About that hell tweet: one question for Mark Driscoll

Neither Mark Driscoll’s recent tweet about hell nor the response it got were all that surprising, really.

It’s no surprise that a pastor who “can’t worship a guy I can beat up” also can’t fathom a God who would have any qualms about tormenting someone for all eternity.

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I imagine Driscoll thought he was stating the obvious, something beyond dispute — at least if you’re a legitimate Christian. Sort of a litmus test of orthodoxy in 140 characters or less.

Yet his tweet obscured the fact that Christians have long held diverging views of the Last Judgment and its consequences, and not all of them involve eternal conscious torment. Respected thinkers and theologians — at least some of whose books are likely on Driscoll’s shelf — have explored other possibilities.

C.S. Lewis.

George MacDonald.

John Stott.

N.T. Wright.

Scripture itself is less than abundantly clear on the nature of judgment after death. In the Old Testament, judgment was something you experienced in this life. Ancient Hebrews didn’t have a particularly fleshed out concept of the afterlife.

In the New Testament, hellfire is just one picture of judgment, and it’s hardly the most dominant one. (Nor is it clear that it’s anything more than a picture.) When judgment is mentioned, it’s more commonly portrayed with the language of destruction — that is, ceasing to exist.

But here’s the thing. Mark Driscoll presents himself as “a nobody trying to tell everybody about Somebody.” For him, this tweet about hell was gospel proclamation, plain and simple. Preaching the good news requires you to periodically stoke the fires of hell so you can scare people into the kingdom, right?

So here’s my question for Pastor Mark Driscoll: If hell is so important to the gospel, why is it never mentioned in the book of Acts?

Acts is the record of the first people to follow Jesus and how their message spread across the Roman Empire. If evangelism is your thing — that is, “telling everybody about Somebody” — then you should pay close attention to the book of Acts.

Among other things, Acts contains 14 or 15 of the earliest Christian sermons. (The number varies, depending on what you count as a sermon.) Eight of these are Kerygmatic sermons, which is a fancy term for proclamatory or evangelistic speeches — i.e. someone telling others about Jesus.

In these eight sermons, there is not one mention of hell. In fact, hell is completely absent from the whole book. Judgment is mentioned once or twice, but the nature of judgment? It’s never part of their gospel proclamation.

So why does Mark Driscoll think hell is essential to his gospel proclamation? Why does he feel compelled to say something the first evangelists never needed to say? Isn’t that “adding to the gospel”?

Maybe it’s not unloving to tell someone they’re going to hell. But it’s more than a little presumptuous, both about their standing with God and the nature of judgment. Besides, even if it’s not unloving, the first proclaimers of the gospel evidently felt it was unnecessary.

What’s your take? Do you think hell is essential to the Christian story?

15 thoughts on “About that hell tweet: one question for Mark Driscoll

  1. I share your take in toto. How you go about communicating it to satisfied, status quo members of the heaven or hell community is, however, beyond me. Funny how one’s “theology” can be so heavily-laden with “God loves you…” and still retain all the elements of “But God shall have thy ass…” as the final word in how God goes about “loving you”??

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  2. I think the better question is, Should hell be a part of our evangelism? Judgment is taught in Scripture, but, as you note, the apostles didn’t often cite it in their preaching. Also, it is good to know that Acts is descriptive, and not necessary prescriptive. So what the apostles did or didn’t do isn’t always the model for what we should or should not do.

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    • When you say “Judgment is taught in Scripture,” Jeremy, I have to say I cringe just a little. Not that there is NO judgment in this life, or possibly in the next, but that we have assumed so much, prescribed so much, even “judged” so much with our “taken for granted” approach to both our doctrine and our evangelism. The ‘Good News’ has come with the back-end loaded up with qualifications. To say we just need to leave Judgment out of our “preaching of the Good News” seems to me to be disingenuous, if that’s what you mean by that. If you didn’t mean that, I’m sorry.

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    • Jeremy, good point about Acts as mainly descriptive, not prescriptive. I imagine we’ve both heard plenty of sermons that turn the book into a how-to manual for churches in the 21st century, which isn’t why it was written. That said, the question I’m raising is whether hell is essential to good, authentic gospel proclamation. If it is, I think you would expect to see more of it in early apostolic sermons. The fact that you don’t see that in the scriptures creates a problem for those who pride themselves on a “hellfire and brimstone” approach today, in my opinion.

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    • And just another thought … it ALWAYS floors me that people who brag about their commitment to ONLY believe what the Scripture says have such an enormous blind spot when it comes to this issue. I have often wondered if the Evangelical view of hell isn’t the ‘great deception’ Scripture occasionally makes reference to.

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  3. The “scaring people into becoming Christian” approach is not a good one. I can say this as someone who was not raised in the church. It doesn’t work. Show love, not hate, and people will gravitate to you, and maybe ask more about your church. In other words, actually act like Jesus. Thanks for this.

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  4. It is “presumptuous” for him to “assume” someone’s standing with God. Is there a literal hell? I won’t be so arrogantly presumptuous and assume I have all the answers but I try and look at the facts. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death…” not eternal torment. Ezekiel 18:20 says, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” It doesn’t say it will go on to be eternally tormented. If you compare various translations of the Bible, the exact same scripture, some will say sheol, others pit, hell, and grave. They all mean the same, the “grave.”

    Fire is often depicted in the Bible as figurative in regards to cleansing and not to be taken as literal. Could one drop of water really have quenched the Rich Man’s thirst if he were truly burning in a literal hell? The horrors of hell actually vilify God as being merciless and not a God of love. We only have a fraction of God’s love and we would not torture a convicted felon. We either humanely imprison them or put them to death. God is far more sentient than we are so why would we expect him to do any less!

    Excellent article Ben. I really enjoyed it. You made a lot of good points!

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  5. Good thoughts. A major problem with Christians is that they are quick to point out all of the things that they are against rather than everything that they are for. Jesus came that we might have life and might have it abundantly, what would have happened had Driscoll said that you will only truly have life if you know Jesus Christ? Would the question have garnered the same response? Of course, in a similar fashion to Dennis Rodman but on the opposite side of the spectrum, Driscoll knows full well what he says and may intentionally word things in the most provocative way on purpose in order to drum up more publicity, he’s no dummy. While there may be differing opinions on judgment and hell, there aren’t many variations among those who claim to be Christians on the absolute necessity of faith in Christ for salvation. What kind of a response would it have evoked had he said that one is saved through Christ and Christ alone?

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  6. maybe it’s a good idea to find out what our good pastor means by “hell”. Maybe he means eternal separation from God. Oh and by the way hell is mentioned in the book of Acts -2:27 “For You will not leave my soul in Hades, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption”. Bam! Yes Peter is referring to words spoken in Psalms by David but he refers to what Hades is in 2:24 “…loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it.”

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  7. One last thought: “but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'” Genesis 3:3. Did God tell Adam and Eve they would live forever in torment if they ate from the tree? Live in eternal hellfire? No, he said they would “die.”

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      • If God had given them hellfire or eternal torment after telling them they would “die” that would have made him a liar. The Bible says that God can not lie. It would also have made him an evil trickster to have eternally tortured them after he warned them that the penalty for sin was death.

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  8. As a child, I didn’t fear hell. I understood that no loving father would condemn and/or torture his children, but yet he would love and forgive them. I knew there was nothing that God could not repair or forgive. To me, God was a kindly, caring, comforting grandfather that I could always turn to, no matter what. I am grateful that neither my parents, nor my church ever used God to shame, scare or control me. I was a natural universalist. I believe that the understanding that a thinking child has of God is more accurate than the bully, abusive parent of a god that some churches teach.

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