The Value of Fire and Brimstone

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George Whitefield Preaching in Bolton, June 1750 By Thomas Walley, 1863. From artuk.org

I still find it hard to believe that I’m getting paid to lead a Bible study. Sure, my job demands a lot more of me than just my weekly studies, but nothing else gives me more pleasure or has contributed more to my sanctification since I started my internship in June. Training new student leaders to lead their Bible studies has been a close second. One of my main lessons for them is that as a Bible study leader, I am my own first student. Before I can teach others, I have to teach myself. Before I give my students an application from the lesson, I need to live it out myself. Of course, the foundation of this perspective is that the Holy Spirit is the one teaching and changing me, but thinking about it this way helps ensure I’m teaching clearly and practicing what I preach. 

Figuring out how to live out my own advice while leading my study on the life of Abraham has been no small feat. I’ve put a lot on my plate in the last five months. Genesis 12-20 is chock-full of difficult language, foreign culture, complex narratives, and nuanced theology. I love it. For the most part, that is. Every lesson and passage has been a joy to teach on except one: Genesis 19, the destruction of Sodom. From the outset of the study, I knew I’d eventually have to cross that bridge. I looked forward to the chapter with a mix of apprehension and excitement, like a teenager watching his friend attempt some ridiculous stunt that could only end in disaster. That anticipation quickly shifted to horror as I read and realized what exactly I had to teach on. Literal fire and brimstone. 

Would I really dare lead a Bible study on Genesis 19? How antiquated! Doom and gloom preachers had their time in the days of yore, but this is 2019. There’s no way a modern audience could tolerate a wrathful God annihilating a wicked city. Right? Tolerate it or not, I knew I had to teach on it, and be it far from me to make light of Scripture. At the very least, the destruction of Sodom and the surrounding cities was a significant Old Testament passage. Sodom alone is mentioned some 14 times through Genesis 10-18. Deuteronomy 29:23 cites the wasteland of destroyed Sodom as an example of what will come of Israel if God’s people break His covenant. Moses sings of other nations’ roots as “the vine of Sodom, And from the fields of Gomorrah; Their grapes are grapes of poison, Their clusters, bitter” (Deuteronomy 32:32). Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos all describe the sins of Israel as either equal to or greater than the sins of Sodom. Zephaniah prophecies the destruction of Moab to be like Sodom and the ruin of Ammon to be like Gomorrah. 

I think you get the idea. Sodom’s destruction was commonly referenced for thousands of years. It’s as if all of Abraham’s descendants stood with him on the hillside, watching tar-black smoke billow from the horizon in the early morning in Genesis 19:27-28. To leave it at that, however, would have been a disservice to myself and my audience. Fire and brimstone aren’t exclusive to the Old Testament. 

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus warns of being thrown into hell three times. Jesus explicitly speaks of the guilty being thrown into hell six more times in Matthew. That’s just the first book, and I only looked for instances of the word γέεννα (geenna). Mark’s first quotation of Jesus is a call to repentance (Mark 1:15). The first recorded miracle in Mark tells of a demon questioning “What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24, emphasis mine). The demon knows who Jesus is and what He will do. In Mark 5:7, another demon begs Jesus not to torture him. In Mark 9:42-50 Jesus says that complacency with sin will lead to “hell, where the fire never goes out” and, quoting Isaiah 66:24, “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” 

They don’t stop coming. Luke echoes many of Mark’s passages quoted above, plus a few more. Luke 12 and 16 are particularly visceral. John continues the trend, though it’s not as major a theme in his gospel or epistles. John 3:18 and 5:29 both point to condemnation for sinners. Revelation, on the other hand, is teeming with judgement, wrath, destruction, and hellfire. To list them all would take hours. Most obviously, Revelation 20 points to an eternally burning lake of fire and the judgement of the dead. Paul writes about judgement and destruction at length.1 Hebrews has its fair share of fire and brimstone: Hebrews 10:26-31 is as startling as any harsh passage in the Old Testament. Peter’s second letter is almost entirely devoted to detailing the destruction of the wicked. James writes James 5:1-6. Jude writes this: 

“Now I desire to remind you, though you know all things once for all, that the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe. And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day, just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.” (Jude 5-7)

As intense as the epistles can be with judgement and the wrath of God, their words are intended for fellow believers. What I find most startling are fiery messages to non-believers. Sure, jeremiads can rouse a complacent faithful, but who would dare use God’s imminent wrath as a key point in evangelism? Would you? Could you imagine yourself trying to share the gospel with strangers and talking about God’s long-suffering in delaying His destruction of the damned? Practically every Christian I know would answer “No way!” It’s surprising to see who’s answered “Yes.” 

