By John Armistead
Hell makes some Northeast Mississippi ministers uncomfortable - at least talking about it. That's understandable. Hell isn't a very pleasant subject.
As a rule, ministers in most churches today do not stress Hell with the same intensity as did ministers a decade or two ago. Many would agree with the Rev. Leslie Nabors, pastor of First United Methodist Church of New Albany, who said, "I just don't know for sure how I feel about some of it. At the same time, even though some people think all the bad is here, I have the feeling there is going to be even worse later."
Yet, there is no denying the plethora of New Testament references to Hell. What place does the doctrine of Hell have in today's pulpit ministry? Several area pastors addressed the matter.
More than just fire
The Rev. Larry Davis, pastor of Nettleton Pentecostal Church, is one pastor who preaches often on Hell.
"I definitely believe there is a literal Hell as the Bible teaches, and I feel like if people are not aware what the alternative [to heaven] is, they may get slack," he said. "We should live for God because we love him, but we are either going to Heaven or Hell."
Davis takes biblical descriptions of Hell at face value. "Hell is a place of punishment similar to the Lake of Fire," he said. "It burns with brimstone."
It is, in some respects, a holding area for the wicked. "Hell in my view is sort of like a jail where people wait for trial," Davis said, "and the Bible shows that the wicked will be in Hell waiting for the Day of Judgment and then will be judged and cast into the Lake of Fire."
Hell was not intended for humankind. "If we go to Hell, we go as an intruder, because it was not built for man, but for the Devil and his angels," said Davis.
Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus teaches us that we'll not only still have our five senses in hell, but "there's going to be more suffering than just the fire."
"The worst punishment will be to remember everything on earth," Davis said. "A person will remember every altar call he rejected, every gospel song, every [preaching] message he heard."
Separation from God
"The biblical teaching on Hell is basically the emphasis on separation from God," said the Rev. Lynn Jones, pastor of Booneville's First Baptist Church. "When we are separated from God it is the most awful existence imaginable."
That ultimate separation is based on choices made in this life. "A person cannot just live anyway he wants to," said Jones. "Everybody had to answer for his stewardship of life and the choices he made. The fact of hell charges all of life with an urgency and emphasis on the choices that we make."
The deciding choice for Jones concerns God in Christ, whether people accept him as savior or not. "If a person refuses God's offer [of salvation], then Hell is his ultimate destination."
Jones confesses that he does not spend much preaching time on Hell. "I seldom devote a sermon to the subject, but I do consistently emphasize that if we reject salvation, then Hell is the alternative."
The fire of ice
The Rev. Elizabeth Goodyear Jones is quick to say she spends almost no time at all on Hell in her preaching, yet she has a keen sense of the felt reality of the concept.
"In Dante's 'Inferno' Hell was not fire but it was the fire of ice," said Jones, vicar of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Corinth. "It was an icy life, and people are frozen half in and half out. That's it for me: cold people living together. That's what it's like when you can't experience God's love. We are in Hell until we experience love."
She likes Ezekiel's statement that God wants to take out a person's heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. "Dante puts it like this in the last line of volume 23: 'Our hearts were turned by the love that moves the sun and the other stars,'" she said.
The presence or absence of love is the difference between Heaven and Hell. Love reaches out and helps, and that idea is expressed in one of Jones' favorite images.
"In Hell there's this long banquet table and the people are sitting there with long spoons and forks strapped to their arms. They cannot get the food to their mouths.
"In Heaven there's also a long banquet table with the long spoons and forks strapped to people's arms, but the difference is that in Heaven the people are feeding each other."
Hell on earth
Hell, for New Albany's Nabors, is the absence of God whether that is here and now or then and there.
"When we don't let God into our lives, it gets worse and worse," he said. "Where God is is all good and where he is not is all bad. I call that Hell."
In his preaching he emphasizes the love of God and rarely refers to Hell. "I don't preach a lot about it because I don't have firm convictions on it," he said. "But, I do have a firm conviction that when we let God into our lives, he changes everything for good."
Nabors appreciates the theology that there can be a Hell on earth and a Heaven on earth for people. "But I don't think that's all there is to it," he said. "I believe there is life after death and perhaps there is also death after death. I think very much that there is the possibility of being away from God forever and that would be Hell. As bad as life can get here with God helping us, how bad can it be without God both now and after death?"
The God who never gives up
"The basic Reform doctrine is alienation and separation from God is Hell wherever we are," said the Rev. Sam Marshall III, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Oxford.
Yet Marshall doesn't include Hell in his sermons. "I don't use images of Hell," he said. "I'm not one who preaches in a manner trying to frighten people into believing about God. I speak more of a God of grace and mercy and forgiveness. What happens beyond here is not up to me."
Marshall feels the preaching emphasis should be placed on the God who loves and seeks for each person.
"All of us may have our own ideas of what Hell is like, but a rupture in relationship is what it is, and God is spending his time trying to get us back," he said. "The bottom line for me is that God never gives up on us. He's still the shepherd out there looking for his sheep."