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Tboston.jpgThomas Boston (1676-1732) spent most of his life in the Scottish Borders in ministry.

His parents were Covenanters, meaning that they bound themselves in various covenants to ensure Presbyterianism was the only Christianity practised in Scotland. In the 16th century, these men and women resisted the return of Roman Catholicism and, in the 17th century, the religious reform from the Anglicans in England.

Boston earned a degree in Arts from Edinburgh University and, for a short time, was a schoolmaster. He spent one term at theological college before being assigned to active ministry, which he began in 1697.

He spent much of his spare time educating himself and was well known for his knowledge of Hebrew. Jonathan Edwards considered Boston:

a truly great divine.

He also wrote several books and shorter works about Christianity and human nature. In 1704, having read a controversial book called The Marrow of Modern Divinity, he became a Marrowman, which meant that he emphasised the doctrine of grace and the free offer of the Gospel. The book is a collection of dialogues from Reformation divines on the nature of Christ’s atonement and was a middle way of Christian practice, intended to guide believers from antinomianism (disregard for the Law) without embracing legalism.

The legalistic Calvinist hierarchy of the day disapproved of this perspective, yet it proved very popular among Scottish congregations. Indeed, the Marrowmen were effective, heartfelt preachers. Boston himself revived the church in Ettrick, where he ministered for 25 years. When he arrived in 1707, the number of members was around 60. By the time he retired, there were 777.

Boston not only preached in church, he had an active ministry at home, where he regularly held classes for his congregation.

Despite family deaths which touched him to the core, his wife Catherine was his loving companion and source of emotional support.

Boston’s written works had a profound effect not only on his congregation, but many poor, hard-working Scots.

One of his essays is entitled, simply, ‘Hell’. It describes the certainty, the nature and the eternity of it.

Excerpts and summaries follow, emphases mine (except for the first line, the titles and subtitles).

He introduces his essay with:

Then He shall say unto those on the left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed ones, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels!” Matthew 25:41

and reminds us in the Introduction that:

The last thing which our Lord did, before He left the earth, was, ‘He lifted up his hands, and blessed his disciples’ (Luke, 24:50,51). But the last thing He will do, before He leaves the throne, is to curse and condemn His enemies; as we learn from the text which contains the dreadful sentence wherein the everlasting misery of the wicked is declared.

He then summarises the body of the essay before examining the doctrine of hell.

DOCTRINE– THE WICKED SHALL BE SHUT UP UNDER THE CURSE OF GOD, IN EVERLASTING MISERY, WITH THE DEVILS IN HELL!

In this section, Boston discusses the ‘curse’ of the ‘damned’, their misery, their society and their eternity.

I. THE “CURSE” UNDER WHICH THE DAMMED SHALL BE SHUT UP IN HELL–

By nature all men are under the curse. But it is removed from the elect by virtue of their union with Christ. It abides on the rest of sinful mankind, and by it they are devoted to destruction, and separated to evil …

As in heaven grace comes to its perfection, so in hell sin arrives at its highest pitch; and as sin is thus advancing upon the man, he is the nearer and likelier to hell.

There are three things that have a fearful aspect here
1. When everything that might do good to men’s souls, is blasted to them; so that their blessings are cursed– sermons, prayers, admonitions, and reproofs, which are powerful towards others, are quite ineffectual to them.

2. When men go on in sinning still, in the face of plain rebukes from the Lord, in ordinances and providences. God meets them with rods in the way of their sin, as it were striking them back; yet they rush forward. What can be more like hell, where the Lord is always smiting and the damned always sinning against Him?

3. When everything in one’s lot is turned into fuel for one’s lusts. Thus, adversity and prosperity, poverty and wealth, the lack of ordinances and the enjoyment of them, do all but nourish the corruptions of many. Their vicious stomachs corrupt whatever they receive, and all does but increase noxious humors.

But the full harvest follows, in that misery which they shall forever lie under in hell; that wrath which, by virtue of the curse, shall come upon them to the uttermost– which is the curse fully executed. This black cloud opens upon them, and the terrible thunderbolt strikes them, by that dreadful voice from the throne, ‘Depart from me, you cursed’, which will give the whole wicked world a dismal view of what is in the bosom of the curse …

II. THE MISERY OF THE DAMNED, under that curse–

It is a misery which the tongues of men and angels cannot sufficiently express. God always acts like Himself– as no favors can be compared to His, so also His wrath and terrors are without a parallel.

As the saints in heaven are advanced to the highest pitch of happiness, so the damned in hell arrive at the height of misery.

Two things here I shall soberly inquire into– the punishment of ‘loss’, and the punishment of ‘sense’, in hell. But since these also are such things as eye has not seen, nor ear heard, we must, as geographers do, leave a large void for the unknown land, which that day will discover.

A. THE PUNISHMENT OF ‘LOSS’ WHICH THE DAMNED SHALL UNDERGO IS SEPARATION FROM THE LORD. ‘Depart from me, you cursed.’ This will be a stone upon their grave’s mouth, as ‘the talent of lead’ (Zech 5:7,8), that will hold them down forever …

They cannot indeed be locally separated from God, they cannot be in a place where He is not; since He is, and will be present everywhere– ‘If I make my bed in hell,’ says the psalmist, ‘behold you are there’ (Psalm 139:8). But they shall be miserable beyond expression, in a ‘relative’ separation from God. Though He will be present in the very center of their souls, (if I may so express it), while they are wrapped up in fiery flames, in utter darkness– it shall only be to feed them with the vinegar of His wrath, and to punish them with the emanations of His revenging justice.

1. This separation will be AN INVOLUNTARY SEPARATION. ‘Now’ they depart from Him. They will not come to Him, though they are called and entreated to come.

But ‘then’ they shall be driven away from Him, when they would gladly abide with Him …

2. IT WILL BE A TOTAL AND UTTER SEPARATION. Though the wicked are, in this life, separated from God, yet there is a kind of interchange between them– He gives them many good gifts, and they give Him, at least, some good words; so that the peace is not altogether hopeless.

But ‘then’ there shall be a total separation, the damned being cast into utter darkness, where there will not be the least gleam of light or favor from the Lord; which will put an end to all their fair words to Him.

3. IT WILL BE A FINAL SEPARATION. They will part with Him, never more to meet, being shut up under everlasting horror and despair. The match between Jesus Christ and unbelievers, which has so often been carried forward, and put back again, shall then be broken up forever; and never shall one message of favor or goodwill go between the parties anymore.

This punishment of loss, in a total and final separation from God, is a misery beyond what mortals can conceive, and which the dreadful experience of the damned can only sufficiently unfold …

Wherefore, a total separation from God, wherein all comfortable communication between God and a rational creature is absolutely blocked up, must of necessity bring along with it a total eclipse of all light of comfort and ease whatever. If there is but one window, or open place, in a house, and that be totally shut up, it is evident there can be nothing but darkness in that house …

All joy goes, and unmixed sorrow settles in them. All quiet and rest separate from them and they are filled with horror and rage. Hope flies away, and despair seizes them. Common operations of the Spirit, which now restrain them, are withdrawn forever, and sin comes to its utmost height. Thus we have a dismal view of the horrible spectacle of sin and misery, which a creature proves when totally separated from God and left to itself; and we may see this separation from God to be the very hell of hell.

Being separated from God, they are deprived of all good. The good things which they set their hearts upon in this world are beyond their reach there. The covetous man cannot enjoy his wealth there; nor the ambitious man his honors; nor the sensual man his pleasures– no, not a drop of water to cool his tongue (Luke 16:24,25).

No food or drink there to strengthen the faint; no sleep to refresh the weary– and no music, or pleasant company, to comfort and cheer up the sorrowful. And as for those holy things they despised in the world, they shall never more hear of them, nor see them.

No offer of Christ there, no pardon, no peace; no wells of salvation in the pit of destruction. In one word, they shall be deprived of whatever might comfort them, being totally and finally separated from God, the fountain of all goodness and comfort.

(3) Man naturally desires to be happy, being conscious to himself that be is not self-sufficient. He forever has a desire of something outside of himself, to make him happy; and the soul being, by its natural make and constitution, capable of enjoying God, and nothing else being commensurable to its desires, it can never have true and solid rest until it rests in the enjoyment of God. This desire of happiness the rational creature can never lay aside, no, not even in hell …

So the doors of earth and heaven both are shut against them at once. This will create them unspeakable anguish, while they shall live under an eternal gnawing hunger after happiness, which they certainly know shall never be in the least measure satisfied, all doors being closed on them.

(4) The damned shall know that some are perfectly happy, in the enjoyment of that God from whom they themselves are separated; and this will aggravate the sense of their loss– that they can never have any share with those happy ones …

It is the opinion of some, that every person in heaven or hell shall hear and see all that passes in either state. Whatever is to be said for this, we have ground from the Word to conclude that the damned shall have a very accurate knowledge of the happiness of the saints in heaven; for what else can be meant of the rich man in hell seeing Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom?

It would be a mighty torment to a hungry man, to see others liberally feasting, while he is so chained up as not to have one crumb to stop his gnawing appetite …

(5) They will remember that time was when they might have been made partakers of the blessed company of saints, in their enjoyment of God– and this will aggravate their sense of the loss. All will remember that there was once a possibility of it; that they were once in the world, in some corners of which the way of salvation was laid open to men’s view– and may wish they had gone round the world, until they had found it out.

Despisers of the Gospel will remember, with bitterness, that Jesus Christ, with all His benefits, was offered to them– that they were exhorted, entreated, and pressed to accept, but would not; and that they were warned of the misery they now feel, and exhorted to flee from the wrath to come, but they would not hearken.

The Gospel offer slighted will make a hot hell, and the loss of an offered heaven, will be a sinking weight on the spirits of unbelievers in the pit …

Others will remember that they thought themselves sure of heaven, but, being blinded with pride and self-conceit, they were above ordinances, and beyond instruction, and would not examine their state– which was their ruin. But then they will in vain wish that they had reputed themselves the worst of the congregation, and curse the fond conceit they had of themselves, and that others had of them too …

(6) They will see the loss to be irrecoverable– that they must eternally lie under it, never, never to be repaired.

Might the damned, after millions of ages in hell, regain what they have lost, it would be some ground of hope; but the prize is gone, and never can be recovered …

B. THE DAMNED SHALL BE PUNISHED IN HELL WITH THE PUNISHMENT OF ‘SENSE’ AS THEY MUST DEPART FROM GOD INTO EVERLASTING FIRE.

I am not disposed to dispute what kind of fire it is into which they shall depart, to be tormented forever, whether a material fire or not. Experience will more than satisfy the curiosity of those who are disposed rather to dispute about it, than to seek how to escape it.

Neither will I meddle with the question, Where is it? It is enough that the worm that never dies, and the fire that is never quenched, will be found somewhere by impenitent sinners.

1. But, first, I shall prove that, whatever kind of fire it is– it is more vehement and terrible than any fire we on earth are acquainted with …

(a) As in heaven, grace being brought to its perfection, profit and pleasure also arrive at their height there. So sin, being come to its height in hell, the punishment of evil also arrives at its perfection there …

(b) Why are the things of another world represented to us in an earthly dress, in the Word, but because the weakness of our capacities in such matters, which the Lord is pleased to condescend unto, requires it. It being always supposed, that the things of the other world are in their kind more perfect than those by which they are represented.

