Fear of God’s wrath after death, says this Baptist minister, is the great weapon of the churches that preach a Christian way of life. Today they are themselves afraid to use it

Rev. Leslie K. Tarr June 1 1963


Fear of God’s wrath after death, says this Baptist minister, is the great weapon of the churches that preach a Christian way of life. Today they are themselves afraid to use it

Rev. Leslie K. Tarr June 1 1963


Rev. Leslie K. Tarr

Fear of God’s wrath after death, says this Baptist minister, is the great weapon of the churches that preach a Christian way of life. Today they are themselves afraid to use it

PREACHERS who use their pulpits to instill the fear of God into their flocks, to warn of fire and brimstone as the lot of sinners, have become a vanishing breed. Most churchgoers — including many pious Christians — seem happy about it. So my plea may sound reactionary and even shocking: let our

churches speak out more emphatically about the fear of God, hell and eternal damnation!

1 can hear the chorus: “What a backward step — at a time when enlightened ministers have just about deleted the word ‘hell’ from accepted church vocabulary.” ( I've heard of one minister who never uses the word in a sermon, but tosses it into the anecdotes he tells at service-club luncheons to prove he’s “one of the boys.”)

The ministers of some of the major Protestant denominations have good head-office authority for diluting the language of Christianity. Recently a commission of the Anglican Church banished the word “hell” from a new translation of the psalms “on the grounds of improvement.” (Other “improvements” included changing the beautifully ominous phrase “valley of the shadow of death” to the more comfortable “darkest valley.”)

Another example of the taming of the gospels occurs in the booklet Life and Death published by the United Church of Canada. One chapter is headed “What do we mean by hell?” The authors are careful to be as indefinite as possible, and I defy anyone to read that chapter and find out what they do mean by hell. On one short page I found these gems of obscurity: “Some men may involve themselves in everlasting punishment . . . some form of punishment, in the next world if not in this, may be necessary ... it may be that some will remain unrepentant to the very end ...”

Too many ministers of my own Baptist faith have, I regret to say, forsaken forthright preaching to a greater or lesser degree — and in that proportion they have lost influence with their congregations.

This toning down of hell as a place of judgment has reached the point where even as a cuss word, as blasphemy, it is rather weak. One columnist contended that “hell” just doesn’t belong any more in the lexicon of cursing, that it has little more muscle than “fiddlesticks.” President Kennedy used the word during a television appearance at the time of the steel price crisis, and no one seemed to mind.

It is true that “hell” is now a schoolyard word. Yet this has not always been the case nor should it be the case today. If our churches were true to the Word of God and honest with men, we would hear a good deal about the life to come and some of the fearful consequences that await a life of neglect of God.


The Bible’s view of life does not end with the grave. Quite the contrary. The scriptures depict man as a responsible being who will come to judgment at the end of life's allotted years. Apart from such a full-orbed view of human existence, I fail to see the real meaning of life. So did Daniel Webster. When a visitor asked Webster what was the greatest thought that had ever crossed his mind, he answered promptly and definitely: “The realization of my accountability to God.”

Judgment, heaven and hell are necessary components in this scriptural view of life. A sovereign God, from whom nothing is hidden and to whom everyone is accountable, shall have the final word, not only in the world’s history, but in each indi-

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The soft, inoffensive gospel of today has people staying away from churches in droves

vidual life — cither heaven or hell! The old hymn correctly declared “There’s a heaven to pain A nd a hell to shun.”

Yet when last did you really hear a message about life after death? We hear many sermons about politics, social questions or stewardship and every other conceivable topic but there are few preachers who will look a congregation in the eye and speak plainly about the day of judgment which awaits them at the end of this life.

I frankly acknowledge that excesses have been associated with some of the overly zealous "hellfire” preachers of the past and the present — like the one who announced his text as “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish,” and titled his message, "Turn or Burn!” All those who use the excesses of the past as an excuse for the neglect of the present should recall that the overly vivid presentation of the truth is no real reason to throw that truth overboard. This is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Those fiery zealots of past days stand more favorably in my books than do their begowned, weak-sister counterparts today who never mention the wrath of God or w'ho whisper apologetically when they do.

