So called “hellfire” preaching on the part of hysterical misanthropists on street corners may be callous and open to ridicule but their bad behaviour should not cause the church to shy away from giving adequate warning about the judgment to come. Such a task is a combination of duty and compassion, for where we see danger we must sound the alarm. There is no delight in declaring the reality of hell for the impenitent and A.A. Hodge opines that no minister of the gospel can even mention hell without tears and heaviness of heart. The call to avoidance is the motivation for treating of this subject, the kind of warning we would issue to anyone wherever danger lurks. The sensitivity to a person’s possible destiny causes us to pray and persuade, to look into a pair of eyes and at the same time plead to God for their welfare. Wisdom in witness is imperative. Loveless-ness, lack of concern, and evidence of a “head hunting” technique, dehumanizes and repels. Approaches must not be fabricated or overbearing, or hastened to complete a pre-set programme of outreach. We are not propagandists seeking recruits for kudos, but those who are respectful to others, relying on God for tact and the ability to present the Saviour with winsomeness. Our necessary urgency rests in the sovereign timing of God and the effectiveness of his wonder working word in the soul. Panic does not rule out the patience with which we strive with God for the salvation of others. They must come to authentic conversion and not hasty, coerced, and fading emotional response. Nobody rules out sudden conversion, but “targets” can detect when there is no real interest, or investment of ongoing time, in them. Campaigning can be so formulaic and impersonal. You cannot script a genuine human encounter that involves as much hard listening to a unique individual as prepared speech to “a sinner”. We are all equally needy and helpless, and can only identify with a soul deprived of the present favour and friendship of God. All evangelism must be evacuated of any arrogance. We dare not speak of Christ unless he upholds us. His holiness must be maintained and we are not naturally equipped to maintain it.
The salvation and judgment of which we are obliged to speak proceeds from his holiness and must be announced with holiness. It is of God’s holiness that we are naturally ignorant and that ignorance causes us to trivialize the gospel of salvation and cheapen grace. Our dim, if non-existent, apprehension of holiness disqualifies us from thinking about hell correctly. We are not dealing with a God who dotes over us and indulges our immorality, nor are we dealing with a God who is peevish and arbitrarily punitive. God is reliably merciful and just in his nature, but wise and sovereign in the exercise of these attributes. His desire to save and his determination that righteousness should prevail both emerge form his goodness. His inclination is to be compassionate to the needy and his resolve is to remove the harmfulness and ugliness of evil. Salvation is God’s goodness towards men. Judgment is the goodness that purifies the universe of the defilement and destructiveness that pervade it. The spheres in which his mercy and justice surely operate are intimated in Holy Scripture and all are warned and invited to move from the zone of danger to the place of safety. Holiness chooses to show kindness on the one hand and hatred of sin on the other. Repentance flees from wrath and wickedness remains exposed to it. Holiness is moved to love and holiness must remove evil. The love is free and the wrath is deserved. The withdrawal of judgment is mercy and the grace of God is a gift. Every decision and deed of God is holy, whether the donation of salvation or the wages of disobedience.
The holiness of God is symbolized in Holy Scripture by fire. “The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: ‘Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?’ ” Isaiah 33:14). The holiness of God is inherent, eternal, unchanging. Just as he is pure, so his holiness is purificatory. The fire of God (Spirit baptism, Luke 3:16) that descends upon and fills the saints cleanses them for consecration to his fellowship and service. The fire of God (fury) towards the impenitent wicked isolates them from his favour in every sense and burns against them, inflaming an unpacified conscience, igniting a sense of hopelessness, and consuming them with a sense of wasted existence and lost opportunities. The opposers of God (rebels) have nothing but hatred for the Lord in their hearts. As they do not desire him, but despise him, heaven would be no pleasure for them. In their intransigence they cast themselves into the flames, for hell was made for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Their voluntary bondage to him necessitates the same fate. All evil will be purged, and those who perpetrate it. Holiness purifies the people of God for proximity to him. Holiness with the heat of divine indignation drives the stubborn sinner away into abandonment. Wrath is for those who do not wish to be reconciled to God the Father through his Son who took away the sins of believers in the furnace of his suffering on the cross. Hell is the reasonable and inevitable result for those who stand against God and could not tolerate his nearness. And God, who cannot tolerate unrighteousness, must endorse their stand and expel them. The consequences of the sinner’s preference and the divine purity necessitate eternal alienation. It is imperative that we call on God’s mercy and heed the advice of J.A. Motyer: “The only way to flee from God is to flee to him” (The Prophecy of Isaiah page 235, IVP, 1993).