When heaven is represented to us under the notion of a city, with gates of pearl and the street of gold, we do not expect to find gold and pearls there, which are so mightily prized on earth, but something more excellent than the finest and most precious things in this world.

When therefore, we hear of hell-fire, it is necessary we understand by it something more vehement, piercing, and tormenting, than any fire ever seen by our eyes.

And here it is worth considering, that the torments of hell are held forth under several other notions than that of fire alone. And the reason of it is plain– namely, that hereby what of horror is lacking in one notion of hell, is supplied by another

Therefore, we hear also of ‘the second death’, for the damned in hell shall be ever dying

(c) Our fire cannot affect a spirit, but by way of sympathy with the body to which it is united. But hell-fire will not only pierce into the bodies, but also go directly into the souls of the damned, for it is ‘prepared for the devil and his angels,’ those wicked spirits, whom no fire on earth can hurt …

(d) The preparation of this fire proves the inexpressible vehemency and dreadfulness of it. The text calls it, ‘prepared’ yes, ‘the prepared fire,’ by way of eminence.

As the three children were not cast into ordinary fire [Daniel 3], but a fire prepared for a particular purpose which therefore was exceeding hot, the furnace being heated seven times more than ordinary, so the damned shall find in hell a prepared fire, the like to which was never prepared by human are

2. As to the second point proposed, namely, the properties of the fiery torments in hell–
(a) They will be universal torments, every part of the creature being tormented in that flame. When one is cast into a fiery furnace, the fire makes its way into the very heart, and leaves no member untouched.

What part, then, can have ease, when the damned ‘swim’ in a lake of fire, burning with brimstone? There will their bodies be tormented and scorched forever …

Hence, no pleasant affection shall ever spring up in their hearts any more; their love of comfort, joy, and delight, in any object whatever, shall be plucked up by the root. They will be filled with hatred, fury, and rage against God, themselves, and their fellow-creatures, whether happy in heaven, or miserable in hell, as they themselves are.

They will be sunk in sorrow, racked with anxiety, filled with horror, galled to the heart with fretting, and continually darted with despair– which will make them weep, gnash their teeth, and blaspheme forever …

Conscience will be a worm to gnaw and prey upon them; remorse for their sins shall seize them and torment them forever, and they shall not be able to shake it off, as once they did; for ‘in hell their worm does not die.’ (Mark 9:44,46) …

(b) The torments in hell are manifold. Imagine the case that a man were, at one and the same time, under the violence of the gout, stone, and whatever diseases and pains have ever met together in one body– the torment of such a one would be but light in comparison to the torments of the dammed

(c) They will be most intense and vehement torments, causing ‘weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth’ (Matt 13:42, 22:13). They are represented to us under the notion of pangs in childbirth, which are very sharp and acute …

It is true, there will be degrees of torments in hell– ‘It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for Chorazin and Bethsaida’ (Matt 11:21,22). But the least load of wrath there will be insupportable; for how can the heart of the creature endure, or his hands be strong, when God Himself is a consuming fire to him?

When the tares are bound in bundles for the fire, there will be “bundles” of covetous persons, of drunkards, profane sweaters, unclean persons, formal hypocrites, unbelievers, and despisers of the Gospel, and the like.

The several “bundles” being cast into hell-fire, some will burn more vehemently than others, according as their sins have been more heinous than those of others– a fiercer flame shall seize the bundle of the profane, than the bundle of unsanctified moralists.

(e) They will be unpitied. The punishments inflicted on the greatest malefactors on earth draw forth some compassion from the spectators. But the damned shall have none to pity them.

God will not pity them, but laugh at their calamity (Prov 1:26). The blessed company in heaven shall rejoice in the execution of God’s righteous judgment, and sing while their smoke rises up forever and ever (Rev 19:3), ‘And again they said, Hallelujah! And her smoke rose up forever and ever.’

No compassion can be expected from the devil and his angels, who delight in the ruin of the children of men, and are and will be forever void of pity. Neither will one person pity another there, where every one is weeping and gnashing his teeth, under his own insupportable anguish and pain.

There, natural affection will be extinguished– parents will not love their children, nor children their parents; the mother will not pity the daughter in these flames, nor will the daughter pity the mother; the son will show no regard to his father there, nor the servant to his master, where every one will be groaning under his own torment.

(f) To complete their misery, their torments shall be eternal! ‘And the smoke of their torments ascends up forever and ever.’ Ah! what a frightful case is this– to be tormented in the whole body and soul, and that not with one kind of torment, but many; all of these most acute, and all this without any intermission, and without pity from any!

What heart can conceive those things without horror? Nevertheless, if this most miserable case were at length to have an end, that would afford some comfort.

But the torments of the damned will have no end!

The final sections discuss being with the company of devils and the everlasting nature of hell.

Boston concluded with an exhortation to unbelievers to receive Christ ‘as He is offered in the Gospel’ and prayed that the Lord would be ‘effectual’ in accomplishing this.

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This concludes a series on hell, available on my Christianity/Apologetics page under ‘Hell’. Previous posts include:

John MacArthur on hell

Hell on low — or no — heat (20th century history)

Christian views on hell: moving back to Origen

J C Ryle on hell (19th century, first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool)

Our inability to comprehend hell — and God

Archibald G Brown’s tour of hell that happened on earth

Archibald G Brown (1844-1922) was a famous English pastor who devoted his ministry and life to the poor in London’s East End.

(Photo credit: ELT Baptist Church)

Brown was the son of a wealthy investment banker and was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, his future wife Anne Bigg invited him to a service at Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. The Metropolitan Tabernacle still exists today.

Although the Metropolitan Tabernacle was a Calvinistic Baptist congregation, the night Brown attended an Anglican lay preacher Stevenson Arthur Blackwood led the service. He asked an unbelieving, somewhat wayward Brown if he was a Christian. When Brown replied in the negative, Blackwood said, ‘How sad’.

Brown was 16 at the time. Afterwards, he went to reflect on Blackwood’s words and his own sinful state. Not only was he converted that day, privately, to Christianity, he went on to train for the ministry under Spurgeon at his Pastor’s College. Brown stood out for Spurgeon. Not only was he the youngest seminarian but the most dedicated to the ministry. Hence the title ‘Spurgeon’s Successor’.

Brown’s first ministry was in Bromley, Kent. However, outside of serving at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, his other pastorates were in London’s East End. He became pastor of the Stepney Green Tabernacle in 1864, which was not well attended. However, by 1867, it was standing room only.

In 1872, he had a new tabernacle built — the East London Tabernacle, which you can see in the photo above. The new church could seat 2,500, although another 500 stood to hear Brown’s powerful preaching. Inside, the tabernacle was massive; you can see more photos of it on the ELT Baptist Church site. Unfortunately, Germans bombed the building in 1944. It took ten years before a new replacement church opened, seating one-fifth of the number of people. The church has since left Baptist alliances and is now affiliated with the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and through it to Affinity (formerly the British Evangelical Council).

Sadly, Brown was widowed four times. However, two of his wives left him several children. Annie bore six and Brown’s third wife Edith bore him four.

In later years, Edith’s poor health required him to consider relinquishing the pastorate at the East London Tabernacle and leave the capital altogether. Before he could do so, Edith died. Mourning her loss, he felt he could not continue leading his congregation without her and embarked on an international preaching tour combining travel. He returned to London in 1897 and married his fourth wife Hannah.

His subsequent ministries included a pastorate at a Baptist church in south London and a co-pastorate with Spurgeon’s son at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1907. In 1908, Brown became the sole pastor, a role he continued until 1910, when his own health began to fail. He toured and ministered in South Africa and Tasmania. In March 1922, Hannah died. Brown died nine days later on April 2, 1922.

During his lifetime, Brown and his assistant pastors had an intimate knowledge of the East End and its residents. Many were poor, burning their own banisters to stay warm. Others were prostitutes and thieves. Brown opened an orphanage for girls, started a soup kitchen and founded a summer holiday home in Herne Bay, Kent, to provide relief for the people of the East End.

Brown took a dim view of the modern views and erroneous theology creeping into the Church. He agreed with Spurgeon on the errors of fellow Baptist clergy denying that the Bible was divinely inspired. He deeply disapproved of the new social gospel, calling it an invention ‘by the devil’. He also opposed musical instruments in worship and using secular activities as a means of evangelisation. Not surprisingly, many people who thought they knew better ridiculed and criticised him.

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In February 1878, after returning from his travels and newly married to Hannah, Archibald G Brown preached a sermon on hell to young men. The sermon is called ‘The Spiritual Doctrine of Hell’. He gave the address at the East London Tabernacle.

On his trip to Naples in 1877, Brown was struck by the looming Mount Vesuvius on the horizon and went to visit a recently rediscovered Pompeii, much of which was still buried. In August 79 AD, the town experienced a series of earthquakes over several days before Vesuvius erupted.

Wikipedia has a geological account of what happened. However, if anything approached hell on earth, the two days following the earthquakes had to be it. This summarises what happened in Herculaneum and Pompeii (emphases mine):

On the first day of the eruption a fall of white pumice containing clastic fragments of up to 3 centimetres (1.2 in) fell for several hours.[18] It heated the roof tiles to 120–140 °C (248–284 °F).[19] This period would have been the last opportunity to escape. Subsequently a second column deposited a grey pumice with clastics up to 10 cm (3.9 in), temperature unsampled, but presumed to be higher, for 18 hours. These two falls were the Plinian phase. The collapse of the edges of these clouds generated the first dilute PDCs, which must have been devastating to Herculaneum, but did not enter Pompeii.

Early in the morning of the second day the grey cloud began to collapse to a greater degree. Two major surges struck and destroyed Pompeii. Herculaneum and all its population no longer existed. The emplacement temperature range of the first surge was 180–220 °C (356–428 °F), minimum temperatures; of the second, 220–260 °C (428–500 °F). The depositional temperature of the first was 140–300 °C (284–572 °F). Upstream and downstream of the flow it was 300–360 °C (572–680 °F).[20]

The variable temperature of the first surge was due to interaction with the buildings. Any population remaining in structural refuges could not have escaped, as the city was surrounded by gases of incinerating temperatures. The lowest temperatures were in rooms under collapsed roofs. These were as low as 100 °C (212 °F), the boiling point of water.[21] The authors suggest that elements of the bottom of the flow were decoupled from the main flow by topographic irregularities and were made cooler by the introduction of ambient turbulent air. In the second surge the irregularities were gone and the city was as hot as the surrounding environment.

During the last surge, which was very dilute, one meter more of deposits fell over the region.[22]

Now onto Brown’s sermon on hell, which I highly recommend reading in full. Excerpts and summaries follow. Photos are courtesy of Wikipedia.

Brown began by denouncing modern theology, a warning to his audience that they should turn away from error:

Any casual reader of so-called Christian literature must know the distinctive feature of this nineteenth century. There has arisen in the midst of the church an anti-Christ which is known by the name of ‘modern thought’, at whose altars tens of thousands are bowing the knee, and offering their devotion. There is a horrid malaria abroad — a malaria breeding doubt and skepticism, and giving birth to wholesale practical infidelity. Surely the gospel of the present day might be rendered — ‘He who doubts shall be saved, and he who believes shall be counted a fool.’ 

