George Carlin is in Hell right now, or Jesus is a liar.
Kinda blunt, huh? But we need to be blunt. Analysis released today by Pew Research reveals that 60% of Southern Baptists responded affirmatively to the statement "Many religions can lead to eternal life." (HT: New York Times) We're in trouble, and our only hope for a Great Commission Resurgence is a continued shoring up of the theological foundations of our convention.
We don't like the thought that George Carlin is in Hell right now. We don't like the way it makes us sound to say it. We don't like the way it makes us feel to contemplate it. We don't like the way it makes God feel that we did so little about it, now that it is too late.
So, we skirt the reality of damnation. When faced with the funeral of that wandering soul, we grade on a pretty easy curve. Who knows but that he trusted Christ in his final moments? Maybe that walking-of-the-aisle when he was nine, although it produced no visible impact upon his life for the following seventy years, was genuine. Let us not face the ugly likelihood that he will suffer for all eternity. Or we make some too-little-too-late overture to pray for him now that he's gone.
Such speculations seem benign enough at the moment—even noble when they relieve the grief of believing family members left behind. But I wonder whether we have considered the cost of our too-often de facto hem-hawing on the fate of the deceased lost?
We undermine a powerful biblical motivation for receiving the gospel. Part of what was going through my mind when I became a Christian was the love for God that had been cultivated in me since birth. But another part of what was going on was the fact that I did not want to roast in Hell for all of eternity. I'm convinced that the Holy Spirit still uses fear of Hell to motivate people to come to Christ.
We undermine a powerful biblical motivation for sharing the gospel.I'm convinced that not wanting my colleagues, my friends, or my family members to go to Hell—Wait a minute! I don't even want people whom I DISLIKE to go to Hell—is a powerful motivation for evangelism. I'd say that a 60% embrace of universalism might be a noteworthy factor in our lessened faithfulness to witness as Southern Baptists.
Two uncertainties about that figure in the Pew Research data: One, I wonder whether, when speaking of "many religions," any of those Southern Baptists were thinking about Methodists rather than Muslims? In my mind, there's a difference between a "religion" and a "denomination." Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, etc., are "religions." The SBC, UMC, PCA, PCUSA, ABC, etc., are "denominations" of the "religion" Christianity. But did all of these respondents have that differentiation in mind? Second, how many people "self-identify" as Southern Baptists who haven't darkened the door of a church in ten years? Nevertheless, those potential statistical problems are very unlikely to account for 60% of Southern Baptists surveyed.
We contribute to a doctrinal confusion among our people. The people in our pews might interpret our timidity in speaking frankly about people bound for Hell as courtesy, but they are likely further to infer a lack of confidence in the doctrine of eternal judgment. Jesus spoke plainly and directly about Hell, and we should do no less. And if we are not confident in Hell, why aren't we?
The Bible is not equivocal on the existence of Hell nor on what it takes to wind up there. Even if somebody somewhere wants to host an ongoing debate about the fate of some noble savage on an unreached island somewhere, how much doubt can there be regarding a comedian who made his career by sneering at God and ridiculing God's followers? Does the Bible breathe a word of hope anywhere for a person who persists in such an attitude until death? Not that I can find.
We squirm at the doctrine of damnation for one reason, and only one: We don't like that doctrine very much. And if the message that we send to our brothers and sisters in our congregations is that we can skirt around the Bible doctrines that we don't like, then they're going to take that message and run with it in a thousand different directions. Indeed, there is every indication that a great many of them already are doing so.
The solution is not to go out of our way to tell grieving loved-ones of the torments of Hell. But I perceive a number of temptations that I must avoid having to do with this topic:
- When directly asked whether someone is in Heaven or Hell, I need to give a clear, unflinching testimony to the gospel without minimizing the fact that denying the gospel means eternity in Hell. I think it is fine to indicate that God will judge, and not me, but I need to make clear also that God has already revealed to all humanity the precise parameters by which He intends to make that judgment.
- When preaching I need to make certain not to minimize the biblical witness to Hell. If I'm going to talk about the gospel, the escape from Hell provided thereby is an integral part of the gospel, and I ought to be talking regularly about Hell, too.
- I need to show people pointedly and repeatedly that every other "religion" leads straight to Hell for each and every one of its adherents.
- Because the effort that I mentioned in my last bullet will not be 100% effective, we need to continue our work to recover regenerate church membership. I suspect with great sadness that the vast number of those 60% who believe that many "religions" lead to eternal life are people who have not yet found eternal life themselves. After all, unless some sort of polling confusion has broken out here, these are people who have just affirmed the "other gospel" of universalism—a damnable heresy. If we cannot, after serious effort to do so, convince them of the truth of the gospel, we ought at least to clarify for them that those who believe thus are not Southern Baptists…for the sake of combatting their own confusion as well as for the sake of clarifying the public witness of the church.
- In my speaking about Hell, I need to achieve an admixture of the tone of Billy Sunday ("You will not be in Hell five minutes until you believe that there is one.") and the caution of Lee Scarborough ("When we preach on the wrath of God, on the burning doctrines of an eternal Hell, we must do it with heart compassion").