By Greogory Cochran

If asked the question, “Should gospel preachers preach Hell?” most of us would without hesitation answer, “Yes.” Of course we ought to preach Hell; after all, Hell is in the Bible, and we believe the Bible. We preach the Word of God: All of it, book by book, verse by verse. It follows naturally and unassailably, then, that we must preach Hell.

In our personal evangelism, the matter seems even simpler. For many, evangelism is easily summed up in the theological bumper sticker which reads, “Eternity: Smoking or Non-smoking?” Contemporary evangelism focuses on offering eternal life. Perhaps you have even used the very popular little blue tract titled, “Eternal Life.” We tend to understand evangelism in terms of an offer of life and death, punishment and reward, smoking or non-smoking: Heaven or Hell. This being the case, we would, again, spontaneously reply “Yes” to the question of whether our evangelism ought to feature Hell. Just as we could not conceive of preaching life without warning against death, so we could not very well point toward Heaven without also pointing away from Hell. Both biblically and evangelistically, the matter appears decided in favor of preaching Hell in presenting the gospel.

Against such a decision, there are also biblical and evangelistic reasons for restraint in the matter of preaching Hell. For one thing, Hell is not characteristic of Christ’s preaching. Though it is true that Christ taught on Hell more often than any other person in the New Testament, it is also true that His preaching is characterized by, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Christ did not preach, “Repent, or you will burn in Hell.”

In addition to the characteristics of Christ’s preaching, there is also the odd phenomenon in Scripture that the Apostle Paul never mentions Hell. Paul never uses either of the Greek terms which are typically translated Hell in English.1 Some who wish to argue for universalism or annihilationism in the place of the orthodox doctrine of Hell use this fact to establish a kind of “development” within the early church, namely, that Paul quickly moved away from the implications of some of the “eternal torment” talk of Jesus toward what has been called a “kinder, gentler” view of eternal punishment.2 Suffice it to say, I am not embracing their arguments here. Nonetheless, one might expect the great missionary to the gentiles—the one man who planted more churches than any of the early Christians mentioned in the New Testament—to have mentioned Hell in his sermons and letters if it were a significant factor in getting people saved. For whatever reason, he did not.

Beyond these biblical arguments, there are also evangelistic arguments to consider. Pragmatically, is it faithful to either the Spirit of Christ or the Word of Christ for us to attempt to scare the Hell out of unbelievers? Anyone having sat through a 20th century revival service will understand the nature of the question being asked.

Should we tell the oft-repeated story of the young woman who never was saved because she was tragically killed in a car accident on her way home from a revival? Should we tell the VBS kids of the agonies of Hell just before offering them eternal life in Heaven? Should we report to our hearers that their only choices at the end of life are to be lifted up to Heaven’s gates or licked up by Hell’s flames?

To help answer these questions, we turn our attention to the one man—outside of Jesus Christ Himself—who has spoken on the issue of Hell and eternal torment more clearly than any other: Jonathan Edwards. Edwards is an excellent resource for answering such questions not only because he spoke so clearly about Hell, but also because he exemplified a biblical model of preaching and evangelizing during the Great Awakening. If anyone’s method has “worked” in America, it would be Edwards’s. Edwards’s method “worked,” and he spoke clearly about the reality of Hell. Thus, we might conclude that Hell is, in fact, a vital (or at least effective) part of the gospel presentation. Whether that is actually the case I leave open for now; however, what I intend to show by examining the evangelistic preaching of Jonathan Edwards is that Edwards never preached Hell.

Jonathan Edwards and Hell

In light of the vast resources on Hell by Jonathan Edwards, this last statement needs either to be discarded as a ridiculous contradiction or clarified by further analysis. Clearly, Edwards taught much on Hell. Again, outside of Christ, Edwards is probably the prototypical preacher of “Hellfire and Brimstone.” He is well-known for sermons such as, “The Eternity of Hell’s Torments”; “The Justification of God in the Damnation of Sinners”; “The Wicked Useful in Their Destruction Only”; “The Future Punishment of the Wicked”; and, his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Concerning Edwards, the Yale scholar Perry Miller said, “He drove his listeners into paroxysms of terror which became so spectacular a legend as to create the popular image of a monster who did nothing but hail down fire and brimstone.”3 How might it be said of such a preacher that he did not preach Hell? Looking more closely at one of his sermons will make the point plainly, and may, at the same time, point us to a method of evangelizing which includes both Heaven and Hell, only, in their proper places.

As Miller points out, Jonathan Edwards sought in his sermons and writings to produce a “unique combination of consuming passion and flawless restraint.”4 Edwards was able to speak soberly with a calm and lucid style. It was Edwards’s intention “to take special care that the matter be so stated, that it shall be seen, most clearly and distinctly, by everyone, just how much I would prove, and to extricate all questions from the least confusion or ambiguity of words, so that the ideas shall be left naked.”5 Like no other since Christ, Edwards left the idea of Hell naked for the hearer. Little wonder in the 20th century, in which “your-best-life-now” preaching prevails, that men would consider monstrous the kind of horror-inducing truths of Hell declared in Edwards’s preaching.