He continued:

The eternal covenant of God is torn up with a glib remark and a smile of contempt by some boy-censor. The threatenings of God are having all the thunder taken out of them; and now let any one venture to say that he believes in such doctrines as the sovereign grace of God, an atoning sacrifice, and a doom of unspeakable horror awaiting the man who dies unconverted — and if he is not derided, he will at least be looked upon with contemptuous pity.

Now, the fiercest onslaught has been made upon the doctrine of God’s severity against sin, and the reason why I have selected this topic this evening is that, somehow or another the evil is finding its way into all the homes of our church members …

There is also an immense amount of jargon about the ‘universal fatherhood’ of God. We are told that God is so good, so kind, so indulgent, that he cannot possibly visit a sinner’s sin with the dire doom that Scripture language declares.

He went on to discuss the letters (epistles) of Peter which mention the flood (Noah) and fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.

I. Now let us to our first point, namely, that our text shows that GOD’S SEVERITY ON SIN IS A SOLEMN FACT.

He mentions the verse where Peter reminds his converts that God expelled the bad angels from heaven and sent them to hell. There is no reason why He would not do the same to us:

Young men, can you not see that every argument which can be employed against the ultimate punishment of men, applies with equal force against the punishment of the sinful angels? Am I told, as we are repeatedly, that there is such a nobility about man, such a natural grandeur, that it is almost impossible to imagine that God can ever consign so glorious and intellectual a being to perdition!

Regarding the flood, from which Noah and his family were spared:

Come, Mr Modern Thinker — you who are so shocked at the idea of God ever pouring out his wrath on any — how do you account for this? Does this look like ‘universal fatherhood’? Does this look like an indulgent father who knows nothing of righteous indignation against sin? It has been computed that the population of the world at that time was as great as now, owing to the longevity of the race, and yet the waters rose until the few — the eight — who rode in that ark were the sole remnant of a world that God had made.

Come, open your ears and hear the shrieks of the drowning; hear the cries of the strong swimmer in his last agony, and account for it, if you can, on any other ground than that God is a hater of sin — that when the accursed thing reaches a climax, he pours his wrath upon it — ay, though doing so destroys a world he fashioned.

He also spoke about God’s slaying of the first-born in Egypt:

I suppose that in Egypt there were more people than there are in London tonight, and yet in every house the first born was found dead, and from end to end of Egypt’s land a great wail of grief went up. Does that look like ‘universal fatherhood’?

He also discussed the parting of the Red Sea for the Israelites, followed by the swallowing up of Pharaoh and his armies:

their salvation meant the destruction of all the chivalry of Egypt.

He mentioned that some modern thinkers would downplay these examples as all coming from the Old Testament, therefore, ancient history. Furthermore, any vivid portrayals of hell come from mediaeval monks, long dead.

However:

‘Medieval’ is it, to speak about weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth? These words came not from the lips of any mortal man. They fell from the same lips that said, ‘Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ Neither Paul, nor Peter, nor any of the apostles, ever uttered such words as leaped from the lips of the Man of Sorrows. Christ’s descriptions of Hell are the most fearful that we have! It is the lips of infinite love that speak of being cut asunder, and about burning with the fire that is never quenched!

II. Now, then, let us look at the next point. THIS PARTICULAR ACT OF SEVERITY MENTIONED IN OUR TEXT, IS TO BE AN EXAMPLE FOR ALL AGES.

At this point, he came to his trip to towns in the Bay of Naples. He described Vesuvius as resembling ivory, a beautiful mountain towering over picturesque, charming villages:

it seemed almost impossible to believe that Vesuvius could do any harm. I was almost inclined to think of Vesuvius as modern thinkers dream of God — that surely all the old fire has burned out. Still, there was some smoke rising which showed me that, though at that time no burning lava was pouring out upon its iron-bound flanks, yet it could do it again.

He toured Herculaneum and Pompeii, which reminded him of what divine punishment and hell must be like:

You must remember that it was not covered with burning lava, as is popularly supposed — that would have destroyed the city. There flowed a torrent of boiling mud which cooled and caked, and then over that there went the burning lava; and this again became like iron, so that there was the city sealed up airtightly, and, for 1,700 years, the world forgot that there was such a place as Pompeii. But we not only saw streets covered with the marks of chariot wheels, and houses with their frescoes. There were other sights sadder far. There were the relics of the past. There I saw the marble table, still standing in the garden as it was left that afternoon; and there was a bottle with the oil still in it; and there was the half eaten loaf of bread.

Yes — but what is that lying there? It is the body of a woman with her face in her hand, seeking to avoid the cinders that were falling. And you can stand there and look upon her, still lying as she cast herself down centuries back. I walked in and out those empty houses in this city of the dead, and I thought of the text, ‘turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, he condemned them with an overthrow’. Sudden was the destruction

The miser was caught as he was counting his hoard; the harlot was arrested in her house of shame; the prisoner was suffocated in his cell, and the sentry as he stood at the gateway.

He wondered if the people saw it as judgement of some sort?

A darkness that might be felt swathed the city. The earth rumbled; then the sea became tortured; and giant waves rolled up upon the trembling shore; and over all there were the lurid flashes from the crater of Vesuvius, while masses of blazing rock went hissing through the air, and the shrieks of the terrified people rose until death triumphed and stilled the clamor!

At that point he sensed Vesuvius speaking to him:

And the mountain muttered these words — ‘I can do it again! I can do it again!’

In his tour of Pompeii, he saw the wrath of God coming again on Judgement Day:

My brethren and sisters, go back and see what God has done. When God smites Judah it is that Israel should take warning, and he who hurled the angels from Heaven to Hell, and drowned the world, and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, has power still to smite. Oh, do not rouse my God to anger. Will you count his longsuffering to be slackness? and because he still lengthens out the time of grace will you presume on it? ‘Escape for your life.’

He concluded:

I have finished, and, as an old preacher once said, ‘Now may God begin.’ I feel that, though we have tried to preach to you earnestly, our language has been but cold and faint. Young men, I do not suppose I shall ever see you all again. It is impossible. But as surely as you are sitting in those pews there is a day coming in which you will find every word we have uttered to be true. There is a day coming in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the earth shall melt with fervent heat, and the trumpet of the archangel shall wax louder and louder! And if you die rejecting Christ you will find yourself, in spite of all that modern thinkers say, doomed to eternal perdition. Fly, then, to Christ, I beseech you. Trust him and he will save you this evening. Rest on his atoning sacrifice, and all sin shall be forgiven you. Go now, and presume no more on God’s patience. Flee from the wrath to come! May God add his blessing, for Christ’s sake. Amen.

I can add little more other than to second this sermon wholeheartedly.

Modern clergy from Brown’s time to the present are hoodwinking us into thinking God will welcome everyone into the heavenly kingdom.

Believe Jesus’s words rather than theirs. There is a second death in hell and it will last forever.

Tomorrow’s post gives a graphic representation of hell by 17th century preacher Thomas Boston.

christogram-stained-glassFebruary 10 is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

What does this season mean? What does it involve? How do we use this season to prepare for Easter, the greatest feast in the Church?

Lutheran pastors show the way, with explanations about Lent in the early Church, including ashes and fasting:

Ash Wednesday reflections

Ash Wednesday: ‘No, that wasn’t dirt on my forehead’

St Athanasius and the Lenten practices of the early Church

Lent in the early Church — not a pagan practice

The last post about Lent not being a pagan practice refutes what an aberrant 19th century Free Church of Scotland minister Alexander Hislop wrote in his book The Two Babylons.

With regard to prayer and contemplation, I can highly recommend the Revd Joshua Scheer’s which you can follow every day:

Lutheran reflections for Lent

An Anglican pastor’s wife, Anne Kennedy, shared her thoughts on why Lent is an excellent time for addressing one’s spiritual state:

Thoughts as we enter Lent 2014

The Reformed and the Evangelicals are right to say that Christians should not feel obliged to treat Lent differently than any other time of the year. That means we should always be contemplating the state of our souls and repentance — turning away — from sin. In any event, we have the freedom in Christ to choose whether to observe Lent with special spiritual disciplines. See ‘Lent a source of Protestant contention’ in the next post where a lively written discussion takes place between a Reformed pastor-professor and Lutheran laymen:

Lent, denominational differences and freedom in Christ

Lent is an ideal time to begin reading the Bible, always profitable to body and soul:

Why not read the Bible this Lent?

Bible study plan suggestions

Some will ask, ‘What is the point when we only revert to our old ways afterwards?’

After 40 days, a new behaviour or spiritual discipline — more prayer! — should be part of us, enabling another step or two on the lifelong road to sanctification. We can then continue to build on that the rest of the year and when Lent rolls around next year, work on the next knotty and stubborn part of our sinfulness.

Lent is a great time to build layer and layer of sanctification, accomplished only with divine grace through our only Mediator and Advocate Christ Jesus.

In 2016, Shrove Tuesday is on February 9 and Ash Wednesday on February 10.

Epiphany gospel readings – Year C

Before going into the ancient history behind Shrovetide, let’s look at what denominations following the  Church calendar currently call the season of Epiphany.

Churches following the three-year Lectionary readings are using those for Year C until the first Sunday in Advent, when Year A readings begin.

The Lectionary readings for the Sundays after Epiphany normally focus on Jesus’s divinity and ministry. In 2014, I excerpted an excellent explanation of the Epiphany season from St Paul’s Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) of Kingsville, Maryland. The church has since taken the page down, but my post has the salient points, among them (emphases mine):

Epiphany is … a season that lasts until the beginning of Lent and encompasses four to nine Sundays, depending on the date of Easter.

… the church concentrates on several of the other incidents from Scripture that show how Jesus manifested God’s love to the world through His ministry of preaching, miracles, and healings.  What is common to each of these epiphanies is that in one way or another they make known the identity and mission of Jesus Christ: True Man and True God, born into this sinful world to be the Lord and Savior of all humanity.

This year, Sunday gospel readings included Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22), His first creative miracle at Cana (John 2:1-11), His preaching at the synagogue in Nazareth when they wanted to throw Him off a cliff (Luke 4:14-21Luke 4:21-30) and the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)). Be sure to read the missing and optional verses!

Shrovetide

Before the post-Vatican II liturgical changes occurred in the Catholic Church and before similar adjustments occurred in Anglican and Lutheran churches, these denominations observed what was called Shrovetide.

Shrovetide begins on Septuagesima Sunday and comprises Sexagesima Sunday and Quinquagesima Sunday (commonly called Shrove Sunday). My post, ‘The Sundays before Lent’ explains what each of these ancient names mean and what they signified in terms of spiritual disciplines. In brief, they mark the days before Easter: 70, 60 and 50, respectively. Centuries ago, some Christians began Lenten fasting the day after Septuagesima Sunday.

The word ‘shrove’ is the past tense of ‘shrive‘, an archaic verb meaning:

Present oneself to a priest for confession, penance, and absolution.

Christians were supposed to go to confession during this time, a customary practice before Lent began. In England, Abbot Aelfric instituted this practice in 1000 AD.

Even into the 20th century, people took Shrovetide seriously. In the 1960s, I knew a Catholic lady who explained that these Sundays were meant to exercise the consciences of the faithful, get them to focus on their sinfulness and decide on the appropriate spiritual disciplines they would need to undertake during Lent.

