In my recent post admiring and recommending Ralph Martin’s book The Urgency of the New Evangelization: Answering the Call I mentioned that universalism was a cancer eating away at the church and reminding readers that the Scriptures are clear that hell is a reality and it is likely to be highly populated.
Some objections came up in the combox to the effect that to preach hell will drive people away and assuming that to preach about hell was to always be calling other people to repent of their sins (rather than oneself) and assuming that the preaching about hell must necessarily be of the raging and ranting Bible thumping style of preaching.
Not so. Ralph Martin gives great advice on how to speak about hell effectively. The key point he brings out is to look to Jesus who wept with compassion over the impending doom of the Jews. Any preaching about hell has to be from the perspective of the compassionate and concerned friend or family member who sees a much loved person making the wrong choice and heading for destruction.
Of course one can preach about hell in a judgmental, harsh and self righteous way. I am not advocating that, but I am making the point that the gospel without the reality of hell is a false gospel, and we are just as wrong to preach a gospel without hell as a cancer doctor would be by telling a person he can see is very sick with cancer that there is nothing wrong and they should just take a few aspirin and take more rest.
Instead preaching the reality of hell is done within a full context of living and speaking the whole gospel. Most importantly, one speaks about hell with love and joy in one’s heart and lived out in one’s life. The person whose heart is filled with love can say anything and it will be a word of love. A person who is filled with self righteousness and hatred will speak even seemingly kindly words with hatred.
Here’s a faith story to make my point: a correspondent told me some time ago that she speaks about hell very clearly to people. She was working with a homeless fellow who was also a drunkard and a lapsed Catholic. She was helping him with his physical needs but she also said, “Jimmy, you’re living in sin. You haven’t been to Mass or confession in years. Your problems are huge, but your staying away from God is not helping. What if you were to die tonight? You’re in a state of mortal sin brother! You’d go to hell. Don’t you know that? Why don’t you come with me and we’ll go find Father Bob and he’ll hear your confession and get you right with God.”
She said the man looked at her in a shocked way, then thought about what she’d said and agreed to go to the priest.
This is a prime example of what I mean about speaking from the heart and the life of love. She was already involved helping that man and caring for him. Her exhortation about hell was simply part of her greater concern for his good.
This is how we speak about hell. With gentleness and love, with clarity and charity.
Speak about hell? Yes, but don’t Yell.