Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Politeness and hell

Here's a sharp and pointy statement from Charles Spurgeon about politeness and hell, two subjects that I've been thinking about lately:

Men are perishing, and if it be unpolite to tell them so, it can only be so where the devil is the master of the ceremonies.

Out upon your soul-destroying politeness; the Lord give us a little honest love to souls, and this superficial gentility will soon vanish. I could with considerable refreshment to myself pour sarcasm after sarcasm upon religious cowardice. I would cheerfully sharpen my knife and dash it into the heart of this mean vice. There is nothing to be said in its favor.

It is not even humble; it is only pride of too beggarly a sort to own itself.

Well said, brother Spurgeon. The quote is from the Pyromaniacs blog, who in turn got it from an article titled "The War-Horse," published in the May 1866 issue of The Sword and the Trowel.

Too often both the content of our speaking and the manner of our speaking are conditioned by what people would like to hear, or what we believe they should hear on the basis of our personal observation; rather than what they need to hear based on what the Bible reveals.

The ideas of hell and judgement are the ones that are particularly likely to suffer when we forget to return to the Bible to shape and form the content of what we say.

Similarly, when we move away from Scripture's example, the manner in which we teach will invariably tend in the direction of a sort of florid blandness. Plain speaking always gets us into trouble, yet that's exactly what the Bible pushes us towards.


Michael K said...

I don't think the issue is politeness or plain speaking.
I think the issue is whether the bible actually teaches hell as a place of eternal conscious torment of unbelievers. That would have been a pretty standard belief of evangelicals not that long ago. I think most evangelicals who believe that will preach it.
The problem is that growing numbers of evangelicals don't believe that. Conditional immoratlity, annhialationism, agnosticism about the nature of the judgement, hopes that universalism may prove true in the end... these are the beliefs whose stocks are rising. Of course, some of the popularity of these beliefs may come from a concern to appeal to people rather than be faithful to the word. But legitimate questions have been raised that need answers founded with conviction on the word.
The solution is not to say who is the most fearless preacher and prepared to paint hell in the most lurid impolite offensive terms. Do that and you go the way of Dante. Instead we've got to go back to the scriptures and ask the content question - what is it that the scriptures actually teach? It could be that evangelicals have got it wrong. Let's be persuaded about what is there and preach the word fearlessly.

Gordon Cheng said...

The solution is not to say who is the most fearless preacher and prepared to paint hell in the most lurid impolite offensive terms.

The opposite of polite is not necessarily impolite! At least in this context. I believe what Spurgeon was getting at was a gentility that borders on, if not falls into, deceptiveness—in which case the opposite of polite is truthful plain talk.

Dante is objectionable not because he's lurid, or impolite, or offensive. He's objectionable because he's making it up as he goes along.

The questions about hell as a place of eternal conscious torment I acknowledge, but I don't really think that they are legitimate on the basis of scriptural evidence, do you? They are given a veneer of legitimacy because they resonate so well with some of our contemporary evangelical anxieties about the way we are perceived.

Gordon Cheng said...

(or at the very least, anxiety about the way our scripturally founded doctrines are perceived)

Honoria said...

Last week, I handed in a doctrine essay on hell and eternal punishment. I wasn't before, but now am fully convinced of its truth, the goodness of God, the judgment of God and the necessity for Christians to proclaim it loudly as God does and not hide it away the warning as Satan would like us to.

"I think most evangelicals who believe that will preach it."

Sadly this is not the case, Michael. During the essay, lots of Bible loving Christians at college told me "I don't like hell and eternal punishment".

When was the last time you heard a sermon on hell?

This afternoon, I went out evangelising to with another student of an evangelical, theological college. We talked to two girls who were quite complacent and even a little mocking of the idea of God. Being convinced of the importance to fairly warn people, I told them about Jesus' second coming, the separation of the sheep and the goats and how our "yes" or "no" to Jesus will be reciprocated.