Carnival

The final days of the season are Shrove Monday and Shrove Tuesday.

Of course, by then, Carnival, where celebrated, is in full swing. In some countries, it lasts for a week. In others, it starts on the final weekend of Shrovetide. In both cases, the festivities climax and end on Shrove Tuesday.

According to Wikipedia, Carnival was an ancient pagan time of revelry. Certainly, early Church councils and synods attempted to curb the excesses which took place at this time. Wikipedia tells us:

Many synods and councils attempted to set things “right”. The statements of Caesarius of Arles (470–542), which protested around 500 CE in his sermons against the Pagan practices, seemed to have formed the building blocks of the Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum (small index of superstitious and pagan practices), which was drafted by the Synod of Leptines in 742 in which the Spurcalibus en februario was condemned.

Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) decided that fasting would start on Ash Wednesday.

He did this in order to draw a clear line of demarcation between Carnival and Lent.

My post ‘Lent, denominational differences and freedom in Christ’ has more on Carnival, including the origin of the word which:

derives from the Latin carne vale, or ‘farewell, meat [literally, ‘flesh’]’.  In England, the word valete is still used occasionally in formal academic announcements (parodied in the satirical magazine Private Eye); valete is the plural of vale and is used when bidding farewell to more than one person or thing.

Shrove Monday

In addition to Carnival celebrations, Shrove Monday was also a time to eat foods that would need to be either consumed straightaway or abstained from during Lent:

Centuries ago, as Lent approached, flour from the previous year was near its expiry date, so to speak.  Similarly, eggs, milk and meat fat (e.g. lard) would also have to be eaten or discarded before the fast. No household threw out food.  Therefore, the European custom prior to Lent was to use up these foodstuffs.

Centuries ago, the British called this day Collop Monday. Collop means sliced or minced meat. It was a final opportunity to eat meat prior to Lent. The meal was often a breakfast, in which eggs also featured. If bacon was used, the cook or housewife reserved the fat for the pancakes served the following day.

Shrove Tuesday

Nearly all European countries mark Shrove Tuesday with a special food item or fat-laden feast, a final opportunity for enjoyment before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

These customs are centuries old and spread to other countries around the world with European exploration and settlement.

The Reformation could not put paid to old pre-Lenten customs which live on today. The British and many Commonwealth nations still call Shrove Tuesday Pancake Day. In Scandinavia and parts of Northern Europe, people enjoy semla, a sweet bun filled with frangipane and topped with whipped cream. People in Iceland celebrate Bursting Day by eating salted meat and peas.

Many countries celebrate Carnival or hold other ancient festivities on Shrove Tuesday.

In Britain, a number of towns in Britain hold pancake races, which date back to the 15th century:

The tradition is said to have originated in 1445 when a housewife from Olney, Buckinghamshire, was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing for the service. She raced out of the house to church while still carrying her frying pan and pancake, tossing it to prevent it from burning.[17][18] The pancake race remains a relatively common festive tradition in the UK, especially England, even today. Participants with frying pans race through the streets tossing pancakes into the air and catching them in the pan while running.

The most famous pancake race,[19] at Olney in Buckinghamshire, has been held since 1445. The contestants, traditionally women, carry a frying pan and race over a 415-yard course to the finishing line. The rules are strict: contestants have to toss their pancake at both the start and the finish, as well as wear an apron and a scarf. Traditionally, when men want to participate, they must dress up as a housewife (usually an apron and a bandanna). The race is followed by a church service.[17]

Another popular Shrove Tuesday tradition in England was the local football match. This has died out over the centuries, and the Royal Shrovetide Football Match in Derbyshire appears to be the sole survivor.

Yet, in the 12th century, a cleric, William Fitzstephen, wrote about a football match he witnessed in London. By the late Middle Ages, other towns and cities around Britain also held Shrovetide ball games. The types of games varied by region and tradition.

The Royal Shrovetide Football Match:

is a “mob football” game played annually on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday in the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire, England. 

The match has specific rules and takes place not on a pitch but all over town:

The ball is rarely kicked, though it is legal to kick, carry or throw it. Instead it generally moves through the town in a series of hugs, like a giant scrum in rugby, made up of dozens if not hundreds of people.

Shops board up their windows and people park away from Ashbourne’s main thoroughfares.

The match gained royal assent in 1928 when the future Edward VIII (the abdicator!) attended. In 2003, it was given royal assent a second time when Prince Charles opened the match.

Conclusion

It is fascinating to discover how ancient, widespread, varied and enduring these pre-Lenten traditions are.

This history provides food for thought on how our ancestors might have spent the days preceding Lent.

My past few posts have discussed hell:

John MacArthur on hell

Hell on low — or no — heat (20th century history)

Christian views on hell: moving back to Origen

J C Ryle on hell (19th century, first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool)

The second one in the series has several quotes from 20th and 21st century pastors and theologians who have downplayed hell and questioned eternal punishment in the life to come.

One of my readers, Brad Grierson, who kindly reblogged the aforementioned post on Origen, commented:

I think Hell often gets downplayed because it is so difficult to imagine. The mind cannot rightly comprehend an eternity of suffering so it comes up with ideas that are more familiar to it such as a temporal prison sentence or that it simply doesn’t exist at all. In a way, this is how heresy springs up: we cannot fully comprehend so we make it something we can comprehend.

That is very true. Oddly, sinful man has no difficulty imagining heaven as being both beautiful and eternal. Yet, when it comes to divine and just punishment, suddenly, many of us consider that unthinkable.

It is impossible to comprehend God. And, because we cannot comprehend His plan and His ways, we cannot comprehend how offensive our sins against Him actually are.

John MacArthur’s Grace To You ministry team posted an excellent three-part series on God and hell in 2011, when Rob Bell‘s Love Wins came out. Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

I hope you will be encouraged to read all three articles in full.

God’s offence at our sin

Tommy Clayton wrote ‘Is God a Monster?’ in which he explains God’s view of sin.

Clayton was not always a Christian. He used to find divine judgment in the Bible unfair, extreme and arbitrary.

The Bible has several examples of people who died because they disobeyed God. Most of these are in the Old Testament, but the New Testament also has one case (not included in the three-year Lectionary, incidentally):

Lot’s wife. God turned her into a pillar of salt as she was leaving Sodom. Her crime? A backward glance (Genesis 19:26) …

  • Nadab and Abihu deviated from the priestly procedures. God consumed them with fire (Leviticus 10:1-2).
  • One man gathered wood on the Sabbath. God commanded Moses to stone him (Numbers 15:35).
  • Achan took a few forbidden items from the spoils of Jericho. God commanded Joshua to stone and then burn Achan along with his entire family (Joshua 7:24-25).
  • Uzzah kept the ark of God from falling into the mud by reaching out his hand and taking hold of it. God immediately struck him dead (2 Samuel 6:6-7).
  • Ananias and Sapphira lied to the apostles. God killed them both in front of the entire church. (Acts 5:1-10).

If we find ourselves asking if God is a monster, Clayton exhorts us to consider our imperfect and sinful lack of comprehension:

Our flesh wants to cry out in protest, “That’s not fair!” But responses like that reveal our failure to grasp the depth of sin. We see only actions—a devoted father gathering firewood to keep his family warm; a zealous Israelite anxious to keep the Ark of God off the ground—but God sees things differently, more clearly, than we do. He sees our sin as insurrection, rebellion against His holiness (Exodus 31:14; Numbers 4:15). What’s more, He sees the hidden motives and intentions at the core of our actions (Matthew 5:28; Hebrews 4:12) …

The Bible describes our sin as “rebellion,” “ungodliness,” “lawlessness,” “wickedness,” and an “abomination” (Leviticus 26:27; Isaiah 32:6; 1 John 3:4; Ezekiel 18:27; Proverbs 15:9). Sinners then, are traitors, refusing to love, thank, serve, and obey the God who gave them life, breath, and every good thing.

Sinners spurn God’s love, despise His sovereignty, mock His justice, and view His commands with contempt. They are thieves and murderers, stealing God’s glory and assaulting His holiness. In fact, as Martin Luther once remarked, if sinners had their way, they would dethrone and murder God, which is exactly what they did at Calvary (Acts 2:23). Viewed through the lens of Scripture, sin appears exceedingly sinful (Romans 7:13).

Clayton makes an excellent point about humanity’s anger with God when they should be angry with themselves over repeatedly offending Him:

I find it ironic that those who protest the idea of eternal, conscious torment deride the doctrine with words like, “cruel,” “morally revolting,” “monstrous,” and “repugnant.” Why don’t they employ the same terms of outrage to describe sin? Simple: they fail to see as God sees. God finds our sin “cruel,” “morally revolting,” “monstrous,” and “repugnant,” and He’s absolutely right. If we can’t see our sin as God sees it, it stands to reason that we don’t see the just judgment of hell like He sees it either. We’re just going to have to trust Him.

He concludes:

We’ve all assaulted God (Romans 3:23), and we all deserve hell. Reject Christ, and hell is exactly what you’ll get. God will rise up in judgment and cast all unbelievers into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14), and all creation will praise His justice. To accuse God of injustice for sentencing sinners to hell is the height of arrogance and audacity.

Yes, God’s judgment is unbearable, but it is never unjust (Genesis 4:13). And that is why “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

This reminds me of an atheist who said to me several years ago, ‘Hell doesn’t apply to me, because I don’t believe. Hell is your thing, not mine.’

Hmm. We’ll see. One must pray for such people that divine grace imbues their hearts and minds.

Annihilation or temporary punishment

In contemplating the eternity of hell for any length of time, one can understand how the Catholic Church devised their unbiblical doctrine of purgatory and all the short little prayers that one could say which are said to reduce the time therein.

Among Evangelical Protestants, the notions of annihilation and temporary punishment are not uncommon. In ‘Is Hell Really Endless?’ Travis Allen takes proponents of both errors to task for misinterpreting — either accidentally or deliberately — the word ‘eternal’ in Scripture.

One view of hell that seems to be making a strong resurgence today among evangelicals is Annihilationism. There are slight variations, but it essentially teaches God will eventually snuff every unbeliever out of existence. Some Annihilationists make room for divine wrath, but they don’t allow it to extend beyond the lake of fire. In other words, they won’t allow God the full force of His judgment, which is eternal, conscious torment. For them, the lake of fire is what completely consumes and finally destroys sinners. Whether they see death as the end, or whether they see hell’s torments as limited in duration, the result is the same—a denial of the endlessness of hell.

For no good exegetical reason, some Annihilationists have understood the word “eternal” to refer, not to a duration of time, but to the quality of God’s judgment. It’s eternal in quality, even though it has an end. Other Annihilationists say “eternal” refers to the effect of divine judgment. That is to say, God’s judgment results in death—as in extinction, annihilation—which is a state of non-being that lasts eternally.

If you’re having a hard time bending your mind around that, you’re not alone. It’s hard to conceive of a sinner experiencing an eternal quality of judgment without it lasting forever. Matthew 25:46 clearly teaches that the duration of punishment and life are alike, both eternal.

