We’re studying J.C. Ryle’s book Holiness in my Sunday School class. Last week (providentially) we read the chapter on Lot’s wife. Ryle closes the chapter with a sobering discussion of hell. He mentions that some in his day were uncomfortable with a God who would consign someone to an eternity in hell.
I probably don’t have to tell you that’s a hot topic at the moment. It’s amazing how relevant a 130 year old book can be. In fact, as the great philosopher Larry Norman once put it, “Nothing really changes, everything remains the same.” In places Ryle sounds as if he had just finished reading Rob Bell’s new book, “Love Wins.”
I feel constrained to speak freely to my readers on the subject of hell. Suffer me to use the opportunity which the end of Lot’s wife affords. I believe the time is come when it is a positive duty to speak plainly about the reality and eternity of hell. A flood of false doctrine has lately broken in upon us. Men are beginning to tell us “that God is too merciful to punish souls for ever, that there is a love of God lower even than hell and that all mankind, however wicked and ungodly some of them may be, will sooner or later be saved.” We are invited to leave the old paths of apostolic Christianity. We are told that the views of our fathers about hell, and the devil, and punishment, are obsolete and old‑fashioned. We are to embrace what is called a “kinder theology,” and treat hell as a pagan fable, or a bugbear to frighten children and fools. Against such false teaching I desire, for one, to protest. Painful, sorrowful, distressing as the controversy may be, we must not blink at it, or refuse to look the subject in the face. I, for one, am resolved to maintain the old position, and to assert the reality and eternity of hell.
Ryle doesn’t mince words. He labels the equivalent of Bell’s view of hell as “false teaching” and a departure from “apostolic Christianity.” However, his next paragraph is even more pointed and perceptive.
Believe me, this is no mere speculative question. It is not to be classed with disputes about liturgies and church government. It is not to be ranked with mysterious problems, like the meaning of Ezekiel’s temple or the symbols of the book of Revelation. It is a question which lies at the very foundation of the whole gospel. The moral attributes of God, His justice, His holiness, His purity, are all involved in it. The necessity of personal faith in Christ, and the sanctification of the Spirit, are all at stake. Once let the old doctrine about hell be overthrown, and the whole system of Christianity is unsettled, unscrewed, unpinned, and thrown into disorder.
Although he died almost a century before Rob Bell was born, Ryle brings the real issue in the current debate into sharp focus. It isn’t about Rob Bell at all. It’s not even ultimately about the nature or existence of hell. It’s about God. As Ryle saw it, nothing less than the character of God and the integrity of the gospel were at stake in a right understanding of hell. I think Ryle saw it right.