Jesus recites the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to a crowd full of pharisees who hated Him, disciples who loved Him, and likely hundreds of others who fell anywhere in between. The parable depicts a once-rich man burning in hell begging for even a drop of water. No drop is given to him. His suffering is only increased. Peter preached to thousands of Jews at Pentecost “Repent, and each of you be baptized…Be saved from this perverse generation!” (Acts 2:38, 40). Paul goes so far to emphasize repentance and God’s judgement to a crowd of Greeks in Athens—an audience who had no concept of monotheism, much less an all-powerful wrathful incarnate Living God (see Acts 17:30-31). The Old Testament gives an even more extreme example: Jonah is sent to Assyria. Israel’s most fearsome, merciless enemy. They weren’t merely ignorant of God, they were His sworn enemies. 

How would you expect the Assyrians to respond? At best, they’d ignore and mock Jonah. Most likely, they’d capture, torture, and eventually murder him, hanging his severed head on a pike  in the king’s courtyard. What actually happens is what we would least expect: all of Nineveh repents. What!? It worked? A “The end is near!” street sermon actually led to repentance? Yes, and this isn’t the only instance of “fire and brimstone” working. Peter’s first sermon at Pentacost led to the immediate conversion of 3,000 people. Paul’s message on Mars Hill had mixed results: some dismissed it, some wanted to hear more, “but some men joined him and believed” (Acts 17:34). We aren’t given a crowd response in Luke 16, but other passages tell us how masses react to Jesus’ teaching. Some want to kill Him, and some give their lives to Him. Radical, polarized responses. 

Evangelists have been following the example of Jonah, Peter, Paul, and Jesus for millennia, with equally mixed results. The most famous example of “fire and brimstone” preaching is close to home: the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, spread across Great Britain and America. Crowds numbering in the tens of thousands gathered in London, Ulster, Boston, and Philadelphia to hear the likes of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. 

Jonathan Edwards is widely regarded as the greatest theologian America’s ever produced, and yet most only remember him for “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” I’ll admit, that sermon is extraordinarily intense. But where is the lie? Is it not a true warning? Does the law not say “their foot shall slide in due time“ (Deuteronomy 32:35) and the psalmist not sing “Surely thou didst set them in slippery places; thou castedst them down into destruction: How are they brought into desolation as in a moment!” (Psalm 73:18-19). Is anything he proclaims an exaggeration? By no means! Read what Edwards spoke—or “spake,” if you will:

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much in the same way as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire; He is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in His sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in His eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended Him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet, it is nothing but His hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this would, after you closed your eyes to sleep; and there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arouse in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given, but His mercy; yea, no other reason can be given why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.” 2

Even this is an understatement of God’s burning judgement against sin. The coming wrath of God will surpass the most visceral, fantastical imagery humans could produce. I’ll go even further. As terrible and frightening as that sermon is, it would be far worse to leave these things forever unsaid. No aspect of Scripture is trivial enough to ignore; Christians must do the hard work of understanding, embracing, and teaching even the most unpleasant realities of our faith. 

Fire and brimstone can never be the whole story, though. The gospel starts with God’s judgement but ends with His merciful deliverance. See Edwards’ purpose behind his horrific message: “The use of this awful subject may be for awakening unconverted persons to a conviction of their danger, this that you have heard is the case of every one out if Christ.” My single criticism of Edwards’ sermon, if I might be so bold to critique, is that he says so little of the offered deliverance of God. Much is said of what to run from, but not where (or whom, rather) to run to. George Whitefield models this brilliantly in his sermon “The Method of Grace,” preached in the same year as Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” He exclaims…

“I see you are lingering in your Sodom, and wanting to stay there; but I come to you as the angel did to Lot, to take you by the hand. Come away, my dear brethren—fly, fly, fly for your lives to Jesus Christ, fly to a bleeding God, fly to a throne of grace; and beg of God to break your hearts, beg of God to convince you of your actual sins, beg of God to convince you of your original sin, beg of God to convince you of your self-righteousness—beg of God to give you faith, and to enable you to close with Jesus Christ.” 3

Furthermore, Whitefield has the sense to acknowledge his zeal “O you that are secure, I must be a son of thunder to you, and O that God may awaken you, though it be with thunder; it is out of love, indeed, that I speak to you.” Though he likely would have still made himself infamous by his sermon, I wonder if Edwards could have avoided some criticism if he had shared a similar self-awareness. I know it’s impossible to say everything in one sermon, but the one thing that should never go understated is Paul’s plea “we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20) and Jesus’ invitation “Come and see” (John 1:46). Thank God we are not left hanging over hell if we call on the name of the Lord and leave our lives of sin. Jesus models this brilliantly in Luke 12:4-7. 

“I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him! Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.”

Indeed we are, Lord. You valued us as worth death on a cross and separation from the Father.