Allen cites John MacArthur’s explanation of the word ‘eternal’:

Punishment in hell is defined by the word aionios, which is the word eternal or everlasting. There are people who would like to redefine that word aionios and say, “Well, it doesn’t really mean forever.” But if you do that with hell, you’ve just done it with heaven, because the same word is used to describe both. If there is not an everlasting hell, then there is not an everlasting heaven. And I’ll go one beyond that. The same word is used to describe God. And so if there is not an everlasting hell, then there is not an everlasting heaven, nor is there an everlasting God. It is clear that God is eternal; and, therefore, that heaven is eternal, and so is hell. (John MacArthur, “A Testimony of One Surprised to Be in Hell, Part 2”)

Allen also quotes St Augustine of Hippo who wrote:

To say that life eternal shall be endless, [but that] punishment eternal shall come to an end is the height of absurdity.

We understand our temporal laws easily. Being found guilty of breaking the law sometimes carries with it a custodial sentence which has an end. However, a sentence to hell from God has no end:

the nature of the infraction is measured against the nature of God who is holy and eternal. Likewise, God, who is perfect in righteousness, determines the justice an infraction demands. According to His Word, the punishment for an offense against a holy God is everlasting torment in hell.

Ultimately:

In an uncomfortably poignant and penetrating way, the doctrine of eternal hell confronts our loyalty, reveals our true authority, and demands that we set aside what seems reasonable to us and trust in the righteous judgment of a holy God. When we embrace the hard doctrines of the Bible, it becomes one of the most significant evidences of true, God-given faith.

He concludes:

I hope the doctrine of eternal torment sobers you. May it fill you with praise to God for saving you from eternal punishment, for giving you eternal life instead. May it humble you when you realize you’re not getting what you deserve. And may it ignite in you a passion to proclaim the gospel to those poor souls who are unaware of the terror that awaits them outside the mercy of God.

Again, I cannot help but think of the atheist I spoke to several years ago.

Let’s not downplay hell

Tommy Clayton wrote the last article in the series, ‘The Severity of Hell’.

He began with a quotation from the famous 19th century Baptist preacher from London, Charles Haddon Spurgeon:

Shun all views of future punishment that would make it appear less terrible.

The rot was already setting in back then.

Clayton warns:

Modern views of hell won’t survive the test of biblical fidelity. They’ll allow the sinner to feel more comfortable and complacent by defanging God, making Him appear less severe.

He cites the Evangelical professor and theologian Wayne Grudem who associates an unscriptural belief about hell with a lack of belief in the validity of Scripture and, in the end, shaky faith:

The doctrine of eternal conscious punishment . . . tends to be one of the first doctrines given up by people who are moving away from a commitment to the Bible as absolutely truthful  [. . .]. Among liberal theologians who do not accept the absolute truthfulness of the Bible, there is probably no one today who believes in the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment. (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology)

Jesus never presented hell lightly, nor did anyone in the Bible. Clayton reminds us:

Whenever Jesus described hell, He was never flippant or dismissive. He used vivid, terrifying terms to describe the final destination of sinners, shocking and scaring His audiences with frighteningly graphic metaphors. Hell is a place so bad that you should be willing to cut off sensitive, irreplaceable parts of your body to avoid it (Matthew 5:29-30); even martyrdom would be worth avoiding the torment of hell (Matthew 10:28). He always presented hell as a horrific place of intolerable suffering.

His descriptions are consistent with other biblical writers. Daniel referred to hell as a place of shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2). Paul called it a place of endless destruction and punishment (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). Jude called hell a place of eternal fire and darkness (Jude 7). The Apostle John described hell as a place where sinners suffer everlasting torment, with no rest day or night (Revelation 14:9-11).

Taken together, all those descriptions of hell communicate pain, fear, loss, anger, separation, and hopelessness. It’s utter agony, eternal torment.

John Calvin explained:

By such expressions, the Holy Spirit certainly intended to confound all our senses with dread.

Some agnostics and unbelievers say they would rather be in hell so they can be with a close relative or best friend who predeceased them. However, that is a flawed, human way of viewing eternal punishment.

God does not allow any succour in hell. Those thinking they will be near their loved ones there will actually be very far away from them — forever.

Clayton cites John MacArthur:

This is a reminder to all sinners that while hell is the full fury of God’s personal punishment presence, He will never be there to comfort. He will never be there to show sympathy. He will never bring relief. [. . .] it is both the punishment of God and the absence of comfort. [. . .] That’s hell—punishment without relief (“The King Crucified: Consummation at Calvary”)

And the Puritan Thomas Vincent:

Not only will the unbeliever be in hell, but hell will be in him too.

The people ending up in hell will only be concerned with their own remorse and continuous torment, not with anyone else’s. Hell implies the absence of all things godly, which include love and compassion.

Please ensure that you understand the full import of hell. No one preaches on it anymore, so it requires independent study.

I’ve only heard one fire and brimstone sermon and that was by an elderly Catholic priest, a weekend guest in our parish, in 1972. He wore pre-Vatican II vestments, preached for 20 minutes and said most of the things that Grace To You elders have said above.

To say that hell is the absence of God alone makes eternal punishment appear metaphysical. It sells God’s justice and sovereignty short.

Posts later this week will give us a more human appreciation of the horrors of hell.

Bible readingThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 14:34-36

Jesus Heals the Sick in Gennesaret

34 And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick 36 and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.

————————————————————————————————

Last week’s reading is at the beginning of Matthew 14 and relates the death of John the Baptist, news of which reached Jesus.

Matthew tells us that, afterwards, He went by boat to ‘a desolate place’ to be alone (Matthew 14:13).

The crowds followed Him via land routes (Matthew 14:14). He healed the sick among them and, when the day came to an end, He performed the miracle of feeding the 5,000, which was likely more, as that number only designated men. There were also women and children there, so, as John MacArthur says, there could have been as many as 25,000 people in all (Matthew 14:15-21).

Jesus still wanted to pray alone, so He sent the disciples on ahead in their boat to go to the other side of the sea to Gennesaret. A terrible storm broke out whilst the disciples were in the boat. They were too far out to get back to shore. They were frightened. In the middle of the night, Jesus approached them, walking on water. Seeing this figure, the disciples were truly terrified. Jesus said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid’ (Matthew 14:22-27).

This is what happened next (Matthew 14:28-33):

28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind,[d] he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

This brings us to today’s verses which concern his second ministry in Gennesaret. Matthew Henry tells us:

It was in this country and neighbourhood that the woman with the bloody issue was cured by touching the hem of his garment, and was commended for her faith (Matthew 9:20-22) and thence, probably, they took occasion to ask this.

John MacArthur says:

we do know that in past ministry there, He had healed multitudes and multitudes and multitudes, so there were a lot less than there originally were.

The parallel reading for this is Mark 6:53-56, which I discussed in 2012. That post has a much more detailed version of the feeding of the 5,000 and the ensuing storm which was a precursor of the hardships the apostles would endure in their future preaching and healing.

The story of His first ministry there involves healing the woman with the 12-year blood flow and Jairus’s daughter. There are three accounts: Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-34 and Luke 8:40-48.

Now on to today’s reading. Jesus and His disciples landed at Gennesaret (verse 34). My post about Mark’s version of events explains that this place, which was a small region rather than a village or town, was:

not far from Capernaum and Bethsaida, the original port of call (Mark 6:45). (This Bethsaida is different from the Pool of Bethesda or Pool of Bethsaida in John 5. The port of Bethsaida is along the Sea of Galilee. The name means ‘fish house’, so fishing was probably the primary local ‘industry’ there.)

John’s account tells us that people followed them there. More came from Capernaum. So, again, our Saviour and the Twelve were surrounded by crowds (verse 54). This time, however, the newcomers sought healing (verse 55). MacArthur says that Gennesaret is a scenic spot which is much identified with the Sea of Galilee, sometimes referred to as the Lake of Gennesaret.

Matthew Henry wrote that Gennesaret translates as:

the valley of branches.

Furthermore, it was next to the land of the Gadarenes, or:

the Gergesenes, their neighbours, who were borderers upon the same lake. Those besought Christ to depart from them, they had no occasion for him these besought him to help them, they had need of him.

You can read more about the story of the Gadarene swine in Matthew 8:28-34. For parallel accounts, but with one man instead of two, read Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-33 and Luke 8:34-39.

In Gennesaret, it was not long before the men of the region recognised Jesus from His first visit (verse 35). They quickly went around to bring the sick to Him.

Note that when the men brought the ailing to Jesus, they followed the example of the woman with the blood flow and implored Him to allow the sick to touch the hem of His garment in order to be healed (verse 36).

All who touched it were made well.

MacArthur says that they did not wish to impose on Him (emphases mine):

They may have remembered the woman in chapter 9, who grabbed His robe and was healed. All they felt they needed to do was to touch Him, and I think there is a sense of beautiful propriety here, a sensitivity here; they are saying, “We need so desperately what you have to give, but we don’t want to be an extra burden for you. You don’t have to get around to all of us; we’ll just touch You, and that way we’ll be as little a problem to You as we can be.” So there is a sense of propriety and sensitivity in their approach, and a great, great measure of faith.

Remember that Jesus’s creative miracles resulted in immediate and complete restoration to health as a sign that God is merciful in His love:

There are no progressive healings, or claims that, “Jesus healed me, and I’ve been getting better ever since.” They were made totally well in the instant that they touched Him. Here, again, we are wont to remark that the compassion of God is demonstrated; He is the compassionate healer. It is so that God may be revealed as a compassionate God, a God of loving kindness and tenderness toward people.

Did the people believe that Jesus was the Son of God afterward? MacArthur thinks that is unlikely:

It strikes me that this again is a classic example of the fact that people inevitably came to Jesus to get what they wanted. Then, having gotten what they wanted, they left. That is the pathos of this whole thing. It always seems to be so with Jesus. Once people have received what they wanted, they’re gone.

We respond with, ‘Aww, that’s awful.’ Yet, are we any better?

Even today in our contemporary kind of Christianity, Jesus is seen as a genie who responds to our wishes, and having received our wishes, we abandon any meaningful relationship. It’s as if Jesus is offered as one who is a panacea and little else. We, today, are as guilty of ingratitude toward God and Jesus Christ, which, by the way, may be the ugliest of all sins, as these were in that day. So in spite of their ingratitude and self-centeredness, and in spite of the fact that their commitment to Him was one of great faith and great need and not one of great adoration, He healed them. That is the compassion of God.

This modern taking God for granted is known as moralistic therapeutic deism. The link has a simple explanation of the comfy Christianity many of us ascribe to.

If we have fallen in that trap, Matthew Henry gives us advice on how to enter in to a truly profound relationship with our Lord which will sustain us in this life. Alternatively, we can carry on and risk falling away from the faith:

The healing virtue that is in Christ, is put forth for the benefit of those that by a true and lively faith touch him. Christ is in heaven, but his word is nigh us, and he himself in that word. When we mix faith with the word, apply it to ourselves, depend upon it, and submit to its influences and commands, then we touch the hem of Christ’s garment. It is but thus touching, and we are made whole. On such easy terms are spiritual cures offered by him, that he may truly be said to heal freely so that if our souls die of their wounds, it is not owing to our Physician, it is not for want of skill or will in him but it is purely owing to ourselves. He could have healed us, he would have healed us, but we would not be healed so that our blood will lie upon our own heads.

That’s a sobering thought.

