“Thirty-one seconds before death.”
This is author Brandon Sanderson’s way of ominously foreshadowing the inevitable, of giving insight into the thoughts and feelings of his characters before their demise. You’d think this too morbid for readers seeking the immortal appeal of a fantasy novel. But millions of fans of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series would disagree. Keeping the end in sight speaks profoundly to their human souls.
I suppose similar pre-death statements could be written about any of us. Imagine if each time you met someone new, a cold narrator whispered the person’s remaining lifespan. It would be a strange and terrible knowledge. Yet it would also change the way you relate to that person. The sober reality would make for deep urgency. Time is short. This moment matters.
But this is more than fantasy. We’re all aware death is inevitable. For those who hold to the historic Christian faith, we recognize that apart from God’s salvation through Jesus Christ, hell—a real place of eternal conscious torment for the wicked—follows ruthlessly on death’s heels. Time is more than short. It’s precious. What a weighty burden of knowledge to bear.
The Missionary's Burden
Perhaps no one bears that weight more than missionaries. These are men and women who go out “for the sake of the name” (3 John 1:7), the only name “under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Their aim is to “save others by snatching them out of the fire” (Jude 23). Many missionaries would quickly acknowledge that a central motive behind their calling is to ensure lost people might not go to hell without a chance first to hear the gospel. A missionary’s life, profession, and burden is to keep the reality of hell in view, to hear the cold narrator’s voice.
I know because I’ve done it. As missionaries in East Africa, we’d often drive long distances, praying over towns and villages along the way. No matter how many places we stopped, or how many people trusted in Christ, there were hundreds of places and thousands of people who we passed by. Yes, I’d rejoice over the new believers, but never without the biting awareness of those not visited.
Back at my home where I rested from my work in the evening, I’d often hear wailing break out in the neighborhood. This meant someone had just passed away. Was it someone who had never heard of Christ? Did I talk with him recently in the market? Had I taken the opportunity to share the gospel with her? These are the self-condemning questions that come as a young man is serenaded by screams. But they represent the vigilant awareness that eternity is waiting just beyond the veil.
The Missionary's Temptation
With this burden comes a temptation: Why not set the doctrine of hell aside? There are certainly convenient ways to do so.
One might take the universalist route, believing God’s salvation will ultimately extend to all people. Eternal damnation is rendered unnecessary and no more than a metaphor in Scripture. Another may prefer annihilationism, the conviction that whether by death or temporary punishment in the afterlife, God will ultimately destroy the unsaved altogether. Because unbelievers will cease to exist in this view, hell as a place of eternal judgment also ceases to exist.
Yet perhaps the easiest way to set hell aside is simply not to think about it much. The belief remains but not the burden. Urgency for souls diminishes. Jesus’s words about hell that once stirred the missionary are now met with apathy. Call it compassion fatigue or culture shock from too many wails in the night, too many funeral pyres, too many neighbors who are 31 seconds away from death, but over time, hell becomes less and less of a worry.
This surrender is what some call “love wins.” As Millard Erickson observes, “The doctrine of everlasting punishment appears to some to be outmoded or sub-Christian [and] is often one of the first topics of Christian belief to be demythologized.” Why then should the missionary hold to it and its unceasing anguish? Because, as Erickson continues, “However we regard the doctrine . . . it is clearly taught in Scripture.”
The missionary who intellectually or emotionally gives up on the doctrine of hell hasn’t suddenly become freer and more virtuous. His doctrinal loss accomplishes just the opposite—a more confined faith and narrowed ministry.
The Missionary's Certainty
The Bible’s clearest words about hell come directly from Jesus. In Matthew 25, Jesus is amid a long discourse on the end of the age. Much of his teaching has alluded to the salvation of the righteous and the condemnation of the wicked. But in this chapter, he gets specific.
After repeating the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (24:51; 25:30), he describes the final judgment where such torment takes place. The righteous “sheep” will be welcomed into the kingdom God prepared for them, and the cursed “goats” will depart “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:33, 41). Iterating the scope of this judgment, Jesus concludes, “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (v. 46).
The case for hell from Matthew 25 is clear, but a trustworthy doctrine isn’t built on a single chapter of Scripture. We also see hell described in Mark’s Gospel as “the unquenchable fire” (9:43) and as a place “where their worm does not die” (v. 48). Luke contributes Jesus’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus, where Jesus states that upon the rich man’s death, he was “in torment” and cried out, “I am in anguish in this flame” (16:23–24). Revelation also gives repeated reference to a smoking, sulfurous, bottomless pit of endless torment (9:1–2, 11; 14:9–11; 19:3; 21:8).
