I didn't go to church as a kid, but I did watch a lot of horror movies so I felt pretty educated when it came to the subject of hell. From the The Gates of Hell (1980) to Hellraiser (1987), and everything in-between, Hell was a scary but fictional place. Hell didn't bother me. It was thrilling. Fun, even. Until 1989.
By then I was hearing the truths of Scripture for the first time: God's holiness, my sinfulness, and Christ's sacrifice. The more I heard and the more I read the more I became convinced of both the reality and the justice of a very real hell. I knew that hell awaited me, and that this was right. My own sins and guilt were always weighing on my conscience and the wrath of God was what I deserved.
Yes, I was hearing the gospel, but it seemed too far away, too good for me, too good to be true. I couldn't wrap my mind around the idea that God would pardon me and embrace me. For over 9 months I despaired for my soul. And all along the way through Scripture and providence God was pressing in on me.
I can remember singing the lyrics to Slayer's "Hell Awaits," "The gates of hell lie waiting as you see--There's no price to pay just follow me--I can take your lost soul from the grave--Jesus knows your soul can not be saved," and agreeing with them. I can remember listening to Steve Vai's album, Passion and Warfare, in 1990 and being stunned when, at the end of an instrumental piece, David Coverdale says, "Walking the fine line... between Pagan and Christian." I wanted to be a Christian. I wanted to know God. But that seemed impossible. I found no relief.
The doctrine of hell and the fear of endless punishment did not convert me. I was unworthy, and hell was fair. Purchasing some kind of spiritual fire insurance was not an option. I had no "money." But Hell awakened me. Hell stirred me enough to pay close attention to the good news of Jesus' atonement, forgiveness, and the sinner's reconciliation to God--even though it seemed too far away for someone like me to grasp.
So I read the Bible. I went to church a few times. I listened to my new Christian friends. I even started praying. I threw out all my satanic music and jewelry. But I still found no relief. No turn, no new start, would change what I had done and what I was.
And then it happened. Not at church. Not at some Christian concert. I was alone in my bedroom reading the Gospel of Matthew when God sovereignly opened my eyes to see what I was missing. He opened my heart to respond to the good news. I went from unbelief and despair to belief and peace with the first beat of my new heart. I actually rolled off my bed, onto my knees, and began talking to the God who was now mine--to the God who received me as his own. Everything changed.
Do not forsake the doctrine of hell and God's justice, my friends. There is no good news apart from bad news. And until a man or a woman tastes the bitterness of their sin and feels the weight of the just judgment of God they will never find the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be sweet and liberating. Give 'em hell, and give 'em the gospel.