Playing with fire?
It is hard not to notice the Bell-shaped brouhaha brewing on the other side of the Atlantic (see Taylor, DeYoung and Johnson) and probably intending to blow east at some point. In terms of accessible Biblical resources for thinking through the issues of heaven and hell and the false teachings of universalism and annihilationism, I could not recommend a better beginning than Ted Donnelly’s Heaven and Hell (Banner of Truth, buy at Westminster Bookstore/Amazon.co.uk/Amazon.com): it really is outstanding as a clear and straightforward introduction to the realities, issues and applications.
But this is not about Bell or the brouhaha, though prompted by it. While I was unwell over the last few days, one of the things I read was From Death Into Life by William Haslam, an autobiographical volume of a 19th century High Churchman who came under powerful conviction of sin and was converted in the act of preaching a sermon in which his nascent grasp of evangelical truth was beginning to show.
There is no doubt that Haslam was quirky, and had some interesting notions and practices. Nevertheless, he was a man who came to know and feel the awful weight of a condemnation that could be escaped only through fleeing in faith to Jesus. It is was in the context of the building storm about the eternal destiny of souls that I read this powerful passage in which Haslam has an interview with a man who believes the truth about the absolute necessity of true conversion but is not prepared to state it plainly:
“Well,” he said, “but think of all the good men you condemn if you take that position so absolutely.”
Seeing that I hesitated, he went on to say that he “knew many very good men, in and out of the Church of England, who did not think much of conversion, or believe in the necessity of it.”
“I am very sorry for them,” I replied; “but I cannot go back from the position into which, I thank God, He has brought me. It is burned into me that, except a man is converted, he will and must be lost for ever.”
“Come, come, my young friend,” he said, shifting his chair, and then sitting down to another onslaught, “do you mean to say that a man will go to hell if he is not converted, as you call it?”
“Yes, I do; and I am quite sure that if I had died in an unconverted state I should have gone there; and this compels me to believe, also, that what the Scripture says about it is true for every one.”
“But what does the Scripture say?” he interposed. “It says that ‘he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed’ (John 3:18); and in another place, he that believeth not shall be damned’ (Mark 16:16). As surely as the believer is saved and goes to heaven, as surely the unbeliever is lost and must go to hell.”
“Do you mean Gehenna, the place of torment?”
“Yes, I do.”
“This is very dreadful.”
“More dreadful still.” I said, “must be the solemn reality; and therefore, instead of shrinking from the thought and putting it off, I rather let it stir and rouse me to warn unbelievers, so that I may, by any means, stop them on their dangerous path. I think this is the only true and faithful way of showing kindness; and that, on the other hand, it is the most selfish, heartless, and cruel unkindness to let sinners, whether they are religious, moral, reformed, or otherwise, to go on in an unconverted state, and perish.”
“I do not know; I do not wish to know anything about it. I suppose material fire, like every other material thing, is but a shadow of something real. Is it not a fire which shall burn the soul – a fire that never will be quenched – where the worm will never die?”
“Do you really believe all this?”
“Yes,” I said, “and I have reason to do so.” I remembered the anguish of soul I passed through when I was under conviction, and the terrible distress I felt for others whom I had misled.
“When our blessed Lord was speaking to the Jews, and warning them against their unbelief and its fearful consequences, He did not allow any ‘charitable hopes’ to hinder Him from speaking the whole truth. He told them of Lazarus, who died, and went to Paradise, or Abraham’s bosom; and of Dives, who died, and went to Hell, the place of torment” (Luke 16).
“But,” he said, interrupting me, “that is only a parable, or figure of speech.”
“Figure of speech!” I repeated. “Is it a figure of speech that the rich man fared sumptuously, that he died, that he was buried? Is not that literal? Why, then, is it a figure of speech that he lifted up his eyes in torment, and said, ‘I am tormented in this flame’(Luke 16:24). My dear friend, be sure that there is an awful reality in that story – a most solemn reality in the fact of the impassable gulf. If here we do not believe in this gulf, we shall have to know of it hereafter. I never saw and felt,” I continued, “as I do now, that every man is lost, even while on earth, until he is saved, and that if he dies in that unsaved state he will be lost for ever.”
My unknown visitor remained silent for a little time, and I could see that he was in tears. At last he burst out and said, “I am sure you are right. I came to try you upon the three great “R’s” – ‘Ruin,’ ‘Redemption,’ and ‘Regeneration,’ and to see if you really meant what you preached. Now I feel more confirmed in the truth and reality of the Scriptures.”
I thought I had been contending with an unbeliever all along, but instead of this I found that he was a man who scarcely ventured to think out what he believed to its ultimate result – he believed God’s Word, but, like too many, alas! held it loosely.
William Haslam, From Death Into Life (London: Morgan and Scott, n.d.), 74-77.
Holding loosely the Word of God with regard to ruin, redemption and regeneration will cut the nerve of true gospel endeavour. It will remove our urgency, enervate our efforts, and dilute our message. If there is no hell, then there is no need for men to be saved, and the death of Jesus was a monstrous waste. Whoever believes otherwise, and however many ‘good men’ may seem to be condemned, we must cling to and proclaim – with tears – God’s glorious and terrible truths concerning eternity, and concerning the Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (1Thes 1.10), if we are to be faithful both to the Lord whose people we are and to the lost whose souls we seek.
Let us believe God’s Word and hold it fast. No one can afford to play with this fire.