It is easy to measure need and to be moved by compassion, or to stifle that response, by what our eyes can see. In a world marked by sickness, pain, greed, deprivation, and death, the needs of people, near and far, press themselves upon our vision.
But whether or not people need the gospel is not something that can be measured by what we can see. It is something that we have to be told. The need people have for the Saviour, because of the seriousness of their sin and its eternal consequences, is something that we must be taught by divine revelation. Our eyes cannot measure this need.
We see some of the devastating consequences of the Fall, but we do not see the full extent and true horror of sin in this life. Nor, for that matter, are we able to grasp these matters at all unaided by divine truth. Therefore, it is imperative that we take seriously every word of Jesus upon the subject of the eternal fire and the outer darkness.
One of the greatest impediments to taking the truth of eternal judgement seriously is our default position of making divine revelation in Scripture subservient to our own assessments of need. And as long as think that we can adequetly discern this by looking rather than listening we will annihilate the influence of eternity upon us.
We would do well, Bible in hand, to follow the practice of Rodin's The Thinker, sat above the gates of hell, meditating upon these weighty matters. To help us do that Monergism has a helpful page of articles and audio messages on hell. You can access them here.
In Risking the Truth I asked Covenant Seminary professor Robert A. Peterson, who has written extensively and helpfully on the subject of hell, some questions on this subject. Here is a short extract from what is a powerful, sobering, and thought provoking interview:
Though some annihilationists insist that the Bible alone has motivated their rejection of the historic doctrine, others admit that emotional considerations have played a part. Without judging the motives of individuals, my opinion is that the intellectual and emotional climate of our times has more to do with the move away from some historic doctrines, including that of hell, than many realize.
In an increasingly pluralistic culture, it is politically incorrect to hold that people who do not trust Christ as Lord and Savior, will suffer everlasting torment in body and soul. But that is exactly what the Bible teaches. (For a recent defense of exclusivism, the view that one must hear and believe the gospel of Christ in this life to be saved, see, C. W. Morgan and R. A. Peterson, Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism (InterVarsity, 2008.)
Perhaps the candid response of one employee of an Evangelical publisher, when asked what she thought of a book featuring a debate between traditionalism and annihilationism, reflects the default mode of many: “I certainly hope that annihilationism is true!” It is not our place to hope that certain things are true with reference to the things of God. It is our place to humbly receive the Word that God has given. That means restraining our curiosity where the Word is silent. And that means believing and obeying God’s truth even if we don’t like it.
Two orthodox doctrines that became immediate targets for “liberated” human reason in the Enlightenment—original sin and eternal conscious punishment for the lost—are not my favorites. But the Word of God teaches them and so I am obligated to receive them as true and to live accordingly.
I am afraid that too many people today reach conclusions as to what they believe concerning the Christian faith on the basis of their feelings and desires rather than the teaching of Scripture. As J. I. Packer remarked some years ago, “If you want to see folk damned something is wrong with you!” Of course this is true, but Packer went on to say that some of God’s truth is hard and one such truth is the Bible’s teaching concerning eternal hell.
It seems to me that the hard words of D. A. Carson are correct: “Despite the sincerity of their motives, one wonders more than a little to what extent the growing popularity of various forms of annihilationism and conditional immortality are a reflection of this age of pluralism. It is getting harder and harder to be faithful to the ‘hard lines’ of Scripture” (The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism [Zondervan, 1996], 536.). But the Lord requires nothing less of us than, by his grace, to be faithful.