For generations now, a sermon on the punishments of hell or the threat of final judgment has been known as a "fire and brimstone" sermon. Depending upon one's religious background and point of view one thinks such sermons good or bad. More and more nowadays, however, such sermons are viewed, in polite culture, as relics of a bygone era, a time when credulous and simple people were easily influenced by wild-eyed pulpiteers who virtually entertained them with grotesque descriptions of the torments of the damned. Mark Twain poked fun at such sermons, only barely disguising his scorn, and more recently Gary Larsen has made that picture of hell a source of condescending amusement in a number of his Far Side cartoons.
James Joyce, in his autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, tells of the young schoolboy, Stephen, attending a school retreat directed by an earnest Jesuit priest named Father Arnall. Stephen himself is particularly susceptible to religious impressions because he has just fallen into grave sin after being accosted by a prostitute on a Dublin street. A thoughtful boy, he was alarmed by a sense of his own wickedness. Father Arnall announces that his sermons are to be on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, hell, and heaven. But when he comes to hell, his enthusiasm gets the better of him. His descriptions of the sufferings of the damned are so lurid, his account of the tortures prepared for them so ingenious that it becomes clear to the boys that Father Arnall is obsessed with the subject. In fact, when the time comes for the final sermon, which was to be on heaven, Father Arnall cannot break away from his favorite subject and preaches again on the pains of hell. Joyce's account is a cunningly patronizing dismissal of the church's doctrine. He turns the preaching of it into burlesque, a kind of comic entertainment to be enjoyed by anyone smart enough to know that such ideas should not be taken seriously. It is made to look ridiculous, the passion of twisted folk who find it a pleasure to contemplate someone else's pain.
Well, if priests and ministers making too lurid descriptions of the sufferings of the damned was supposedly a problem in the day of Mark Twain and James Joyce, if hellfire and brimstone were preached too often and too enthusiastically in those days, no one can say we have that problem today. The contemporary church, even the evangelical church, can hardly be accused of having an obsession with damnation. It hardly mentions the idea and then only in the most delicate manner. It is more interested in discussing whether we should continue to believe the doctrine than in proclaiming it to the world. And that is why I could not leave this text without dealing with divine judgment, which is, after all, the way the rest of Holy Scripture uses this text most often. You cannot hear enough about this basic belief and conviction of all true Christianity, not in our day and age, when that doctrine, so central to all that we believe as Christians and to our life and duty in the world, has been so completely marginalized, even in the church.
For it can hardly be denied that, whether it has been rightly or wrongly preached, the doctrine of the judgment of the wicked is part and parcel of the Christian faith. The threat of this judgment is the reason for the great visitation of this world by the Son of God, who came, the Bible says, so that those who believed on him would not perish but have everlasting life. His the reality of hell alone that gives urgency and seriousness and wonder to the Christian faith and the Christian doctrine of salvation.
You are perhaps aware, that the phrase "fire and brimstone" comes from the KJV's rendering of v. 24: "the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven." Brimstone is another word for sulphur. So brimstone and fire mean some kind of fiery sulphurous explosion, some kind of burning sulphur, as the NIV has it. Now, "fire and brimstone" became attached to the Bible's doctrine of divine retribution and the punishment of the wicked because Holy Scripture itself employs the history of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as an image, an illustration, a picture of the divine judgment and the destruction of the wicked.
You have references to the destruction of these cities over and over again in the OT prophets as an illustration of what awaits the wicked in the judgment of God. So God says to Israel in Amos 4:11-12:
In the New Testament also, the devastation of Sodom and Gomorrah serves to prefigure the divine vengeance upon sinners. Jude writes, for example, "...Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire." [In Jude's day, even more than ours, this scene of sulfurous devastation in the Valley of the Dead Sea, still provided living evidence of divine judgment and a warning of the reality of the eternal fires of hell.]
The connection between the destruction of Sodom and the eternal punishment of the wicked is made also when there is no explicit mention of Sodom or Gomorrah but the same images are used to convey the horror of the divine punishment visited upon the wicked. For example, in Revelation 14:10, we read that those who align themselves with evil in the world will drink the wine of God's fury and will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.
