lord Jesus takes that figure and speaks on hell, a rubbish tip. Our Lord Jesus used that term 'Gehenna' 11 times out of the 12 times that it is found in the New Testament. He said of that place that in that environment 'their' - sinners - 'worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched'. 'Their worm' speaks of the gnawing torment internally, and the fire is speaking of the torment externally - it never dies, it is eternal, perpetual!

Surely God's opinion means something? God in human flesh has taught us that there will not be few in hell but many. 'O, I believe the Sermon on the Mount, that's my Christianity', in that sermon our Lord said: 'Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity'.

We must allow the rediscovery of the truth of hell to motivate us again to worldwide evangelisation. Nothing short of that will do...

What of the cross, if there is no hell? What was it all about? The cross is the great evidence of hell, for there in three hours - whatever an eternity for every sinner means, an eternity in hell - it was compressed into three hours of darkness and laid upon Christ at Calvary. Maybe that's why people like Steve Chalke are trying to remove the curse from Calvary, because if we remove the curse we remove the consequences of our sin, we remove hell - and I think this is the great problem here: a total and utter misunderstanding of God's wrath! God's wrath is a perfect thing, for everything about God is perfect. It is an aspect to His attribute of perfect justice. Even if it does last an eternity, and the Bible teaches it does, it is not in contradiction to His perfect universe of subjection and harmony with His will. God's justice must be vented, and yet at the same time His love is completely intact.

We must rediscover the truth of hell. It was C.H. Spurgeon over a century ago who told his fellow preachers: 'Shun all views of future punishment that would make it appear less terrible'. J. C. Ryle, the great Bishop of Liverpool, said: 'Beware of new and strange doctrines about hell and the eternity of punishment. Beware of manufacturing a God of your own - a God who is all love, but not holy - a God who has a heaven for everybody, but a hell for none - a God who can show good and bad to be side for side in time, but will make no distinction between good and bad in eternity. Such a God is an idol of your own - as true an idol as was ever moulded out of brass or clay. Beware of forming fanciful theories of your own, and then trying to make the Bible square with them. Beware of making selections from the Bible to suit your taste - refusing like a spoiled child whatever you think is bitter, and seizing whatever you think is sweet. What is all this but taking Jehoiakim's penknife and cutting God's Word to pieces? What does it amount to but telling God that you, a poor, short-lived worm, know what is good for the human being, better than He does? This will not do'.

So what are we to do with hell then? Believe it, yes, but more - and this is my second point - we must allow the rediscovery of the truth of hell to motivate us again to worldwide evangelisation. Nothing short of that will do. Paul expressed it in his own words, 1 Corinthians 9:16, our first verse that we read: 'Though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe', that is a curse expression, 'let me be cursed, if I preach not the gospel'. 'Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord', I know the context is a little different, but it is an application - knowing the reverence that we should hold the Lord in - 'we persuade men'. The love of Christ constrains us, we've got a message of hope! Salvation from hell! A Saviour who died on the cross! That is what drives us to win lost souls and save some from the fire.

We would think it unforgiveable, wouldn't we, if Paul ignored the great commission that Christ gave him, if he didn't say: 'Woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel'. Yet what of our commission? We're given the same. Not all can go, of course, but we've all to do something, haven't we? John Wesley spoke of his willingness to travel anywhere to present the gospel to people who were lost, and in March 1748 he wrote these words: 'In plain terms, wherever I see one or a thousand men running into hell, be it in England, Ireland, or France, yea, in Europe, Asia, Africa, or America, I will stop them if I can: as a minister of Christ, I will beseech them, in his name, to turn back, and be reconciled to God. Were I to do otherwise, were I to let any soul drop into the pit, whom I might have saved from everlasting burnings, I am not satisfied that God would accept my plea, 'Lord, he was not of my parish''. Hudson Taylor, when he was 18, wrote to his younger sister and said: 'I have a stronger desire than ever to go to China. That land is ever in my thoughts. Think of it - three hundred and sixty million souls, without God without hope in the world, dying without any of the consolations of the Gospel'.

The old urgency that people should hear the gospel and find eternal life has been replaced by other things, hasn't it?

People say: 'How could a God of love send people to hell? It's not fair!'. Well, is it fair that we have the gospel, and do not go with it? Do we treat the world fairly, give them the equal opportunity to come to Christ? Paul says: 'How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?'. The old urgency that people should hear the gospel and find eternal life has been replaced by other things, hasn't it? In the church at large - and I know you're a bit of an exception here - political freedom is more important, feeding the hungry is more important, healing the sick is more important.

