There’s Something Worse than Death
We will never make sense of the Bible, the church’s mission, or the glory of the gospel unless we understand this seeming paradox: Death is the last enemy, but it is not the worst.
Clearly, death is an enemy, the last enemy to be destroyed, Paul tells us (1 Cor. 15:26). Death is the tragic result of sin (Rom. 5:12). It should be hated and despised. It should arouse our anger and mournful indignation (John 11:35, 38). Death must be defeated.
But, on the other hand, it must not be feared. Over and over, Scripture tells us not to be afraid of death. After all, what can flesh do to us (Ps. 56:3-4)? The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and they are saved (Prov. 18:10). So even if we are delivered up to our enemies, not a hair shall perish from our head apart from God’s ordaining (Luke 21:18). As Christians we conquer by the word of our testimony, not by clinging to the breath of life (Rev. 12:11). In fact, there is nothing more fundamental to Christianity than the certain faith that death will be gain for us (Phil. 1:21).
Therefore we do not fear death. Instead, “we are of good courage,” for “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).
The consistent witness of Scripture is that death is grievous, but far from the ultimate disaster that can befall a person. In fact, there’s something worse than death. Much worse.
For the most part, Jesus did not want the disciples to be afraid. He told them not to fear their persecutors (Matt. 10:26), not to fear those who kill the body (v. 28), not to fear for their precious little hairs on their precious little heads (v. 31). Jesus did not want them afraid of much, but he did want them to be afraid of hell. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Jesus warned. “Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (v. 28).
People often talk as if Jesus was above frightening people with scenes of judgment. But such sentiment exposes soft-minded prejudice more than careful exegesis. Often Jesus warned of the day of judgment (Matt. 11:24; 25:31-46), spoke of condemnation (Matt. 12:37; John 3:18), and described hell in graphic, shocking terms (Matt. 13:49-50; 18:9; Luke 16:24). You only have to read his parables about the tenants or the wedding feast or the virgins or the talents to realize that Jesus frequently motivated his hearers to heed his message by warning them of coming judgment. It was not beneath Jesus to scare the hell out of people.
Obviously, it would be inaccurate to characterize Jesus and the apostles as nothing but sandwich-board fanatics with vacant stares screaming at people to repent or perish. It flattens the New Testament beyond recognition to make it one large tract about saving souls from hell. And yet, it would be closer to the truth to picture Jesus and the apostles (not to mention John the Baptist) passionately pleading with people to flee the wrath to come than it would be to imagine them laying out plans for cosmic renewal and helping people on their spiritual journeys. Anyone reading through the gospels, the epistles, and the apocalypse with an open mind has to conclude that eternal life after death is the great reward for which we hope and eternal destruction after death is the dreadful judgment which we should want to avoid at all costs. From John 3 to Romans 1 to 1 Thessalonians 4 to Revelation, well, all of it, scarcely a chapter goes by where God does not appear as the great Savior of the righteous and the righteous judge of the wicked. There is a death for God’s children which should not be feared (Heb. 2:14-15), and a second death for the ungodly which should be (Rev. 20:11-15).
STEADY AS SHE GOES
However unpopular it may be and however much we may wish to soften its hard edges, the doctrine of hell is essential for faithful Christian witness. The belief that there is something worse than death is, to recall John Piper’s imagery, ballast for our ministry boats.
Hell is not the North Star. That is, divine wrath is not our guiding light. It does not set the direction for everything in the Christian faith like, say, the glory of God in the face of Christ. Neither is hell the faith-wheel which steers the ship, nor the wind that powers us along, nor the sails that capture the Spirit’s breeze. Yet hell is not incidental to this vessel we call the church. It’s our ballast, and we throw it overboard at great peril to ourselves and to everyone drowning far out at sea.
For those not familiar with boating terms (and I for one find them arcane), ballast refers to weights, usually put underneath in the middle of the boat, which are used to keep the ship stable in the water. Without ballast, the boat will not sit properly. It will veer off course more easily or be tossed from side to side. Ballast keeps the boat balanced.
The doctrine of hell is like that for the church. Divine wrath may not be the decorative masthead or the flag we raise up every flagpole. The doctrine may be underneath other doctrines. It may not always be seen. But its absence will always be felt.
Since hell is real, we must prepare our people to die well far more than we strive to help them live comfortably. Since hell is real, we must never think alleviating earthly suffering is the most loving thing we can do. Since hell is real, evangelism and discipleship must not be marginalized as important tasks that are on par with painting a school or producing a movie.
If we lose the doctrine of hell, either becoming too embarrassed to mention it or too culturally-sensitive to affirm it, we can count on this: the boat will drift. The cross will be stripped of propitiation, our preaching will be devoid of urgency and power, and our work in the world will no longer center on calling people to faith and repentance and building them to maturity in Christ. Lose the ballast of divine judgment and our message, our ministry, and our mission will all eventually change.
STAYING ON COURSE
All of life must be lived to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). And we ought to do good to all people (Gal. 6:10). No apologies necessary for caring about our cities, loving our neighbors, or working hard at our vocation. These too are “musts.” But with the doctrine of hell as ballast in our boats, we will never sneer at the old hymns which call us to rescue the perishing, nor will we scoff at saving souls as it were nothing but glorified fire insurance.
There is something worse than death. And only the gospel of Jesus Christ, proclaimed by Christians and protected by the church, can set us free from what we truly must fear. The doctrine of hell reminds us that the greatest need of every person will not be met by the United Nations or Habitat for Humanity or the United Way. It is only through Christian witness, through proclamation of Christ crucified, that the worst thing in all the world will not fall on all those in the world.
So to all the wonderful, sacrificial, risk-taking pastors who love justice, care for the suffering, and long to renew their cities, Jesus says, “Well done. But don’t forget the ballast, boys.”