Hellfire and brimstone?

Hellfire and brimstone?

When was the last time you heard a sermon where the preacher warned you of the dangers of hell? That God is angry with sin, ‘furious’ is a better way of putting it, and would one day bring such terrible judgement that we can hardly imagine it? I would guess that in many Christian circles, this kind of thing is not mentioned at all.

Last Sunday I started preaching through Nahum, and this small prophetic book is full of God’s anger at sin. The fact that Nineveh’s sin, particularly its oppression of the people of God, made God furious and their judgement sure, is the key message Nahum had to deliver. And in our modern world, it is a hard message to take.

The stereotype of the pulpit-thumping shouting preacher speaking of hellfire and brimstone seems so, well, centuries ago. And yes, it was more common centuries ago than today. Jonathan Edwards famously preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” on July 8, 1741, describing God’s coming judgement in great detail. Those listening, people who certainly did not have a reputation for responding well to gospel preaching, fell over each other in terror, crying out for mercy from God. They were rightly terrified of God’s anger and looked for relief. There was no “be a better you” message preached that day.

Theologically, it is critically important that we understand that God is angry at sin and that without the work of Jesus we would face eternal punishment. We need to understand why we need saving. It makes no sense to be so grateful for being saved from something that is not really that bad. When Jesus died on the cross, God’s anger was poured out on him instead of on those who trust in him. That remarkable grace meant instead of facing the terrible judgement of God, Christians can look forward to eternal glory in God’s blessing.

Some might say that this whole idea of an angry God is just an Old Testament thing, and in the New Testament, God is loving and not angry at all. That concept simply doesn’t work. Yes, God does punish sin quite graphically in the Old Testament, such as Sodom and Gomorrah, the exile, and the flood. But the concept of hell is found most often on the lips of Jesus himself in his earthly ministry. Paul can speak of all people being “objects of wrath” in Ephesians 2, and Peter can spend significant time warning people of God’s coming judgement. The Bible is consistent here: God hates sin. God will punish sin. God is just and cannot ignore it. The only way to avoid the rightful punishment of God is to trust in Jesus who took God’s judgement in our place.

In modern times, just like in ancient times, this is a tough idea to take. Judging someone else is the ultimate sin in our culture. Being intolerant of diverse viewpoints and lifestyles is a terrible thought crime. But if God is real, and as the King, he gets to set the standards and expectations for his world, that is not a subjective thing. All of us will fall short and rightly deserve judgement. We’re not naturally OK with God.

We need to sing songs that express our repentance and need for Jesus, and there are far less of them than there are praise songs. We do need to hear of God’s anger at sin and be reminded not to take sin lightly. These truths are everywhere in Scripture.

God’s anger and judgement must be proclaimed as part of the gospel message. We need to know we are lost before we can be found. We need to know the danger we are in before we look for refuge. The good news is that refuge can still be found in Jesus. Hell is real, but we can trust the One who can save us from it.