Greg Garrison writes for The Birmingham News, Birmingham, Alabama. In his article on Friday, August 7, 2009, titled “Heaven? Sure. Hell? Not So Much,” Garrison highlights discussion at a recent annual Beeson Pastors School at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School. He quoted Kurt Selles, director of the School’s Global Center, who led two workshops on the subject “Whatever happened to hell?” Selles asked how many of the pastors had ever preached a sermon on hell. Nobody had, he said.”
The Rev. Fred Johns, pastor of Brookview Wesleyan Church in Irondale, Alabama, said after a workshop discussion of hell”Pastors do shy away from the topic of everlasting damnation…It’s pressure from the culture to not speak anything negative. I think we’ve begun to deny hell. There’s an assumption that everybody’s going to make it to heaven somehow.”
Some interesting statistics included in the Garrison article, reported from a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, indicate that 74% of Americans believe in heaven, while only 59% believe in hell. Even among those who confess to believing in hell, only 4% admit they believe they might spend eternity there.
Garrison again quotes Selles, who says “If you don’t mention God’s judgment, you are missing a big part of the Christian gospel. Without wrath, there’s no grace.” Garrison then mentions how Pope John Paul II stirred up a debate in 1999 by describing hell as “the state of those who freely and definitely separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.” Garrison remarks that the pope’s comments on hell stirred up the ancient debate about whether hell is a real place of burning fire or a state of mind reflecting a dark, cold emptiness and distance from God.
In Mark 9:43-48, Jesus speaks descriptively about Hell. He says, among other things that Hell is “an unquenchable fire” and a place where the worms eating one’s dead body never die.
Hell has never been a popular topic for preaching in mainline churches (Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic). Some people in the mainline chuches believe they do not need to worry about going to hell because they were Baptized; others because they go to Church regularly; many, because they try to be good, perform good deeds or intend to follow the ten commandments.
The Bible teaches that you can be certain to avoid hell IF you have truly accepted Jesus as your personal Savior. The key word here might be the little word “truly”. How can a person know if they have truly accepted Jesus?
Most fundamental religious would say that you are truly saved if you can report a definitive conversion experience, identified by date, time and circumstances. Most mainline Churches tend to emphasize a lifelong spiritual journey that has identifiable bench-marks or epic (sometimes called “aha”) moments along the way. Bench-marks often include but are not limited to baptism, Sunday school participation, church attendance, and participating in the work of the Church. I believe that Jesus tended to put greater emphasis on EVIDENCE that confirmed a spiritually significant and on-going rebirth than upon a single conversion experience.
So what would Jesus consider convincing EVIDENCE that could give a person assurance they were going to spend eternity in heaven rather than hell?
1. The New Testament teaches that there are two major kinds of evidence — inward and outward evidence;
• inward qualities such as those mentioned in Galatians 5 – “love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” In Ephesians Paul comments that he has prayed that “according to the riches of His glory, He may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner person, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…. that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” [Ephesians 3:16-19]
• the outward qualities of behavior emphasize especially behaviors in relation to other people – forgive, help bear their burdens, do not gossip or judge others, seek harmony and unity in all relationships.
2. Jesus and other New Testament writers spoke often of A SURRENDERED WILL as essential evidence of being on a spiritual track that leads to heaven rather than hell.
• Jesus said: “if anyone would be my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their own cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
• Jesus frequently spoke about his own surrendered will
o “I do nothing on my own authority, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 5:30)
o In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed “not my will but thine…” [Mark 14:36]
3. Jesus describes the effective spiritual journey as being
• On a narrow path – Matthew 7:14
• Built by the exercise of TRUST – Matthew 17:20
• Given highest personal priority – Matthew 6:33