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Omnes relinquite spes, o vos intrantes (Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, Canto III, line 9, Latin Translation)

(The following is the next entry in a 31-day blog journey through John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry [Broadman and Holman, 2002.])

“Is not our most painful failure in the pastorate the inability to weep over the unbelievers in our neighborhoods and carnal members in our churches…? The glorious and horrible truths which thunder through the Bible cause only a faint echo of fear and ecstasy in our hearts. We take a megaton of truth upon our lips and speak it with an ounce of passion. Do we believe in our hearts what we espouse with our lips? (113-114)

“If I do not believe in my heart these awful truths—believe them so that they are real in my feelings—then the blessed love of God in Christ will scarcely shine at all. The sweetness of the air of redemption will be hardly detectable. The infinite marvel of new life will be commonplace. The wonder that to me, a child of hell, all things are given for an inheritance will not strike me speechless with trembling humility and gratitude. The whole affair of salvation will seem ho-hum, and my entrance into paradise will seem as a matter of course. When the heart no longer feels the truth of hell the gospel passes from the good news to simply news. The intensity of joy is blunted and the heart spring is dries up (115-116).

You do not want anyone you know to experience even one trillionth of a nanosecond of hell. (I will assume that the readers of this blog are of sufficient intelligence and wisdom that we need not suggest a hypothetical experiment involving a match and your eyeballs to prove this.) Neither do you want your people to live as if a gazillion gigaseconds of hell are not just the first part of the wrath of God that awaits people who are outside of Christ. Instead, we want our people to live as if we wear clothing which wreaks of the sulfur-fires of hell, and that the experience of being snatched from the edge of the cliff leading to the fires of the eternal wrath of God is still so fresh in our minds that it would give us nightmares if not for the phrase, “but God” (Eph. 2.4).

I shutter to think of what one-trillionth of a nanosecond of hell is like. It would not be appropriate to say, “feels like,” when referring to hell (as opposed to the truth(s) of hell), for that would be too limiting to an experience that far exceeds our current sensory perceptions and emotions. The mind will be involved, desire will be involved, the soul will be involved, and depravity will be revealed to its maximum and eternal levels. The descriptions of the eternal wrath of God given in the New Testament are not something any one of us could experience for one-trillionth of a nanosecond and then return to any sense of mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, or moral normalcy. Once you have hated God, his Son and his glory with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength – as we naturally and self-deceptively do as unregenerate beings – and then carry that trajectory through to eternity (as says Tim Keller), what happens in the first second after death is too devastating of an experience for me to ponder for more than the blink of an eye without cringing. Yet I must think about such an experience often, truthfully, and with weeping if I am to shepherd a people in such a way that we will be obedient to proclaim the Gospel with courage, boldness, zeal, meekness, faithfulness, diligence, humility, sacrifice, and joy. Consider for a moment just three descriptions of hell in the New Testament:

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire (Mk. 9:43).

I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt. 8:11-12; cf. 13:42, 50; 25:30).

And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name (Rev. 14:11).

Consider the Scriptures above, then pause for about five seconds in order think about the experience of receiving what your sins against a holy God deserve. (Pause.)  Now stop pausing and think about the fate of unrepentant sinners who have left this life for the next but cannot push the “pause” button. (!) Feel, think, shutter, and weep.  There are more than five billion people around the world who need the Gospel in order to cut up their one-way tickets to hell. We need to shepherd in a way that our people gain a sense of urgency for the lost and for the carnal (read “more than likely also lost”) among their membership. In order to do this, as Piper says, we must feel the truth of hell.

I am certain that my preaching will take on a different flavor when I think that my work is a tool that makes the difference between a table of everlasting joy and peace in the presence of our Lord and an eternity that is one of restless torment in an unquenchable fire in darkness with endless weeping and endless gnashing of the teeth! Our people will stop wallowing in petty, mundane, and earthly things when confronted with all of that from which they have been saved—and that freely by grace from the Son of God! Jesus came so that people would not perish. We must feel this to preach it with moral authority and credibility.

Hell is horrible. We must feel this every day. Our people must feel this too.

(Now excuse me while I interrupt this post in order to go shout hallelujah to the Lamb for my own salvation!)