In closing, John MacArthur introduced Matthew 15, which we will begin next week, as follows:

He rejected the shallow, sham kind of interest. It was superficial, political, self-centered, self-indulgent; they wanted food, they wanted healing, they wanted freedom from Rome and the Herodians, but they didn’t want their hearts changed, or Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, so He rejected the shallowness of their interest. From here on out, things begin to descend; He loses popularity, hostility begins to rise, we are one year away from His crucifixion, and the majority of that year is spent in seclusion with the Twelve. He is readying and equipping them for the tremendous ministry they’re going to have when He leaves …

From here on out, He’s going to spend more and more time with the Twelve as the hostility, anger, bitterness, and rejection arises. Again, as we look at our text, we see an instant change that helps us note this as a turning point. The crowd has given to Jesus the pinnacle of popularity, and it is the very next day that He is confronted, here in this text, with the scribes and Pharisees who pour their venom on Him, and reveal the fact that what they really want to do is publicly discredit Him and get rid of Him. So the turning point comes immediately, and we are faced with the hostility of these religious leaders of Israel.

Next time: Matthew 15:1-9

J C RyleThis post continues my series on hell. If you haven’t read about Origen’s unorthodox views on hell which are currently infecting the Church, please do so.

J C Ryle (1816-1900) was undoubtedly one of the greatest Anglicans who ever lived.

Educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, his parents expected him to enter politics. However, Ryle felt called to the priesthood and was ordained in 1842.

He was very much an evangelical preacher, firmly opposed to the Ritualism in the Church as characterised by the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement of the time. Although he had firm religious convictions which he expressed in no uncertain terms, in private, he was known for his kindness and warmth.  He also preached to the working class, bringing many to the knowledge and love of Christ Jesus.

One of Benjamin Disraeli’s last acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Ryle to the post of Bishop of Liverpool, a brand new diocese.  There, Ryle presided over the construction of 40 new churches, raised clergy salaries and instituted pension funds for them. He was also responsible for the building of the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool.

Ryle retired only three months before he died at age 83 in 1900. Today, he appears to have more of a following in the United States among orthodox Protestants than he does here in England.  He published several works on the four Gospels as well as on the Christian life.

(Incidentally, Ryle’s second son, Herbert Edward Ryle, served as Bishop of Exeter, then Bishop of Winchester before being appointed Dean of Westminster in 1911.)

If only the Church of England had many more clergy like Ryle today. He wrote:

My chief desire in all my writings, is to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ and make Him beautiful and glorious in the eyes of men; and to promote the increase of repentance, faith, and holiness upon earth.

And:

Every professing Christian is the soldier of Christ. He is bound by his baptism to fight Christ’s battle against sin, the world, and the devil. The man that does not do this, breaks his vow: he is a spiritual defaulter; he does not fulfil the engagement made for him. The man that does not do this, is practically renouncing his Christianity. The very fact that he belongs to a Church, attends a Christian place of worship, and calls himself a Christian, is a public declaration that he desires to be reckoned a soldier of Jesus Christ.

You can read his views on the Christian life and his analysis of English Puritan clergy. GraceGems has an extensive collection of Ryle’s sermons and books which you can read online.

Ryle’s written works include commentaries on the gospels. What follows is an excerpt from Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on Matthew. It is from his commentary on Matthew 26:14-25. Emphases mine below.

This is the relevant reading (ESV):

Judas to Betray Jesus

14 Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.

The Passover with the Disciples

17 Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 18 He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” 19 And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover.

20 When it was evening, he reclined at table with the twelve.[b] 21 And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22 And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” 23 He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” 25 Judas, who would betray him, answered, “Is it I, Rabbi?” He said to him, “You have said so.”

The first part of Ryle’s commentary discusses Judas then concludes with the following. Note how Ryle relies on Scripture to make his point about the importance of avoiding everlasting hell:

We ought frequently to call to mind the solemn words, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” “We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” Our daily prayer should be, “Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me.” ( Proverbs 30:8). Our constant aim should be to be rich in grace. “They that will be rich” in worldly possessions often find at last that they have made the worst of bargains ( 1 Timothy 6:9 ). Like Esau, they have bartered an eternal portion for a little temporary gratification; like Judas Iscariot, they have sold themselves to everlasting perdition.

Let us learn in the last place from these verses the hopeless condition of all who die unconverted. The words of our Lord on this subject are peculiarly solemn: he says of Judas, “It had been good for that man if he had not been born”. This saying admits of only one interpretation. It teaches plainly that it is better never to live at all than to live without faith and die without grace. To die in this state is to be ruined forevermore: it is a fall from which there is no rising, a loss which is utterly irretrievable. There is no change in hell: the gulf between hell and heaven is one that no man can pass. This saying could never have been used if there was any truth in the doctrine of universal salvation. If it really was true that all would sooner or later reach heaven, and hell sooner or later be emptied of inhabitants, it never could be said that it would have been “good for a man not to have been born.” Hell itself would lose its terrors if it had an end: hell itself would be endurable if after millions of ages there were a hope of freedom and of heaven. But universal salvation will find no foothold in Scripture: the teaching of the Word of God is plain and express on the subject. There is a worm that never dies, and a fire that is not quenched ( Mark 9:44) Except a man be born again,” he will wish one day he had never been born at all. “Better,” says Burkett, “have no being, than not have a being in Christ.”

Let us grasp this truth firmly, and not let it go. There are always persons who deny the reality and eternity of hell. We live in a day when a morbid charity induces many to exaggerate God’s mercy at the expense of his justice, and when false teachers are daring to talk of a “love of God lower even than hell.” Let us resist such teaching with a holy jealousy, and abide by the doctrine of Holy Scripture: let us not be ashamed to walk in the old paths, and to believe that there is an eternal God, and an eternal heaven and an eternal hell. Once [we] depart from this belief, and we admit the thin end of the wedge of skepticism, and may at last deny any doctrine of the Gospel. We may rest assured that there is no firm standing ground between a belief in the eternity of hell, and downright infidelity.

We do need to guard against adopting unorthodox beliefs, those which go contrary to Scripture. As Ryle says, once we begin discarding one fundamental tenet of Christianity, we are unlikely to stop there. We depart on the road to questioning more and more of the Bible and discarding more doctrine. Where does one end up then? In a sorry spiritual state wherein we question whether we are saved.

Notional doubters or sceptics who claim they ‘want to believe’ but somehow cannot, would do well to study the New Testament. If they cannot bring themselves to do that, they should pray for the divine grace to enable them to do so:

I believe; help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24)

More on hell next week.

This follows on from Monday’s post about hell. Please note that there is an adult image and disturbing content in this entry.

In the 1970s my secondary school religion teachers taught that Origen was a heretic and that the Church declared him as well as his teachings anathema. In short, they said that Origen started out as a devout Christian then went off-piste.

My mother told me the same thing years before.

Today, Origen seems to be all the rage. The modern Church has rehabilitated his reputation, and clergy are encouraging us to adopt his beliefs.

Two of Origen’s beliefs concern hell and universalism. Origen held that hell was temporary, akin to a very long-term purgatory, and wrote that there will come a point in eternity when God will accept the population of hell — including Satan — to heaven.

Is that what the Bible says?

As far as Origen was concerned, the Bible is entirely allegorical — down to the last word. In his mind, the simple-minded could take it literally or look at it in terms of genre (like me), but if one truly had faith in Christ, one would be able to interpret the words differently.

Origen also believed in the pre-existence of souls, which is a form of reincarnation.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s entry on Origen states (emphases mine):

The chief accusations against Origen’s teaching are the following: making the Son inferior to the Father and thus being a precursor of Arianism, a 4th-century heresy that denied that the Father and the Son were of the same substance; spiritualizing away the resurrection of the body; denying hell, a morally enervating universalism; speculating about preexistent souls and world cycles; and dissolving redemptive history into timeless myth by using allegorical interpretation. None of these charges is altogether groundless. At the same time there is much reason to justify Jerome’s first judgment that Origen was the greatest teacher of the early church after the Apostles.

That last sentence demonstrates why heretics were and are so dangerous. Every one of them mixes truth with error.

The Church did not declare Origen to be anathema until 300 years after his death. Origen died in 254 and the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople condemned his teachings in 553.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains why:

In the 6th century the “New Laura” (monastic community) in Palestine became a centre for an Origenist movement among the monastic intelligentsia, hospitable to speculations about such matters as preexistent souls and universal salvation. The resultant controversy led Justinian I to issue a long edict denouncing Origen (543); the condemnation was extended also to Didymus and Evagrius by the fifth ecumenical council at Constantinople (553). Nevertheless, Origen’s influence persisted, such as in the writings of the Byzantine monk Maximus the Confessor (c. 550–662) and the Irish theologian John Scotus Erigena (c. 810–877), and, since Renaissance times, controversy has continued concerning his orthodoxy, Western writers being generally more favourable than Eastern Orthodox.

This CCEL page has the full statement of the 15 anathemas against Origen — his person as well as his teachings.

Today, we read that Origen was not declared anathema in 553. This notion comes from Norman Tanner whose Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils was published in 1990. An Eastern Orthodox blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy, has more on Tanner’s explanation, a clear plea for universalism.

The general gist is that Justinian I did not like opposition and that Origen was not the only early theologian who had such ideas. Two others, St Clement of Alexandria and St Gregory of Nyssa, were also universalists.

Yet, they are saints. Origen was declared a heretic.

It seems that, as my teachers and our religious studies books said, Origen went too far. Dr Ken Matto has an interesting list of Origen’s beliefs, some of which are held by the Catholic Church, sects and modern churches in other denominations. What follow are the really unorthodox ones. Although many claim Origen fought against Gnosticism, Matto purports that he was indeed a Gnostic:

Gnosticism was and is a belief that all matter is evil and that freedom comes through knowledge. The word Gnostic comes from the Greek word “gnosis” which means “knowledge.”

Matto lists the beliefs of Gnostics, referring to Jay Green’s The Gnostics, the New Versions, and the Deity of Christ. There are eight, which you can read in full.

Those that stood out for me are that the Gnostic thinks he is Spirit while lesser beings are but flesh and blood; he has a knowledge which surpasses Christianity; he allegorises Scripture; he believes that Christ’s earthly body was an illusion and that He will always be inferior to Gnostic gods, the Demiurge and the Artificer.

Matto states Origen’s 14 beliefs. What follows are the most unusual — and wrong:

1/ He believed the Holy Spirit was a feminine force
7/ He believed in the transmigration of the soul and the reincarnation of the soul
8/ He doubted the temptations of Jesus in Scripture and claimed they could have never happened.
9/ The Scriptures were not literal. He was the father of allegory.
11/ Based upon Matthew 19, a true man of God should be castrated, which he did to himself.
13/ Christ enters no man until they mentally grasp the understanding of the consummation of the ages. (It was Frederick Dennison Maurice in the 19th century who defined eternal life as coming to a knowledge of God. This is the essence of Gnosticism.)
14/ He taught there would be no physical resurrection of the believers.

Gosh. I know Anglican and Episcopal clergy who believe some of these things. Not No. 11, however, I hasten to add. The painting of Origen below — courtesy of Bad News About Christianity — comes from Roman de la Rose [‘Romance of the Rose’], France 15th century, Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 195, fol. 122v.

Odd, isn’t it, that Origen — he of scriptural allegory — took Matthew 19:10-12 literally?