So, what did all of this mean for me? Well, as I prepared my lesson on Genesis 19, I was forced to consider what a dreadful thing it is to fall into the hands of an angry God. I saw what Lot’s complacency with his sin cost him. Even after the angels warn Lot “Run for your life, you and your family, for God is about to destroy this place,” Lot hesitates. Rather than giving up on him, the angels grab him by the hand and quite literally drag him out of the city. They tell him “Flee to the mountains, for we are going to destroy everything in the valley,” and still Lot clings to sin. He seeks shelter in Zoar rather than following God’s command to flee to the mountains; he pleads “this town is near enough to flee to, and it is small. Please, let me escape there (is it not small?) that my life may be saved” (Genesis 19:20). He might as well have said “it’s only a little wicked, it’s only so barely evil.” And still God responds with mercy. Finally, as he sees fire fall from heaven with his own eyes, it clicks. 

It’s incredible how witnessing God execute His justice finally gives Lot faith. Seeing the destruction he escaped places such a righteous fear of God in his heart that he’s terrified to stay in Zoar. Even though it’s so small and only barely wicked, no amount of sin is small enough for Lot to handle anymore. He flees to the desolate, lonely mountains because he’d rather have nothing and be in God’s favor than have security, wealth, influence, and comfort as an enemy of God. It was Lot’s choice to move his family into Sodom; it was good business, it had great weather, he’d be wealthy and prominent and respected. See what came of it? He lost everything. Lot is left with nothing: no property, no wealth, no friends, no influence or power, not even a wife. All he has left are his two daughters, and even they have been ruined by Sodom (see Genesis 19:31-38). Lot’s complacency with sin didn’t just ruin his own life, it completely twisted his children. 

Reflecting on all this, I journaled the following note to myself. 

No sin is small enough to let persist in your life. It’s true: if you are a true believer, one of God’s chosen children, nothing can separate you from the love of God. You cannot be stripped of your salvation, but you must be stripped of everything else. Leave all your sin before it destroys every aspect of your life and leaves you with nothing but your salvation. Everything short of your eternal destiny is at stake here. Are you willing to let your own complacency be the ruin of your children? It will be. It will be the ruin of your family, of your career, of your comfortable life, of your reputation, of your wealth, of your friend group, of everything you have. 

I was overwhelmed. What could I do? Where could I go? The Holy Spirit pointed me to Ephesians 5:1-21. Verses 12-15 pierced my heart. 

Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. For this reason it says,

“Awake, sleeper,

And arise from the dead,

And Christ will shine on you.”

Immediately, I entered into confession. This was no routine Sunday “Sorry, God.” I poured my heart out. I pleaded for mercy. I begged for forgiveness and strength to wage war against my sin. I reached out to mentors for encouragement, guidance, and accountability. I apologized to people I had wronged and never sought reconciliation with. Most surprisingly, I waged war against my sin with a determination I haven’t felt since my conversion. Every morning I have prayed Romans 13:14, the verse that brought St. Augustine from death to life: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” 

Have I taken to the streets of CNU shouting “Repent, ye wicked generation!”? No. I don’t believe God has called me to street preaching in such a manner—and though I still feel uncomfortable with many street preachers’ tactics, I’m less inclined to judge them. For more of my thoughts on street preachers, give this old post a read. My newfound appreciation for fire and brimstone hasn’t changed the way I teach or preach, but it’s changed the way I view and combat my own sin. It’s reminded me of the immense urgency of evangelism. There are students on my campus that I pass every day who are dead in their sin. Paul’s plea in Romans 10 almost haunts me: 

 for “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!” (Romans 10:13-15)

Fire and brimstone still have value today. The saving work of Christ is only as great as the destruction He’s saved us from. Like I said, God’s wrath should never be the whole story, but Christians can’t afford to forget it. For me, this has been everything. Such words of death have led me to say with Peter “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

Where will you go? Do you believe in God’s incredible fury? Do fire and brimstone have a place in modern society? Let me know your thoughts. 

1 Romans 1-3; 9:15-29; 11; 1 Corinthians 3:14-15; 6:9-11, 13; 10:1-12; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; Galatians 1:8-9; 6:7-8; Ephesians 5:3-7; Philippians 3:18-19; Colossians 3:3-8; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; 5:1-3; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10; 2:1-12… I’m sure I missed many, and I tried to keep to ones that actually spoke of judgement and God’s wrath for sinners. 

2 “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards. Quote from page 6. https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/pdf/edwards_angry.pdf 

3 “The Method of Grace” by George Whitefield. Quote from page 24.  http://quintapress.webmate.me/PDF_Books/The_Method_of_Grace_v1.pdf 

1 comments on “The Value of Fire and Brimstone”

  1. Pat. I would never comment on your articles beause I always admire your writings. How I feel the effect of being burned when I remember some of the thoughtless things I have done in my life that I wish I hadn’t done. For exampl, I dearly loved one of my aunts who did so much for me but I know I never let her know how much she meant to me and the memory never leaves me.Regrets may be a human punishment for the spiritual failure of expressing love GRANDMA.

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