It was an Easter Sunday profile that sparked the controversy. Featured on CBS Sunday Morning, Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, TX, told reporter Tracy Smith why he won’t preach about hell.
“[People] already feel guilty enough. They’re not doing what they should, raising their kids—we can all find reasons. So I want them to come to Lakewood or our meetings and be lifted up, to say, ‘You know what? I may not be perfect, but I’m moving forward. I’m doing better.’ And I think that motivates you to do better.”
It’s not particularly surprising that Osteen, famous for his self-help pep talk, wouldn’t preach what he calls “fire and brimstone.” His messages frequently focus on the power of positivity and ceasing negative self-talk. He’s sold millions of books preaching a gospel that wants to make you happier and healthier while avoiding meatier subjects, like hell.
However, hell is an integral part of the gospel of Jesus. Jesus frequently talked about hell in many contexts. He condemned cities like Chorazin and Capernaum to hell for not believing in the miracles he did for them. Jesus also paints a picture of what heaven and hell are like in his story of Lazarus and the rich man, with the rich man in Hades looking for water while Lazarus rests in the arms of Abraham.
He also addresses the issue of hell in Matthew 25, in the parable of the wedding supper, Jesus says that those without a wedding garment are cast into outer darkness sand where people weep and gnash their teeth.
Ultimately, Jesus says in Matthew 10:28 that we should not fear those who can kill our bodies, but fear he who can cast both body and soul into hell, a sobering truth that should evoke reverent fear of the Triune God.
Hell is an uncomfortable subject. People often say that a loving God couldn’t send people to hell. That the idea of hell is inconsistent with love, mercy, and grace. As Tim Keller says, hell is actually consistent with the ideas of love, mercy, and grace. Not only consistent but necessary when those virtues of God are rejected.
In some ways, the fairest understanding of the afterlife is the Christian one, which says God gives you what you want. If you want to live with God forever, that’s heaven, and you get it. If you want to be your own person, your own savior, your own lord, that’s hell, and you get that – and you stay wanting it; you do not suddenly change your mind. – Tim Keller
There is no doubt that God is love and that he desires for us to know him, to walk with him and be in union with him. Jesus, in his high priestly prayer in John 17, says that eternal life is to know the one true God and Jesus himself who was sent by God. There is verse after verse about the mercy of God exhibited through the sending of Jesus to this earth to give sinners, the lost – us, the chance to be saved.
And ultimately, that is what the preaching of hell integrated into the preaching of the fullness of the gospel is intended to do and why Osteen’s comments are so alarming. The Scriptures not only paint a bigger picture of who God is but remind us of what we are and why we so desperately need a Savior and a Lord. Heaven is a promise to those who have come into the gospel of Jesus, who have loved Him, walked with Him and been obedient to His commands. Hell is the reminder that God is justified to send us there if we have refused to repent, refusing the gracious gift of salvation through faith in Christ.
As pastors and leaders in the church, we cannot fail to include hell alongside other doctrines such as sanctification, justification, repentance, and right relationship and intimacy with Jesus. If we do so, we not only do a disservice to those that God has entrusted to us, but to our own calling as well.
God has entrusted us with his word, gospel and people. We must not shy away from preaching the full counsel of God, presenting people with the fullness of who Jesus is in light of who and what we are and that without him, the wages of our sin is death.