10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Natto follows with a useful Scriptural rebuttal of Origen’s teachings, concluding that Gnosticism fits in nicely with New Age teachings.

Indeed.

The New World Encyclopedia draws an empathetic conclusion about Origen:

In centuries much later, however, his work has been revisited by more sympathetic eyes, and his thought has been recognized as formative for the development of Christian theology. The historian Philip Schaff (1819-1893) sums up Origen’s contribution to Christianity, by saying that in spite of his condemnation he “did more than all his enemies combined to advance the cause of sacred learning, to refute and convert heathens and heretics, and to make the church respected in the eyes of the world.”[3] Origen’s hope for universal salvation and his tolerant attitude towards those who have different opinions would be more acceptable today when Celsus’ criticism of Christianity may tend to be more seriously reflected upon and ecumenism is more common-sensically practiced. It may be that as early as in the third century before church dogma was officially formulated he already had an insight into today’s situation.

Or maybe we are just leading ourselves down the garden path.

St Paul warned against false beliefs that tickle our itching ears (2 Timothy 4:3). How can something that sounds so good be so wrong? Paul warned:

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,

On this point, the Wikipedia entry for Origen states:

Origen is regarded by the Catholic Church as a Church Father, but not a saint.[76]

Really? So, everything I learned about him in Catholic school has been conveniently overturned?

It would appear so. Catholic Encyclopedia has what can only be described as a puff piece on Origen. The entry explains away any criticism the Church had of him since the 6th century. It’s a long article and, like most Catholic Encyclopedia entries, is written in their typically arcane style, which is so unnecessary. I do wonder whether they want Catholics to read it or continue in blissful ignorance. But I digress.

In a nutshell, Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that through the centuries people have misunderstood or misinterpreted Origen’s teachings. The entry even casts doubt over whether Origen was actually anathematised! They base their reasoning on Pope Vigilius’s absence from the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553, the fact that the subsequent popes through to the early 7th century never mentioned Origen and, finally, the Origenism that was condemned was not the one Origen himself came up with but a derivation of it.

Hmm.

Am I convinced by that? Certainly not.

Origen came into this post at length because Bad News About Christianity mentioned the man in the article ‘Invented, Amended & Discarded Doctrines’ — one of which is hell:

According to recent theories Hell is not a place at all. It is, as the heretic Origen suggested, a condition of being distant from God. Alternatively, if it does exist it is probably empty! This solution attempts to reconcile the traditional doctrine of the reality of Hell with the requirement for a modern, caring, God. It is a classic example of the way in which teachings change when doctrine starts to become unteachable because of widespread disbelief. The Church cannot bring itself to agree explicitly with the atheist Lucretius (c.96-55 BC) and admit that “There is no murky pit of Hell awaiting anyone”*, but that is really what churchmen have come around to after 2,000 years.

Well said, even if they are unbelievers.

Their entry on hell is worthwhile reading. It quotes the relevant part of the Second Council of Constantinople statement:

Whosoever says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of the wicked will not be eternal, that it will have an end …. let him be anathema.

The article goes on to say that this firmly established the Church’s belief in hell until relatively recently:

For centuries children and peasants were terrorised by the promise of eternal damnation. Theologians assured them that they would be crushed in giant wine presses, torn to pieces by wild animals, fed with the gall of dragons, burned for eternity, tortured by demons, and so on.

As Cardinal Newman pointed out, belief in Hell was central to Christian theology, it was “the critical doctrine — you can’t get rid of it — it is the very characteristic of Christianity”. The existence of God was held to prove the reality of eternal hellfire, so denial of eternal hellfire amounted to denial of God. The reality of Hell was simply not open to question.

The article mentions a Catholic priest, the Rev John Furniss, who wrote booklets about the faith for children. They cost one penny per volume and were well known in the late 19th and early 20th century. One of Furniss’s books was called The Sight of Hell, which is reproduced in full on the Bad News About Christianity site.

Those of us who are simple-minded when it comes to belief in a literal hell will appreciate Furniss’s work, several chapters of which begins with a Bible verse or have a variation on a Bible story. He wrote that the inspiration came from revelations that St Frances of Rome (1384-1440) said she received.

This is a brilliant book, but if you shared it with your children, you’d probably get arrested for child abuse. Here is an excerpt from ‘The Red Hot Floor’, about an adolescent of ill repute who ends up in hell:

Look into this room. What a dreadful place it is! The roof is red hot; the floor is like a thick sheet of red hot iron. See, on the middle of that red hot floor stands a girl. She looks about sixteen years old. Her feet are bare, she has neither shoes nor stockings on her feet; her bare feet stand on the red hot burning floor. The door of this room has never been opened before since she first set her foot on the red hot floor. Now she sees that the door is opening. She rushes forward. She has gone down on her knees on the red hot floor. Listen, she speaks! She says; “I have been standing with my feet on this red hot floor for years. Day and night my only standing place has been this red hot floor. Sleep never came on me for a moment, that I might forget this horrible burning floor. Look,” she says, “at my burnt and bleeding feet. Let me go off this burning floor for one moment, only for one single, short moment. Oh, that in the endless eternity of years, I might forget the pain only for one single,short moment.” The devil answers her question: “Do you ask,” he says, “for a moment, for one moment to forget your pain. No, not for one single moment during the never-ending eternity of years shall you ever leave this red hot floor!” “Is it so?” the girl asks with a sigh, that seems to break her heart; “then, at least, let somebody go to my little brothers and sisters, who are alive, and tell them not to do the bad things which I did, so they will never have to come and stand on the red hot floor.” The devil answers her again: “Your little brothers and sisters have the priests to tell them these things. If they will not listen to the priests, neither would they listen even if somebody should go to them from the dead.”

There we have a variation of the Dives (‘the rich man’) and Lazarus story that Jesus related (Luke 16:19-31).

Back to the article. The atheist author(s) rightly point out that Catholics and Protestants alike feared God’s wrath and the unspeakable horrors of hell for centuries. These days, less so, if at all:

Now belief in Hell seems to be no longer necessary. Certainly the Church of England does not require it. The Privy Council decided many years ago that belief in it is optional*. Theologians have now started to redefine Hell. In fact, according to the Church of England’s Doctrine Commission, traditional teachings of hellfire and eternal torment are “appalling theologies which made God into a sadistic monster and left searing scars on many”*.

On the contrary, it is better to live in fear and trembling — and repent — now than have eternal regrets in the everlasting fiery pit later.

In closing, Bad News About Christianity has an article about Origen, which tells us what Catholic Encyclopedia does not:

Like some of his contemporaries he voluntarily castrated himself to remove a sinful source of temptation. He insisted on observing Jesus” instructions, such as the ones about not carrying an extra coat and not wearing shoes (Matthew 10:10). During his lifetime he was deposed from the priesthood and deprived of his teaching post by the Bishop of Alexandria. He was also condemned by the Bishop of Rome and by a synod of Egyptian bishops. St Jerome held that he had deliberately tried to mislead the orthodox into heresy. Views attributed to him were condemned by further bishops, emperors and councils. To clear up any remnant of doubt, Origen’s teachings were condemned by the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553.

Now that sounds like my religious studies textbook (minus the first sentence)!

More on hell to follow.

Giotto Wikipedia 220px-Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-19-_-_Presentation_at_the_TempleFebruary 2 is Candlemas.

On February 3, Catholics remember St Blaise, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers said to guard against ills of the throat. Many attending Mass will have had their throats blessed last Sunday or will have this done on the feast day itself.

Regarding Candlemas, my aforementioned post has the gospel reading,  Luke 2:25-38, and the importance of this feast day which recalls Jesus’s Presentation at the Temple.

Candlemas always falls on February 2, because it is, in the Church calendar, the 40th day after Jesus’s birth. According to Jewish law (Leviticus 12, Exodus 13:12-15), Mary would have had to complete her ritual purification prior to accompanying Joseph and Jesus to the Temple. The presence of the infant Jesus, although circumcised and formally named (January 1), was required so that the priests could conduct the ceremony of the redemption of the firstborn. In those days, Mary and Joseph would also have brought an animal sacrifice. They could only afford a pair of turtledoves.

Luke tells us that there were two holy, elderly people present: Simeon and Anna (Hannah, in Hebrew). Simeon’s prayer over Jesus became the Nunc Dimittis (or Canticle of Simeon). It can be found in Luke 2:29-32:

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace; according to Thy word: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel.

Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit told Simeon that he would not die until he had seen Jesus, hence the first words of the canticle.

When Anna heard Simeon’s prayer, she knew that this infant was the Messiah.

Before Christmas, John MacArthur wrote a three-part series of posts about Anna. Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

MacArthur tells us that it is important to remember that, at this time, the only Jews who recognised Jesus as the Messiah were humble, ordinary people — Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna:

All of them were basically nobodies. All of them recognized Him because they were told who He was by angels, or by some other form of special revelation. Luke recounts all their stories in succession, as if he is calling multiple witnesses, one at a time, to establish the matter.

Also recall the role that humble people had in Jesus’s ministry: the apostles and the vast majority of His followers.

The prophetess

Luke describes Anna as a prophetess. MacArthur explains that she is unlikely to have received divine revelation directly. It is more probable that she was a lay minister for women, either teaching them or praying with them. She would have had no teaching authority over men.

Anna lived at the temple and was known for her holiness. She spoke of God and Scripture, little else:

So when Luke called her a “prophetess,” he gave insight into her character and a clue about what occupied her mind and her conversation.

MacArthur says there were only five women referred to as ‘prophetess’ in the Old Testament. All had brief divine revelations, so were not on a par with the male prophets who actually held what MacArthur terms ‘prophetic office’.

Miriam

Moses’s and Aaron’s sister Miriam was the first. After the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, Pharaoh and his army were swallowed up and drowned. Moses sang a song of thanksgiving, and afterward Miriam sang a one-stanza song of prophecy (Exodus 15:20-21):

20 Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. 21 And Miriam sang to them:

“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”

Unfortunately, the fact that Miriam received prophecy went to her head and Numbers 12 tells us that God was angry with her for criticising Moses about his wife. He gave her leprosy for seven days, during which time she had to be well outside the camp.

Deborah

The next prophetess was Deborah (Judges 4:4):

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.

She was the only female judge in the era prior to the establishment of a monarchy in ancient Israel:

In fact, she was the only woman in all of Scripture who ever held that kind of leadership position and was blessed for it.

Deborah also had a brief prophecy from the Lord, which she gave to her fellow judge Barak, which led them to make a journey together (Judges 4:6-10):

She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, “Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?” Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 And Barak called out Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh. And 10,000 men went up at his heels, and Deborah went up with him.

MacArthur said her presence was God’s rebuke to the men of her generation who were fearful. She did not see herself as a leader like Barak, but rather as a ‘mother in Israel’ (Judges 5:7).

Huldah

Huldah appears in 2 Kings 22, where she warned of the need for repentance or the people would face the wrath of God (2 Kings 22:14-20):

14 So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she lived in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter), and they talked with her. 15 And she said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, 16 Thus says the Lord, Behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. 17 Because they have forsaken me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. 18 But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, 19 because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. 20 Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.’” And they brought back word to the king.

The parallel passage is in 2 Chronicles 34:22-28.

Two other women

Two more women are referred to as ‘prophetess’.

Noadiah was a false prophetess (Nehemiah 6:14):

Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.

