The term ‘hellfire preaching’ does not appear in the Bible, although the concepts of the fires of hell and the necessity of preaching certainly do. Hellfire preaching means different things to different people and conjures up different images, mostly negative. Those who use ‘hellfire preaching’ in the pejorative are generally repulsed by even the mere mention of hell, preferring instead to imagine a God whose great love for mankind simply precludes Him from sending anyone to hell or even allowing them to go to hell, despite their best efforts to do so. On the other extreme are those who see a perpetually angry, wrathful, and vengeful God who condemns people to hell for the sheer enjoyment He gets from it. Both views of God’s character and the reality of hell are biblically insupportable.
Although true preachers of the Word of God have always included the reality of hell in their messages, hellfire preaching has come to be associated with preachers of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and America. The image of Puritan preachers is often one of bewhiskered, black-frocked theological terrorists pounding their pulpits and continually threatening their congregations with eternal burning. Perhaps the epitome of the image of the hellfire preacher is Jonathan Edwards, whose sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” depicted the realities of hell so clearly that it was said the hearers could smell the sulphur burning. However, it is fair to say that Edwards believed strongly not only in the fearful reality of hell but his duty as a minister to warn people of that reality. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” when read properly, has a clear emphasis upon the mercy of God. It is nothing but God’s mercy that keeps us out of hell, he was saying, and therefore we are to ask God for that mercy for salvation.
Is hellfire preaching biblical? Clearly Jesus taught on hell and He did so to warn people not to go there. Hell is depicted in Scripture as a very nasty place from which there is no escape. The punishment of the wicked dead in hell is described throughout Scripture as “eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41), “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12), “shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2), a place where “the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44-49), a place of “torment” and “fire” (Luke 16:23-24), a place where “the smoke of torment rises forever and ever” (Revelation 14:10-11), and a “lake of burning sulfur” where the wicked are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). Surely a loving and compassionate Savior could not be so described if He failed to warn us about hell. But Jesus is certainly loving and compassionate, and He presented the joys and bliss of heaven and was clear about the only way to attain them. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” He said, “no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6). The apostle Paul was equally blunt about the fate of those who rejected the gospel of salvation through Christ alone. They are condemned to ‘everlasting destruction’ (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9).
Is there a place for hellfire preaching today? Not only is there a place for teaching about the fires of hell and the only way to escape them, but true preaching of the gospel of Christ is not complete without it. If today’s pastors and preachers are to be consistent with the Scriptures, preaching and warning their flocks about the fires of hell must be part of their message. Too often, people are invited to come to Christ so He can ‘fix up’ their lives, make their marriages better, or provide health, wealth, and prosperity. But this is not the message of the Bible. We come to Christ for forgiveness of sin, the very presence of which in all our hearts is a sure one-way ticket to hell. A balanced, biblical message consists of the reality of hell, a warning to escape it, and the only way to do so—through the shed blood of Christ on the cross for our sins.