Now, we should be clear that this is an image, a picture, a figure of divine judgment, not an exact description. Those cities, of course, were simply destroyed, obliterated. But the manner of their end is used in the Bible to emphasize the ferocity of the divine vengeance against sin and sinners.
Sometimes this has not been well understood by Christians or by Christian ministers who have taken these various figures the Bible uses to describe Hell as though they amounted to the description in a travel agent's brochure of the Inferno. Taking the Bible together, all that it says about these judgments and the punishments of those outside of Christ, we learn not to take these figures so literally. The Bible in fact often likens other historical judgments of peoples to that of Sodom and Gomorrah which we know had nothing to do with fire and brimstone, though they were swift and catastrophic. For example, hell is described in the Bible both as outer darkness and as eternal fire. But fire gives light and seems to be incompatible with darkness. Or, we read of the Lake of Fire prepared for the Devil and his angels, but it does not seem that angels, being spirits and not having bodies, can be acted upon by physical forces, such as water or fire. Further, heaven is also described to us in powerful imagery drawn from the physical realm but which clearly refers primarily to the happiness and blessing of spiritual life. Images such as fire and brimstone are designed to make us dread hell, to teach us that its punishments are severe and terrifying. They are not intended so much to teach us exactly what those punishments will be.
Francis Turretin, the Swiss Reformed theologian of the 17th century, who has sometimes been called "the Protestant Thomas Aquinas" cautions his readers, "But what [hell] is or in what infernal punishments consist, it is not easy to define" [Loc. 20, Qu. 7, Parag. 4]. On the basis of arguments like those I mentioned, Turretin preferred to think of such things as fire and brimstone as metaphorical, physical pictures of mental and spiritual suffering, what he calls "severe tortures of conscience and desperation."
In a famous statement in one of his sermons, John Donne [IV, 6] reminds us that all of these physical images are little or nothing compared to the great issue of the presence or absence of God. Spiritually minded people appreciate that this alone is everything. If you have God in full measure -- which is what heaven means -- you have perfect joy, if God departs completely from you -- which is the fate of those in hell -- nothing else can give you peace, joy, or satisfaction. Donne put it this way:
And that is true, but sinful human beings have a great difficulty knowing and appreciating the truth of it. They are at present far more worried by physical losses than spiritual ones, they do not grasp that all that they enjoy in life here, they enjoy simply because God has not yet totally deserted them, they are all for the present and for the physical and temporal, and so the Lord speaks to them in language they can grasp and understand. And they can grasp this and appreciate this language of fire and brimstone; they can grasp it today in our so-called advanced and sophisticated society as surely as they ever could in ages past. For, when you think of it, there has never been a time in all of human history when the sense and the power and the imagery of fire and brimstone were more accessible to men than today. We have, in fact, in the 20th century taken fire and brimstone to an altogether new and higher level!
You know, of course, that the great objection to the Christian, the biblical doctrine of the divine punishment of the wicked is that such judgments as the Bible predicts and warns us of are, so it is said, incompatible with a God of love. The more detached from the worldview of Holy Scripture, from its view of God and sin and salvation, the more strongly this objection is put. John Hick, the celebrated universalist -- who a few years ago missed membership in a Presbyterian Presbytery in Southern California by one vote, with a number in the negative voting "no" simply to avoid the controversy they knew would ensue upon his enrollment as a Presbyterian minister -- I say, John Hick thinks the idea of hell "morally revolting" and "morally intolerable" if not he admits absolutely logically impossible [Peterson, p. 146].
However, moral strictures on the behavior of God, pronounced in such a day as ours, such a time of pathetic moral cowardice and systemic ethical corruption, should be taken with a large grain of salt. A people that cares little for holiness and understands it almost not at all should not be taken too seriously when pontificating as to what a holy God would and would not do.
But, still, as many Christian apologists have pointed out through the years, and as they have pointed out with a special poignancy in our day, the reality of hell -- if it is something that can in any way be described in terms of fire and brimstone -- is not something about which we can only speculate. It is with us, powerfully, undeniably with us already in this world, just as it was with Abraham, that next morning, as he looked down toward Sodom and saw only dense smoke rising from the valley floor, like smoke from a furnace.
People have seen it through the ages in natural devastations -- whether the destruction of Sodom or Pompeii, whether Mount St. Helens (the 11th anniversary of whose eruption we are celebrating today) or last week's earthquake in Iran.
