The headline in The Independent is certainly eye-catching: "The man who says we are all going to hell". It is, however, inevitably misleading, since the man they are referring to is only Richard Turnbull, the principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, who made the comment in a welcoming speech at the Reform Conference last year. (You can read a transcript of it here.)
Of course, the man who really put the cat amongst the pigeons regarding the dangers of hell was called Jesus, and what he said has already been widely reported. To give just one example, amongst his last reported comments to his followers was this: "If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned." (See John 15:6)
No doubt, the columnists at The Independent (a paper that has never lived up to its name when it comes to reporting Christian affairs, as witnessed by this 'Leader' on the same subject) would regard this as best not mentioned. But the rest of us should surely be grateful to Turnbull. He has told it like it is, and now the rest of us have to do the same.
Recently I have been visiting a local couple to prepare them for their child's baptism. The previous visits have been enjoyable and, on my part, encouraging as we have explored what Christianity means. On the last occasion, I decided to run through 'Two Ways to Live', a presentation of the gospel which uses six pictures to make six basic points about what it means to be a Christian.
This is how I presented it: (1) God has made us to live under his rule, (2) We have rebelled against his rule and gone our own way, (3) Therefore God judges us and we face both physical and spiritual death, (4) Jesus has died for our sins, taking their punishment (yes, penal substitution was in there), (5) God raised Jesus from the dead, and now he reigns in heaven as King, (6) We are called to give up our rebellion against God and live under Jesus' kingship.
The problem is, I wanted to leave out step 3 - that God judges us, and condemns us to death and to hell. I was happy to talk about God and creation, happy to talk about Christ's death and resurrection, happy even to talk about living under his rule. But I felt awkward and embarrassed talking about judgement and hell. And I know I'm not alone!
In fact, the whole point of the article in The Independent is surely to seek to embarrass Turnbull and those who share his views. Take this closing remark: "One blogger on a liberal Christian website jokily suggested that Dr Turnbull was himself a secret liberal, who has infiltrated the evangelical movement to discredit it from within."
Hell is an embarrassment to many of us. And that is why we should be thankful to Richard Turnbull. What would Jesus do? He would tell it like it is, which apparently means that hell is a real and present danger to all of us.
So, thank you Richard. You've put all of us on the spot, where we belong!
Revd John P Richardson
25 May 2007
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