Of this we can be certain: when it comes to talking about hell, the Bible mercifully pulls no punches.
Comfort for the Countdown
Since the Scriptures are so clear, the missionary can have certainty not simply of the truth of this doctrine but of its goodness. What could be good about the doctrine of eternal conscious torment? Does it provide edification for the soul? What fruitfulness does it induce in the ministry?
The next time you hear wails in the night or that whispered narrator’s voice, remember the following beautiful benefits of this doctrine.
30 seconds . . . Hell shows us God’s Word is trustworthy.
No doubt Paul had hell in mind when he wrote of his lost kinsmen among the Jewish people, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Rom. 9:2). But if hell is true and God’s Word is trustworthy when it speaks about eternal judgment, it’s also trustworthy when it tells us of his compassion.
What could be more beneficial to the ministry of a missionary than assurance in the Bible’s trustworthiness? “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5)—the living Word by way of his written word. When the burden of hell assails, the missionary can rest in God’s Word both that hell is real and that God is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
25 seconds . . . Hell declares God’s glory.
One of the strongest arguments against the doctrine of hell is that it detracts from God’s love. How could a loving God wield eternal judgment against what was only temporal evil?
The missionary must remember, as Wayne Grudem writes, “Evil that remains unpunished [detracts] from God’s glory.” In other words, “When God punishes evil and triumphs over it, the glory of his justice, righteousness, and power to triumph over all opposition will be seen.”
When the missionary presents the gospel and humbly includes warnings of hell, she’s declaring that God is gloriously just and all-powerful. Anything less than displaying God’s supreme glory does no service to the lost hearer. It shows no pity for the one in danger of hell’s fire.
20 seconds . . . Hell cultivates trust in God’s sovereignty.
My conviction about the Reformed view of God’s sovereignty was birthed on the mission field. One day, my team leader took me to a panoramic view atop a mountain. Thousands of tin roofs sparkled across miles of inaccessible villages. Later that night, I almost bought a plane ticket home. If the task of reaching such remote people depended entirely on me, I’d quit in despair.
Thankfully, I was reading through Romans at the time, and I came across Paul’s declaration that God “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (9:18). God’s sovereign choice of souls was the comfort that allowed me to stay. I was participating in his work, not the other way around. That freedom gives me rest to this day.
15 seconds . . . Hell motivates evangelism.
When I write of rest, I mean rest for my soul, not rest from evangelistic work. The rest God’s sovereignty imparts enables us to strive all the more (Heb. 4:11). This may be the most obvious benefit of the doctrine of hell. If hell is real, and every person you meet is a set number of seconds away from death, then the missionary must go out with the gospel. Hear Paul’s sense of urgency:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom. 10:14–15)
10 seconds . . . Hell leads us to gasp at God’s holiness.
As a pastor, I’ve never encouraged someone to meditate on the doctrine of hell. But I have urged reflection on the doctrine of God’s holiness, which clearly coincides with hell’s importance. When both the Old and New Testaments pull back the curtain on heaven, we see creatures crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD” (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). This means God is completely set apart from all evil. He’s right to seek his own honor and oppose any dishonor.
When a missionary allows his mind to linger on hell as eternal conscious torment, it’s naturally a dreadful thought. Is it really necessary for a soul to eternally grieve the absence of God’s grace (2 Thess. 1:9) and the presence of his wrath (Rev. 14:10)? Before God’s holiness, yes. Hell may be the most effective measure by which we can understand the heights of God’s holiness. With the psalmist, the missionary may gasp, “Our God is holy!” (Ps. 99:9).
5 seconds . . . Hell is a monument to God’s grace.
Serving as a missionary can be a grueling vocation. Living as one of few Christians among millions of the unsaved is a privilege, but it’s also a recipe for spiritual warfare. What missionaries need most for endurance is to be bathed in God’s grace. If hell reveals to us the heights of God’s holiness, then it also provides a monument to the depths of his mercy.
Gratitude is a balm in hard times. And Jesus aims for us to possess fullness of joy (John 15:11). What gratitude and joy God supplies when we remember we’ve been lovingly chosen to escape hell (mercy) and inherit eternal life (grace).
After all, the missionary himself is only a set number of seconds away from death. Let the cold narrator speak his piece. But by God’s grace, hell isn’t the missionary’s future. Only heaven, and then a new creation. This is the way of the King. Thanks be to God.
This article was originally featured as part of The Gospel Coalition's "Difficult But Beautiful Doctrines" series.