And they have seen it still more in the sufferings that men have caused other men: the long march of refugees, trudging forlorn and helpless, carrying away from their homes what little they could in hopes of saving their own lives and those of their children as smoke rises behind them. No century has seen such weary desperation on so vast a scale and so often as our own. And what of the death camps, the shrunken bodies and doe-like eyes of those whose souls have died before their bodies. And what of the moonscapes that so many great cities of our world became at one time or another when reduced to bombed rubble, square mile after square mile burned and blown up until there was hardly one brick left standing on another as far as the eye could see. This is the 20th century's contribution to the biblical imagery of hell. Gustave Dore has nothing on the culture of the West in the 20th century. We have seen hell many times over.
But, surely, what that means is that we can hardly deny, we are the last to be able to deny that the Bible's picture of hell is somehow unpersuasive, unrealistic or morally impossible -- not when it exists already before our very eyes. Not that men draw this conclusion. [Newspaper article this week: Presbyterian churches protesting the decision of the denomination forbidding active homosexuality... the promiscuous from being ministers and elders -- in effect protesting that the church does not approve the lifestyle of Sodom which God punished so severely. Men love their sin still and defend it. But those who warn of God's judgment have history on their side.]
And that is only more true when we consider the undeniable fact that sin is, in fact, the abominable thing that God hates, as the Bible says, and that a Holy God will by no means -- and can by no means consistent with his holiness -- clear the guilty. The very interesting fact is that the very best people in the world, the wisest, the most kind and loving, the most insightful, are precisely the ones who understand this best. Let a person come face to face with the truth about God and about himself and, suddenly, in a moment, all of the moral objections to hell, to fire and brimstone, are revealed to be nothing more nor less than the self-serving protests of the immoral.
Charles Spurgeon put it this way:
That is the way all think who see something of the living God and who feel something of his terrible and wonderful holiness and who come to know something of the enormity of their own sin. This led John Henry Newman to go so far as to say,
And can anyone at the end of the 20th century seriously maintain that hell is impossible to believe when we have seen so much of it with our own eyes?
What then will you do with this portrait of hell we have before us in Genesis 19? In Deuteronomy 29:23-25, the Lord speaks to his people and warns them that if they are unfaithful to his covenant they will suffer, Sodom and Gomorrah's fate.
And, remember what we said, this physical destruction is only an image of an everlasting penalty and loss. And if we take God's Holy Word seriously in this matter -- as our Savior did and his apostles did and as all the good and wise through all the ages have done -- we will care not only that we avoid this terrible lot that awaits those who are unfaithful to God, but that we warn others as well.
You may remember reading of the traffic pile-up on a British highway south of London in December of 1984 [Peterson, p. 242]. On the 12th of December dense fog shrouded the M25 near Godstone, in Surrey. The hazard warning lights along the highway were on, but were ignored by most drivers. At 6:15 a.m. a truck carrying huge rolls of paper was involved in an accident and blocked the lanes of traffic. In moments the highway was a scene of mounting carnage as one car after another piled into the wreckage accumulating on the pavement. Eventually ten people were killed, many more were injured. A police car was soon on the scene and two policemen ran back up the highway to stop oncoming traffic. They waved their arms and shouted at the top of their voices, but many drivers took no notice and sped by to plunge into the disaster ahead. The policemen then began picking up traffic cones and hurling them at the windshields of passing cars in a desperate attempt to awaken drivers to the catastrophe up ahead. One was in tears as car after car went by and he waited for the sickening sound of impact as the car disappeared into the fog behind him and crashed into the growing mass of wreckage not far down the road.
There is another 20th century image of the plight and the danger of mankind just as serviceable as that of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is the condition and the prospect of men and women apart from Christ and hurtling toward doom-- and they are as utterly unaware and unknowing as that. We must tell them in every way that we can, and we have no reason whatsoever to fear their scorn, for this is the truth, terrible as it is, and their own consciences and the whole world in which they live scream this truth every day that they live. Like Lot's sons-in-law they may think it a huge joke but only because they will not think honestly about it. But we know that it is not! And we also know there is a way of escape, a salvation great enough to rescue us even from a doom as terrible and that has been chosen by such vast multitudes before us: the salvation that Jesus gives to all who come to him.