Isaiah’s wife was the other. She was more of an honorary prophetess, by virtue of being married to him. She did not receive any divine revelation but the prophet refers to his wife in Isaiah 8:3:

And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, “Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz;

Anna’s life

St Luke tells us that Anna’s father was Phanuel from the tribe of Asher. Asher means ‘happiness’, Phanuel ‘Face of God’ and Hannah ‘grace’. Asherites were well known for their wisdom and their daughters for their beauty.

Anna was only married for seven years before her husband died. By the time she saw the infant Jesus, she was already very elderly:

The Greek text is ambiguous as to her exact age. It might mean literally that she had been a widow for eighty-four years. Assuming she married very young (remember, thirteen was a typical age for engagement in that society), then lived with her husband seven years before he died, that would make her at least 104—very old indeed, but entirely possible.

More likely, what the text is saying is that she was now an eighty-four-year-old widow. She was married for seven years when her husband died, and having never remarried, she had now lived as a widow for more than six decades.

Widowhood in the ancient world meant much hardship. Anna would have struggled financially most of her adult life:

Anna probably either lived on charity or supported herself out of the remnants of her family’s inheritance. Either way, she must have led a very frugal, chaste, and sober life.

Luke says that Anna never left the temple. From this we can conclude that she lived in one of the modest apartments on the temple grounds, most of which housed visiting priests. MacArthur thinks that Anna might have been a caretaker at the temple when she was younger and that, perhaps, she was given the apartment in recognition of her service. Another possibility is that it was an act of charity to her in hardship.

Luke also tells us that Anna fasted and prayed continuously. MacArthur explains:

Abstaining from food per se has no mystical effect on anything spiritual. But fasting with prayer reveals a heart so consumed with praying, and so eager to receive the blessing being sought, that the person simply has no interest in eating. That is when fasting has real value.

Anna apparently had been doing this as a pattern for sixty-four years or longer. Here was a passionate woman!

He thinks she was praying for the coming of the Messiah:

there is little doubt that one of the main subjects of her prayers was an earnest plea for the very same thing Simeon was so eager for: “the Consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25 NKJV). Her hope, like Eve’s, was for the Seed who would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). Her longing, like Sarah’s (Galatians 3:8, 16), was for the Seed of Abraham, who would bless all the nations of the world. She was praying that God would soon send the promised deliverer, the Messiah.

Despite her living at the temple, MacArthur believes that she was fully aware of the corruption at the heart of the religious leaders. She was there to be close to her Lord:

Remember, she belonged to the believing remnant, not the apostate majority. She had no part in the error and hypocrisy that Jesus would later rebuke among the scribes and Pharisees. She was not a participant in the money-changing system at the temple that stirred His wrath. She knew the Pharisees were corrupt legalists. She understood that the Sadducees were spiritually bankrupt liberals. She truly loved her God. She understood His heart and mind.

Lessons from Anna

MacArthur’s essays on Anna are most inspiring. Men can learn from them, too.

What struck me in particular were these:

She genuinely believed His Word. She was a wonderfully remarkable woman indeed—perhaps one of the most devout people we meet anywhere on the pages of Scripture. No one else comes to mind who fasted and prayed faithfully for more than sixty years! …

Anna knew who the believing remnant were. She could identify the true worshipers—the ones who, like her, were expectantly awaiting the Messiah. She sought such people out, and at every opportunity from then on, she spoke to them about Him.

It is unlikely that Anna lived to experience Jesus’s ministry. Yet, God answered her lifetime of prayers by giving her the blessing of seeing Jesus.

And, what did she do next? She prayed in thanksgiving and spoke to all of the Messiah (Luke 2:38):

And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Anna the prophetess is a true role model for all Christians.

Modernism 1922 from Clare SparkThe days have long passed since the doctrine of hell has been preached in church.

A few bold and righteous pastors such as John MacArthur do so now and then, but hell is considered anathema to most clergy.

Following on from my post summarising MacArthur’s explanation of hell, today’s entry looks at the widespread 20th century decline of the doctrine of hell.

Quotations below come from Way of Life‘s ‘Taking the Fire out of Hell’. Emphases mine below.

Although by the end of the 20th century, hell became a dirty word and unthinkable concept, the decline began in the 19th century. The widely-quoted Baptist preacher from London, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, had this to say in 1865:

There is a deepseated unbelief among Christians just now, about the eternity of future punishment. It is not outspoken in many cases, but it is whispered; and it frequently assumes the shape of a spirit of benevolent desire that the doctrine may be disproved. I fear that at the bottom of all this there is a rebellion against the dread sovereignty of God. There is a suspicion that sin is not, after all, so bad a thing as we have dreamed. There is an apology, or a lurking wish to apologize for sinners, who are looked upon rather as objects of pity than as objects of indignation, and really deserving the condign punishment which they have wilfully brought upon themselves. I am afraid it is the old nature in us putting on the specious garb of charity, which thus leads us to discredit a fact which is as certain as the happiness of believers.

The nature of hell shifted from the biblical fire and brimstone to various beliefs: annihilation, symbolism, a void or no hell at all.

What follows is a potted history of quotes from clergy, theologians and evangelists of the 20th century.

1930s

George Buttrick, who was the President of the Federal Council of Churches (precursor to the World Council of Churches) wrote in 1935:

A God who punishes men with fire and brimstone through all Eternity would hardly be Godlike. He would be almost satanic in cruelty an childlike in imagination — like a nasty little boy pulling off the wings of a fly. The Christian faith is that God and hereafter is like Christ.

1950s

In 1951, Gerald Kennedy of the Methodist Church USA said in NAE magazine:

Speaking of eternal punishment of an everlasting state of agony for the wicked, I can say that I am sure that God is at least as good and merciful as men. I certainly would not banish any man to a place of punishment forever because of his faults or his state of mind when he left this life. I am sure God is not less fair or merciful than I.

The following year, theologian Nels F S Ferré wrote in Theology Today magazine:

According to the very meaning of sovereign love, however, God both can and will have all to be saved. The Bible, in its largest and deepest logic, also affirms that with God all things are possible and that He would have all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Among the numberless unthinking people an immature and unworthy eschatology espousing eternal hell is unfortunately still prevalent, vitiating Christian ethics at its very heart.

1960s

In 1961, Martin Luther King Jr told Ebony magazine:

I do not believe in hell as a place of a literal burning fire.

1970s

Fuller Theological Seminary revised their position on hell in 1971:

Fuller Theological Seminary’s new doctrinal statement departs from its original position on eternal punishment for believers, simply saying that the wicked shall be separated from God’s presence.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter’s sister Ruth Carter Stapleton, a Southern Baptist evangelist, said in Christianity Today (caps in the original):

The Bible DOES NOT teach that we experience hell after we die, we experience it before we die.

1980s

In 1983, Billy Graham said that hellfire is figurative, not literal:

I think that hell essentially is separation from God forever. And that is the worst hell that I can think of. But I think people have a hard time believing God is going to allow people to burn in literal fire forever. I think the fire that is mentioned in the Bible is a burning thirst for God that can never be quenched.

and

Jesus used three words to describe hell. … The third word that He used is ‘fire.’ Jesus used this symbol over and over. This could be literal fire, as many believe. Or it could be symbolic. God does have fires that do not burn. And also there is the figurative use of fire in the Bible. … I’ve often thought that this fire could possibly be a burning thirst for God that is never quenched. What a terrible fire that would be never to find satisfaction, joy, or fulfillment!

In 1986, the Houston Chronicle quoted Lutheran religious scholar and professor Martin Marty as saying:

The passing of hell from modern consciousness is one of the major if still largely undocumented modern trends. … most theologians today maintain hell is not just damnation, but a positive punishment, beyond which everything else on this profoundly mysterious question is only speculation. If faith has survived the decline of hell, then it may be the result of an accent on the love of God for God’s own sake. If so, the new situation is an asset.

In 1987, Neal Punt, a British pastor in the Reformed Church, wrote in his Unconditional Good News: Toward an Understanding of Biblical Universalism that clergy should not warn sinners about the dangers of eternal damnation.

That same year, a survey of the American Baptist Convention revealed:

that only 59.8% agreed that “Hell is just punishment for sinners.” 17.1% disagreed and 23.1% were “not sure.”

The August 1, 1989 edition of Calvary Contender reported that the Anglican John R W Stott

revealed that he was a proponent of conditional immortality, or annihilationism, a view that denies eternal punishment in hell for the unsaved.

1990s

The Criswell Theological Review featured theologian Clark Pinnock who had this to say in 1990:

Let me say at the outset that I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine. … How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely, a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God.

The December 15, 1991 edition of Calvary Contender reported the Reformed Anglican J I Packer‘s perspective:

Christianity Today senior editor J. I. Packer says he does not believe that ‘the essence of hell is grotesque bodily discomfort.’ That idea, he conceives, ‘misses the deeper point of the lurid wordpictures drawn by Dante and Jesus, and the New Testament writers.’ He says: ‘The essence of hell is surely an inner misery of helpless remorse, with recognition that in assigning one to an eternity of self absorbed unwillingness to receive and respond to divine goodness, the unwillingness that in life one was always cultivating God is being totally just and had done what is entirely right. Selfhated and Godhated will feed each other in Hell forever’.

In 1993, a controversy about hell arose at the Grand Rapids Baptist College and Seminary, which is affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). One professor, Michael van Horn, had to resign because of his views on heaven and hell. He denied a literal heaven and a literal hell. On the latter, he told 22 Michigan pastors there was no ‘literal fire’ in hell. D A Waite’s ‘Four Reasons for Defending the King James Bible’, published in Bible for Today that year, wrote that the GARBC’s Council of Eighteen:

refused to state in their resolution on hell that there was ‘literal fire’ there. Dr. Clay Nuttall was present as a witness. In his written report, he mentioned that when a man suggested ‘literal fire’ be inserted in the GARBC resolution on hell, a Council of Eighteen member said they couldn’t do that because many of the Pastors and people of the GARBC fellowship do not believe there is ‘literal fire’ in hell. Now, if that isn’t the first step in the direction of absolute and total apostasy in the GARBC, I don’t know what is!

That same year, the retired Anglican Bishop of Durham David Jenkins was quoted as saying:

I am clear that there can be no hell for eternity; our God could not be so cruel. However, I think for some people who have wasted every opportunity for redemption, there may be extinction.

Interestingly, the Church of England moved to a position of annihilation — and nothingness — in 1996. The National & International Religion Report explained:

The Church of England has redefined hell. Rather than a place of eternal suffering, hell is a state of nothingness, the church said. The church said it was concerned that people were terrified into becoming believers and consequently suffered ‘searing psychological scars.’Nevertheless, everyone still faces a day of judgment, according to the Anglican document The Mystery of Salvation. Those who fail the test are annihilated. Hell is described as the final ‘choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is nonbeing’.

In 1997, Bill Phipps, the then-Moderator of the United Church of Canada told the Ottawa Citizen:

I have no idea if there is a hell. I don’t think Jesus was that concerned about hell. He was concerned about life here on earth … Is heaven a place? I have no idea.

And so it continues in the 21st century. Rob Bell‘s 2011 book Love Wins comes to mind. By 2014, Rob Bell had left his ministry at Mars Hill. He no longer attends an established church.

More to come this week.

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