For our part, we have an instructor worth considering in Jonathan Edwards. What we learn from Edwards is that Hell is not, on its own, sufficient for saving faith. Rather, Hell, rightly understood, is a sub-point to greater, more worthy realities. Hell is a kind of corroborating evidence for the realities of God’s perfection and Man’s captivity to sin. Chris Morgan, in a book derived from his doctoral dissertation, demonstrates that “Edwards especially highlighted his views concerning God and sin in his defense of endless punishment.”6 In other words, Edwards’ preaching (hence ours if he is a sufficient model) focuses on God and Man—not on Hell (or Heaven). Even when speaking of Hell, the point is always God and our relationship to Him.

Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” illustrates the point. This sermon, often cited as a quintessential study in Hellfire preaching, does in fact speak of the horrors of Hell. However, Hell is not the subject of the sermon. True to form, Edwards does not preach Hell. Edwards preaches the reality of God’s holiness and the converse reality of Man’s sinfulness. Notice the doctrinal emphases which drive this great sermon:

  1. There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into Hell at any moment.
  2. Men deserve to be cast into Hell. In fact, Edwards says, “The sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over their heads, and it is nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God’s mere will, that holds it back.”
  3. Men are already under the condemnation of Hell.
  4. Men are “now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell.”
  5. The Devil stands ready to fall upon men for their destruction at any point at which God allows it.
  6. God’s restraining grace is the only thing that prevents hellish desires in man’s sinful heart from being acted upon.
  7. Man is not secure in the fact that he does not presently see any means of his death.
  8. Man is unable to preserve his own life through prudence.
    9. No contrivance of man can prevail to save him from Hell.
    10. God has laid Himself under no burden to prevent any man from being cast into Hell.

In most of these doctrinal emphases, Hell is present, but in none of these doctrinal statements is Hell the featured point. Morgan is right. Edwards preached God’s mercy and Man’s need.

In picture form, Edwards says it this way, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.” The spider, of course, represents Man’s precarious state before Almighty God. This illustration is sometimes misapplied to portray God as a semi-maniacal sadist, taunting dependent creatures with the flames of torment, while commanding them to be something other than what they are. God could not be more wrongly conceived. The illustration—far from making God a twisted, sadistic divine—demonstrates the incredible grace of a perfect God toward those in sin. Edwards uses a spider because spiders are hideous to humans. Imagine being at a campsite and needing another log for the fire. Imagine that your hand takes the log, and, just as you let go of the log, dropping it into the fire, you feel a spider crawling on the back of your hand, moving quickly away from the fire via the shortest possible route—up your arm. What will you do? In the heat of the moment, you will flick the spider off your hand and into the fire faster than the Apostle Paul did the same thing with the snake fastened to his hand. Understanding the metaphor rightly allows one to see the recurring gospel themes: God’s holiness and Man’s sinfulness. As a spider is an unwelcome intruder upon the domain of our hands, even more so, sinners are unwelcome intruders upon the holiness of God. The only thing that prevents our doom is that God is gracious; the grace of God prevents the flames.

The Appropriate Use of Hell

Edwards demonstrates, then, two important principles which ought to define our presentation of the gospel and guide our application of the use of Hell. First, avoiding Hell is not the point of the gospel; it is a consequence. Glorifying Christ is the point. Fear, though it is the beginning of wisdom, must be exceeded by love, for perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). The Lord will award a crown not to those who feared Hell but to those who loved His appearing (2 Tim 4:8). Manipulators of Hell cannot scare someone into the Kingdom because the Kingdom is for those who keep the first command, who love the Lord with all their hearts. Second, focusing on God leads naturally to a conversation about Man. The conversation concerning man leads naturally to a conversation of sin. Speaking of sin leads to speaking of judgment, including Hell. Speaking of judgment leads inexorably to the cross of Jesus Christ. Speaking of Christ leads man back to God.

Here is the gospel presentation we must keep in mind. The gospel itself—not Hell or Heaven—is the means God has given by which a man might be saved The gospel is the only means given. The absence of Hell in Paul, then, affirms the point being made here. Hell and eternal punishment are corollaries to the gospel, not the main point. The gospel rightly preached will always focus on God and Man (as Paul and Edwards both demonstrate). Our preaching of the gospel should do the same.

Gregory Cochran is the Senior Pastor of Cedar Grove Baptist Church. He is presently pursuing a Ph.D. from Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY, in the area of Christian ethics. He has the M.Div. from Southern Seminary and both a B.A. and M.A. from Louisiana Tech University. He lives in Shepherdsville, KY, with his wife, Vickie, and their five children.

1See Douglas Moo, “Paul on Hell,” in Hell Under Fire, eds., Christopher W. Morgan and Robert Peterson, editors (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004) 91-110. In this chapter, Moo argues the case that Paul’s view of eternal punishment is consistent with that of the other New Testament writers, even if he didn’t use the precise terminology.
2See Larry Pettegrew, “A Kinder, Gentler Theology of Hell,”
The Master’s Seminary Journal 9:2 (Fall 1998):205-17.
3Perry Miller, “Benjamin Franklin – Jonathan Edwards,” in
Major Writers of America I, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 83-98, especially 91.
4Perry Miller, “Benjamin Franklin – Jonathan Edwards,” 91.
5Jonathan Edwards, as quoted by Miller, “Benjamin Franklin – Jonathan Edwards,” 91.

6Chris Morgan, Jonathan Edwards and Hell, (Glasgow: Mentor Christian Focus Publications, 2004), 113.