If you listen to Back to the Bible with regularity, you will know that I have begun a one week series on hell. I commend it to you, because, in my experience, hell is one of the great neglected doctrines in our world today. Furthermore, those doctrines which are neglected in one generation are greatly misunderstood as time goes by, and then by the time it gets to the next generation, it is disbelieved.
Not having had an extended teaching on hell, a great many Christians might object. Well, what of it, if hell is disbelieved? It doesn’t seem, at least in their minds, to be in any way connected with the essentials of the Christian faith. Since the doctrine of hell has been maligned in their hearing, and since they have heard no reasonable defense of the doctrine, they are happy to leave the doctrine to fade away into some relic of past principles once believed in. Perhaps, in their mind, hell becomes a museum piece, but certainly not vital, not essential, not an indispensable part of their faith.
But, truth be told, it is not just the doctrine of hell that is being neglected. The doctrine of the wrath of God is also widely neglected. That is fascinating since almost every book in the Bible mentions the wrath of God. Furthermore, after Paul gives an extensive introduction, he begins the subject matter of the book of Romans (a primer on the basics of the Christian message) with a treatment on the wrath of God.
Once hell and the wrath of God are neglected, so also is the doctrine of the cross. As many of you are aware, the fight against the doctrine of the “penal substitutionary atonement” is fully engaged. After all, with no hell and no wrath-filled God, the idea that Jesus would suffer the wrath of God on our behalf, seems shocking to them and speaks of something other than the love of God.
I recently had a conversation with a young Indian pastor. I was in Hyderabad, and he was ferrying three of us from Back to the Bible to our various destinations. We had hardly settled into the car when he asked me a question: Did I believe in the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ? I said that I did, but I also wanted to know why he was asking. He told me the matter had become a very relevant conversation among some Christian groups in India. I then asked him that if Christ did not bear the wrath of our sins on the cross, what then shall be done for the righteous wrath of the Father?
This is the issue. All theology, as J.I. Packer once said, is like a seamless garment. We begin to pull at a string – and soon are finding that we are unwinding great parts of the garment. So it is with the doctrine of hell. Once we deny hell, the very nature of God and of the salvation He offers, then our motivation to reach the lost will be irrevocably altered, so that it does not look like the historic Christian faith.