No wonder preachers don’t like hell

In Part II of his “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley challenges his fellow clergy to not be slack in their calling. He scolds the clergyman who sees no greater burden in his office than to preach once or twice a week and refuses the hard, continual work of shepherding the flock into spiritual growth and maturity.

He challenges them and us with a series of questions for clergy.

Have I not said, ‘Peace, peace, when there was no peace?’ How many are they also that do this? who do not study to speak what is true, especially to the rich and great, so much as what is pleasing? who flatter honourable sinners, instead of telling them plain, ‘How can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ O, what account have you to make, if there be a God that judgeth the earth? … How great will your damnation be, who destroy souls instead of saving them!

Reading these lines from Wesley, I understand the appeal of those forms of theology that do away with the idea of eternal judgment and hell. Such theologies are soothing to people but even more are they soothing to pastors who no longer must carry the burden of risking their own souls if they neglect their work or turn aside when they see sinners rejoicing in their sins.

Wesley’s words certainly sting me today as I read them and consider my own answers.

Waiting for Tatooine

“Are you going on to perfection?” A Wesleyan question.

It is a question, though, that makes an assumption, namely that we are not there yet. While we desire, long for, and strive to be made perfect in love, we must admit that if we are still going on, we have not arrived.

This makes pastoral work a messy thing because we so rarely meet anyone — including that clergy person in the mirror — who has leaned fully on the power Christ gives us to conquer sin. We are constantly greeted with the question of how best to nurture further growth. Do we place our eye on the weeds or the wheat in the life of the person before us? Again, I ask this question about myself as well as others.

In John Wesley’s sermon “The Repentance of Believers,” he describes the state of the soul of those who have been justified but are still going on to perfection.

[A] deep conviction that we are not yet whole; that our hearts are not fully purified; that there is yet in us a “carnal mind,” which is still in its nature “enmity against God;” that a whole body of sin remains in our heart, weakened indeed, but not destroyed; shows, beyond all possibility of doubt, the absolute necessity of a farther change. We allow, that at the very moment of justification, we are born again: In that instant we experience that inward change from “darkness into marvellous light;” from the image of the brute and the devil, into the image of God; from the earthly, sensual, devilish mind, to the mind which was in Christ Jesus. But are we then entirely changed? Are we wholly transformed into the image of him that created us? Far from it: we still retain a depth of sin; and it is the consciousness of this which constrains us to groan, for a full deliverance, to him that is mighty to save.

Wesley urged Methodists to attend closely to the “inbred monster’s face” within. He warns that we not forget that nothing in our worthiness led Christ to shed his blood for us, and nothing in our power can overcome the darkness that still lingers within. It is only obedience to and trust in Christ that will move us along the way.

And so, as a United Methodist pastor, I find myself wondering how to live this doctrine out in the midst of the messy not-yet-there church in which I serve.

I wonder — and am convicted by the thought — whether I have failed as a pastor to describe what “there” looks like. Have the outlines of holiness been drawn by me with enough clarity that people can see and feel for themselves the gap between where we are and where God promises to lead us? (Is that why Hell is so much easier to describe? We have lots of at-hand reference points to help us imagine Hell. We have so few to help us anticipate heaven.)

I was talking the other day with someone who — like me — is excited about the upcoming release of the new Star Wars movie. We had both seen a video about the movie that was released at a comic convention. What we shared was how excited and eager we were for the release date to arrive. It makes you ache to have to wait for it arrive. Take our money, now, we joked.

Do we ever, ever, ever get close to describing the future God has in store for us with enough clarity to make us ache that way at the gap between the world to come and the one that is?

Unlike waiting for a movie release date, of course, the gap we live in is not just about time. We do wait. But we also know we are not ready for the day to arrive. It is like we are movie fans who have not yet grown ears or whose eyes cannot see the images on the screen. And even more than that. There is a gap within our hearts. Wesley’s inbred monster whispers to us that we should not even long for such a day to arrive. It is an illusion or the mirage conjured up by people who want to oppress or stifle us. The movie studio is just in it for the merchandising and the money, after all. The church is just about power.

How do you reach people in such a world? How do you sort through the messiness of pilgrims who still have far to go? What do you do with those who would rather stay in Egypt than imagine Israel? And yes, you are sometimes, like Aaron, among the ringleaders.

Skipping level 1

John Wesley had three categories he used to organize his thinking about how to best preach the gospel. We see these three nicely in his sermon “Scriptural Christianity.” Here he is describing his vision for how the first converts to Christianity engaged their neighbors and relations with the gospel.

They endeavoured herein to speak to every man severally as he had need. To the careless, to those who lay unconcerned in darkness and in the shadow of death, they thundered, “Awake thou that sleepest; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” But to those who were already awakened out of sleep, and groaning under a sense of the wrath of God, their language was, “We have an Advocate with the Father; he is the propitiation for our sins.” Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord.

Did you notice the three groups?

  1. Those who don’t care about the wrath of God or imagine they are in need of a savior.
  2. Those who long earnestly for a word of grace in the midst of their sense of condemnation.
  3. Those who need to be encouraged and admonished to continue on toward full holiness.

Do you know why they threw rocks at Wesley and closed so many church doors to him? In large part it was because he preached that the vast majority of good Church of England members were in the first group. He told them that just because they showed up to church and sacrament every Sunday, it did not mean they were right with God. Indeed, he preached that so-called Christians who do not have any real experience of Christ were the hardest people to convert to real Christianity.

It feels as if we in the church today are overrun with people at whom Wesley would advise us to thunder “Awake!” But there is tremendous social and theological pressure to act as if all is well. There is pressure to treat everyone as if all they need is a gentle and inspiring version of the message designed for groups 2 and 3.

I feel that pressure.

I can hear the questions that it raises.

Why be so judgmental? Who are you to warn others? Aren’t you just a hypocrite?

Do you hear those questions? I suspect Wesley did. I wonder if it ever caused him to shrink back before climbing in the pulpit or mounting the market cross.