As I spoke, my partner wince.(Poor thing, it was her first time). When I asked if I had been too hardcore, she said yes. I tried to keep heaven and hell 50/50 (which is less bleak than the Bible, which has much more to say about judgment than heaven). But I guess you'd go away with warnings of hell ringing in your ears.

The girls listening seemed to be disturbed, too. So it'd be great if you could pray for them.

Nausea settled in my stomach for the rest of the afternoon.

The diminution of hell is the heresy of our age. It plays on the our natural longing for universalism.

Hope to blog about hell and the theodicy of God soon.

Michael K said...

We may be at cross purposes - my point is that the problem in our pulpits is one of silence rather than gentility. I think that silence flows from a lack of conviction that the Bible teaches the eternal conscious torment of unbelievers. I'm not sure if that was quite the issue Spurgeon faced.

I think there is more than 'a veneer of legitimacy' involved - we need to seriously teach them, and take seriously and graciously those who put the questions up. The Stott-Edwards dialogue and Carson and others response seems to me a model of that. I wouldn't want to quickly dismiss them - if we do then should our hearers take us seriously?

I think there is more going on than a desire to be liked. Take universalism - clearly wrong on the basis of scripture - but there is an impulse there to see people avoid the wrath of God, to enjoy salvation - it is of course a false hope because it offers salvation without a cross, the kingdom without judgement, a God without wrath.

And your last comment is right - the issue is the scriptural foundation of our doctrine not the contemporary evangelical culture. My point is that if more people believed it then you'd hear it preached more - and with tears.

Gordon Cheng said...

Honoria, I look forward to the blog entry!


We may be at cross purposes - my point is that the problem in our pulpits is one of silence rather than gentility.

Sorry, I did misunderstand you! Yes, silence because of lack of conviction, good point.

I also have to agree that there is more to the problem than just the desire to be liked, and thanks for highlighting those things.

CoastalRev said...

Gordon, I recently had people complain (never to me, of course, but through back-channels, as Christians do!) that I preach hell too much. I'm not sure what measure they use, but it only is preached when it comes up. And we haven't even got to those bits in Matthew yet! But it seems even once is too much, let alone two or three mentions: after all, we're on about giving nice 'inspirations to pass on to all people' (to quote a feedback form from another parishioner). At the same time a new member, a former pentecostal, is amazed that no one has ever warned us about hell before in any church he has been a member of. He has realized the importance of proclaiming what the Bible says on all subjects.

I am rambling, but my point is this: preach hell and people complain. In a small church that hasn't heard such things in the past, you feel the heat of it. But I'd rather feel the heat of it, and maybe lose 4 of my 40 parishioners, than fail to warn them and be accountable to the living God for not warning them. The thing is, we have a gospel of grace to proclaim. But what point is there of proclaiming grace to a people who do not realise they need it? Who do not realise they are facing an eternity in hell?

Honoria: be encouraged to warn. Try not to be too discouraged by those around you.

Gordon: Thanks for raising this topic.

Ian said...

How interesting: I would've thought Hell and 'conscious torment' would've been part of all evangelical belief.

It is part of Orthodox belief. Granted, the wrath and judgement of God may not be as prominent in talks expressed by my evangelical cousins who take on PSA as a belief, but it is there. Almost weekly. However, I find it rather differently expressed to how I recall from my Anglican experiences in Sydney. The Good News was, to me, far too often couched in the terms of wrath, damnation and eternal torment: if you get what I mean. The love of God played a very small part of most sermons: wrath and judgement were the main areas. To me this was cause for concern. Love, at least where I am, seems to get equal time, and for a congregation of Christians, wanting to "continue the good fight", or for visitors who come along [and we get a few], the love of God is, to me, far more needed -- especially at a time in today's society where love and friendship is increasingly hard to find for many in today's busy world.

Anyway, my thoughts. I know there may be disagreement.