Yesterday’s preachers of all denominations didn't hesitate to trumpet the stern notes of the gospel. Before w'e dismiss them as products of the superstitions of their times, let us recall that their number included the spiritual giants of the ages — Martin Luther, Anglican Bishop Ryle, Methodist John Wesley, Presbyterian John Knox, Baptist John Bunyan, Salvation Army General William Booth,

and Rev. Jonathan Edwards, president of what is now Princeton University, to name only a few.

All crackpots? Hardly. But we’d call them “hellfire preachers” if they stepped on the church scene today. Rather than do that, however, we profess to honor them (because they are not around now to bother us or to cause any embarrassment) and we heap scorn and ridicule on any who might follow their lead.

Since preaching about the fear of God, damnation and hell was once a vital part of the Christian message, what brought about the change that today makes most pulpits strangely silent on this theme? Some churchmen might tell you that the churches of this enlightened time have moved beyond archaic notions that can only offend and alienate the modern mind. They would say further that we can’t possibly make the maximum impact on our time unless we present a message that is tailored to suit the spirit of the age. There is just no place for such negative things as hell, judgment or sin.

Well, what’s the result? Are people flocking to our Canadian churches to lap up this milk-and-water gospel? Not at all. Congregations of some of the more “enlightened” churches are dwindling. It seems that the middle class, the university crowd and just about everyone else are staying away from the churches in droves. The soft and inoffensive gospel doesn’t seem to have the appeal that it was supposed to have.

Poetic justice! The churches threw overboard an integral part of the Christian message and the very people they sought to attract are throwing overboard the churches. Obviously, people have little respect for an institution that is constantly trimming its sails to suit every passing breeze.

A well-known sceptic was once asked why he was seen so frequently at the meetings conducted by the American evangelist Dwight !.. Moody. “After all,” he was reminded.

“you don't believe what Mr. Moody preaches.”

“True, indeed,” replied the other, “but 1 know that Mr. Moody believes what he says and says what he believes and that's the kind of a man 1 want to hear.”

This simply underlines the fact that the preaching of judgment and the fear of God will not drive anyone from the churches one half as quickly as will compromise and cowardice on the part of the churches.

To argue that plain speaking about life after death has driven people from the churches simply does not stand up under even superficial examination. Few North American cities have halls big enough to house the crowds who congregate to hear evangelist Billy Graham for weeks on end. The fastest-growing denomination in this country is the Pentecostal Assemblies of C anada whose preachers have never been distinguished by their silence on hell or judgment. The Southern Bap-

tist Convention in the United States continues to grow at a phenomenal rate and its Bible Belt preachers don't whisper about the life to come or the terrors it holds for the unprepared.

1 have made a point of discussing this matter with men who are not church attenders. Invariably I have discovered that very few people object to a straight-from-the-shoulder presentation of the gospel in its entirety. In fact, most red-blooded men despise the present image of a church as being

a “nice" but perfectly harmless institution whose chief functions seem to be the naming of children and the performing of marriages and funerals.

This is no mere academic matter. The effects are to be seen in everyday life. It is no coincidence that the same generation which has witnessed the virtual disappearance of the proclamation of the stern truths of the Christian message has also witnessed a diminishing sense of personal responsibility and accountability. Hell has been thrust out of our pulpits but has broken out in our communities. The modern church has been characterized as being composed of “soft music, soft pews and soft soap.” Men can go out from such a drowsy atmosphere and contribute to a rising tide of drunkenness, immorality, crime and delinquency. They have been told, either by word or by silence, that there is no judgment, no hell and no reason whatever to fear an indulgent God.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not urging a steady diet of sulphur. Nor am 1 advocating a harsh and loveless ranting and a fiendish delight in vivid descriptions of the wrath to come. But still less can I condone taking the teeth out of the gospel by pretending that hell and damnation are not the words of God.

Don’t make any mistake on that score. The Bible has lots to say about hell and judgment — more, in fact, than it has to say about heaven. The central message of the New Testament is that Jesus came into this world to redeem us from our sins and to save us from the hell that lies at the end of a godless life.

Let the churches boldly affirm this gospel. In dead earnest 1 call for a return to the full-orbed Christian message — mercy and justice, heaven and hell, privilege and responsibility, freedom and authority, salvation and damnation. ★