the shape of leadership

Preaching Hell

Your message and approach can make an eternal difference.

George P Wood on April 26, 2017


Preaching hell is a difficult but necessary component of pastoral ministry. Difficult because hell is terrible to contemplate, and many people doubt or disbelieve it entirely. Necessary because hell names the alternative that God saves people from.

To preach hell well, you must consider the following.

Preaching Aims
Three of preaching’s most important aims are informing the mind, inspiring the heart and inviting a response. These aims require accurate biblical exegesis, artful sermon presentation and an authentic call for repentance. Sermons on hell should give each aim due attention, for they work in tandem to address the whole person: intelligence, emotion and action.

Audience Context
Given your aims, you should contextualize your sermon for a specific audience, tailoring your presentation to things such as the age, education, background, belief, emotional state and spiritual condition of audience members.

For example, according to Pew Research Center, if America had 100 people, 55 would believe in heaven and hell, 17 would believe in heaven but not hell, three would believe in hell but not heaven, and 25 would believe in neither.

When preaching hell to Pew’s 25 Americans who don’t believe in the afterlife, show them that the biblical doctrine of the afterlife is reasonable. People cannot choose an option they don’t believe exists, after all.

Among Christians, there is widespread agreement that hell is real, but lively debates about its purpose.

When preaching hell to Pew’s 17 Americans who believe in heaven but not hell, convince them that hell is real and therefore should be avoided. Alternatively, when preaching to Pew’s three Americans who believe in hell but not heaven, convince them that eternal life is possible and invite them to take hold of it.

Even with Pew’s 55 Americans who believe in both heaven and hell, consider which preaching aim is paramount. Are you preaching for an intelligent explanation and defense of hell? A creative presentation that overcomes hearers’ emotional barriers and moves them to consider eternity anew? A compelling altar call that draws people to repentance and faith right now?

Whatever the case, know your audience and contextualize accordingly.

Biblical Aspects
The Bible talks about the concept of hell even when it does not use the word hell (Greek, geenna). For example, it discusses hell in terms of God’s attitude about and action against sin using the concepts of wrath and judgment (e.g., Romans 2:5). It uses three images to describe what happens in hell: punishment, destruction and banishment (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 1:9). And it uses the term eternal to describe the duration of hell, contrasting “eternal punishment” with “eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). You need to know the wide range of terms regarding the concept of hell to develop a systematic, biblical understanding of the doctrine.

Contemporary Arguments
Finally, to preach hell well, you need to know the debates about hell that occur in both the Church and the broader society.

Among Christians, there is widespread agreement that hell is real, but lively debates about its purpose (retributive or rehabilitative) and duration (eternal or temporal). Three views have emerged: traditionalist, annihilationist, universalist. Traditionalists believe that it is retributive and eternal, annihilationists that it is retributive and temporal, and universalists that it is rehabilitative and temporal. See chart below.

                                                Hell’s Purpose                                 Hell’s Duration
Traditionalist                    Retributive                                       Eternal
Annihilationist                 Retributive                                       Temporal
Universalist                       Rehabilitative                                 Temporal

Christians also debate whether images of hell — especially images of “fire” — are literal or metaphorical.

Assemblies of God ministers affirm the traditional view as the biblical one.

Finally, you need to understand skeptical questions about hell that circulate in the broader society and affect the debates within the Church. These questions center on the reality of the afterlife and the justice of God in punishing sinners eternally.

In a skeptical age, preaching hell requires a pastoral ministry that is contextually appropriate, biblically grounded and apologetically sensitive.

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