I always try to encourage people to read Christian biographies - Hudson Taylor is a good place to start. In his missionary endeavour in China one of his young converts was a young man called Nee Yung Fa. He was a Ningbo cotton dealer, and he was converted under Hudson's preaching. He was also a leader in a reformed Buddhist sect - now this was a sect that didn't go in for idolatry at all, but they were searching for truth and for the real true and living God. At the end of one of Hudson Taylor's sermons, Nee Yung Fa stood up in his place and turned to address the audience and said: 'I have long searched for the truth as my father did before me. I have travelled far but I haven't found it. I found no rest in Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, but I do find rest in what I have heard tonight. From now on I will believe in Jesus'. Nee Yung Fa took Hudson Taylor back to his group of Buddhist believers, and he addressed that group and told his own testimony. Then another individual there was converted, and both of them were baptised. The other member of the group asked Hudson Taylor: 'How long has the gospel been known in England?'. How long has the gospel been known in England? 'For several hundred years', he replied with a great tone of embarrassment. 'What!', exclaimed Nee, 'What? Several hundred years, and you have only come to preach to us now? My father sought after the truth for more than 20 years and died not finding it! Why didn't you come sooner?'.

I was a pastor for nine years in the Iron Hall, Templemore Avenue, Belfast. Do you know that there are something around nine evangelical churches - that's why it's called 'Temple-more'! - on or off the Avenue. Yet there are countries in this world who don't have one missionary to bring them the name of the Lord Jesus. Has hell frozen over for many evangelical Christians in Ulster? I think it has - even if, openly and consciously, they would never confess that they don't believe in it any more; unconsciously and secretly, practically, they have ceased to be evangelistic - even if they call themselves, ourselves, evangelicals.

Can I finish tonight by quoting an account by Amy Carmichael? She was a missionary to India, and one night in a village in India she wrote these words. Listen carefully: "I could not go asleep. So I lay awake and looked; and I saw, as it seemed, this: that I stood on a grassy sward and at my feet a precipice broke sheer down into infinite space. Back I drew, dizzy at the depth. Then I saw people moving single file along the grass. They were making for the edge. There was a woman with a baby in her arms and another little child holding onto her dress. She was on the very verge. Then I saw that she was blind. She lifted her foot for the next step - it trod air. Oh, the cry as they went over!

Even if, openly and consciously, they would never confess that they don't believe in it any more; unconsciously and secretly, practically, they have ceased to be evangelistic...

"Then I saw more streams of people from all parts. They were blind, stone-blind; all made straight for the precipice edge. There were shrieks as they suddenly knew themselves falling, and a tossing up of helpless arms, clutching at empty air. Then I saw that along the edge there were sentries set at intervals. But the intervals were far too great; they were wide, there were unguarded gaps between. And over these gaps the people fell in their blindness, quite unwarned, and the gulf yawned like the mouth of hell.

"Then I saw, like a little picture of peace, a group of people under some trees, with their back to the gulf. They were making daisy-chains. There was another group. It was made up of people whose great desire was to get more sentries; but they found that very few wanted to go. Once a girl stood alone in her place, waving the people back; but her mother and other relatives called, and reminded her that her furlough was due. Being tired and needing a change she had to go and rest for a while; but no one was sent to guard her gap, and over and over the people fell, like a waterfall of souls.

"Once a child caught a tuft of grass that grew on the very brink of the gulf; it clung convulsively and it called, but nobody seemed to hear. Then the roots of grass gave way, and with a cry the child went over. And the girl who longed to be back in the gap thought she heard the little one cry and she sprang up and wanted to go, at which they reproved her; and then sang a hymn. Then through the hymn the pain of a million broken hearts rung out in one full drop, one sob. It was the Cry of Blood".

Charles Wesley said:

'I want an even strong desire,
I want a calmly fervent zeal,
To save poor souls out of the fire,
To snatch them from the verge of hell,
And turn them to a pardoning God,
And quench the brands in Jesus' blood'.

Don't miss part 2 of Evangelicalism's Evangelical Emergency: “Tiny Tears

Transcribed by:
Preach The Word.
October 2008

This sermon was delivered at The Lifeboat Mission in Moy, Northern Ireland, by David Legge. It was transcribed from the first recording in his 'Evangelicalism's Evangelical Emergency' series, entitled "When Hell Freezes Over" - Transcribed by Preach The Word.

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