In our postmodern culture that plays by the tolerance rules of modern times, we have been taught to be “nice” and to pursue happiness at all costs. After all, if we can’t say anything nice, we shouldn’t say anything at all. For the majority of people within our urbane culture, hell is the sort of topic that is not discussed in the local coffee shop nor is it the center of attention in most Sunday sermons. Let’s face it—hell is not relevant to a sophisticated culture. But, why has hell become irrelevant?
Our Culture Loves Itself To Death
It is not excuse that our culture is filled with self-love. We enjoy making much of our amusements and entertainment is almost viewed as a basic human right in our culture. We have trivia shows, all sorts of game shows, and even shows that spotlight other people’s funny videos designed to keep us laughing. Neil Postman, in his classic work, Amusing Ourselves To Death, observes the following:
Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us . . . But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter? 
Just fifty years ago, funeral directors anticipated lengthy mourning periods for family gatherings at the funeral home. Today, the typical funeral is over from start to finish within a couple of hours. Historically speaking, after the death of a loved one, families would mourn for days or weeks, but today’s culture is quick to acknowledge the death—but families are quick to jump right back into the typical fast-paced ruts of life immediately afterwards. Nothing can stop entertainment—not even death!
Within a culture of entertainment, not very much is going to be said about hell. In fact, even when people die who weren’t religious and didn’t have a life committed to Christ—it’s common to hear their close friends and family reassuring everyone that their loved one is in a better place now. Heaven is real, but hell has been relegated to a mythological land fit for the story books. The culture that loves entertainment hates hell and such a culture supports the idea of universalism—where everyone dies and goes to the great Disney World in the sky. For that reason, hell has become irrelevant within our entertainment saturated culture.
Preachers Fear Man
The trap of many ministers is the fear of man. We live in an age of success where pastors have been relegated to the position of campaign manager or evangelical fundraiser for the success of ministries and expansion projects for the church campus. Therefore, sermons filled with the intense heat of a literal hell don’t exactly fit the profile of a man who is looking to raise funds for ministry incentives. Ministers who approach the pulpit with that mindset will likely avoid sequential expository preaching which would force them to deal with the doctrine of hell. For that reason, hell is irrelevant in most local church ministries.
When most ministers are hired by a congregation, they’re often asked something about a vision for their church. The expectation is that the minister will lead the church to golden years of growth and success, so for a minister to say anything in the pulpit that doesn’t make people happy or that may lead prospective members out the door dissatisfied is often avoided like the plague. Just a quick consideration of the Bible’s language on hell is not exactly fitting with the typical sermon series on happiness.
Consider the terms used in Scripture to describe the place of hell:
- Matthew 5:22 – “hell fire”
- Matthew 8:12 – “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- Matthew 22:13 – “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- Luke 13:28 – “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- Mark 9:44-48 – Three times the Bible mentions “worm dies not” and “fire is not quenched.”
- Mark 9:47 – “hell fire”
- Revelation 20:14 – “lake of fire”
Beyond specific references to hell, the Bible likewise uses other references in a more indirect manner to describe the judgment of God upon sinners. Such references include:
- Pit (2 Pet. 2:4).
- Falling into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31).
- Second death (Rev. 20:14).
- Blackness and darkness forever (Jude 13).
The great question for preachers to consider is whether they fear man or God? Will the minister of the Word actually minister the Word to the congregation—including the whole counsel of God’s Word? Joel Beeke observes:
Modern pastors who do not preach on hell may fear the consequences of preaching on such an offensive topic on a Sunday morning. Vocal critics might fault a minister for being too negative. Visitors shopping for a church might find the topic a colossal turn-off. Regardless, God has called us to declare “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) concerning the way of salvation. 
The greatest example for modern preachers is none other than Jesus Christ in his earthly ministry. He declared more about hell than he did about heaven, and yet who among us holds the position that he wasn’t filled with love for the people? The pastor who loves the people will indeed warn the people of a real hell and point them to a real Savior—Christ the Lord.
One-Dimensional View of God
A common mistake when thinking of God is to manufacture a god of your own imagination and call it “God” when in reality your idea of God is not in line with his self-revelation in Holy Scripture. This is the way culture seeks to define God. Sadly, it’s the way many Sunday school classes and Sunday sermons define God as well.
It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about the God of the Old Testament in radical contrast to the God of the New Testament. It was a famous skeptic in history, Bertrand Russell, who wrote in his book Why I’m Not a Christian that Jesus’s teaching on hell is “the one profound defect in Christ’s character.” The one-dimensional view of God is one that tragically separates the love of God from the wrath of God or even views God’s wrath as a defect. We must not forget that Jesus not only preached on hell, but Jesus created hell. In like manner, Jesus was not absent and disconnected when hell was raining down from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah.
Hell is irrelevant to a people who focus merely upon the “God of love” and see him as the New Testament meek and mild God of acceptance. Not only is that a gross misrepresentation of God, it’s a tragic neglect of God’s character to suggest that we must separate hell from the God who is love. In fact, God loves his holiness so much that he created hell. The love of God for sinners is demonstrated in a hellish assault upon his own Son on the cross in order to satisfy the holy demands of the law and to pay for our sin (Rom. 5:8; 8:1-4; 1 Peter 2:24; Is. 53:10).
Our religion becomes irrelevant as we seek to make hell irrelevant. Such an attempt undermines the gravity of our sin and the holiness of God.
- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, (New York: Penguin, 2006), 156.
- Joel Beeke, Encouragement for Today’s Pastors: Help from the Puritans, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013), 176
Dr. Josh Buice is pastor of PRAY’S MILL BAPTIST CHURCH in suburban Atlanta.